Saturday, October 11, 2014

Mr F is a janitor, now.

Sweetie came home from Mr F's IEP meeting the other day and told me that as part of Mr F's "regulation" the school had him washing windows, scrubbing floors, and wiping down tables.

"They made him a janitor?" I asked.

"No," Sweetie said, and then went on to add what she apparently thought would clarify things or reassure me, or both:

"They also have him carrying heavy stacks of books to the library."

When I just stared at her, she went on: "And back. Whether the library needs them or not."

This is school for Mr F: cleanliness, and meaningless labor; the school apparently feels that might help him prepare for his future. But, rest assured, there is (seemingly traditional) learning going on, as well.  Math, for example. At the meeting, when the discussion of math came up it was revealed to Sweetie that  Mr F is learning "money." We don't know exactly how he is learning money because when asked, the teacher said she was teaching him "money" by "matching."  Pressed for details, she said she did not exactly agree with the school's math curriculum.

An "IEP" for those who don't know is an "Individualized Educational Program."  Congress, which used to do things, passed a law way back when, before we realized we were too poor to do things and still tried to fix problems, that requires that all students get a Free, Appropriate Public Education, which for some reason people abbreviate to "FAPE," because people are stupid in love with acronyms. The idea is to have kids take part in as much school as they, or the school, or both, can handle.  The levels of tolerance are not always equal.  I suspect that Mr F can tolerate school -- even with its violation of child labor laws -- much more than school can tolerate Mr F.  The phrase "also he had his shirt off" appears in far more communications with the school than many parents would be comfortable with (we don't mind), and once, when I went to the school for career day (to explain to first graders what a trial lawyer does, using dinosaurs and hamburgers as reference points), I was waiting in the classroom, talking with one of the boys' teachers, while the class was at the art room.  From out in the hall, I heard the rising pitch of a little boy's voice:

"AaaaaaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAaHHHHHHHH" it went. And then Mr F went running by the classroom door, spatulas a'flyin'.  Ten feet behind him was the aide who is supposed to be with him at all times.

I paused and then the teacher and I went back to talking.  A few seconds later, the sound rose again and Mr F dashed back the other way, the aide no closer.  I sympathized.  He can be hard to catch.  He has this move where he dips his shoulder just before you grab him that an NFL running back would envy.

Sympathy or not, it was school hours which meant I didn't need to join the chase, thanks to Congress' foresight.

Once or twice a year the law requires that the school get a team of experts together to decide what level of FAPE students like Mr F and Mr Bunches will get.  The law requires that they get the maximum dosage of education a student like them can handle, which the law guarantees by requiring  specific goals for students in a variety of areas, goals that are set out in ways that are meant to be measurable but which only seem to be that until you think about them.

Goals for Mr F have in the past been things like "Will sit in class uninterrupted for 7 minutes on 7 of 10 tries" or something like that; the IEP goes on for pages and pages and is accompanied by swaths of reports which read halfway like the kind of cute stories you love telling about your kid and halfway like strange lab results that, weirdly, are also about your kid.  It's as if Grandma and Grandpa got sociology degrees from Brown before taking the kids to Dairy Queen:  A report will say that Mr F "Engaged in appropriate play on 3 of 10 intervals with minimal coordinated direction" and in case you are unclear on what that means will go on to say "When I threw the ball to him, he threw it back to me after I prompted him a few times to do so, and then when I threw it to him again, he stared me down while throwing the ball away at a ninety degree angle."

"This" the phy ed teacher will add "was taken to mean that he did not want to play anymore."  Science!

That was one of the actual stories from the actual IEP meeting Sweetie attended today, while I stayed home with the boys, one of whom (Mr Bunches) was surprised to see me waiting for him when he got off the bus.

"Daddy!" he yelled.  "You're alive!"  The bus driver, who only thought she was used to the boys, looked surprised and as if she wanted to know the story behind that one. But first she had to get Mr F off the bus, which means unhooking his harness, gathering up the shoes and socks he had taken off, finding his backpack, and then retrieving his tappers-- two hangers, swiped from Target. We are trying to discourage Mr F from taking forks to school as tappers because, as it turns out, the school does not think that it is entirely appropriate for an 8-year-old with impulse control to be armed -- handing the whole shebang to me while Mr F dazedly hung off my arm.  He did not seem surprised I was there (or alive); he seemed to be half-asleep, which was probably the case, since Mr F had gotten up at 3:30 that morning and, as he got off the bus, had been awake for nearly 12 hours already.

Awake, and apparently working hard for his free, appropriate education.

Mr F woke up, if you believe Sweetie, at 3 a.m. last night.  I think it was more like 2 a.m. but I am an unreliable witness because when I am tired I sometimes dream that I am awake and feel, when I am awake, like I am dreaming, and I have been tired for 8 years, 23 days, 6 hours, and 19 minutes now.

Whether it was 2 a.m. or 3 a..m. anyway was irrelevant because it was Sweetie's night to be in charge of Mr F and Mr Bunches.  We used to trade off nights being in charge of them, but a few weeks back I pointed out to Sweetie that it didn't make much sense to have me be in charge of them and sometimes going sleepless all night when, technically speaking, I was the one of us who could not just take  a nap the next day, as napping in the office is somewhat frowned on.  Which isn't to say it doesn't happen. It's just frowned on.

Or it should have been irrelevant to me but it wasn't, because Sweetie invented a mouse, which she then woke me up to deal with.

"Honey?" she said to me in the same tone of voice she once used to say that she was going to drive herself to the ER because she had a kidney stone but don't worry I could go back to sleep. When I heard it this night, I bolted awake because there is always the risk she'll try that again, and while I am sure she's competent to drive herself down to the ER with a kidney stone, I don't want the same nurse that once suspected I was beating Sweetie to be there when Sweetie sneaks out in the middle of the night to be hooked up to an IV of painkillers, and thus confirm that nurse's not-so-secret suspicions of me. So I'm on the alert for Sweetie's midnight (or later) pronouncements of emergencies, which, when they are not decisions to drive herself to the ER tend to fall into one of two other categories:

"Honey... there is a giant spider on the ceiling" is the most common. That one is preferable to the other category, which is: "Honey... there was a giant spider on the ceiling but I didn't want to wake you up and now I can't find it." To which I try not to say: HONESTLY? You didn't want to wake me up until you could tell me there is a deadly spider hiding in the bedroom?   At least give me a chance to defend myself by waking me up when you still see it. Or let me die in my sleep.

The other thing Sweetie does is ask me, after I've laid down in bed, whether I turned on the alarm.  I seem not to be able to convince Sweetie that asking me things like that is a terrible thing to do.  It doesn't matter if I come into the bedroom, turn on the alarm, announce that I have turned the alarm on write myself a note that yes the alarm is on and then carry that note to bed with me; as soon as Sweetie asks me if the alarm is on, I'll forget all that other stuff and have to go make sure it is turned on, which leads to a whole other problem, in that the little slide for the alarm is supposed to be up when the alarm is on, and I know that but as soon as I get out of bed and stumble into the rocking chair that nobody ever uses and find the alarm on my dresser next to the papers for the cell phones we got back in April, my old iPod that I keep meaning to take into the Apple store to see if I can get it fixed, some cologne, my art set, and, for some reason a pair of Sweetie's tennis shoes -- all of which share the top of my dresser with the alarm clock -- as soon as I check the slide to see if it's in the up position, and confirm that it is, my mind will say "Are you sure up is on?" and that is when I go a little more crazy, because now I will toss and turn all night wondering if I only dreamed that up is on and in fact down is on, and also while I toss and turn I will become convinced that I can hear the spiders sneaking around on the ceiling.

All while Sweetie sleeps soundly next to me, alert for the sound of my changing the channel away from her Murder Shows but otherwise dead to the world.

Last night, though, Sweetie didn't wake me to tell me about the Missing Spiders Of Doom; instead, there was a (make-believe) mouse in the living room, where she and Mr F had retreated to at 3:30 for a spirited night of Sweetie trying to at least get Mr F to lie down on the couch and sleep there, which she tried to do in part by reminding him that he had school the next day. That made Mr F laugh, and why not? He doesn't exactly have to bring his A game to school, apparently.  Just his Windex (TM).

"Honey?" Sweetie said.  "There's a mouse in the living room and I need you to get it." I am paraphrasing here because I was only half-awake and still caught in a dream where spiders kept turning off the alarm clock before laying eggs in my brain.  I got the gist of what she was saying and went down to the living room, where I realized I was barefoot and thus vulnerable to a mouse running into my toes if it should scoot across the room.  Gross.  So I knelt on the couch and leaned down to look at the register where Sweetie said she could hear the mouse.

Do not inquire how Sweetie can have some sort of Mouse Radar (or MADAR)(TM) that allows her to hear mice over the sound of Mr F talking, and yet cannot keep her eyes on a Death Spider for three seconds while I get a sufficient amount of toilet paper to guarantee that the spider cannot bite me through the layers and kill me before I kill it (usually about half a roll will do). Sweetie's abilities to hear things are, like her abilities to kill small appliances by talking about them, ineluctable.

I poked around the vent for a while, using a fork that Mr F had left there.  We have forks all over our house, a product of Middle Daughter's present to Mr F for his 8th birthday: she got him a bag full of forks, because he was running low on forks to use as tappers, only in part because when a fork angered him as a tapper -- we don't know why he gets angry at some of his tappers -- he will throw it, an alarming occurrence if, for example, you are sitting in the front seat of the car minding your own business and then a fork comes flying over the back of the seat to clang off the window in front of you.  (You get used to it.)(And you leave your headrest up as high as you can.)  Sometimes he throws the forks behind the couch, or the TV, or the refrigerator.  He throws other tappers in these places, too.  Behind the cabinet where we keep our wedding mementos (the only knickknacks in our house, for some reason ignored by the boys), we can usually find a stash of spatulas, spoons, forks, Target hangers, Hot Wheels tracks, and assorted other things that have been pressed into emergency service as tappers and then discarded. When Mr Bunches and I cook his pancakes, we have to search around the house to find a spatula and a fork to use.

Don't worry. We wash it off.

I found no mouse, and told Sweetie that there wasn't a mouse in the living room at all.  I then went back upstairs for the remaining 2 hours before I had to get up and go into the office, two hours that were punctuated by Mr F's shouts from downstairs, and finally got back up and came downstairs early.

That has how most of the past month has been: Mr F has been having trouble sleeping, trouble that technically began last May, when Sweetie and I dared to have the boys be babysat overnight, or almost overnight, by Middle Daughter.  It was our anniversary and as we have done for years on our anniversary, Sweetie and I opted to get away for the night.  We used to go to exotic locales like "Stevens Point, Wisconsin" (NOTE: NOT ACTUALLY EXOTIC) but after the boys were born Sweetie was nervous about being too far away from them, so now on our anniversary we go stay in a hotel that is roughly 7 minutes from our house.

This may not seem like "getting away" to you, but to us it is (usually) an extremely relaxing night in that we get away from the house, where of course there are always chores that Sweetie would like me to do and which I am more than willing to have an actual heart attack to be relieved of doing, and where also our conversations are not usually as linear and uninterrupted as we would like them.  Here is a typical dinnertable conversation between me and Sweetie:

Me: So how was your day?

Sweetie: Mr F is upstairs, can you go see what he's climbing on?

Me: Sure, I'll

Mr Bunches: Want to say the Top Ten Sexy Aliens?

Sweetie: OK

Me: Where did Mr F go?

Mr Bunches: Number 10: Princess Leia.

Sweetie: No.

The Top 10 Sexy Aliens, in case you are wondering (why wouldn't you be?) is a video Mr Bunches likes to watch on Youtube; there are a whole series of Top 10 lists put together by a company and Mr Bunches watches them all, and then asks us to interact with them, and him, in different ways.   Sometimes, he wants us to list which ones he can or cannot watch.  Say on the "Top 10 Creepy Kids Movies," he will list them and Sweetie has to say "Yes" or "No."  This is difficult because the rules are not set by us, but by him, and they are inscrutable: Mr Bunches will not watch "Monsters, Inc." but has watched "Monster House" and "Paranorman" over and over.  He is so frightened by The Nightmare Before Christmas, a movie he has never even watched the trailer for, that even mentioning it makes him a little pale.  (Despite that fear, he sometimes write the name of that movie on a piece of paper and tapes the paper up. Or maybe it is because of that fear; the paper is possibly as a ward against evil.)

Other times, we (I, Sweetie never has to) have to act out the movies, or at least a snippet of them.  So for the number 10 Sexiest Movie Alien (Princess Leia) I have to act out the scene where she unfreezes Han at Jabba's house.  That's not a big deal, really (I have the acting chops for it) unless he wants you to do it, say, at the pool when there are 10 or 20 other people around who have no idea why one little boy is saying "Number 10 Princess Leia" and his dad is then doing a skit.

Really, I'm much more comfortable when we play "Nature's Deadliest" at the pool, because then I get to be a shark and a dingo and a stone fish and various spiders and snakes and things and swim up to Mr Bunches and bite him and he dies (but not for real, don't worry other parents/authorities!).

So when we went away in May for our anniversary, for a night of conversations that didn't involve Princess Leia, spatulas, or deadly spiders of any sort, it was supposed to be relaxing for us, but about 2 o'clock in the morning Sweetie woke me up.

"Honey?" she said.

I bolted up, alert for spiders, mice, Princess Leia... whatever.

"I'm not sure I closed and locked the window in the living room," she said.

"Well, now I can't go back to sleep," I agreed, because an open window is an invitation to Mr F, who twice, when he was two, climbed through them and ran away, the first time getting as far away as a half-mile before he was intercepted by a nurse and we tracked him down. (The second time was how we found out he was getting through the window, rather than a door, and he only made it a block because The Boy was on watch.)  Mr F now wears a GPS bracelet around his ankle in case that happens again, and we do not open windows in our house when Mr F is around. If we open them at all, it is only while the boys are in school and Sweetie usually closes them before they get home.  In fact, we have the windows duct-taped shut, because I decided that bars on the window were too expensive and too prison-looking.  Whereas duct-taped windows are SUPER classy.  All the high society folks do that.

So we checked out and went home and found Mr F sleeping on the couch and Middle Daughter on the other couch and the window open.  We woke them up, and put Mr F to bed and sent Middle Daughter home and that episode taught Mr F now that sometimes we leave and then come home in the middle of the night, and he hasn't trusted us since then.  For the past four months, one of us has had to sit in his bedroom with him until he falls asleep, which isn't terrible, really, except that sometimes Mr F doesn't fall asleep at all.  One night I was in there so long that my laptop battery, my Kindle battery, and my phone battery all died. It was like being transported back in time to a more primitive era as the night went on.  I assumed eventually I'd be wearing fur and trying to build a fire if he didn't fall asleep soon, and all that Sweetie would find in the morning would be cave paintings showing what my life had been like.

The boys require that kind of constant supervision and attention, almost around the clock, one of the reasons that I do not usually attend the IEP meeting with Sweetie: we would either have to take the boys with us and have at least 1/3 of the IEP meeting involve a discussion of whether "Godzilla" really is the number one top movie monster and if so can Mr Bunches watch it (Answers: Yes, and No) or we would have to get a sitter, one of the older kids, but even the older kids engender a deep distrust in Mr F and sometimes a level of despair in Mr Bunches who, as I pointed out, tends to equate someone not being there with death.  Once, when we got The Boy to watch them after school so we could go out, and we left before they got home from school, The Boy reported that upon entering the house, Mr Bunches laid down in the doorway and cried for ten minutes straight before retreating to his room and watching movies with a stricken look on his face.  In related news, both Sweetie and I ordered a side of guilt that night for dinner.

That's why I don't necessarily blame the school for putting Mr F to work.  He's a hard kid to school.  We do homework with him, every night.  He doesn't get anything sent home for him, so we read for fifteen minutes or so -- usually with me holding him down physically and trying to get him to repeat words on each page.  Or we color.  One night last week we did a thing where I had a toy cow, sheep, and chicken, and had him say the sounds for each and pick them up in the order I told him to.

Mr F usually responds to these efforts by fleeing.  He will run upstairs, or downstairs, or simply around, and if you manage to (literally) drag him to the couch for some 'learning time,' he will wait until he senses your guard is down and will bolt again.  The other day, he dodged away from me, got to the garage door, hit the automatic opener, dropped flat on the ground and rolled under the door, getting onto the driveway before I could even stoop low enough to see what kind of danger he might logroll into.

Other times, Mr F is more creative.  The other night, when he didn't want to read, he tried to rip all the pages out of the book and then snorted with disgust when I reminded him we had other books and I'd just get a different one.

Confronted with the inevitable -- that he must learn-- Mr F will try to make it go quickly by repeating all of his favorite words as quickly as he can, in case that's what you want.  Or he'll try to turn the pages before you read them, as if getting to the end of the book will solve everything.

Or he will simply close his eyes or look away, deliberately paying no attention to what you are doing.

And that is when he is in a helpful mood.  If he is upset, he might declare war on, say, eggs, as he does about once a week, going to the refrigerator and getting out all the eggs and smashing them onto the floor.  We now have to hide our eggs in the refrigerator, putting them in different locations and masking them with bologna or bread.  Last night, Mr F was so persistently trying to get eggs -- he was upset because I got home late, I think -- that I took them out and sat with them while I did Mr Bunches' homework.

So we've tried a lot of stuff, is my point, but we never actually tried menial labor.  Now, I see whole new worlds opened up to us, worlds where "Having Mr F clean out the gutters" would be considered excellent parenting.  Days where I can say "I guess Mr F better do those dishes, after all we want him to  get into Harvard not some safety school" and pat myself on the back for being a great dad.  No more reading to him and making him sound out words, not when there's wallpaper to strip off and electrical outlets to rewire.  I've spent nights trying over and over to get Mr F to be able to sign his own name, never realizing that waxing the floor was far more likely to turn him into the next Einstein.  This has revolutionized everything.  Congress declared that guys like Mr F ought to get the best, most appropriate education they can, but that was shortsighted, and our visionary teachers have gone one better: why bother learning when he could be earning?

If I sound sarcastic, it's because I am.  I understand that teaching Mr F is hard; if you think I don't, read that foregoing.  But we do that -- we chase him around and hold him down while getting him to look at pictures of his family and say their names or know the parts of his body or spell his name with a crayon because we can't give up.  Giving up, giving in to Mr F's sometimes-incontrollable impulses, is not an option.  It's not that we don't recognize they're hard to control.  We duct-tape our windows, after all.  We're not fools.

But there is a big difference between saying "We'd better secure those windows because it only takes  a minute for him to get out of one" and "I guess he doesn't want to learn to read, better have him mop the floor."  And the difference perhaps is in how much you care.

I would expect the school to care.  Not because Mr F is so adorable.  He is.  But also because it's their job.  I care so much because I love Mr F and also because as his dad it's my job to make sure that he can function at his highest level.  Maybe he won't go to Harvard, something I will only grudgingly admit is one of several possibilities, but as soon as you decide that no he's not then you've eliminated that as a possibility and set your sights lower.

If you aim for the highest and don't make it, you still have a chance of hitting everything in between.  I may never teach Mr F to read a book from beginning to end, but if I stop trying, there's almost no chance he will do that.

And so it seems to me that anytime you take someone and say "We're going to aim a little lower with you" you're letting that person, and yourself, down.  Which is why Mr F being the school's janitor bothered me.  I don't think, at age 8, with someone who is so obviously bright, that you simply decide "Oh well, he's a window washer."

And it's not as though the school has done that, I suppose.  It just seems like that's the way some of his teachers would head if we didn't keep pushing them.  Mr F is still in the classroom with the other kids and he still gets instruction in stuff and he's learning, we're all sure (even if we're not so sure why we are sure he's learning.)

I think what really bugs me about the mopping and stuff is that they are underestimating Mr F.  Or misunderstanding him.  Or both.

I think people who interact with Mr F -- even people who interact with him a lot -- don't give him credit for just how smart he is.  That's easy to do when the person you're interacting with doesn't talk in intelligible words and won't make eye contact with you and appears to be uninterested in all the things we expect someone to be interested in. (Although using "interested in stuff we are interested in as a criterion for intelligence really begs the question.)

It's easy, when you try to get Mr F to talk or read a book or write his name, to think "Oh, he must not be very smart" or "He's not really understanding you when you say those things."  Easy, but wrong.

Mr F understands.  Take his first night with his wetsuit.  As soon as I bothered to explain to him that he only had to try it he let me put it right on.  You had to watch him struggling and struggling and struggling and then settle right down the second I explained it to him to understand how much he understands; and even we, as his parents, forget that -- or I've had explained it earlier.

Mr F understands, I'm pretty sure, everything we say, at least in terms of "knowing what the words mean."  I think, though, that there is a disconnect between understanding, and caring.  I think Mr F doesn't care much about us, or our lives, or the world we expect him to live in.  I don't mean that in a bad way; I think he just finds our world boring.

I watch Mr F.  I watch him pretty closely.  I've watched him for 8 years now, keeping eyes on him keeping on us.  I've watched him suddenly bolt, taking off as fast as he can for somewhere else; I've watched him be forced to sit and choose to stare off into the distance at something nobody but him can see.

Mr F isn't incapable of taking part in our world.  He isn't interested in taking part in our world.  And all the mopping and math and writing and reading aren't going to change that.  There's something more interesting for Mr F out there, something only he knows about and can see.

Remember being in math class and someone (it was me, one year) would always raise a hand and say "When are we going to use this stuff?"  Remember how many things in your life you've sat through only because you had to in order to get to the good stuff?

Every now and then, Mr F breaks into laughter and smiles.  It doesn't seem to matter what he's doing in particular. He may be laying there, or sitting in the car, or in his hammock, or jumping on his trampoline.  Whatever.  He just out of the blue starts laughing, this clear ringing laugh that makes him throw his head back and smile this huge smile and wave his arms, and sometimes when he does that he will grab me or Sweetie and pull us to him and smile at us and hug us; other times he just sits and laughs and laughs and laughs, sometimes so much that we laugh, too.

I think 99% of his life is the part that Mr F waits through to get to that good stuff.  I don't know how to, or even if we can, convince him that everything around him is worth paying attention to.  But I'm pretty sure mopping the floors isn't the way to do it.

Friday, October 10, 2014

People say you're supposed to keep your eyes on the road when you drive but if you do you miss stuff like this.

Today I was driving home from a hearing, and going through the back way rather than the highway.  I was driving around these country roads and looking at all the yellow corn, blue skies, and trees just starting to turn colors and I thought to myself "This really is a ridiculously beautiful day," and then it got even more so when I noticed a bald eagle sitting in a tree:

I've never seen a bald eagle, period, even in a zoo, and while I was vaguely aware that they live in areas of Wisconsin not too far from me, I never really expected to see one there.  I stopped the car and turned around and got out and snapped that picture above and then took a step to try to get closer, and that's when it flew away.

It really was a great day.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Throwback Thursday! Here's what you didn't read the FIRST time I wrote it!

The Best Death (And Resurrection) In Pop Culture

On October 14, 2010 -- pretty close to four years ago today -- I still had a blog called "The Best Of Everything". The blog's idea had been originally to get everyone to say the things they thought were the best in any category but it never caught on because people are losers. Also, probably: marketing.  Anyway, it was left to me for years to say what was the Best of everything, and this was what I posted back four years ago this week:

Have you ever wonder what a doornail is and why it's version of death is so exemplary?

The expression dead as a doornail has staying power, after all. One site noted that the expression is not only more than 650 years old (making it that rare piece of human civilization not invented in the 16th century) but also went on to claim that the saying, dead as a doornail, has outlasted some other versions that were popular when it was first introduced -- back then, apparently, people were apt to compare this dead thing to almost any other dead thing, making up such expressions as dead as a stonedead as mutton, and dead as a herring.

"Jedis would prefer not to be compared to mutton."

Try that on someone today: go to a funeral, look in the casket, turn to whomever is standing next to you (probably Aunt Myrna), and say "He's dead as a herring, all right." Don't plan on attending the wake.

I'm thinking about the expression dead as a doornail (and, now, dead as a herring) because yesterday, while I got Mr F and Mr Bunches up and helped them get dressed, I was watching The Best Death (And Resurrection) In Pop Culture,

NOTE: I have no idea what it was I was watching. I assumed it was a Youtube video, but I cannot be sure.  So maybe I imagined watching it.  Maybe we are all just brains in a jar in a cave...with Cheetos.

and it got me to thinking about how, in most entertainment, characters must die -- actually die-- and then be reborn as part of their heroic (or not so heroic) journey.

It's a trope in comic books -- the superhero or supervillain or girlfriend that dies and comes back in the next issue or a little while later, a cliche so common that when Spider-Man killed off Gwen Stacy:

(um... spoiler alert? It's a pretty old story, after all...) Marvel had to go to great pains to assure readers that this wasn't a trick (or just another lazy literary gimmick)

Since then, and maybe before then, it seems that every comic book character has lived and died, sometimes multiple times. Batman (Spoiler alert!) died and came back to life in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, killed by Superman, who would die not long after that in a ridiculous story that featured a Giant Walking Magic Crystals Killer named "Doomsday" (because apparently all the good writers had off that month) walking to Metropolis, where he hugs Superman to death or something like that.

One of these things killed Superman.

It's not just comics where people get to -- make that must -- die, and it's not just people dying that's become a must-do in American entertainment. People must die and be reborn. They have to go through the worst and come back or we simply aren't entertained, it seems, and what began as comic book trifles has spread, it seems, to every area of entertainment.

Television has lots of characters who have gone through death and returned to tell us about it. "Dead is dead," Ben Linus said on Lost (which, by the way, I finally finished watching. Even though I wasn't caught up enough to watch the finale when it aired, I managed to watch the entire series while getting caught by only one spoiler, ever [Sweetie and Middle told me [SPOILER ALERT! BECAUSE I'M NOT THE KIND OF PERSON WHO WRECKS LOST FOR OTHER PEOPLE!] that Charlie dies], and that means that I managed to achieve the Most Amazing Accomplishment Humanity Has Ever Witnessed: Avoiding anyone telling me how Lost ended. I should get a Nobel Prize plus a chance to move on to Double Jeopardy!, where the scores can really change.)


Oh, yeah: people on Lost were not dead as a herring, or even a doornail; first, Locke showed up being alive and all even though he'd been in a coffin on the plane. That turned out to be a sort of dead as a red herring because shortly after Ben said Locke was dead and dead is dead, it turned out that the new Locke was the Smoke Monster, who himself had been killed by Jacob and had come back not as, well, someone dead but as a smoke monster who could do all sorts of things, including walking around talking to people and trying to get off the island.

So dead is dead unless you're Batman, Superman, the Smoke Monster, or pretty much anyone else in the world of entertainment, where everyone is seemingly moments away from being killed and resurrected. Kenny on South Park was routinely killed off in almost every episode I've ever seen -- sometimes as part of the plot, sometimes not. In one memorable episode, Kenny was killed off and had to save Heaven using his skills on a PlayStation. Other times, Kenny goes to Hell and comes back to warn people.

TV Tropes and Idioms has collected up some examples (some extremely nerdy examples, for the most part. Try getting out of your mother's basement once in a while, Tropes writers!) of people who died and came back in pop culture -- ranging from the Mother/Car in My Mother, The Car, and, seriously, how did that show ever fly back in the 1950s or 1960s or whatever old-timey backwards unimaginative repressed era it aired in? I thought people in the 1950s were staid, Ward-Cleaver-esque types who were content to have a desk and an inkwell and milk delivered every day, but apparently they lived a miraculously imaginative inner life where people were reincarnated as cars and men lived in sin with talking horses and... well, that's all I can think of, but, really, those are two pretty revolutionary ideas, if you look at them in the right way.

From reincarnated mothers to the Bionic Woman to the characters on Lost, TV has long relied on resurrecting characters from the dead -- even going so far as to have a Power Ranger die and come back as the White Power Ranger, which is proof positive of the correctness of my long-held secret theory that the Power Rangers were just a not-so-cleverly-disguised recasting of Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings, or maybe it's the other way around (I forget which came first), but either way, both featured a character dying and then coming back as a Whiter version of themselves, with whiter being a synonym for more powerful.

Don't call me racist. I didn't write the stuff. I'm just reminding you that Gandalf The Gray fell (MIDDLE EARTH ALERT!) to his death fighting the Balrog (which I always kind of thought was an anagram for something else; I'm terrible at anagrams, but being terrible at them doesn't stop me from thinking that everything's an anagram, especially made-up words like Balrog, which is one reason I have such a hard time reading fantasy nowadays; every word is made up and I spend all my time trying to think Well, is this an anagram of something, or did the author just decide to call this creature a "retaenam?")(Also, I'm pretty sure that Ethan Rom on Lost was, actually, an anagram for Other Man. Am I right, J.J. Abrams?)

After Gandalf the Gray fell to his death, causing much mourning and at least three chapters of really boring prose (seriously, The Lord Of The Rings books really dragged at times, am I right, J.J. Abrams?), he returned as Gandalf The White And More Powerful, although, to be honest, I can't exactly remember what Gandalf ever did that made him more powerful, or powerful at all. As I'm sitting here writing, I'm trying to remember what magic Gandalf ever performed to warrant his rap. Here's what I've got:

-- He used ventriloquism to trick the trolls in The Hobbit.
-- He blew smoke rings that changed colors and floated over his head.
-- He did a fireworks display at Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday.
-- He broke the bridge the Balrog fell off of.

And his staff glowed. That's it. That's all I've got. If Gandalf was so great -- or Saruman, for that matter, or even Sauron-- why didn't any of them ever perform any magic whatsoever?

Even that One Ring didn't do anything but make people invisible. J.R.R. Tolkien, I call shenanigans.I bet even Harry Potter could outwizard Gandalf, and Harry only knows two spells.


Yeah, I read the books, and, no, I never had much of a social life in high school. Why do you ask?

Gandalf wasn't the only character to come back from the dead in Lord of The Rings, either. Frodo, I'm pretty sure, died when he fought that giant spider in the tunnel in a scene that obviously J.R."R" Tolkien copied from J."K." Rowlings because nobody who doesn't want to get sued to death would imply it was the other way around, and after dying was revived by that Elfen Gatorade given to Sam in the forest, only to go on to be completely useless as the two of them made their way through Mordor.

And with that simple act of plagiarizing Rowlings' sixty years before she'd get around to writing her own Spider-Attack scene, Tolkien opened the floodgates for centuries of literary deaths-and-resurrections, including, I'm told, the book Candide, in which, according to this site,

most of the important characters either do not die, or, if they die, they come back to life again rather miraculously, as when Pangloss is hanged but survives, or when Cunegonde is raped and disemboweled, yet survives. Thousands die around them, but the main characters remain curiously invulnerable to the disasters they witness.

Candide was written by Voltaire, who, years later, would be revealed to be a giant sword-wielding robot made up of vehicles piloted by teenagers. (Not really, but if you'd told that to me in high school, I might have actually read Candide.)

Other famous and outstanding characters have included Tom, of Tom and Jerry, who I'm told has died six times (but one of them was a dream, so that doesn't count, right Patrick Duffy.)(Raise your hand if you thought I was going to say right, J.J. Abrams.)(Now put it down; I can't see you anyway.)

Why do such deaths-and-resurrections amaze us? Why have they become de riguer for entertainment? And what does de riguer mean, anyway? Is it some kind of anagram? Is it French for snails? The French are always trying to get Americans to eat snails, as revenge for the French-And-Indian War, which I'm pretty sure (a) happened and (b) they lost.

I think deaths-and-resurrections are so popular because they're one of two things: they're either a shortcut to success, or they're proof that this person can survive anything. Or they're both.

By shortcut to success, I mean that a person dying-and-coming-back-to-life can be seen to have won, somehow, simply by getting back to where he or she was in the first place. This same thing happens in Christmas movies (as I pointed out previously in a post I can't find right now): People, characters, have to have their lives start out at one level, and then have something bad happen to them, and then they fight back from the bad thing to get back to where they were in the first place, at which point they're happy even though technically speaking they're no better off than they were when they started.  That's the plot of every Christmas movie ever made, and practically ever movie ever made, including Jaws, in which the people on the island seem a little unhappy, then 90% of them get eaten by a shark, which is then [EXPLODING SHARK GUTS SPOILER ALERT!] blown up, after which everyone's happy again. But their lives are the same lives they had before they blew up the shark (which I think came back to life in Jaws 2, and which will definitely be making a cameo appearance in the screenplay I'm writing, Nightmare On Elm Beach: Jaws Meets Saw's Final Destination, in which the shark sets a series of diabolical traps to kill a bunch of teenagers in their dreams, only to find his plans thwarted by that Saw guy, who it turns out isn't dead, either, but is working as the Rube Goldberg of the Underworld, responsible for setting up all those traps that keep killing people in the Final Destination movies. Saw becomes enraged that Jaws is messing with his plans, and so they...

... well, I'm not going to give the ending away. Suffice to say everyone lives and dies several times, and that it'll also feature my new 5-D Superstring Technology for films, a way of projecting the movie in several alternate dimensions at the same time, so that every possible outcome can take place simultaneously, leaving you, the audience, totally satisfied because you'll never have to collapse that wave form and find out if the cat is dead or alive; with 5-D technology, the cat is both. Take that, Schrodinger!

I think I left a Dangling Parentheses there, so let me take care of that: )


The death-and-resurrection is the ultimate Get Back To Where You Once Belonged moment: a character who dies and comes back to life ought to be grateful for just being here, and it allows a writer (of a comic book or movie or old-fashioned radio play) to have a character realize Important Things About Life without actually finding a way to improve that character's life. Rather than have a character grow and change through conflict like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days Of Summer, lazy writers can have a character go through nothing worse than a bad case of appendicitis and walk down the street at the end of the movie smiling and humming and appreciating the scent of a flower or something.

And, yes, I know that Joseph Gordon-Levitt didn't change all that much in 500 Days of Summer, but it was the only movie I could think of at the time except Inception, a movie in which characters die and come back to life routinely, making that movie a Candide-esque adventure in death and resurrection, but it doesn't count because it's all happening in a dream (see Tom & Jerry note, supra).

When dying and coming back is used as more than just a lazy way to a happy ending-that's-not-really, it's meant to be more Symbolic and Important-- the ultimate price to pay and the ultimate challenge a character could face. It serves as proof how tough the hero is, how villainous the villain is, and how significant all of this is. Unnamed Smoke Monster on Lost, we're told, can't be killed -- and we're proven that because he was killed and now he's come back as a Smoke Monster and if he died once how can we kill him again? He's SUPERvillainous!

But facing off against those resurrecting supervillainous people are heroes themselves who can die and come back -- heroes so brave and strong and tough that they can stare death in the eye and walk away, and thereafter aren't scared of anything anymore, or, if they are scared they can suppress it because they've died once, so how bad can dying again be? (That's why some writers have to up the ante -- once you've killed off a character and brought him or her back, you've got to find some way to make them scared again. So Constantine must worry that if he dies he's going back to Hell, which is worse than just dying, after all.)

Above all, for us regular people who don't have utility belts, a glowing staff that helps with our ventriloquism, or some such, death poses the ultimate challenge: It's the final barrier in our lives, a door that once we open it, we're not going to be the one to close it behind us and we're not coming back through it. So having our heroes and villains die and come back serves, maybe, as reassurance that death isn't final, that there's something better out there, or, if not better, at least something that's no worse than this life -- and use that knowledge to avoid our fear of that door while simultaneously admiring those who go near it or pass through it.

Death is one of the most significant moment of our lives, after all -- but it's the only moment we may not get to talk about with our friends or share with a loved one or blog about later on with snarky comments. (Firsties!) It's the only thing we'll ever go through that we fear we might have to go through entirely alone. Every other significant event involves someone waiting for us on the other side: birth, high school graduation, weddings, Sonic having two-for-one cheeseburgers... there's always a way to bring someone along or have someone there waiting for us.

But we don't know whether that's true with dying -- so while we're alive, we tell stories not just about people who died and went on, but about people who died and then came back, because we're not so sure we want to leave this all behind, anyway. Life may have its down moments, we know, but it's got it's good parts, too, and we can't be certain that the parts we liked -- Voltron cartoons, cheeseburgers, our wives and kids and parents and friends -- are going to be over there on the other side, especially if we go first.

Dying and coming back show that not only can we overcome adversity, but give us a reason to think that maybe dying will be like coming back, and we can then continue where we left off-- but in a more heroic manner, more sure of ourselves and ready to take on challenges. Which is the lesson learned from The Best Death (And Resurrection) In Pop Culture, that moment being the time [SPOILER ALERT!] Spongebob died at Shell City.

If you've seen the Spongebob movie (we all have, right?) then you know what I'm talking about: Having traveled to Shell City, a souvenir store, to rescue King Neptune's crown in order to save Mr. Krabs from being blasted by the kind as part of Plankton's evil plot (got all that?) Spongebob (and his friend Patrick) are captured by the Cyclops (a deep sea diver) and put under a heat lamp to dry out and be sold as trinkets to tourists. The lamp dries them out, but as they're dying, Patrick and Spongebob bravely fight, singing the chorus to The Goofy Goober Song.

I hope you watched that. I get goosebumps. It's an amazingly effective scene, the most traumatic and touching death of a pants-wearing sea creature I've ever witnessed.

And it's all the sadder because SpongeBob does die -- he's dead as a herring, almost literally, and deader even than a doornail, his little pants flopping spongelessly...

... until a final bead of sweat he gave off runs down the table and down a cord and shorts out an electrical outlet, starting a small fire that sets off the sprinkler system, which then wets down our heroes and brings them back to life, so that they can ride David Hasselhoff back to the Krusty Krab just in time to face Plankton down by dressing as a guitar playing wizard.

That might be the single most ridiculous sentence I've ever written. And also the single best ending to a movie ever written.

When SpongeBob dies, he represents every part of the dying-and-coming-back themes. He's the hero who must face the greatest danger of all on his quest -- worse than monsters in a gorge or toughs in a bar or a fish that has an ice-cream vending Granny in its mouth -- and overcome it. But he's also us, a guy who just wanted to live his life but got caught up in events beyond his control, events that ended up killing him, but even that didn't stop him. He was able to return to his old life and pick up where he'd left off, and if he wasn't better in material things (although I think he did get that promotion to manager) he was better for the experience.

That's the final lesson of dying-and-resurrection, I think, the final thing we as writers and readers and talkers hope to take out of telling these stories. Spongebob, after he died, went back to being a fry cook. Those people on Lost (by now you know there's spoilers, right?) found themselves in their old lives, only a little moreso. Gandalf died and came back to help the others win the war so that the magic could leave Middle Earth. In each of these, and maybe in Candide, the person who dies comes back to a life that's maybe about the same as it was, but that person values it more. And in telling those stories, not only do we learn to value the lives we have now (hopefully) but we give ourselves a glimpse of what's next -- and we can believe that even if it's not better than this life, it'll be no worse, and we'll appreciate it more.

Not a bad lesson to learn from a sponge.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The HORROR Issue!

Just in time for Halloween -- okay, about 24 days early but you can start getting in the spirit of things -- comes The Horror Issue of IWM, featuring:

-- The 10 Dos and 500 Dont's of Writing A Good Horror Story (hint: MAKE IT SCARY)(<< that is a free tip, right there!)

-- Three editing tips you have to learn BEFORE THAT GUY BEHIND YOU GRABS YOU.  (Made you look)

-- Interview with horror author Elizabeth Fields who is GETTING A MOVIE MADE OF HER BOOK, probably starring Tom Cruise we can claim without any factual basis for that claim whatsoever.

And the winners of our 200-word flash fiction contest!


AND, it is free from October 8 to October 12.  But don't wait to get your copy; what if the Internet breaks and you miss out? Go download it now.

Monday, October 06, 2014

I've been working on a longer thing so here is a picture I took the other day of a free building.

As soon as I saw this sign I started thinking "I wonder how much it would cost to move a building, because maybe I could own that building?"

That's what happens to me with everything including the time I read about racing pigeons in The New Yorker while I was waiting in the ER for Sweetie to be done having a kidney stone or nearly dying of niacin poisoning or something.  In fact, I still kind of want a racing pigeon.