Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Micro-Horror: It's Not A Nighmare

It’s important for you to know that this didn’t start out like a nightmare. I made sure of that.

I made sure the spring sun was unclouded and at its peak so that you’d see a field of flowers like a cornucopia of reds and browns rather than the rust-red of dried blood, and sent a gentle breeze through so that you’d think that the susurrus of noise came from the trees blowing in the wind even though it came from the low hissing of the flowers.

The cirrus clouds, strewn across like the sky like so much cotton weaving, did not move, but I knew you would not stand still long enough for that to matter because the canopy swing I’d made was so beautiful. It looked like ivory in the sun, gleaming and bright.

It was only natural that you’d want to take a seat there, in that beautiful moment. I was worried you might have noticed something when for a moment a tendril of cloud reached across the sun and the lights dimmed enough you might see the swing was made of bone, but the dream reasserted itself well enough and you sat and were trapped.

You’re mine now. That probably scares you. Good. Fear is the first emotion I’ll drain from you. Then hatred, then sadness, then desire, then anger, and then onward, deeper. Oh, you may wonder what will happen to your hope. That’s easy: you’ll kill it yourself. Your kind always do.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Odd Duck

So, after the disappointment of "Young Sheldon," and hearing not-so-great things about Netflix's show about a young boy with autism, I thought, "I could write better than that."

I don't necessarily think that's true but, well, I tried.

Exterior shot of a largeish house. Not opulent, but with more square footage than a suburban home, and with a large lot. There is a main part of the house and then an extension that was obviously added on later, being of a slightly different architectural style. The driveway has about a dozen cars parked in it, and there are more cars on the road.

A family pulls up to a kerb in an early ‘90s Honda Accord. The car is in good condition, the family neatly dressed. Mom, IRENE, is in her early 40s and looks tired. Dad, STANLEY, is a bit doughy and pasty, but smiling genuinely. As he comes onto the sidewalk, two of his kids emerge on that side, on on the other side. The kid on the other side of the car is CALEB, a tall, muscular young man, perhaps 18 or 19. He’s in a high school jacket. He rounds the car confidently.

The first out of the car on the other side is a teenage girl, perhaps 14 or 15. Her hair is straight and falls over her face. TAMAR is slender and attractive, but moves hesitantly and is a bit coltish and uncertain of her limbs. The third child is a boy of 10 or so, but he moves with the gait of a younger child. In particular, his hands move almost as though he’s wearing mittens - fingers together and thumbs dangling - while his walk is a sort of shuffle. He is the first to speak. When he does speak, it is without affect.

Benjamin: How long are we going to be here?

Irene: Oh, a few hours. We’re staying for dinner.

(She moves over by his side and hunches over so her face is level with his. His gaze drops.)

Benjamin: Will there be hot dogs? I’ll only eat if there are hot dogs.

Caleb (walking by, swatting his brother on the shoulder in play, speaking too loudly): They’ll have dogs. That’s all Uncle Kevin can cook without burning it, anyway.

Irene: Caleb!

(A voice calls out from the front door. Kevin is a middle-aged man perhaps a few years older than Stanley. The two are fairly obviously brothers.)

(Caleb crosses into the house, to the sound of someone shouting his name out. He raises a hand in greeting and is gone.)

Kevin: Nah, he’s right, that old grill I had burnt anything you put on it. Got a new rig now, though. Hey, Stan-o, want to check it out?

(Stan looks at his wife for a second, gets a nod of assent)

Stan: Love to? What’d’ya get this time?

(Stanley strides up into the house, their chatter continuing.)

Irene (to her daughter): Tamar, I can you …

Tamar (her body language already defensive, she redoubles her defenses): Mom, Tami. Please.

Irene: Fine, Tami. Can you … can you just have a good time? Try?

(Tamar just snorts and walks in.)

Irene (sighs) (looks down at Ben): Well, at least you’ll come in with me.

Ben: I really don’t want to, but, yes, I will. (He takes her hand and begins walking up to the house) (he holds up a finger, admonishing) So long as there really are hot dogs.

Irene: I don’t know why you’re like this. This is your family, and you love them and they love you.

Ben: Well, I wish they wouldn’t. Especially Uncle Kevin.

Irene: Uncle Kevin loves you …

Ben: He grabs me, and his beard is scratchy, and he smells. I don’t love him.

(Irene stops, whirls Ben sideways. He yelps as she gets down in his face.)

Irene: Uncle Kevin is a good man, and he has never hurt a hair on your head. You will be polite and you will be friendly today, you understand. No (she pauses, trying to find the words) being you in there. No being the way you get.

Ben: I understand. (He doesn’t. The cadence of his words is off, almost stuttering.)

Irene: I’m sorry, Ben, I know that it’s hard for you to be around people some times. I know that, but, today, please? For me?

(Ben nods jerkily. Irene strokes his cheek and Ben consciously chooses not to recoil.)

(They near the door when Kevin’s wife, Amanda, appears. If Irene is beaten down by life, Amanda is exploding with life - her clothes, demeanour and speech are just bursting with enthusiasm. Near the door, we can hear music playing - Lisa Loeb’s, “Stay.”)

(Amanda and Irene are talking amiably as they walk into the house. Ben is still holding onto his mother’s hand as they are about to enter. He drops her hand with a gasp.)

Ben: Mom! My duck! It’s in the car!

Irene: Go get it, then. I’ll be just inside.

(Ben hesitates)

Irene: Just inside, Ben, honey. I promise, I won’t go any further than the front room.

(Ben runs to the car.)

Amanda: It’s good to push his limits, you know.

Irene: Yeah, I know, it’s just … I never know if I’m doing it the right way with him.

(Ben is in the back seat. He snatches up a small rubber duck and turns around. His mother’s gone, inside the house.)

(He moves up the walk at a quick shuffle. In one hand, he holds the duck in his palm, rubbing it vigorously with his thumb. He repeatedly “throws” his other hand, whipping his forearm and leaving his hand to flap at its extent.)

(We see the interior of a large, open room. A half dozen or so grown-ups are here, all with plenty of space between them. There are trays of food scattered around, and the music is playing at a sensible volume. No one is shouting, although conversation is animated.)

Ben (he’s obviously saying something he’s heard before):: You can do anything you set your mind to. You can do anything you set your mind to. You can do anything you set your mind to.

(We are looking right at his face as he closes his eyes. The camera pans around behind him and we’re behind his head. The camera pushes through, telling us we’re looking at things through his eyes.)

(The song’s light bass line now sounds fuzzy and muffled. The acoustic guitar sounds tinny out of pitch. The vocals are in tune, but sound much brighter and louder, with an uncomfortable amount of vibrato. The adult’s faces are all a little blurred and indistinct. Their speech overlaps as before, but is now flattened out - it’s impossible to tell what they’re saying. Every bit of bright green in the room glows painfully. Ben takes a step into the house, and the thick pile of carpet makes a loud crunching sound, like glass being crushed while the shards rub against each other noisily. He closes his eyes again, and we get a shot of his hand working that worry duck. He opens his eyes again, and takes a few more steps, his shuffling gait more pronounced as he works hard to crush as little of the carpet as possible, just brushing it aside. He sees his mother at a counter that adjoins a large kitchen and heads toward her.

He’s then grabbed by a pair of giant arms made of ropy, tree-like muscle and lifted bodily off the ground. As this happens, we hear the sound of a wood rasp at work and his vision fills with stars and bolts of light, growing a bit indistinct. He cries out.)

(The scene bolts back to being from everyone else’s perspective as Uncle Kevin has grabbed his nephew across the chest - gently, not actually holding him in place, but just kind of a backwards hug. He’s rubbing his chin stubble in Ben’s scalp. Ben’s feet are on the ground.)

(Ben pushes back against him hard, and yells again, wordlessly, and then runs off down a nearby set of stairs.)

Kevin (to Irene and Amanda at the snack bar): Huh. Kind of an odd duck, isn’t he?

Irene: Yes, I suppose so.

(Title for the show comes up: “Odd Duck.”)

Saturday, May 13, 2017

My Favourite Book, Part Three

I’d spent my early years with a loving and supporting family and classmates and friends who seemed to accept and understand me, but at around age nine that kind of fell apart.

First of all, you're missing an "of."
Second, though, this just looks like
a bunch of people with flippers
for hands, unless I'm focusing on it.
I found that friends would trick you into thinking they were doing things for you, when really they were just using you to get something they wanted. I learned that my family loved me, but they didn’t really understand me, in a lot of ways. And even the most sincere friends could, at times, be insincere, and family could hurt family. There were ways to tell when this was happening - tone of voice, posture, body language - but I didn’t seem to understand these things as easily as everyone else did.

Even just simply socializing, hanging out with friends, became a bit of a minefield, and I was unprepared for the experience. It was like I’d grown up with native fluency in a language, only to wake up one morning to find that I had the vocabulary of a toddler and someone had changed all the rules.

I set about learning the language of socialization, but it wasn’t easy. My major hiccup was not understanding when people were being sincere, and so how could I know? I couldn’t well ask someone, “Excuse me, are you being untrustworthy right now?”, so, it became a matter of trial and error, a conscious effort to determine what sincerity looked like, how to tell when a friend was angry even when they said they weren’t, and whether a grown-up was really in the mood to talk.

It was really hit or miss, and I did actually ask questions like the one above, naively assuming that people who were trying to deceive me wouldn’t go so far as to lie about such things. Just watching people move wasn’t enough. I had to bring in some heavy hitters.

Ah, this was a sight that
promised an entirely wasted
Friday night.
Three things really helped: books, Dungeons and Dragons and comic books. Some time, I’ll need to write about prose books and tabletop RPGs and how they formed my socialization, but we’re aiming at talking about my favourite comic book here, and I’d intended to do it in two blog entries and I’m not sure I’m going to get to it in three. Anyhow, what makes comic books so handy for learning body language can be summed up in one name: Jack Kirby.

Jack Kirby’s impact on comic books really can’t be overstated. I know that’s a cliche, “impact can’t be overstated,” but, seriously, you can’t. His artistic style didn’t just merely make an impact, it’s still making one. Have you seen the Doctor Strange movie? You know that weird trip Strange takes when he first meets the Ancient One, falling through a multiplicity of dimensions before landing back in our world? That’s Kirby, through and through.

You even see it in some of the dramatic poses in other Marvel movies, like the big group shot near the end of The Avengers, right before they take down the Chitauri, and some of the slow-mo shots in both Civil War and Winter Soldier.

I've used this picture before, but it's worth reusing. This what
football looks like in Jack Kirby's head.
Kirby had an ability to make it look like a static page was moving, using simple line-art, perspective and anatomy to give great, pantomime indications of what was happening in the panel, and while I didn’t actually collect much Kirby at the time (he was over at DC Comics), Marvel’s artist bullpen was very much The House That Kirby Built, and it made for a wonderful catalogue of body language. I mean, yes, the motions were over-exaggerated and it wasn’t perfect, but it was something, and more importantly, it was honest.

Worth mentioning here that these issues haven’t gone away at all, I’m just 40 and I’ve spent a lot more time watching how people behave. I’m still genuinely terrible at it, though, compared to most, so if you think that I’m missing what you think is an obvious social cue, do me a favour and let me know, politely if you can.

If your face doesn't look like
hers when you're reading
comics, find better comics.
Anyhow, the summer before I turned nine, I got a new weapon in my socialization arsenal: I discovered that there were entire stores dedicated to selling comics. The first time I walked into 1 000 000 Comics at 2400 Guelph Line, I think my heart actually skipped a beat. Of course, I made a beeline for the latest issue of the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe Deluxe Edition, but after that? After that? I just kind of stood there, overwhelmed by the sheer number of titles on offer.

One of the titles I’d been buying, when I could find it, was Marvel Saga, which is another odd purchase for a young boy, as it’s basically a rundown of older Silver Age stories, entire issues condensed down to a handful of pages with a few panels of action, but it was handy for getting an idea of the kinds of stories you could expect from the different heroes.

I picked up a Captain America comic, a World’s Finest comic and an X-Men. They were, somewhat disappointingly, basically the same thing as the comics that I’d been pulling off of grocery store shelves, but in the next couple of months I was able to figure out what my tastes were, and they ran heavily toward the X-titles.

A lot of ink has been spent in long arguments about whether the mutants of the X-titles are supposed to represent teen angst, anti-gay sentiment or anti-semitism, but all I can say is that when someone was repulsed by Beast for his appearance, or Phoenix felt separated from humanity because of her abilities, I felt like I knew exactly what they were talking about.

And so it is that comics transitioned from being something that transported me to strange worlds, to being something I used to understand the real world, to being something that connected my imagination to my social life to my reality. And it was in this time that I found the comic that brought all of that together for me: New Mutants Annual # 2, which I’ll talk about next week. Hopefully.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

My Favourite Book, Part Two

Last time I talked about the first time I ever bought comics. I ended up with about one hundred and twenty of them and used them to figure out how comic books are constructed.

For the next few years, I added to my collection only in fits and starts. I wasn't much for whining, and my parents weren't much for giving into it, but I did persuade them, on occasion, to let me pick up a comic book from a supermarket spinner rack or the magazine shelf of a book store. These comics were selected opportunistically, picked out based on the colours on the cover and whether the movement caught my eye.

I mean, really.
So very cool. (I still
like the black costume
This being the 1980s, I ended up with a lot of Thor and Spiderman, which suited me just fine. Thor had plenty of action, Norse mythology and plots that arced long but that I could pick up easily if I missed a few issues, and Spiderman had terrible quips, interesting villains and an engaging secondary cast. It also felt strangely real in a way I honestly sometime found off-putting.

Peter Parker was a loser, yes, but he felt like someone I knew, or could know, and it made me uneasy about my life and the lives of my fellow nerds. Most of us were just barely holding onto our dignity and social standing. If one of us was bitten by, I don't know, a radioactive seagull and drawn into a complex web of costumed mobsters while trying to maintain a secret identity, it'd be overwhelming.

Before you say it out loud, yes, I recognize that I worried about some weird things as a kid.

Anyhow, my comic book collecting was sporadic at best and as time went on, my collection began to fall apart, literally and figuratively.

I learned quickly that it was unwise to take a comic book to school. The front cover would wear off just getting carried around in a backpack, and could fall apart completely before you got home, assuming that a well-meaning teacher didn't take it from you beforehand. They could go to birthday parties and like, but other kid's mothers might not be keen on their kid's friends bring them over.
They really did kill a
character, too. Stayed dead
for, like a decade, too.

Even just keeping in my room wasn't enough because some of my more pious friends took it upon themselves to save me from the danger of comic books. That's how my latest find - a long white cardboard box made for holding comics - ended up in the closet. Which, in the interests of full confession, is the real reason I cleaned out my closet in the summer before 3rd grade. You're welcome, mom.

I didn't stop collecting, though, and slowly I built up a decent-sized collection. It was mostly Marvel, although I had a soft spot for 80s Batman, the Dark Knight Detective. I also picked up Legion of Superheroes whenever I could. It had the cheesiest plots and dumbest hero names, but there was something compelling about it. Tales of the Legion of Superheroes #329 probably ranks in the top 10 of my favourite comics of all time.

Absolutely no regrets - could
probably do another blog entry on
this game's impact on my DMing. Hrm.
Still, though, it was rare to get two comics in sequence, and I didn't have much money, having saved up and spent most of it on a Nintendo and a bunch of games. At the time, it seemed basically impossible to find a steady source of comics. It's not like there were stores that specialized in selling them.

My next big moment was buying a comic book with my own money. My choice was odd: The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Volume 2, issue 3.

I wish I could say that I bought it because the content was intellectually stimulating, but the truth is that it was a honkin' 64 pages long, and the front cover showed a mostly naked woman with clouds covering her naughty bits.
I am a shallow person.

Of course, the titillation factor was short-lived because, as other readers of this title know, this is basically a reference book for the Marvel Universe. I mean, it's right in the title, so it shouldn't have surprised me but, here it was: 64 pages of dry narratives of a superhero's life, accompanied by diagrams of their equipment and how they work. No, really. Have you ever wanted to know how Daredevil's grappling hook baton works? Well, even if you didn't, you'd know if you, too, had OHOTMUDE vol. 3. (That's what the cool kids call it.)

There was something else about the Official Handbooks, though. They presented the information in an almost journalistic style. The tragic circumstances that lead up to Daredevil taking up his cowl were just . . . delivered, almost without context, which enabled me to contextualize the events in a different way, and see them in a more subjective way

That's really the only problem I have with comics as a medium. With the exception of a few especially daring creators, the events that happen in a comic book are pretty objective, but presented in still frames that don't always give all of the information necessary to get the objective truth, and that can be problematic when you're someone like me, someone who has trouble understanding context.

Plus, statistics! Who doesn't want to know that Doctor Druid has the physical strength of an individual who engages in limited regular exercise, and the exact number of pounds of TNT that are equivalent to a blast from Cyclops' eye-beams? This nerd, right here.

I collection the Handbooks to this day, as anyone who followed my blog during my, "making Marvel RPG characters," phase can attest.

In addition to my buying it with my own money, the Handbook represented still another chapter in my comic book collecting, though: I bought it in a comic book store.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

My Favourite Book, Part One

Over the years I've read blog posts and listened to interviews where famous people talk about their favourite books. I am not famous, nor am I likely to be, but I do have a favourite book: New Mutants Annual #2. No, I'm not kidding, my favourite book is a comic book. It's not as weird as it might seem. Let me start a few years before it came out, though.

When I was a young boy I read. A lot. If I wasn't in class or eating dinner or watching TV, I was reading, and sometimes I'd read while doing those things as well. I read precociously, voraciously and indiscriminately, simply moving my way through the written page like a lawnmower through fresh grass. I read some classics, sure, but mostly because my dad gave them to me to read. I really didn't care what I read so long as it had characters and a story.

I like comic books well enough and had a small pile of Looney Tunes comics, one for each time I'd been home sick and my mom or dad had to swing by the Shopper's Drug Mart for Tylenol or cough syrup or what not. I actually had three copies of the same comic from a time when I cycled through the same illness three times in a month. I didn't complain about it, mostly because the illness meant that I couldn't concentrate on reading without running the risk of throwing up.

My heroes. No, seriously, these
guys make the Hardy Boys look
like poseurs. Not that it's hard.
I like these comics all right, and some of them were ever pretty good, but they had a sort of sameness to the stories, and they were always self-contained and rather short. It wasn't anything I couldn't get from The Three Investigators, and comics forced on me their interpretation of what things looked like.

The summer before grade two, we went on a daytrip to the beach at Port Dover. My sister and I skipped rocks, ran in the water, ate ice cream and dragged our parents along with us. I don't think either of us was aware of it at the time, but with the perspective of time, I know that they'd planned on a quiet day at the beach for themselves and a busy one for us. My mom brought three books, my dad brought one, and they bought new chairs for the occasion, very comfortable ones that went basically unused.

When we left, Carolyn and I were all tuned up on summer sun and sugar while mom and dad were ready to collapse into a coma. Driving out from the beach, they saw one final chance to drain our vital energies: Port Dover was having a citywide yard sale.

They gave us ten dollars each, told my sister to watch her brother, and let us loose. I was eight, Carolyn was twelve, we knew the area, which was a large, open park. But yes, my parents let their children out of their sight for about half an hour on a balmy Saturday afternoon. Clearly, they are terrible, wicked, sociopaths. That address, on with our story.

My sister and I parted company the moment it was feasible, of course, and I ended up in my natural habitat - surrounded by books. At first, it seemed like a magical place, with books stacked high on four or five large tables, but rummaging through them it became apparent that this was a very boring place. These were "grown-up" books. Mysteries, mostly, with some classics among them, side-by-side with Clive Cussler knockoffs and romance novels. Absolutely no sci-fi or fantasy, and nary a Choose Your Own Adventure, not even one I'd read before.

What I found beneath the tables was intriguing, though: plastic wrapped packages of comic books.

Cunningly wrapped so you could only see the back covers, each pack promised 10 comics for a dollar. They smelled vaguely like seaweed and I could tell about a third of them didn't even have covers. My dad already complained that my room smelled "a bit funny," and I'd heard from my friends that their parents said that "good Christians don't read comic books."

I counted out ten packages and handed the crisp ten dollar bill to the proprietor. Wordlessly, he added two more packages and gave me a box for it all.

When I got back to my parents, my arms tired from my burden, my dad just looked at me and smiled, and my mom didn't seem to notice at all. Even my sister, who had snagged a bedraggled stuffed animal and some equally battered plastic toy, looked approvingly at the sheer size of my find.

That green puffer-fish
still kinda creeps me
I had determined that I would not open any of my prizes in the car, even though my dad let me take two of them in the seat with me. To be honest, I just didn't want to share. Temptation overrode selfishness, though, and about two minutes after we hit the road, I opened one of them.

Disappointingly, this one was mostly Looney Tunes comics with some Disney thrown in, along with a Superman that looked dreadfully weird. One comic, though, showed a white-armoured figure with a strange, boxy helmet grappling with some strange undersea creatures. I presumed he was the character in the title: Rom. I was glad I got to that one first.

When I was a kid, my parents and I had an interesting relationship when it came to the things I read. They never banned a book, so far as I can remember, but they reserved the right to read them first and decide if I was ready for them. My father, a schoolteacher and a very well-read man, would take the lead on this and did something I've never heard of another parent doing before or since: When I got to the age where he thought I could now handle a book, he'd give it to me. He was usually right. Usually.

The problem is that there were, as now, pressures on parents to police their kid's lives, and nowhere moreso than in conservative Christian churches where, in the 1980s, it seemed like every kind of media every created could drive a child into the arms of Satan, and was designed to do so by a conspiracy of liberal devil worshipers. My parents were never greatly impacted by this "Satanic Panic," but I know they must've felt the temptation to fall in line and ban Transformers (the Decepticon symbol was occultic), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (created by animal worshipers) and The Care Bears (witchcraft!) wholesale, but they persisted in actually engaging with the things I liked.

They noticed the same thing that, of course, all us kids noticed - that while there were indeed dark and evil forces at work in these stories, the dark and evil forces were almost inevitably the bad guys, the people opposed by the good guys.

Anyhow, Rom was a weird comic, combining high-tech sci-fi gadgetry with weird aliens, hidden cults, mysticism and Shakespearean levels of ennui and existentialism. And while I only had that one issue of it at the time, I immediately fell in love and wanted more.

I fell asleep on the drive and woke up the next morning with a box with one hundred and twenty comics in it, one hundred and ten of them still a complete mystery. One bowl of cereal later, and a perfunctory nod at my parents, and I was down in the midst of them.

I started by dividing them up by structural integrity. Some were in excellent shape, others a bit battered, and some so beaten up they didn't even have all of their pages, so it seemed like a good idea.

Three packages in, I switched tactics. Rom, it seemed, was only the tip of the iceberg. There were some really weird comics in there, and it soon became clear that if my parents decided to judge these books by their covers, it probably would not be a favourable judgement.

What. The actual. Heck.
The division was simpler now: books anyone could read, books my parents could read and probably not like, but let me keep, and last books that my parents should never see, if possible. This last category included a comic that I decided that I didn't need to see either. I don't remember much about it other than that it was a different size than all of the others, and the content made me uncomfortable. I disposed of it personally, taking it to the garbage can in front of the local Becker's.

There were six or seven more Rom comics and fifty or sixty others.

The Defenders featured prominently, with about a dozen issues. In one, a group of baddies called the Headmen . . . well, look at that cover and tell me what happens in that one because I honestly never figured it out. There were some with Gargoyle, and three issues in a row where Damion Hellstrom, the Son of Satan, is trying to save a small town from the clutches of demonic forces.

Looks legit.
There was also an issue of The X-Men. I'd seen an older boy reading an X-Men comic on the bus and asked him about it. With the arrogance of a middle schooler, he told me it was "too sophisticated" for me. And here, now, was my very own X-Men comic, which took place . . . at a circus? The X-Men worked in a circus? It made a kind of sense at the time.

I would eventually figure out how to identify comics suitable as entry points into a series, but this was a skill that took some time to develop. I just read them all, cover to cover, again and again. To this day, I can recall many individual panels and successions of panels, complete with dialogue.

Longer story arcs were the order of the day, so I only caught glimpses of what was really going on, but that lead to something fascinating - because I couldn't understand the big picture, the little ones made a lot more sense. I might not understand why Thor and The Radioactive Man are especially displeased to meet up with one another in The Avengers, but I learned how to read the cues to determine that they have a history, whether through dialogue or the way the story's framed.

It was like learning a new language, but one I didn't know and had to learn without a teacher. It was marvelous.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Long Party

(This is a first draft, a quick little writing exercise that turned out decently enough to share. All errors are unintended.)

The party began in the expected and usual way - I invited over a few friends, and they invited a few others, and soon we had about a dozen people in a house that can easily host four, eight max. Full to bursting, in other words, and with more people expected.

Luckily, my father-in-law had stopped by to take a look at one of the cars and overheard me talking to Christy about what we could do to make room for more people.

“I have a secret technique,” he said. “I don’t use it often, but it’s very useful for things like this. Do you want me to use it?”

I asked him to, not even sure what he was talking about. He walked to the door to the shed and made a series of half-moons on its metallic surface, half-moons that left behind a brief lavender glow before fading.

“Open the door,” he said. I did, and now the shed door opened up into my in-laws kitchen. Amazed, I went to close the door so I could open it again, and he stayed my hand. “That’s the one rule,” he said. “You have to leave the doors open until the end of the spell, or the whole thing ends.”

A thought occurred to me. I grinned.

“How often can you do this?”

The party was well into its sixth hour and showed no signs of slowing. Our apartment was linked to my in-laws, my dad’s house, my sister’s apartment, the house of a friend down in Lawrence and from there out to half a dozen other places.

The unfinished basement I spent most of my senior year in, studying, listening to the Tragically Hip. My old dorm room. The house where I learned how to study the Bible and how to make a jam-stuffed Brie dip. My aunt’s gallery. A seemingly endless series of apartments and houses of friends, old and new, stretching out through space in a way that was utterly impossible but glorious. The topography, though, paled compared to the people.

Bill Meyers stood over a pot of simmering sauce, arguing the finer points of ragu with my fourth grade teacher. Curtis Graham stood off at the side with Dr. Leax, my old academic advisor, and Elizabeth. Bill Desmarais and Sean Palmer were lost in thought in an intense game of Carcassone while my brother-in-law, John, sat in the third place, still asking questions. My dad and father-in-law and four or five of their friends just wandered from place to place, admiring the cars in the various garages.

People exchanged glasses of wine, beer and spirits from a dozen different countries, traded books of recipes and poems and art, raided closets, showed off treasures and mementos. No one went hungry. Not a one. A hundred throats sang, often singing a hundred different songs, but all reaching together toward a strange and beautiful harmony. Jazz, opera, samba, rock, punk, seemingly every genre represented somewhere.

Me? I was caught in an endless cycle of meeting people. Some I knew only by screenname, some I knew by name but had never actually met. Adam Bowker introduced me to his family, Gina to her roller derby team. I met the families and children of all the people I knew from high school and college, but hadn’t actually seen in years. Dave and Christy Sadecki and I got in a game of hearts. I took a moment to cry on Kathie Brenneman’s shoulder, and she on mine.

Each door was held open. Some tied back, others blocked with a rock or more formal doorstopper, but each entryway was wide and people passed through and spoke to each other easily and happily.

It might have been a day, it might have been a week, but gradually we began the slow process of disassembling the party. Dishes, books, movies and belongings had been passed across entire continents and, my mom joked, you know how pricy shipping is these days. Jackets and sweaters had been thrown over chairs, mostly in the places in Israel, Chile and the like. Dogs, cats and other pets had moved around as well, necessitating a thorough search of every nook and cranny of this highly sociable ant farm-like network of dwelling places. And, of course, everyone wanted to make sure that lawns were cleared, floor vacuumed and the like.

Finally, though, everyone was satisfied that they had at least most of the stuff they’d started with. Most people had a few extra things, too, gifts from people they’d never met before. After a final flurry of people entering contact information into their cellphones, I closed the door to the shed, and slumped against it, exhilarated and exhausted.

“I’d very much like to do that again,” I said, my forehead cooling against the metal.

“Of course,” said the voice behind me. It was supposed to be my father-in-law, but I realized that it was a different voice entirely, one that was quite familiar to me. “The party never really ends, you know.”

“True,” I said, standing up straight and turning around. The figure that was no longer my father-in-law was smiling.

“They’re always with you. Always,” he said. “Always,” he repeated, as I began to drift back to consciousness.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Ric Garland Is Wrong

On Sunday, my pastor, Ric Garland suggested that we should treat our wives like fine china. Nah. Gotta say you’re wrong on that one, Ric, at least for Christy and I. My wife is a casserole dish.

Wait, wait, I mean that as the best kind of compliment because, see, she’s an old Corningware casserole dish.

. . .

Y’all aren’t foodies, huh? Okay, let me explain.

See, Corningware casserole dishes are made of a compound that’s extremely resistant to thermal shock - you can take it right out of the fridge and put it on a hot stove and it’ll stay together just fine. Try that trick with a glass bowl and . . . well, don’t, actually, because if you’re reading my blog, then you’re probably someone I don’t want covered in glass splinters.

So, why an old Corningware casserole? Well, the older ones had a property that the modern ones don’t - they actually got stronger the more you shocked them. That’s right, the more often they were moved from cold to hot and back again, the more resistant they became, to the point that you can take them from the freezer to an open flame and they won’t so much as pucker.

To make this stuff - it’s called “pyroceramic” - you have to heat it a hot fire with just the right mix of chemicals. And, I mean, hot, the kind of temperature that cookware just ordinarily shouldn’t even get near.

And that’s why my wife is an old Corningware casserole dish. She’s been through the fire and come out the other side stronger for it, and every time she’s tested, she gets stronger still. It has been a privilege to spend 20-plus years seeing her forged and forged and re-forged again without becoming brittle or wearing thin.

Perhaps somewhat coincidentally, she also makes a really fine casserole.