Adventures in Babysitting

You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land of imagination. Next stop: the twilight zone world of a seven year old!

When I’m between wordly travels (usually due to lack of funds), I have to seek adventures closer to home. Really close to home. Most of my friends either have children too old to need a babysitter or don’t live near enough for me to help them out, so my babysitting opportunities have been rare lately, which is why it was a treat – and an education – to watch over seven-year-old JB the other evening.

I’d forgotten how destructive (yet creative) little boys can be: how a living room can become a demolition derby for trucks, cars, and even Lego robots. The sequence went something like this: crash the trucks into the wall, fling the robot across the room whereupon it disentegrates into pieces, change positions, crash the trucks into the opposite wall, re-assemble the Lego robot, repeat.

And all the while spinning a zombie story that went something like this: the zombie robots invade, there’s a lot of fighting, they eat brains, and then…everyone loses their heads. It’s not the first time I’ve heard JB, or other small boys, tell tales of decapitation. What is it about little boys that they want to remove heads?

At the same time there is astonishing creativity. Just feet away from the truck graveyard was a racing track which JB had designed and laid out on the floor using only masking tape. There was also a cardboard box containing a diorama of some futuristic-looking space station (I think that’s what it was) made from glue, tape, Legos, old CDs, thread spools, and other miscellaneous junk objects…and some headless action figures of course. All from a kid who doesn’t watch t.v.

It was a display of imagination I tend to only see in the children of friends who don’t rely on the television to be babysitter and pacifier. (One friend, who is a teacher, told me that imaginative play is more prevalent in such children than those who spend hours in front of a television with their brains disengaged.)

I’m not knocking television. I’m not a hater. Admittedly, I like my t.v.  I’m one of those people who like to have the t.v. on even if I’m not watching it for the background noise. It’s comforting.

But I do remember that my childhood was equal parts t.v. watching, reading, and free play – running around outside with the other neighborhood kids, unsupervised, until the various mothers began yelling that dinner was ready. What did we do? Pretty much anything. No, we didn’t get into trouble…well, maybe minor trouble…but we always let our imaginations run wild with all sorts of silly adventures (all contained within that neighborhood which is all we knew of the world at that time).

I appreciated spending the evening with a child who played (not playing a video game – although that can be fun too), especially a kid who loves zombies like I do. I need to get some more zombie inspiration from JB, and write new zombie stories. Heads will roll.

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Footprints in the Far Places

Two or three years ago, in the “Reader’s Digest” magazine, there was a letter to the editor, accompanied by a photo from Machu Picchu (Peru), from a reader suggesting a new way for travelers to document their journeys: taking photos of their feet.

ImageNew? Hmmmm. No disrespect to the letter writer, who inferred that this was an innovative technique which he and his family had created and wanted to share with the world, but it’s hardly new. I’ve been taking pictures of my feet since sometime in the early 1980s. I’m not claiming to have invented the idea either, but I do have a picture just like the one they published in “Reader’s Digest” that was taken in approximately the same spot about a decade earlier than theirs.

It started in a moment of spontaneous silliness. Sitting on the beach in Santa Cruz, California, I pulled off my shoes and dug my toes into the sand, seeking the warmth trapped below the surface. I then placed my shoes – new pink and white Nikes – in front of me and snapped a photo of them with the waves crashing onto shore as a backdrop. Okay, that technically doesn’t qualify as taking a picture of my feet since they weren’t in the shoes at the time, but that quickly led to a new trend.

A few months later at Disneyland, sitting on the Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster, I slid my foot next to my cousin’s and snapped a picture of our two feet while waiting for the ride to start. That was only the beginning.

I have pictures of my feet everywhere: at home (which usually include a cat or two who are sleeping on them) and around the world: Norway, Zanzibar, Argentina, British Columbia, Antarctica, Iceland, Dubai, etc. I have pictures on beaches, glaciers, and man-made structures. I have pictures of my feet in places where it was probably a bit disrespectful: standing on top of Hadrian’s Wall in England, propped up against the Great Pyramid in Giza, Egypt. I tried to take a picture of my feet on a bench in the British Museum (London), but got yelled at by a matronly white-haired docent with a sharp accent and even sharper tongue. I have pictures of my feet alongside relatives and friends at any number of places from a nameless lake up in the Sierra Nevada to a park trail in Bandelier National Monument. The friends and relatives think I’m a bit crazy, but they go along with my urging to “hey, put your foot there!” I even have one friend who, when now viewing any of my vacation photos, always first asks “Where’s the foot pictures?”

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Do I have a foot fetish? No, I don’t think so. Feet, mine or other people’s, don’t fascinate me. I don’t run around in my daily life snapping foot pictures in ordinary circumstances. I don’t take pictures of strangers’ feet like some crazed stalker.

Like the letter writer in “Reader’s Digest” I came to discover what a unique way the foot photos were to document my travel, to say “Janet was here.”

All of my photo albums (traditional or electronic) have at least one foot picture. My Antarctica photo book even includes pictures of penguin feet (I thought that was a nice counterpart to pair with mine), and even a couple footprints in the snow. As eco-travelers like to say (and this might be a National Geographic slogan, but I’m not certain): “Take only memories, leave only footprints.”

I will eventually be making a photo album containing only my feet pictures, but I’ve got two more continents to go first (Asia and Australia). I envision using a global map and placing a foot photo on each country my feet have touched. My journey. My footprints.

Do you take pictures of your feet? Dog owners – do you take pictures of your foot next to your dog’s paw? It’s an ordinary thing, walking the dog every day, but did you ever think to memorialize it for later? Parents – you have tons of photos of your kids, but of their feet? Their foot next to yours, say once a year, as their foot grows in comparison? Take note of where your feet have been and whose paths they have crossed.

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Next Exit: The Comfort Zone

There are many ways to test the boundaries of your comfort zone. Traveling is only one of them.  A more risky method, to some, is to put ourselves – our creativity – “out there” into the public eye. All writers, all artists, hope for accolades and sales, and fans. But first comes rejection.

We’ve all been there. Rejection letter after rejection letter. How many do you have tucked away in a drawer or shoebox? Or filed away electronically in your email inbox?  From magazine editors, to book publishers, to literary agents. From faded photocopies of impersonal form letters to scathing commentaries on your lack of creativity. It hurts, doesn’t it?

And in-person rejection? Even worse. Workshops with editors and fellow writers can be a wonderful place to find inspiration and make friends, but they can also be gut wrenchingly painful. But if you can survive being skewered by a professional book editor like the “evil Ginger” (as we referred to her afterward), you can survive anything. Even Hollywood.

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In 1996, I wrote a spec script titled “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother,” for the television series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” about Dr. Bashir’s efforts to save the same dying aliens who had murdered his parents. A few months later, in 1997, that script earned me the rare chance to pitch ideas to the series’ producers. I took those experiences I had at the writers workshops and steeled my nerves as I walked onto the lot at Paramount Studios. I told myself I would do better. And I did, though probably not my best. I was still nervous. I recall laughing at a non-funny comment. But I also remember a nodding head, and “interesting” while watching the producer scribble some notes on a yellow legal pad. The meeting ended cordially with a handshake and a “we’ll call you.”

I had a lot of hope that phone call would come, but it never did. That was disappointing, and depressing. But no writer can let that stop them. You have to keep trying. Keep writing. Write, re-write, edit, re-write.

Never dump an idea. I resurrected the title of that spec script for a fantasy short story published on the web. And I transformed the script into a science-fiction short story, “The Life of Words.” Dr. Bashir’s parents became the “brilliant but dead Bashins” and Dr. Bashir morphed into a linguistic anthropologist named August Goodloe. The aliens, and their terminal condition, remained the driving force of the story. Originally published in the journal of Anthropology and Humanism, “The Life of Words” is now found as part of my “Skin and Bones” anthology available on Amazon Kindle.

And all those rejection letters still tucked away in a drawer? Someday they’ll make nice kindling for a bonfire.

Adventures in Time with Witches, Lions, Horses, and Mr. Toad on board the Titanic in the South Seas

At the end of my last post, I wondered who it was that “infected me with the writing bug.”  How was it that I decided to create fictitious people and write stories about them?  I remember approximately when: I was 11 (maybe 12) and I was sitting on the brown sofa in our suburban living room. I pronounced that when I grew up, I was “going to be an author.”  My older sister, on her way up the stairs, paused…and laughed.

What made me say that? What book had I read which so inspired me? Or what author had I discovered?  One of my friends suggested Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series. I thought about that, and decided, no, that wasn’t it. Yes, I loved those books, just as I loved Beverly Cleary’s books about Henry Huggins, Ramona, Beezus, and Ralph the Mouse. And there were always the classics like “The Wind in the Willows,” “The Witch of Blackbird Pond,” “Misty of Chincoteague,” “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” “A Wrinkle in Time” – probably the first science-fiction book I ever read – and Walter Lord’s “A Night to Remember” – the true story of the 1912 Titanic disaster – my first non-fiction book. (I still have the well-worn, cracked, and faded paperback copy I received in the fifth grade.)

http://www.amazon.com/Amazon-South-Adventures-Adventure-ebook/dp/B004GUSC14/

But then there’s a series of books written by a man named Willard Price, following the adventures of teenage brothers, Hal and Roger Hunt, as they travel the world. I had a grade school teacher who read one chapter of the first book (“Amazon Adventure”) aloud to class every morning. (Wow! There’s a concept!  A teacher who engenders a love of books by reading to her students!) I eagerly devoured each of the subsequent books, those I could find, and recall reading some of them, like “South Sea Adventure” many times.

And then there’s a book whose name I cannot remember. I could’ve sworn it was a Henry Huggins tale, or maybe a Danny Dunn tale. (Remember “Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine” anybody?) The book followed a teenage boy, who met up with a friend & her family in San Francisco, and then took a cross-country trip, getting into all sorts of mischief: accidentally starting a new Gold Rush, pretending to fall into the Grand Canyon, etc.

Fiery neurons lit up in my brain. I created my own teenage girl version of Roger (Rodricka) Hunt, and sent her and her family off on a cross-country mis-adventure. I had spiral notebooks filled with the scribbled tales of Rodricka, and her multitude of siblings and cousins. Juvenile, insipid tales, so horrendous you will never see them. But it was a start, and every writer must start somewhere in their journey to discover his or her voice.

It’s been a long road, from teenage travails, to science-fiction, to fantasy, to horror, to blogging, to short stories, to novels, to screenplays…. But it has been a journey I have much enjoyed, despite the frustration and disappointment, and I eagerly look forward to continuing. As I write these words, I am surprised (well, maybe not too surprised) to realize that most of the books which attracted me during my youth were those involving travel. It is said that all fiction centers around a journey of some sort – but that can be emotional or metaphorical. That kind never seemed to interest me. I yearned for characters who left home and had grand adventures. Perhaps it was an early foreshadowing that I would follow in their footsteps.