childhood

The Super Friends

We usually ended up playing superheroes despite my uninspired opposition. The only superheroes I knew were the Super Friends and Spider-Man, both of which aired on the sugar-frosted animation festival known as Saturday morning cartoons.

Eddie Bell always wanted to be Superman. Any excuse to wear that red cape around the neighborhood or to school or to somebody’s birthday party. When he put that cape on it was like he actually convinced himself he was Superman. One time he broke his ankle jumping off the roof, yelling something about leaping tall buildings in a single bound as his cape flapped behind him like a tangled parachute. Later he told us the ground must be made of kryptonite.

Lester Burkes was Batman. He would always disappear into the crawl space underneath the house, his Bat Cave. When he came out he would have cobwebs on his mask and in his hair, mud all over his hands and jeans, emerging from the dark muck like something less than human pulling itself out of the primordial ooze.

My little brother Jimmy wanted to be Spiderman even though he wasn’t in the Justice League. Jimmy would start throwing pinecones and any other pointy objects he could get his hands on if he didn’t get his way, so that didn’t leave much of a choice for me. Was I supposed to play Robin and follow Lester into the Bat Cave? They told me I could be Aquaman or Wonder Woman. Not my style.

Instead I invented my own superhero called Cyclops. Cyclops had robot strength and a single grotesquely large eye in the middle of his forehead. His eye was all seeing. Unimpeded by binocular vision he could see into the past and future. His secret weapon was a headbutt that caused amnesia.cyclops

Eddie told me I couldn’t make up my own superhero, especially such a stupid one.

Lester told me there was already a superhero named Cyclops that shot lasers out of his eyes.

They all told me that I should just be a bad guy, so that the super friends could come together and deliver Cyclops the villain a proper serving of justice league justice.

But Cylcops didn’t want to be a villain. His all-seeing eye could not be constrained by the good and evil dichotomy. Cyclops told Superman he didn’t play by the rules, and Superman told Cyclops if he didn’t play by the rules he couldn’t be a Super Friend.

So Cyclops went inside and sulked by the window,  peeking through the blinds occasionally with his all-seeing eye. His visions of the past were depressing, and the future hung in front of him like a grave, dystopian noose. Some superpowers just weren’t for everybody.

Cyclop’s mom saw him having his little pity party by the window and brought him some jiffy pop. He watched some Gilligan’s Island and it felt, just for a little while, like all things evil in the world had been defeated.

SuperHero (by ‘J’ on Flickr)

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Bird Seed

The box read bird seed on the side. “But dad,” I said, “we don’t even have a bird feeder.”

“We don’t need one son,” he told me. “This is the kind of bird seed you plant in the ground.” I didn’t know what he meant, and he could probably tell from my blank expression. “We will grow birds from the Earth. Who needs a bird feeder?”

I was sure my father had gone crazy, that he had finally blown the fuse that would send him to the funny farm. But it wasn’t the first time he had told me something that made me doubt his sanity, nor would it be the last. It seemed to be a daily occurrence, and usually by the time he was tucking me in bed that night I would have come to understand his words and realize he was very sane.

So we planted the bird seed in the backyard in November, in an empty weed-filled space next to the fallow vegetable garden. We also planted some on the hillside on the other side of our fence, sprinkling it across the ground like dew before sunrise. Everyday I would check for sprouts, trying to confirm that something was growing there. I wanted to know what birds looked like when they grew from the ground. All that seemed to be sprouting were more unwanted weeds.

“Be patient,” my father told me.  “Growing birds takes a long time, sometimes more than a year.” I felt cheated, like that amount of time could never pass quick enough. For a young child a year may as well be forever. It didn’t take long before I forgot about the bird seed completely.

The following summer my father sent me out to the chicken coop to retrieve some eggs, and some tomatoes and cucumbers and possibly some beans. Whenever I strolled through our vegetable garden it felt like a stroll in the produce aisle at the supermarket, or a trip to the farmer’s market. It felt like my own private salad bar.

I was enjoying the sweet flavor of some especially sugary cherry tomatoes when I happened to notice the overgrown weed patch on the side of the garden where we had planted the bird seed. The November planting had faded so far from my memory that I had forgotten even forgetting, and it felt almost like I was noticing it for the first time. What caught my eye was a sparrow clinging delicately to a sprig of what I later learned was millet. I had to rub my eyes in disbelief. The bird seed had actually grown a bird.

Then I noticed another sparrow, and a robin and mockingbird, and other birds I didn’t know the name of, descending from the sky toward this patch of bird seed gone to seed. Only then did I understand the act of growing birds from seed.

bird from seed (by Erwin Schoonderwald)

How Did I Get Here?

(aka My Illustrious Writing Habit)

When I tell people that I started writing stories in second grade many find this hard to believe. In truth I may have started earlier, but since the first physical artifact of my early writing still in my possession dates from the second grade, I’ll go with it. The second grade was also when I published my first collection of short stories under the tutelage of Mrs. Olson, my 2nd Grade teacher. Most of my memories of Mrs. Olson revolve around my surprise at how freaking old she was, by far the oldest looking teacher I have ever had. I remember her librarian glasses and how the skin hung off her arms when she was writing on the chalk board, swinging back and forth like a wrinkled hammock in the breeze. It is quite possible that she wasn’t really that old, but the mere act of teaching snot-nosed little brats everyday had caused her physical body to age at an accelerated pace, something I know about all to well having somehow becoming a teacher myself. But I digress.

Chapter 1 – Simple Pleasures

SONY DSC

nogmania

I actually found my book of stories while cleaning out a closet at my mom’s house when we were getting ready to sell it. Its somber title was January Stories by Jeff Hager. One thing I had when I was younger was imagination, though not necessarily reflected in this title. I practically lived in an imaginary world, but  since I was such a lone wolf I had no imaginary friends in there with me. It was me and my words and my pictures. Here’s a transcript of one story, Nogmania.

My nogs live in people’s hair. If you don’t comb it they will eat you up. If you take one out they will give you a disease.They are like little savage monsters. They are smaller than a termite. One day everybody was combing his hair and all the nogs died, except one was lucky and didn’t die. He moved into Bottle City!

Despite the fact that the POV changes and there is a character named everybody, it is better than a lot of my first drafts. As you can see I also illustrated each of the stories, and I was quite the young artist if I do say so myself. I was using similes at age 8, and unlike a lot of the stories I wrote in high school, something actually happens in this one. But I also see why my teachers and mother were so concerned. I rarely ever spoke, in class or at home, but when I sat down to write somehow words and ideas poured onto the page. Soon after the triumph of January Stories I completed another illustrated book called Lost Land. It involved a young boy going back in time and meeting a bunch of dinosaurs. Some were nice and some tried to eat him. I think it was loosely based on the original Land of the Lost television show, which was a favorite of mine. This book proved very predictable in its storyline, but the illustrations were pretty kick ass, mainly because my father had given me a book on how to draw dinosaurs. I probably drew a dinosaur on at least 75% of my papers in elementary school, usually when I was supposed to be working on math problems or something else that didn’t interest me. Dinosaurs were cool. That was all that mattered. These early writing successes planted the writing seed somewhere deep in my brain, but unfortunately the successes were short lived. My youthful enthusiasm would soon be placed ruthlessly into a chokehold by the iron grip of editing, criticism, and rejection.

Chapter 2 – The Doubt Creeps In

3rd grade was difficult. ADD wasn’t widely understood. I wasn’t hyper, but definitely had difficulty concentrating and staying seated in class. My third grade teacher had called for a conference with my Mom about my distractibility in class, and her suggestion was I may have ringworm that was causing my restlessness. She swore she had seen it before, so my mother took me to the doctor to have me tested for parasites. I wish I was making this up, but unfortunately my imagination is not that macabre. Needless to say there were no parasites. I continued to struggle in school, except when I was writing.

By fourth grade my teacher noticed my writing immediately. She thought it was good, so good that she accused my parents of writing my homework assignments. Of course they didn’t. They proofread maybe, but I was very incensed that someone didn’t believe I had written the words that I wrote. My parents were contacted and of course denied the accusation. Being a teacher myself I know that parents always do, whether they wrote it or not.

My fifth grade teacher went even further and accused me of plagiarizing my state report. There were four grades and I got an A+ on three. On the writing grade I got a D because my teacher assumed I could not have written such descriptive and interesting passages. This was about twenty years BG (before google) and the internet was still a glimmer in some nerdy engineer’s glasses. I had written every word myself, and put a lot of work into it. I’m still not sure what is more disheartening for a writer, being told your writing is not good enough, or being told your writing was so good you couldn’t possibly have written it.

Chapter 3 – Accusations and Lies

It wasn’t until middle school that I finally found the recognition I thought I deserved. But it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. It was middle school after all.

During these middle school years my writing actually started gaining a little momentum, and garnered some praise and recognition from my teachers. In seventh grade I got first place in our school limerick contest, though I have no idea how, as poetry has never been my strong suit. The teacher that judged the contest had a peculiar disdain for me, and assumed I must have plagiarized the content from somewhere. I was called down to the principal’s office to answer to these accusations. She didn’t know where I had plagiarized it from and had absolutely no proof, but was nonetheless positive I could not have written the poem myself. But lacking any concrete evidence, I denied the charges and was eventually allowed the first place prize, and awarded a tacky little certificate most likely run off the school ditto machine. I have no further proof of any of this happening beyond my faulty and questionable memories of these incidents.

It was finally in the eighth grade that a teacher directly praised my writing abilities and presumably my intelligence. In English we often had to answer in class essay questions in response to the literature we read, and my English teacher would always start reading my paper the moment I handed it to her. I remember one time that she gasped out loud after I had turned in an essay response, while most of the class was reading silently. “Jeff, your response is perfect,” she said, “just perfect.” I felt suddenly embarrassed by this, and I’m sure that my classmates were looking at me like I was some kind of do-goody brown-noser, though I can’t be certain due to my prominent position in the front row (did I mention my ADD?). This one teacher had praised my writing privately many times, reassuring me that I had a certain lucky proficiency with words that was above the average.  Since she actually witnessed me sit down and compose the words in front of her, she must have realized that I had in fact written it myself. She was the first person I remember telling me to keep writing, which later became a theme among teachers that recognized some kernel of talent in me, and even as I write this now I try to keep telling myself this. Just keep writing.

Posted for the DP Weekly Writing Challenge: Writerly Reflections

Stay tuned for more chapters…(upcoming episodes)

Chapter 4 – Acceptance

Chapter 5 – College (what I can remember of it)

Chapter 6 – Life Experience

Chapter 7 – Self Actualization

 

My Woolly Mammoth

Willy-Wully is my Woolly Mammoth. He came from the North Pole, or at least that’s what my dad tells me. He is a miniature mammoth so he is able to live in our freezer. Willy-Wully is so small I can hold him in my hand. He is able to roar very loud for such a tiny mammoth. One roar from Willy-Wully and all the dogs in the neighborhood start barking.

At night when it’s cooler in the house we take Willy-Wully out of the freezer to drink water and eat some tater tots. My dad complains that Willy-Wully tramples his TV dinners and poops in the ice cream. Sometimes when Willy-Wully is surprised he throws ice cubes.

One day when I get home from school Willy-Wully is nowhere to be found. My dad tells me he went home on a boat. I ask him if it was the same boat that took mom away, and my dad just bites his teeth and doesn’t say anything.

This makes me sad. At least my mom said good-bye.