Learning isn’t always fun. Especially when you are learning something that you don’t care about, and must do so by a firm deadline! I still consider some of my required college courses to be the most torturous ordeals I’ve ever gone through! Not simply because they were hard, but because they just didn’t interest me. I could handle difficult courses if I cared about the subject, but if I didn’t, then studying for them was sheer misery.
And, like many students, I would run away from the drudgery, finding refuge in the likes of novels, movies, music, and games. I would “take a break,” trying to find something that was as far away from “education” as possible.
Or was I?
Because when I think about the movies I watched, the books I read, and the games I played, I realize that they were all educational in their own way. They challenged me and required me to learn things I didn’t know, just like the very lessons I was running away from.
Take Lord of the Rings for example, one of the most demanding novels I’ve ever read. It’s prose was thick, it’s world was sprawling, and it’s lore was voluminous. Without even realizing it I was filing away a multitude of facts about the geography, history, and politics of Middle Earth and these were often the very subjects that I was running away from in the real world. Here, though, they were a delight to me!
Or what about when I watched Good Will, Hunting, a moving drama about a young man who has incredible potential, but is held back by all the emotional scars he carries. I’d watch that movie and feel that it had taught me so much more about psychology, society, and mental health than any of the college courses I was taking.
And there was also Portal, one of my favorite video games of all time. Here I was taught basic concepts of physics and teleportation, and then required to prove my mastery of these concepts by combining them in increasingly intricate ways. Portal helped ease me into the art of complex problem solving, which was a great boon to my classes in logic, mathematics, and programming.
So was I really coming to these movies and games and stories to get away from education? Absolutely not! Learning is one of the absolute greatest pleasures for us in life! Learning is always fun!
When it’s done right, anyway.
A Curious Mind)
Our minds want to be stimulated. We genuinely hate to be bored. William Faulkner once wrote, that “given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain,” and there have been studies conducted that show he is far from alone in this sentiment!
Behind boredom is the insatiable yearning to discover new things. This is why we have never had a generation that looked at what they already had and said “that’s enough, I won’t try to add anything to it.” We always try to discover something more. Every invention and advancement is always surpassed by another, because we are made to learn and then create.
And whenever our learning surpasses what we can create literally, we create them literarily instead! Think of Isaac Asimov and Jules Verne, who lacked the technology to build out the rockets and robots in their heads, but they went to the workshop of the mind and invented it all anyway, laying a foundation that both fiction and science have continued to build upon ever since! Continued to build on because, of course, we do not see their work and say “that is enough.” No, we have to press further, reach higher, and discover deeper!
But then why are school courses often so tedious? What is it about some forms of learning that is so pleasant, and others that is so repulsive?
To some degree, of course, it will depend on the subject and the student. All of us may be curious, but none of us are curious about all things. For one student mathematics is a challenging delight, for another it is genuine torture. I mentioned a novel, film, and game that all stimulated my mind, but not everyone likes Lord of the Rings, or Good Will Hunting, or Portal. If each of these were required in school courses, there would be those that saw them as the exact same drudgery that I was trying to escape from.
But I do believe there is a common trait that typically separates positive learning experiences from negative ones. It is when the education involves some sort of personal interaction from its pupil. Being “told” an education is never going to be as stimulating as actually living it!
Earlier, when I spoke of how our minds want to be stimulated, that thread quickly ran into examples of people inventing things. Education is at its absolute best when it is gained through the act of discovery or invention. Thus the best education is given incomplete, requiring the pupil to make the second half of it.
Lord of the Rings, for example, is already an interesting book, but what made it truly come alive for me was when it sparked visions of fantasies that weren’t on its pages. And Good Will Hunting is a moving film in and of itself, but it became so much more because when it made me reflect on my own life, and the ways I keep my own potential locked behind my wounds. And of course Portal, being a game, is designed entirely around interactivity. It gives the problems and the tools, but every solution was an invention of my own.
And this same inventiveness has always been present in my favorite courses at school. Because yes, I actually do have a lot of pleasant memories from school as well. And virtually all of those pleasant memories are based around classes that told me to come up with my own program, or draw my own picture, or write my own story. Then I wasn’t simply using my education to rehash what other people had discovered, I was using it to discover my own secrets. Secrets that the world has never known.
And this is the exact sensation I am trying to capture in my latest story, Covalent. Cace’s exploration of the Ether is meant to capture all the best parts of discovery, invention, and education. But even more than that, I am hoping that it will spark a little inventiveness in the minds of my reader as well. Hopefully by my leaving some stones unturned, the reader will have a way to make their own mark in this world!
“Mavis, you have to come now,” Ellie pleaded, “or else we won’t have time before next period.”
Mavis sighed in a longsuffering way, but raised himself from the lawn and brushed the crumbs of his lunch off his lap. He gave one last draw on his juice box before lobbing it into the trash bin.
“You don’t need me to start y’know. I can always join in.”
“But your ideas are the best,” Ellie explained as the two of them ran across the field. “And just so you know, Nell’s playing today, too,” Ellie winked slyly.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The two of them reached the edge of the field, next to the swing sets, where the other children were busy arguing.
“We’re not doing dinosaurs, Patrick,” Chase said. “We’re not five anymore!”
“Oh, because secret agents is so original?” Patrick fired back. “It’s time for something different.”
“Pirates!” Nell offered.
“We’ve done that, too.”
“Not for a while.”
Patrick groaned at everyone else’s obstinance. “You guys just do what you want then. I’ll do my own thing.”
“We’re all doing our own thing,” Mavis declared as he arrived on the scene.
“Dinosaurs, secret agents, pirates…all of it!”
“That doesn’t work,” Chase folded his arms in protest.
“It does when there’s time travel involved!”
All of the other kids went quiet and cocked their heads curiously. Mavis immediately launched into the hushed tone of one distributing top-secret information.
“We’re not just any secret agents, though, we’re members of the Temporal Security Agency. Time travel has already been invented but the government decided they have to regulate it, so they set our team up to monitor the ripples of time and watch for any temporal disturbances.” He was reciting the background for the latest adventure game he and his brother had been playing at home. Any hesitation the other kids held was swept away at the sound of such a fleshed out premise! Mavis had learned before that being able to launch straight into a compelling introduction was the best way to end an argument and get everyone else to fall in line.
“What’s a temporal disturbance?” Nell asked, and with that sign of curiosity the matter of what they were going to play was officially settled.
“It means that someone else has traveled back in time, messed something up, and now the future is about to be rewritten! But our sensors in the past tell us those changes are coming before they reach us, and that gives us a chance to jump back in time and undo whatever changed.”
“I don’t understand,” Patrick shook his head.
“Bad guys in the past changed things, we gotta go back and stop them,” Ellie surmised.
“EHH! EHH! EHH!” Mavis tried to imitate the sound of a klaxon sounding. “Oh no, everyone, that’s the alarm! We gotta get to the Time Capsule quick! Nell and Chase, prime it for launch. Patrick and Ellie, grab weapons and supplies. I’ll get the report from the computer!”
Everyone scrambled to their duties. Patrick and Ellie sprinted to the trees and came back with their arms full of sticks and pinecones, the guns and bombs which were surely standard issue for sensitive time distortions. Ellie and Chase dashed to the jungle gym and started unplugging invisible hoses and tightening massive bolts.
“Make sure you stabilize both reserves before fueling them,” Nell ordered, then did a double-take and threw her hands up in disgust. “No, you klutz, you’ve done it backwards again! I’ll do it myself.”
“Oh come on, Nell,” Chase protested. “Don’t be mean in this one, too.”
“No, it’s alright,” she flipped off the scolding tone like a lightswitch. “I’m going to learn how to be nice during this one. It’ll be good.”
Mavis came hurrying back to the jungle gym, flipping through imaginary sheets of data. “Well it looks like this was a coordinated attack,” he declared. “Three teams made a coordinated attack at three different places in time. We’ve got to go to the days of the dinosaurs, the pirates, and the old west. We’ll visit each one in turn, keep things from being changed, and catch whoever is behind this all.”
“We’re ready to go!” Nell announced as she closed the electrical panel on the side of the time capsule.
“Here,” Ellie handed out high-powered rifles to them all. Patrick distributed utility belts and stuffed their pockets with bombs.
The door to the Time Capsule slid open behind them, a thick, white cloud flowing out with a hiss. It was now or never!
“Two hundred million B.C.” Mavis read out as he walked into the machine and entered the coordinates onto the center panel. “There’s going to be raptors and T-Rexes. Don’t use your guns if you don’t have to, they’ll probably just make them angry.”
Patrick was the last one into the time capsule and he sealed the door behind them. “Ready to make the jump!” he declared.
Ellie and Nell went to the central power conduit to monitor its levels while Chase concerned himself with the data screens all along the walls.
“And here we go!” Mavis roared as he hurriedly flicked three switches, turned a dial, and pulled a slider all the way to its activated position!
There was a sound like the crack of thunder and bright lights flashed from all the monitors and displays. The ground rumbled beneath them and a steady hum shook all the walls: the resonance of change. All about them the world whisked back through time. Through portholes they could see life reversing at rapid speed. The building they were in unbuilt itself, the city skyline went from steel skyscrapers to log cabins to a wild forest, the sun and the moon chased each other through the sky faster and faster until they blurred into one. They were racing past entire millennia in a single moment now, and all the outside world blurred into incomprehensibility.
“MAINTAINING APPROVED LEVELS!” Chase reported over the roaring din. “WE’VE REACHED SLIPSPEED!”
“OKAY…” Mavis nodded, his eye on the date indicator ticking down in the center. “WE SHOULD START TO SLOW OUR VELOCITY NOW!”
Streaks started to show in the pure white of the outside world. The streaks slowed into changing patterns, slowed into recognizable forms of mountains and stars and trees.
“PREPARE FOR TIMESTOP!” Chase announced before Mavis could.
Outside they could make out individual pterodactyls flying backwards, water flowing up the mountainside, leaves rising from the ground to perch on the branches of trees. Suddenly a bright light appeared in the sky, coalescing rapidly to the center of a tremendous explosion! As time continued to march backwards the unmistakable streak of a meteor traced backwards from that explosion, settling into the position it held one hour before. Then, all at once, time paused for a split-second, then began moving forward at regular speed. They had arrived.
“Whew!” Patrick said in relief.
“But what was that explosion we passed along the way?” Mavis demanded.
“My character says, ‘well it’s got to be the meteor that kills the dinosaurs,'” Nell rolled her eyes. “‘Obviously.'”
“Nell, we’ve talked about this,” Ellie sighed. “You don’t have to narrate what you’re saying. You just say it.”
“I think you’re right, though,” Mavis approved Nell’s observation. “But that meteor was supposed to hit the earth, right? Why’s it exploding up in space?”
“Captain, I’m getting readings of a nearby heat signature,” Chase approached with his tricorder. “It could be a rocket facility.”
“Time travelers, Chase,” Ellie shook her head. “Not Star Trek!”
“But excellent observation,” Mavis nodded. “I’ll bet that’s where our time-troublemakers are at. In about an hour they’re going to shoot a missile to take out that meteor before it hits earth.”
“Well…that sounds pretty good to me,” Patrick shrugged. “Then the dinosaurs will still be alive.”
“That sounds good?!” Chase demanded. “How will humans be able to evolve, then? They’ll all get eaten and we’ll never exist.”
“But we’re here now. We could just stay here and live with the dinosaurs.”
“We’re not going to give up all of human civilization for some old animals!” Nell scolded.
“What then? Make sure that all the dinosaurs die?! That’s not right!”
“Listen Patrick,” Ellie said more gently, “you’re a Temporal Security Agent, aren’t you? Well it’s not your job to get lost in time, it’s to keep it the same, whether for better or worse. It’s the burden we all bear. We’re all in this job because we’re the one’s willing to make the tough choices.”
Patrick wiped a small tear from the corner of his eye. “Alright,” he said, “let’s smoke ’em.”
“Good man,” Mavis clapped him on the shoulder, then walked over to the wall of the time capsule and opened a hatch. Inside was a harness fitted with all manner of wires and buttons. It was pulsating with yellow energy. “Looks like the remote activator is charged,” he observed. “Remember, its tethered to the last point of time that the Time Capsule came to, and can return us to it in an emergency. But it will break after a single use. Who wants to be in charge of it?”
“I will,” Ellie accepted the responsibility and put the harness around her shoulders. “We’re ready to go!”
But just then they were interrupted by an ear-splitting shriek coming from somewhere just outside the Time Capsule. Each of them shivered as a long-forgotten instinct woke up in their hearts. The instinct to be terrified of an apex predator!
“What is it?” Chase looked to Patrick fearfully.
“T-Rex, of course.”
“We have to run!” Nell panicked.
“He’s already got our scent,” Patrick shook his head in defeat.
“Alright,” Mavis said. “Looks like we’ve got to split up. You’ve still got the coordinates of that enemy base, Chase? You and Nell and Ellie go check that out. Patrick, you and I are on dino-distraction-duty!”
Everyone nodded, Patrick particularly enthusiastically, then bolted for the door and out of the Time Capsule.
“Keep your walkie-talkie on channel 6!” Mavis called after the others as he switched on his own.
“He’s already here,” Patrick grabbed Mavis and pointed in equal parts terror and giddy excitement at the treeline. The branches and leaves burst apart as a massive lizard charged into the clearing, eyes locked on them, and giving off another ear-splitting roar!
“RUN!” Mavis shouted, then the two turned and bolted in the opposite direction of their comrades, leading the Tyrannosaur away from the mission. They hadn’t gone more than ten paces when they heard a sickening crunch from behind. Wheeling around they saw that the dinosaur had paused to give their Time Capsule a taste, puncturing through its walls with its teeth. Panels were strewn on the ground and sparks of electricity flashed from exposed wires. The machine…was broken.
“Well this just got worse,” Patrick understated.
Meanwhile the other group dove through the underbrush, anxious to not waste a moment in their task.
“There’s no telling what we’re going to find when we get there,” Nell observed. “Everyone have your rifles ready, but I don’t want any sloppy shots giving away our position! We take out any guards stealthily, you understand?”
“Wait, whoever said that you outrank us?” Chase asked.
“Oh. I definitely outrank you.”
“Quiet, you guys!” Ellie hissed, dropping to a crouch and pointing through the low-hanging branches. The others halted and followed her gaze to a patrol walking by.
There were three guards, all of them in strange, metallic armor suits that covered every inch of their body.
“Are they robots?” Chase wondered aloud.
“Only one way to find out,” Nell said determinedly.
“Yeah…wait…what do you mean by that?”
But rather than answer Nell lifted up a large rock and hurled it full speed at the head of the nearest guard. It cleaved the helmet clean off, sending a bright ribbon of blood shining through the air.
“Guess that’s not a robot.”
“Ewww! No!” Ellie shook her head. “Don’t make it gross, Nell.”
“Well that’s what I see, you can see whatever else you prefer.”
“I like it!” Chase approved.
Ellie shook her head, then looked back up at the guard crumpled on the ground, still dead, but with head fully attached and totally bloodless. Meanwhile the other guards ducked for cover and drew out their weapons.
“We got infiltrators at the West Perimeter!” one of them called into his communicator as the other drew a bead on the children.
“I said to take them out quietly,” Ellie hissed.
“What? I got mine,” Nell protested. “You two were supposed to nab the others.”
“Never mind that!” Chase roared “We’re blown now!”
And the three of them dashed back through the trees, ducking and weaving to dodge the incoming gunfire!
On Monday I spoke of children playing pretend and the raw creativity that comes from that. I also mentioned how children grow, and as they do they gain a firmer understanding of the world, more of the unknown becomes known, and pure creativity comes less naturally.
It was for that reason I set this story to be about children who are in their preteens, just reaching the point where games and shows are cropping into their plays and redefining their view of imagination. Mavis uses a video game that he has seen for the foundation of their story, Chase finds himself slipping into the role of a Star Trek explorer, while Patrick just wants to live out his dinosaur obsession.
But they are still resisting the urge to play out already-existing narratives and still create their own way forward. Being creative might come less naturally as we grow older, but that doesn’t mean it ever goes away. We can train ourselves to draw connections being known quantities to invent unknown ones. This idea is present in Mavis concocting a premise that allows for dinosaurs, pirates, and secret agents all in the same story. He is blending enough things together that there doesn’t remain any script to follow. The glue that will bind all these separate elements together must be their own imagination.
It’s been fun for me to write a story from this perspective. It is both kids set in real life doing realistic things, and also it is a complete fantasy.
I want to call attention to something else that I did in this story which I hardly ever do: call out real world media. In this first section I have already made reference to both the real-life Journeyman Project games and the Star Trek television series.
I don’t do this very often, because it usually weirds me out when a fictional story, even a realistic fictional story, tries to pretend that it is actually tied to our real world. I have only felt comfortable doing it in specific instances and for very specific reasons. Come back on Monday as we consider the inherent awkwardness of real-world references in fiction, but also the potential benefits of it when done in the right way.
It was years before I forgave my parents for dragging me to Jimmy’s funeral. It’s not like they had fond feelings for the boy, but they just kept saying something about “community” and “civic duty” and stuff like that.
You’ll notice, by the way, that I spelled his name out properly? Even at fifteen I knew that that “Jimi” moniker he wanted us to use was just stupid. You’re not important enough to rebrand yourself like some Rock and Roll Hall of Greats inductee.
In Loving Memory of James “Jimi” Watson…
I rolled my eyes when I read that obituary title, sitting in my pew, waiting for the services to start. I should have stopped right there, but I didn’t. I kept reading, and as I did my hands started shaking at the injustice of a revisionist history.
Friends remember James as a brave, yet tender boy. He was always so concerned about the smaller children at school, standing up for the underdog every day.
Perhaps you meant “standing them up” in their locker?
Jimmy spent his time slamming people’s faces, spitting in their mouths, and cornering the girls. He was starting to get old enough to be really scary, carrying a knife in his pocket and allegedly cutting someone on more than one occasion.
So as I read that obituary I started to wonder, were we really just going to sit here and pretend that we didn’t know the truth about what sort of person Jimmy really was?
I guess so. I sure wasn’t going to stand up and rock the boat.
I remember I felt guilty for feeling relieved. Relieved that my life’s biggest burden had just been removed. To be clear, I never wanted the school’s biggest bully to die in a car crash, I never wished any such thing on him. I had wished that his family would move, or that he would get thrown into juvie, but never that he’d get killed.
So no, this was not the way I had wanted to be liberated, but liberated I still was. And as I sat there I couldn’t help thinking how all the rest of High School was going to be so much smoother.
And you know what? It really was.
I had always told my parents that Jimmy had some personal vendetta against me and they always said that every kid feels that way. Jimmy’s timely death proved that they were wrong. Because sure, there were still other bullies, and they still sucked, but life was noticeably better ever after his drunk step-dad got the both of them killed.
Sorry, that was cold.
I’m not so used to expressing all my frustrations…. And really, now that I think about it, I lied earlier when I said I never wanted Jimmy to die. Sort of, anyway. You see I had thought the words “I wish Jimmy would just die” from time-to-time, but when it actually happened it wasn’t what I had wanted at all. I wanted the idea of Jimmy to die, but not an actual person. And ever since that accident I’ve been piece-by-piece appreciating that Jimmy really was a person.
Strangely enough I first started picking up on that fact one day when I was feeling particularly grateful to not have Jimmy around anymore. It was a couple years later in the back of the theater with Grace. I was still trying to work up the nerve to put my arm around her when she leaned her head down onto my shoulder. In that moment I was really, truly happy, and the thought occurred to me that the happiness was only complete because I wasn’t afraid of Jimmy being around to ruin it.
And then, out of the blue, the thought occurred to me that Jimmy wasn’t around to experience it either. I mean sure, he’d had his “honeys” as he called them, but he didn’t know what it meant to really want to care for someone else. For the first time in my life I actually felt older than Jimmy.
The next time I found myself thinking about Jimmy was a year later at graduation, while we stood in line for our diploma ceremony. With his last name being Watson, and mine being Watts, he would have been right in front of me in line, instead I now stared at the back of Berkley Warren’s head instead.
Would he have had plans for going to college? Would he have even made it to the end of High School? Quite possibly not. Jimmy certainly wasn’t the most gifted of students, he was already struggling even in the Freshman year. A fact that probably made him quite bitter.
Or maybe not. With all the other problems he had going on at home, his school performance probably didn’t even compare.
Those problems were ones we kids understood only on the surface at the time. We knew his dad had been abusive, had been taken away to jail, and that his new step-dad was abusive, too. But we didn’t have any clue what that term “abusive” really amounted to. It was just a word back then.
I had always been told that I was supposed to be nice, no matter what, every kid gets told that. So I had always felt that Jimmy didn’t have any excuse for not being nice, no matter what went on in his home. None of us knew what abuse meant, except the kids who were actually facing that stuff. Not even all of them knew.
I guess I still don’t really know what it means, do I? And I certainly don’t know what it meant to Jimmy personally. But I do know enough to respect the fact that Jimmy’s behavior towards me was driven by that weight he carried.
After High School I moved away from my childhood home and went to college. Life started coming fast and I didn’t spend much much time thinking about the people I had once known. I was shocked at how much time had already passed when I got the invitation to my 10-year High School Reunion. By that point I had a job, a wife, a child, and a home.
It didn’t take too much encouraging from my wife to decide that I would go, ever since the birth of our son I had been thinking nostalgically about my old childhood home. The time was right for a pilgrimage.
For the most part I was amazed at how much everyone felt just the same to me. A little more weight, a little more facial hair, some bags under the eyes, but still the same people I had always known.
At least so it seemed until I started talking with Blake Johnson.
At first I tried to pretend that I didn’t see him, he had been another of the bullies, after all, and I didn’t want to fake a smile and pretend that bygones were bygones. He came directly up to me, though, shook me firmly by the hand, and gave a very sincere apology. That was why he had come here, he explained, to try and make amends for being such a burden to others in school.
It caught me entirely off guard, and all my preconceptions began to melt. We stood there for another fifteen minutes, going over all the usual talking points of one another’s work and families. As we did, I found that he was indistinguishable from all the other people here. He had grown up, he had changed, he had become a healthy member of society.
We didn’t talk about Jimmy in that conversation, but still my thoughts turned to him as I sat in my car later that night. Rather than start my drive home I was wrestling with something inside, trying to understand something that I hadn’t before.
At last it came through and I realized that over the years I had allowed myself to feel sympathy for who Jimmy was when he died, but I hadn’t considered that today he could have been someone different. And maybe he wouldn’t have changed, maybe today he would be a hardened criminal stewing in some jail cell. But that wasn’t the point. The point is he never got his chance to decide. Blake got his chance, but Jimmy never would.
All I would ever know of Jimmy was a fifteen-year-old kid who really didn’t know a thing in the world.
I thought about my own son waiting for me back home. He’s a pretty good kid, but not perfect. I would hate for anyone to write him off before he’s had a chance to come into his own.
I had thought several times about Jimmy over the years, but the first time ever I cried about him. I cried for a soul interrupted.
I mentioned that one of my problems in Harold and Caroline was that the criticism only flowed one way. Caroline was too passive of a character, and so their relationship lacked a back-and-forth to its give-and-take. The thing was, sometimes your character should be passive. In today’s example, the narrator was definitely the victim of Jimmy’s bullying, and that meant he had to hold a more submissive role.
My solution, though, was to write this from the narrator’s perspective, where the reader could hear the sharp barbs in his thoughts, without having to hear them coming out of his mouth. From this view we can tell that he is fighting back against Jimmy, just from a more passive-aggressive stance. Also the fact that this is written from the perspective of an adult reflecting on the past gives him a maturity that Jimmy never holds. Overall I feel a lot better about how I maintained an equal tension between the two while still allowing one to dominate over the other.
My other concern with Harold and Caroline was how it didn’t use sideplots effectively. It would introduce new characters and motivations, keep them around just long enough to push the main plot forward slightly, and then drop them without any sort of meaningful resolution.
In today’s piece I wanted to cover more than a decade in a very short span of time, so I knew that meant utilizing the same vignette-style separate scenes. This time, though, I toned them down to the point that they were just backdrops that the main narrative marched continuously in front of. My main technique in accomplishing this was in not having any of the other characters speak. We learn a couple names, Grace and Blake, but because we only hear of them second-hand we never mistake them for central characters and then have our expectations in that disappointed.
As a whole I liked this piece a good deal more than Harold and Caroline. There are still criticisms I could make of it, but for now I’d rather move on to something else.
This story and Harold and Caroline were some of my more grounded pieces, stories where nothing supernatural occurred whatsoever. Perhaps the way things work out for the characters might seem a little convenient or contrived, but that’s as strange as things get.
Softer, slice-of-life tales and rollicking power fantasies have more in common than you might think, though. More often then not, they both deal with the same basic themes, just they paint them with different colors. Come back on Monday where I will explore this concept even further.