My Middle School Life: A Retrospective

Glasses lying on top of an open book

Over the Spring, when we, like most everyone else in the world, were under stay-at-home orders due to the pandemic, I was doing a lot more reading along with my “quarantine projects.” I was actively digging for new books, sometimes random books that would pop up from my memory and of which I no longer owned a copy for whatever reason. During one of these digging expeditions, I dug up the Books of Swords trilogy from Fred Saberhagan on Audible. Wow, did these take me back.

I remember discussing this series in depth with my best friend. I was in middle school, he in high school. The mythology of Saberhagen’s world was prominent in my imagination for more than a year during that time. I went through the series quickly this Spring, loving every moment of its fantasy adventures. There were times that I felt I was in my middle school bedroom again, devouring the fantastical tales.

This, of course, led to me remembering and searching for other authors that I had originally discovered during that period of my life: Isaac Asimov, Piers Anthony, Robert Henlein. I wanted to be talking to my best friend again (I have, to my discredit, no idea where he is these days), to be rattling on to my parents about these amazing books that I was reading, somehow oblivious to their facial expressions as they stood before the firehose of my mental landscape.


I make a trip to my local comic shop every weekend to collect my pull list for the week. Last weekend, I was on my way there, listening to an 80’s hair band station on Pandora that I’ve been carefully curating over the course of several years. I was always sort of conflicted about life goals, but these two things have always been true: I wanted to write books for a living, and I wanted to be a drummer in a rock band. And, honestly, I’ve done a bit of both, but life has taken strange and unexpected turns with me, as it does with everyone else.

In grad school, there was a point in which I found myself missing my college theatre days. A lot of the books that I read…and searched for at local bookshops then…were driven by that desire to regain something that had been, not lost, but misplaced. I phased out of this for a bit, no longer looking for Beth Henley plays…but now, lately, I have been drifting back to high school (in music) and middle school (in books). In an odd way, I’m sort of being selective about the time period of my nostalgia. Maybe this has been more pronounced because of the stress in the world…we all just want to escape. However, after going through a period of near-asceticism in seminary, I remember what hit me in the face when I was reading Donald Miller, an extremely popular author amongst students of religion at the time. In Blue Like Jazz, he writes:

“Something got crossed in the wires, and I became the person I should be and not the person I am. It feels like I should go back and get the person I am and bring him here to the person I should be.”

Donald Miller, “Blue Like Jazz,” p. 98

I don’t want to regress to childhood, or to my teenage years. However, it is important to recognize that all of these “phases” that I went through made me, laid the foundation for who I am today. Some of that is better, some of that is worse, because I, like everyone else, have made really good and really bad decisions at various points in my life. All of this, however, can be providentially woven together for the good, and walking away from it, as I initially did in my early seminary days, carries the risk of idolizing the present and rejecting the past. The past needs to be remembered, including our personal pasts. Where there was bad, we learn from it, and where there was good, we embrace it. There is a wisdom gained from a life lived. In additional to reading some really good books, this recent internal retrospective has taught me that.

A Review of “Ethel and Ernest”

Screenshot of the cover of Ethel and ErnestI found Ethel and Ernest waiting for me one evening on my nightstand. This is the home of my “to-read stack,” or at least the non-digital incarnations in my to-read list. This small volume had been laid to the side…not inserting itself onto the top of the stack, but rather existing as a suggestion off to the right. Initially thinking this was a book for our daughter’s reading lessons, I passed it by. Then Karen told me that she had checked it out from our library, and that I really should read it.

Opening its pages and discovering it to be a graphic novel intrigued me, so I allowed it to skip ahead of others on the list and read it next. I am unbelievably glad that I did.

Ethel and Ernest is an artist’s recollection of his parents…the story of their lives told as he remembers and has pieced it together. One reviewer called it a “love story,” and that phrase resonates as I have found myself thinking about the book…unpacking it, journaling through its impact on my life, an impact disproportionate to its small size.

We initially encounter Ethel and Ernest as they meet and fall in love in 1920’s London. We watch them work through their relationship as the world goes to war, the horrors of what was faced as they sent their son away to the country to be safe, the stories we’ve all read in history books taking on a completely new depth when we witness how it played out in the lives of this ordinary couple. We watch them become lost in the pace of industrial and technological change, loving the new conveniences (she cannot believe how fast the washing machine gets their clothes clean) while grappling with the enormity of how their lives are altered by them. I adore the scene in which they buy a car and go riding down the street, in disbelief that they could afford such luxury.

We walk through their remembering their early romance later in life, watch them struggle with the alienation from their son (the author of the book) as they struggle to adapt to the things that he just accepts.

I feel as though I know Ethel and Ernest now, like I’ve met them. I feel like I know how they tried their best as life rushed by, how they found ways to cope with their profound political disagreements. Perhaps this is inevitable with such a work, whether it’s Brigg’s intention or not, but I can’t help but see my own parents here. They still sit in the same house in which I grew up, and I can picture them waiting for their son to visit or call, uncertain at times of how to adapt to a world that is merciless in the speed with which it changes.

I can hear Brigg’s sorrow at his frustration with them. I can feel my own love for my daughter as I watch  Earnest’s affection for his son. In short, I see that I have so much connecting me…all of us…with Ethel and Ernest, because their lives were ordinary, albeit lived in extraordinary times. Any of us can, and likely will, live through very similar struggles and triumphs.

I think that is why I fought back tears over Earnest’s loneliness in the end.

Brigg’s remorse over his broken relationship with his parents is never explicitly stated, but is an unmistakeable through-line, palpably felt in the jagged speech bubbles and the stark lines of his drawings of himself,  making the reader painfully aware of his disproportionate responses. Ethel, always seeing their family as proper and never “common,” persists in offering him a comb whenever they see each other, which we see as adorable but which was a source of much friction in their relationship. I think that she just wanted to take care of him in a manner of which she was deprived by the war. Later, he accepts the comb, no longer feeling judged, some peace made before the end, before Ethel and Ernest pass away alone and in the cruelest of circumstances after giving their life together everything.

I see so much of not only my parents in them, but also of Karen and I. I wonder how our daughters will remember our lives when we are gone.

In the end, we find the author and his wife looking at the house which Ethel and Ernest bought together. He states with some wonder that they lived in the same house for 40 years and never moved. That home becomes a metaphor for Ethel and Ernest’s devotion to each other. The horrors that they witnessed, the turmoil through which they lived, made them stronger, more resilient in their commitment to their marriage and to their son. They stayed together until the end in a way that I hope to, and were stronger for it.

This achievement alone, if it can be replicated, can be called a successful life.

This little graphic novel carries so much weight. I am not the same as before I read it. I do not treat my relationships the same, I do not view our world the same. Neither, I suspect, will you. I am so glad that Briggs has given us the chance to become acquainted with Ethel and Ernest.

I encourage you to take the opportunity.

First Day at the Theatre

There’s very little that I remember with any degree of clarity from my early elementary school days. 4th and 5th grades, sure, but prior to that, not so much. That’s why the vivid recollection of one specific field trip is such a notable exception.

I remember looking forward to the trip with so much excitement as my parents signed the permission forms in the days preceding the event. I remember boarding the bus with my friends and driving the short distance to the nearby college in the adjacent town. The college had a quality theatre program, and I was going to see my first play.

Now, I can’t say that I remember the plot of the show. I remember being quite unsettled by the villain, and one line in particular as he prowled the front row, cracking through what I now know to be the fourth wall as he questioned:

“Do you know what’s in my secret formula? Well, of course you don’t!”

In short, I returned from that trip with a sense of magic. I had never seen anything like live theatre, and, obviously, it stayed with me as I’ve pursued that calling in various professional avenues from college forward, even though I’ve never made it my living exclusively. I’m so thankful that I was afforded the opportunity to experience that show. My experiences with the theatre have been amazing ever since.

This week, I was given an even more profound opportunity, a more amazing one. I had the opportunity take my daughter, with her pre-school class, to her first play.

The show was Peter Rabbit Tales, and she is already quite familiar with the original work of Peter Rabbit. She was thrilled, so excited as we counted down the days. I drove her to school, joined the caravan of vehicles that went to the arts center, and watched the traveling theatre group’s performance. Even more than the show, however, I watched my daughter’s face as she sat, literally on the edge of her seat, her eyes almost unblinking, never wavering from the stage.

I wonder if the enrapt expression on my face was similar that day so many years ago when I watched that play. I wonder if this experience will have the impact on our daughter that day had on me. I know that she has been impacted by experiencing this art in person, and I know that it was an enormously positive experience for her.

An experience in which I was able to take part.

This was one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve had as a parent, more impactful even that my first play. I am thrilled to have been able to join my daughter for her first play.

Back to Paperback

Back to PaperBack

Something very important happened two weekends ago, something that solidifies the entire process of moving back to New England and was the last step in feeling “at home.”

I found a good comic book shop.

You laugh, but I hadn’t found one in two years while living in North Carolina, and had resigned myself to moving all of my comic book reading to the digital sphere. I held no hope of locating a source for print comics again.

Don’t get me wrong, digital comics are a great thing. I always prefer to give my money to a small local business whenever possible, though, and the local comic shop is more of a cultural experience than it is a retail experience. There are really good conversations that happen there about very, very geeky things.

This particular shop has a great selection of old issues…boxes upon boxes of them, in fact…which is wonderful because I’m not a fan of what any of the major publishers have been doing in print of late, so I’ve focused my reading a lot on graphic novels and back issues for the last year or so.

As I browsed the neatly-organized and alphabetized shelves of recent-but-not-new issues to fill in some gaps that have occurred in the last couple of months, I found myself questioning which issues I had, and where I had left off. I found a few titles there of which I suddenly remembered having read the first issue, but had let the story and issue-to-issue cliffhanger escape my mind since doing so. Some of these were four or more months old.

This is highly unusual.

For two years, I have purchased all of my comics digitally. I thought that this would have no effect on my reading. After all, I still prefer to purchase ebooks whenever possible, primarily for the convenience of having whatever I’m reading readily available when I find myself with free time. Any excuse to read is well-taken, in my mind, so facilitating more opportunities to do so is a no-brainer. Comics should be no different, right?

Except that my theory is now proven wrong. These digital issues had as much interest to me while I was reading them, certainly. Yet, they faded from memory very quickly. I lost track of where I was in a given series, and even what series I was reading in some cases. It’s as though the stories took up space only in my short-term memory, making no lasting connections at all.

Which is far, far too disrespectful to any story to permit to continue.

I’m not sure why novels that I read in e-book format stay with me just as a physical novel does. Perhaps the issue at hand is that I have been far too busy with little time to read for the past few months (a new child has that effect). Or, more concerning, perhaps my attention span is being progressively shortened. That’s a frightening concept that I prefer to not consider.

So, that Saturday afternoon, I brought home my first paper issues of new comics in two years. A good feeling, I’ll admit.

Incidentally, I still remember where each issue left off, and am looking forward to next month to continue reading.

Just like in years past.

Physically.

The Photography of Reality

There was much fallout late last month in the photography community when Nikon Singapore awarded a prize to a photo that was quite striking at first blush: an airliner captured through the tunnel of a ladder looking upward at exactly the right moment. One of those shots that’s too good to be true. Of course, it was too good to be true, and photographers worldwide quickly revealed it for the bad photo editing that it was. There have been statements and apologies…not really the sort of thing that bothers me, but rather something of amusement.

Photography is a medium for which I’ve always pined for a talent. When I think of the creative pursuits that I wish I could master, it ranks right up there with the electric guitar. I’m still an ad-hoc family photographer, and I’m perfectly adept with Adobe’s software, but I just don’t have the talent for recognizing the composition of a beautiful photo in everyday life.

I know several photographers, and I know that what they have…that ability to perceive and create a shot as life moves…is a gift, the sort of thing that you either have or you don’t. I don’t. I’ve gotten better with some practice, but every good shot that I’ve ever captured has been pure luck. I’m a creative person, but that is an entirely different sort of creativity with which I am not blessed.

During mine and Karen’s wedding, one of our photographers laid down between us as we held hands and kissed, and took a photo up through our hands with the sky in the background above us. It’s one of the most amazing photos we have of that day, very much one of my favorites. That’s the sort of creativity that I mean.

A couple of years ago, while I was in school yet again, the arts school where I was in attendance held a photography exhibit. I remember looking at many of the pieces that were on display, all of which were very high quality, and thinking that they weren’t really photography. That’s to say, they were extremely creative image manipulations that began with photography, and melded into something different. I felt, though, that I was at an art show, not a photography exhibit.

And I don’t for a moment think that’s a bad thing, but I think that we should perhaps guard what we call photography a bit more carefully.

When I was in undergrad, many of my friends were fellow theatre majors or art majors. Most floated easily between departments and projects as the disciplines intersected. I remember a show in which one of them built a functioning R2-D2. He entered under “mixed media.” I thought of that when I saw the photography exhibit two years ago, labeling the images as mixed media to myself. There were skillfully sought after images there, and equally skillful artistry with Photoshop utilized afterward to arrive at the finished pieces. They were art, something new and fresh.

They weren’t, however, borne of the same skills that brought Karen and I that amazing image from our wedding.

Maybe this is all a trivial attempt on my part to categorize things, but I think it’s important. Being a great digital artist doesn’t make one a great photographer, although I’ve met many artists that are both. As someone who has no talent, but a keen appreciation for, photography, I think there’s something important about keeping the medium pure. Like all disciplines and mediums, it connects beautifully with others. Yet, it is still a distinct medium in its own right.