That One Time I Tried to Be Inspiring

Ten years ago(!), I graduated from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, and I was honored to give a speech on behalf of my fellow graduates in Popular Fiction. I tried to be inspiring about writing our kind of fiction, but nobody stormed the Maine statehouse, so I guess it was a failure.

I think a lot of it still applies. Here’s what I said:

You know, there are days when I seriously doubt my writing will ever be as good as it was when I was seven, chasing the dog around my yard with the Millenium Falcon yelling “pyew! pyew! pyew!” I lived so much in stories then — talking to stuffed animals, looking for hobbits in the woods — that I was barely distinguishable from schizophrenic.

Don’t worry – I’m better now. Thanks for asking.

I suspect — I hope — that’s how it was for many of us graduating this evening, and I’m sure there are people out there in the audience who shudder to remember the symptoms of our madness: all those plays, skits, puppet shows, poetry readings, magic performances, comedy routines, concerts, and oh-so-many long-winded stories.

Don’t forget to thank them tonight. Or, you know, apologize.

Whatever forms it took then and takes now, we’re all crazy. We hear voices just like any hobo yelling at a mailbox – the only difference is that we know you don’t start a scene with dialogue. Most of us have lost any hope of pleasant neighborhood barbecues because we talk too much about the seas of Titan or the Manson family or the birthing habits of dragons…or all at the same time. People worry about us, and I think that’s a sure sign we’re doing something right.

I came to Stonecoast, perhaps like you, to learn how to be intelligently and usefully crazy. For two years, our wonderful mentors have shown us how to hold madness in asbestos gloves just long enough to get it on the page. We’ve studied the masters. We’ve critiqued the work of our peers. We’ve filled our mental toolboxes with structure and meter and point of view. We’ve discovered that the best writing is risky and dangerous.

We’ve learned, in other words, how to do it “right.” And, God, how I needed that.

But the worst thing that could happen after Stonecoast, I think, is for us to let all the intelligence and usefulness we’ve learned to overcome the crazy. It would be terrible to lose all we’ve learned by trying to hold it too consciously, failing to trust that the voices of our teachers and our friends will come again when we need them.

Because that madness we share, that reckless abandon, is really our only hope of making something wondrous. It’s the fuel by which we get out of our minds —  risking our comfort, giving ourselves away, revealing the feelings that most people don’t. All that’s left is to decide whether we’ll get enough out of our minds to escape the gravity of ordinary life, and whether we’ll achieve enough lift to take others with us.

It’s easy to call what we do escapism, and I certainly don’t deny it. Stories of ghosts and spaceships helped me escape a harrowing youth to be sure, and I see all too many things worth escaping as an adult, too. I don’t think escapism is a bad thing, especially when we’re escaping the tedious patterns of existence, the prejudices that confine us, the fears that estrange us from ourselves.

Either people can be as noble and adventuresome and intelligent as they are in our fantasy stories, or they can’t. If they can, then our “escapist” fictions are the experimental conscience of our culture. If they can’t, then our “escapist” fictions are the last refuge of the human spirit from the coming darkness.

Either way, people are counting on our ability to escape. They’re counting on the demented and relentless verve we had when we told ourselves the stories as if nobody was looking. Art is never stopping short, and if it is worth doing at all — worth the dedication of our lives — it’s worth overdoing, right?

School’s out, my friends. Go play.

Star Trek: Rediscovery

I’m not embarrassed to tell the world that Star Trek (most of all the original series, their movies, and the Next Generation) saved me.

I could have been a far worse person and I was well on my way as a very angry teenager, but I learned that there are things we can do about disastrous events and disastrous people…and they all begin with retaining the idealism to know what is possible and remembering that there are good people, too.

Sometimes I forget how lucky I am that I crossed paths with Norman Amemiya, who reminded me how good Star Trek was and took me to conventions like Necronomicon where I saw that there were other people like us, geeks with hopes.

I’ve watched a lot of Star Trek in my 47 years, and some of it has been godawful. Some of it has been cheap, and some of it has been corporate, and some of it has been dumbed down for a “general audience.” We shouldn’t forget “Spock’s Brain” or “Skin of Evil” or that weird-ass Irish ghost episode.

But tonight I saw the last episode of this third season of Discovery, and I’m reminded of why the show matters so much to me and why this particular incarnation of it is what I need now, even with its imperfections. Perhaps it is what a lot of us need now, especially after yesterday.

It’s sometimes hard to watch Star Trek and then check the news.

The show hasn’t always done a good job of reconciling its idealism with the reality we see all around us that there are a lot of people who prefer us all being low because that’s “who we really are”: competitive animals for whom cooperation is weakness and hope is delusion. Usually, the show sweeps us under the rug as living in the dark times.

But this third season of Discovery gets it right, just when we need it most. In the fractured Federation, many have decided that it is better to embrace the “reality” of self-interest and brutality …and then the U.S.S. Discovery arrives with old-fashioned ideals of what we can be.

All my life, I’ve struggled with what I call the intractable problem of assholes, fighting the ones who intend to be mean but saving the ones who are only accidentally so.  

What this season of Discovery reminds me is that we solve that problem just like the crew of the Discovery, by finding our people one by one and then (re)building from the small corner within our reach.

We win by living what we want to be, not what we’re trying to leave behind.

That’s a lot to say about something discussed in a boardroom at CBS and likely engineered to make me feel this way. But I detect in the show and especially its actors that they believe in it like we did in the 60s and 70s and again in the 90s.

And they’re making me believe in it again, too.

Norman, the Catalyst

My assertion since pretty much the moment I met Norman Amemiya was that he was a genius too wrapped up in cosmic thoughts to notice that he’d, say, left an open bottle of Coke in the front pocket of his pants before sitting down, or locked his keys in his running car parked in a fire lane during a thunderstorm, or left a mysterious streak of something like coal soot in a ring in my bathtub.

(All of which he did actually do, plus causing at least two vehicle fires.)

Not many people believed me when I said he was a genius, but they’d never seen him calculate figures in his head like I had or heard the bizarre connections he made between pop culture artifacts that he assumed were deliberate Easter eggs. He helped me program my Apple II+ to draw a Mandelbrot Set that took eighteen hours to render. He could always be relied upon to say something utterly deranged but also utterly wise.

Plus, the astounding flamboyance of his many bizarre fuck ups couldn’t possibly be the result of simple error or incompetence. They had an…ambition to them. They didn’t happen from trying too little but from trying too much.

It took me four years to even discover that he’d died.

That’s exactly something he’d do.

I met Norman during a perfect storm of awkwardness when I was in the eighth grade right after my parents divorced. My friend Mike took me to Norman’s house to meet him, but he stopped me on the front porch of this wooden cottage concealed in a lush carapace of foliage and said, “Hey, he can be a little weird, so don’t act surprised.”

“Okay,” I thought. I knew weird. After all, Mike and I played Dungeons and Dragons and fought with PVC pipe swords behind his mother’s pet store.

We knocked on the door and a hunched Asian man came staggering out onto the porch. He was wearing something like a pilot’s jumpsuit unzipped to the waist with the arms tightened around like a belt. Underneath was a yellowing undershirt. He had thick smoky glasses, slick black hair, unkempt eyebrows, and a walnut shade of skin.

“Hello!” he shouted in a voice that I can (and do) mimic to this day, one that can only be mastered by raising your voice to a high nasal tone and crunching one side of your head into your shoulders like someone with a wry secret to share.

I don’t know if I fell back, but he definitely took me by surprise. He was way older than we were, though my guess at the time was maybe in his 20s.

He welcomed us in.

Things Norman Introduced Me To, in No Particular Order

  • My friend William Simmons
  • Role-playing and wargames like Toon, Traveller, Paranoia, Car Wars, and Illuminati
  • Conventions, especially Necronomicon in Tampa
  • Space Gamer magazine
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • The movie Dark Star
  • Dr. Demento
  • Weird Al Yankovic
  • Monty Python
  • Fractals, the Mandelbrot Set, and Conway’s Game of Life
  • Robotech
  • The Prisoner
  • Twin Peaks

That last one staggers me to type. He recorded the episodes for me off of broadcast television and the first time I saw the show, it was shrouded in otherworldly static like it came from a far off place.

At his heart, Norman was a combination of David Lynch and Yoda, a person who found the wisdom in weirdness. 

#

We started an ad hoc science fiction and gaming club, meeting at his house once a week. That stopped, though, when I came to the door one time and overheard his father yelling at him for having guests over so often. I could hear Norman flinching from blows, and I skulked back home to invite him over to my house instead.

My mother was worried about an older man who wanted to play games with middle schoolers, but when she met him she could tell that whatever strange thing he was, it wasn’t a child molester. She let me go to conventions with him, and it was a rare week that his powder blue Volkswagen pick-up truck wasn’t parked in our driveway with its Don’t Panic and Libra bumper stickers on the back.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that the force who drove my abusive and violent father from our lives for good was a limping, hunch-backed science fiction fan.

My father used to stop by often after the divorce, mostly to steal tools and poke around the house for things. Sometimes he’d bring a gift for me, trying to convince me to come live with him instead (thus becoming a source of child support payments instead of the recipient of them).

One time, I was terrified to see him slow down in his car to visit when Norman’s truck was in the driveway, but when my father saw it, he peeled away and never came over again.

So yeah, it was Norman who delivered the coup de grace to my lingering father with his +2 Sword of Being Mistaken for My Mother’s New Boyfriend.

#

Norman had a wide variety of strange physical tics, from his high-pitched nasal voice to a curious tendency to fall asleep at random times, including behind the wheel of a moving car. The most significant was a limp, greatly pronounced by his fast loping walk. 

The way he got it may be the quintessential Norman story.

Norman had wanted to be a physicist, but years of bullying at various schools (including community college) had driven him away. He made money by selling games at conventions and by mowing lawns in his neighborhood, usually towing the mower behind his bicycle from yard to yard. 

Near his house was a wide blind curve for a two-lane highway, and Norman began pedaling across one day without seeing or hearing the speeding college kid in a BMW coming his way.

(Insert your own observations about class and privilege here.)

Norman remembered nothing about the actual collision, but his memory restarted when he awakened in a knotted heap jammed into the sunroof of the car. His leg was broken in several places, and he spent months in the hospital rehabilitating. He walked with a cane for years and then simply with the limp.

That story used to make me laugh a lot more than it does these days.

#

Though I relied often on Norman for rides, I have to admit I sometimes worried as a teenager about being seen with him.

One time, we crossed into the busiest intersection in our town and halfway through, I heard the thump of his accelerator pedal falling off the lever onto the floor. I instantly tensed, worried about being caught by all those watching eyes.

Without saying anything and in one fluid motion, he reached behind him, pulled out a length of wire, threaded it through the screw hole in the accelerator pedal lever, and pulled on the wire to drive us the rest of the way home.

I always used to marvel at Norman’s ingenuity, but then I realized he’d learned it from an extraordinarily shitty life, some of it the result of his own choices (being terrible with money and unambitious for work) and some of it the result of being weird and smart and Japanese in a place that didn’t much like those things. 

#

Norman came to my mother’s wedding, and afterward we went to Waldenbooks at the mall. On the way back, a drunk sunburned man in a sports car swerved in front of us and I squinted at him through the windshield, trying to figure out what his problem was.

He saw that, did a U-turn, and ran us off the road. Then he came up to my open passenger window and hit me flat-palmed in the face.

After he drove away, Norman wailed, “Why did you provoke him? Keep a low profile. A looowwww profile!”

That’s how he survived.

Norman wasn’t a saint. He was strangely unabashed about his interest in porn, especially of the animated variety. When he stayed at my house later in our lives, he’d wake up before dawn and watch cartoons loudly on TV. He liked to poke around in cabinets and had an uncanny knack for eating foods my significant others were hiding for themselves.

And I wasn’t always a great friend to him. I got him a job with the inventory service I worked for in high school, and the men who worked for it would call him “Hopsing” and make merciless fun of him. I wasn’t above it either, though much more rarely because at heart I admired the things about him that they thought were funny.

He met me at the apex of my teenage assholery, and he tolerated me listening to the same song over and over again on a road trip or running role-playing games by my own warped sense of story. He accepted me for that and I accepted him for all his weirdness, too. I was impressed by his lifelong fight against the way you’re supposed to live in favor of the way he wanted to.

In the midst of a melodramatic high school breakup, I asked Norman for a ride home. When I got in the car, I asked him, “Norman, does good triumph over evil?”

He considered that (probably in the context of a lifetime of bullying and pressure to be whatever passes for normal), and he said, slowly, “Yes. And at the very least, good triumphs over bad.”

When I learned that he died from complications from undiagnosed diabetes, his ant-like passion for sugar and his sudden sleeping spells and his curious mental fogs began to make sense. Still, I hope his weirdness wasn’t simply a set of symptoms but a chosen rebellion against a world that wasn’t good enough for him.

I’ve tried my best to keep up the fight ever since I met him, and though I can pass as normal a little more easily than he could, I’m still a saboteur in enemy country and always will be, thanks to him.