It took eight and a half hours for me to formulate my first written reaction to Super 8 – and even then all I could muster via Twitter was, “Can’t be impartial about Super 8: I’m too in love with the inspirations and the way it captures the era of my childhood. Fantastic.”
And that’s why this isn’t really a review of the movie. Other people have said the things I think – the best reflection, I think, being the opinion that what makes J.J. Abrams’ blatant homage to the likes of E.T. and Stand By Me and The Goonies and Jaws work so well is its complete sincerity, delivered without clever winks, nods or half-smirks. And I agree with the most positive reviews, although I admit that while I utterly loved it, I the story also never gave me that lump-in-the-throat moment I had expected.
So why did I love this movie so much?
There’s a bit in Wil Wheaton’s The Happiest Days of Our Lives where he writes, “If you’ve seen E.T., you’ve seen houses just like the ones I grew up in.”
I felt that way all through Super 8.
Those houses where the folks of fictitious Lillian, Ohio lived in 1979? I’ve been in them. They were my friends’ houses and my relatives’ houses and our neighbors’ houses, whether here in Stark County or up in Akron or across the state in Upper Sandusky or down in Columbus.
Those nerd-cluttered bedrooms, with science fiction magazines and movie one-sheets and those tiny, square glass Testors model paint bottles and the National Geographic space-shuttle cutaway posters and yes, even the occasional 8 mm movie camera and film reel? Those were the coolest.
Super 8 was filmed in and around Weirton, West Virginia, about 90 miles from here, but from Lillian’s downtown to its industrial mills to its surrounding hills and railroad tracks and nearby river, it just felt so much like an actual place in my memory; like I’d been there – driven through it or knew a kid who moved there or went there once with my parents for some reason. (Geography lesson: The movie places Lillian in an impossible Escher-eqsue way, noting on a map that it’s in the southwest corner of the state, but mentioning Belmont – all the way in the southeast corner – as a neighboring county. I’m OK with that, though: It fits the J.J. Abrams mystery mold perfectly.)
And I felt that way about so much of the movie – the characters, the dialogue and the more everyday aspects of the story: There was a genuine sense of the era and the emotions without feeling like the overt, time-period-as-story-element approach of something like Dazed and Confused or The Wedding Singer.
It felt very much – even though I don’t mean this in a specific my-street, my-school, my-childhood kind of way – like home.
So, while my first day at PAX East had centered on the Bringing Up the Next Generation of Geeks panel and catching Wil Wheaton’s keynote – which I covered in this post for GeekDad – Saturday morning’s sunrise illuminated Me On A Quest.
Because over the past year, my daughter Kelsey has become a major Wil Wheaton fan. It started just before Penguicon 7.0 last May, when we watched video online of him playing Rock Band at a convention, and she has since enjoyed both The Happiest Days of Our Lives and Just A Geek. She was excited to see him show up on The Big Bang Theory and can’t wait for Evil Wil’s return to the show next month.
I was planning my PAX trip right around the time we were listening to the Happiest Days audiobook in the car, and while there’s a lot of stuff in that book she loves, nothing cracks her up like the story “Blue Light Special,” in which Wil relates a childhood trip to K-Mart and his moments of agony and indecision in the Star Wars figures aisle. Of course, what absolutely kills her is this bit of frustration internally voiced by young Wil upon finding a glut of Cloud City figures: “Lando Calrissian? He was a dick in the movie. There’s no way I’m getting him.”
When Kelsey heard Wil was going to be at PAX, she asked if I could get him to sign something cool, and we came up with what we thought he might think was a pretty funny idea: a vintage Kenner Lando Calrissian action figure cardback. A friend in the Rebelscum forums hooked me up with one in a flash, and the task was set. Adding to the pressure on me was the fact that Kelsey had just turned 13 on Friday, and I was really aiming to bring home a one-of-a-kind present from my trip to Boston and garner some bankable Dad Points with my newly-minted teenager.
All the way into Boston, I wrestled with a decision over how to begin my day. Cartoonist Bill Amend was scheduled for an hour-long 10 a.m. presentation on celebrating geekdom in FoxTrot – of which Kelsey and I are also big fans – and I desperately wanted to attend. Problem: Wil had tweeted the night before that he’d be at his signing table from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and I just knew that if I made it into Bill’s panel, that by the time I got out, there’d likely be an awfully long line for Wil’s signature, and maybe even a significant risk of not getting one. (I was planning to leave midafternoon in order to get a chance to spend the evening with my friends in Pawtucket, who graciously let me use their house as a base of operations over the weekend.)
In the end, I opted – hoping that Bill Amend would understand a Geek Dad’s dilemma – to aim for an early spot in Wil’s line, and I wound up among the first dozen people or so, along with my friends Paul & Wendy, who showed up not long after I did.
Wil arrived shortly after 11 a.m. – by which point the line had in fact become pretty sizable – and the reality that the Quest’s End was in sight settled over my shoulders.
Paul & Wendy were in front of me, and they have their own superfantasticool Meeting Wil story which they deserve to share themselves if they so choose, and then I was stepping up to the table.
Wil was incredibly kind and enthusiastic and friendly as I thanked him first for inspiring my daughter and me to attend Penguicon last year, and then briefly related Kelsey’s enthusiasm for “Blue Light Special,” handing him the Lando card and explaining that we thought it would be funny and then – “Ohmygod!” he interjected, just grinning and looking at this card and saying how cool it was and he hadn’t seen one in years. Suddenly I felt a little bad because I wished I’d brought an extra one for him to keep, even as he neatly printed “Happy Birthday Kelsey!” and then added his signature, reminding me that I should let it dry for a few minutes to keep the ink from smearing on the glossy card.
He signed a copy of Happiest Days for me, then, and the last thing I did was give him a copy of Collect All 21! His first reaction was to look at the cover and say thank you, and then he flipped it open for just a second, but it was long enough for him to smile and roll his eyes and say, “Of course I open right to the page where you get the Death Star.” (See his story “The Trade” for why this is a bit of a sore spot.)
The whole thing took maybe two minutes, tops, but it was awfully neat.
When I talked to Kelsey the night I got home to Ohio, I wouldn’t tell her whether or not I’d managed to fulfill her request. When my mom brought her back to our house this afternoon, I was greeted with a massive heart-crushing hug (yes, even before I brought out the gifts) and then I threw all my planned teasing delays out the window and just said, “Well, we did it,” and I handed her the Lando card. Moment of Awesome Achieved. (Thanks again, Wil!)
“Well,” as a certain hobbit once said, “I’m back.”
Total trip time, from leaving the bank on Thursday morning to pulling into our driveway last night: 84.5 hours, with more than a quarter of that time – 22 hours between Canton, Ohio and Pawtucket, R.I., and another 4.5 spent going to and from Boston on Friday and Saturday – spent sitting behind the steering wheel. Total mileage: 1,490.
And completely worth every highway minute and every white-lined mile.
After a late Thursday night hanging out with my friends and gracious hosts Aaron and Jessica, I headed into Boston late Friday morning and – after a maybe 45-minute extended detour due to my missing a massive sign reading, in effect, “BOSTON – THIS WAY” – I got to the Hynes Convention Center just after 1 p.m. and found a hugehugeHUGE entrance queue. (You will undoubtedly read elsewhere about the crowds and lines at the center – honestly, I come to expect them at things like this, so I adjust my expectations accordingly. Also, I know that a lot of people work extremely hard to organize these conventions, and they’re supposed to be fun after all.) Doors were set to open at 2 p.m.
I honestly didn’t expect that by the time I made my way up to the doors of the Main Hall that Wil Wheaton’s keynote speech venue would already be at capacity. I mean, I knew that people would go straight there even though it wasn’t scheduled to start until 3 p.m., but I also figured maybe at some point, since they had divided the queue into “Expo Hall” and “Main Hall” lines, that someone would have established a cut-off point.
So, yeah, I was pretty disappointed, but I didn’t want to let it ruin my weekend, and besides, that’s when I ran into fellow GeekDad writer and panelist Dave Banks. While we were chatting and working our way over to the main expo hall, we caught up with two other contributors, Matt Blum and Doug Cornelius, who had also missed the keynote cut. Just after three o’clock, though, doing a little more wandering, we were passing the Main Hall doors and saw they were letting people in again, so we hopped in line. (Sadly, only Dave and I made it in, since they cut things off again right behind us.)
Wil was only about five minutes into his speech, so we got to take in most of it from our spots standing against the back wall, and while parts of it drew from stories he has told elsewhere, the keynote was by turns hilarious and nostalgic and heartfelt and inspiring.
A note on the convention offerings: Not being there for the video game industry displays and pre-release teasing and craziness, I was much more interested in the panels and kind off lower-key attractions like the old-school console gaming room – a working, playable Vectrex? are you KIDDING ME?!? and I wonder if anyone who sat down at the Atari 2600 actually put that E.T. cartridge in – and the American Classic Arcade Museum‘s free-play collection of games.
After the keynote, I met with my Ohio friends Paul and Wendy, and then it was time to go to dinner and establish what we believe to be the largest real-world gathering of GeekDad writers to date: With Michael Harrison and Natania Barron joining Matt and Dave and Doug and me, the bar is now set at a nice even half-dozen. I mentioned in an email to everyone this morning that it felt very much like we all had met before, even though most of us have only interacted through emails and podcasts.
We talked about a general framework for our 7 p.m. panel and wondered if anyone would show up other than to simply get off their feet for an hour. (A couple of us had peeked into the panel room earlier, and honestly, it looked awful big and seemed to have a great potential to be scarily empty.)
The six of us arrived back at that room at about 6:40 p.m., and figured the crowd in the hallway outside was lined up for something else. Ten minutes later, that line was gone, and we were looking at a fully-packed room of around 250-plus . Truthfully, this was nothing short of stunning, and I’m sure that words will utterly fail in describing how encouraging and wonderful it was, and though I know the odds are against it, if anyone who was in that audience stumbles across this blog: THANK YOU SO FREAKING MUCH!!!! Seriously – we each did a little introduction and talked about our kids and our geeklikes, and then as we started just generally talking about parenting and video games and movies and books and everything, people started raising their hands and asking questions and contributing their own experiences, and it was just a ton of fun. (Matt did a write-up at GeekDad, and Doug wrote a post for his blog, too, and both of them took photos so we know it was real.
Even with 70 minutes to fill – we had started early, since everyone was in the room anyway – the time just flew by, and there were still several hands up when we had to call it quits. Outside the room, a couple people came up to me to talk some more, and I saw other GeekDad writers having similar conversations. It’s almost three full days later and remembering it still makes me a little giddy.
Paul & Wendy had managed to get in, and they joined all of us for a post-panel trek for drinks, as did Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks author Ethan Gilsdorf, who, if I recall correctly, is a friend of Michael & Natania. His book has been on my to-read list for awhile, and even though it’s coming out in paperback this fall, after talking to him for awhile about writing, I couldn’t wait that long, so I ordered a copy this morning. He also bought a copy of Collect All 21!, which was an awfully nice thing to do.
We all went our separate ways once back at the convention center, since it was getting late, and while I was on my way out, I ran into Penny Arcade co-creator and PAX co-founder Mike Krahulik, capping a pretty damn fine day.
Meeting five of my fellow GeekDad writers, thus setting a new record for largest real-world gathering to date.
Wil Wheaton’s keynote.
Standing room only in the GeekDad “Bringing Up the Next Generation of Geeks” panel. (More on this when the weekend is over, but heartfelt thanks to everybody who came, because YOU MADE IT AWESOME.)
Running into Penny Arcade co-creator Mike Krahulik and getting a “special” snapshot for a friend back home.
Meeting and talking writing with Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks author Ethan Gilsdorf.
I have extremely fond memories of family drives to Florida when I was a kid, sitting in the back of our van with a friend, each of us wearing Princess Leia hair bun-sized headphones which we plugged into boom boxes, in and out of which we shuffled tape after tape after tape which we’d bought at the local Camelot or Quonset Hut or blanks that we’d filled with songs recorded from the radio or MTV.
And while I do loves me some driving around and singing horrifically off-key, for the long road trips, I have spent most of the last 20 years preferring non-musical audio accompaniment for the journey. Not surprisingly, I can easily trace this back to the early 1990s, when the Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back radio dramas were released on cassette and I fell in love with them immediately.
Then I started checking out old horror, mystery and science fiction radio broadcasts like Dimension X and Suspense! and The Shadow.
Not long after Jenn and Kelsey and I moved to Ohio and I took a job an hour from home which required a drive through East Rural NoRadioLand, I got hooked on audiobooks. And I mean really hooked: I had a library request in for the cassette edition of Green Mars well before the book’s release date, and as I listened to these, I even started checking out titles based almost as much on the performer – George Guidall in particular – as the author.
Today, I’m packing up the mp3 files for the drive to PAX East.
The Star Wars dramas are still a favorite, and they’re great for the longest trips, lasting close to 15 hours if you include the much later Return of the Jedi addition to the series. But I can only listen to them once, maybe twice a year, really, and since Star Wars Celebration V is coming up in August, I’m holding off on them for now.
Wil Wheaton’s The Happiest Days of Our Lives audiobook would seem an obvious pre-convention psyche-up, and it’s a favorite, too, but my daughter and I just finished listening to it together within the last couple weeks, so I’m not ready to enjoy it again quite yet. Instead, I’ve grabbed a few Radio Free Burritos.
Being a fan of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe, I’ve also downloaded The Sagan Diary, which I’ve never read, and which comes with the bonus of being performed by some remarkably talented women, including Mary Robinette Kowal, whose own short story Evil Robot Monkey will also be making the road trip with me. Other pieces include an old Tor.com podcast and a reading of Jay Lake’s Metatropolis chapter, both of which I downloaded awhile back and never got around to listening to.
Finally, I’ve piled on some podcasts from The Retroist – I’ve already listened to the shows on E.T., New Coke, Asteroids, Vectrex and Tales of the Gold Monkey and as a former 1980s kid, every single one of them has been a blast.
Among those I selected for this trip is the episode about Thundarr the Barbarian, which means I can appropriately close this entry with: “Ariel! Ookla! We ride!”
The 10 day countdown to PAX East is ON!
I’m super-psyched about this. It’s my first convention road trip since last year’s Penguicon, and I’m feeling a few similarities anticipation-wise, inasmuch as while I’ve never considered myself a hardcore gamer, there’s just a ridiculous amount of stuff on the schedule I’m excited to check out. (Of course, I’ve also prepared myself for the likelihood that at some point, I will be having so much fun generally geeking out that I will miss one or five of these things.)
I’ve already given the the two-color highlight marker treatment to my printout grid of the schedule, and in the interest of showing some restraint, I managed to keep my “MUST SEE” highlights to three. My “MAYBE” list, though? Yeah, that’s up to 20 events and panels, and there’s clearly no way I’m making it to all those, especially since there’s a fair bit of overlap.
The ultimate “must attend,” for me, of course, is the GeekDad panel, which, really, I still can’t believe I’m a part of because it’s just too unbelievably cool, and seeing us there on the program listing page still seems surreal:
How young is too young for The Hobbit? What should my kids’ first LEGO set be? How can I control my disgust if my child tells me he likes Jar Jar and the Ewoks? When should I buy my kids their first non-six-sided dice? These questions and many more will be discussed by writers for Wired.com’s GeekDad blog and other geek parents. Come share your stories and advice for how to make sure our kids grow up to be geeks like us! Don’t have kids? Show up and find out what may be in store for you if you ever do!
In fact, I’d bet that panel alone and the chance to sit down with fellow GeekDad writers Dave Banks, Natania Barron, Matt Blum, Doug Cornelius, Michael Harrison and Corrina Lawson will make this whole road trip worthwhile by itself.
And yet there is more, from what I figure will be the high-profile draws like Wil Wheaton’s keynote, concerts by MC Frontalot, Paul & Storm and Jonathan Coulton and the Penny Arcade creator panels to the more narrowly-focused offerings like this movie GET LAMP (I was a huge Infocom text adventure fan back in the Commodore 64 days) and a look back at other arcade and computer games of my youth.
As if all that wasn’t enough, this is my first visit to see my old friend Aaron on his turf since he moved to Rhode Island, and he’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.
I was glad that JediCon WV was on my calendar Saturday, not just for the whole spend-a-day-with-other-Star-Wars-fans thing, but also because I figured it would prevent me from basically pacing around the house and worrying about running my first marathon the next day.
Up at six o’clock, then, intent on leaving by seven for the two-hour drive to Wheeling, West Virginia.
JediCon, though it was a small event, was a milestone for me: It was the first show to which I’d been invited as a guest by the organizers, who got in touch with me shortly after I relaunched “Collect All 21″ back in April. And just a few weeks back, they asked if I’d like to do a presentation/reading from the book – another first for me.
I’m a huge fan of road trips: I love checking out different routes and figuring out how to see places I’ve never been without going too far out of my way. I love stocking the car with maps and music and audiobooks. I love that feeling of pulling out of the driveway before sunup knowing that daylight will illuminate things I’ve never seen.
This was also the first Saturday in 18 weeks that I wouldn’t be running.
For the drive to Wheeling, I’d chosen a route mostly clear of the main freeways: U.S. Route 250, running forty miles shorter than the trip by interstates 77 and 70, but comparable in terms of estimated travel time. I had, in fact traveled a small part of this road before: An Arby’s at a rural intersection struck me as familiar, and I remembered it was where Jenn and I had stopped for lunch a few years ago after dropping Kelsey off for a week at the YMCA’s Camp Tippecanoe. It was her first time away from home not being spent with family, and it was the same camp where I’d spent a few weeks over a couple summers when I was a kid. It was a quiet lunch that day, and a little sad.
Beyond that, I was mostly on a two-lane road I’d never driven, and it was a beautiful morning for the trip, with a low, gray sky, hills all around, and the woods nearing their seasonal-change color peak. To keep myself in a nostalgic mood fitting for my reading and a day around Star Wars, I listened to Wil Wheaton’s “The Happiest Days of Our Lives.”
I reached the Kruger Street Toy and Train Museum just after 9 a.m., and saw a couple guys unloading a life-sized Darth Vader statue built from Legos. The convention was in the museum’s basement, in a room much smaller than I’d expected. A few of the vendors and fan organizations were no-shows, and one of the other guests – a guy who’d worked on the original Star Wars and was supposed to bring pieces of the original Death Star to display – had canceled the day before.
Still, I was here, as was Kim Simmons, a photographer who had worked for Kenner and shot many of the original packaging photos and action-figure setups, and spending a day with fellow Star Wars fans has, to me, never failed to be fun.
Kim sat down at my table, recognizing me and my book from the OSWCC Summer Social in 2008, right after I’d launched the first edition, and we wound up talking for a half-hour or so. A super-nice guy, he was going to buy a copy, but instead we settled on a trade for a signed print of the old Dewback box scene he’d created.
He also said he’d let me use his laptop and projector for my reading, since I’d brought along a slideshow of childhood pictures to accompany some of my memories. My reading started a little later than the 11 a.m. scheduled time, due to a slight technical glitch with the projector, but when it started, there were probably about a dozen people in the room, and a handful of others arrived after I’d begun. I had fun, and it seemed like I got laughs at the right moments, and I think I saw smiles of recognized shared nostalgia while I read and clicked through the slides.
Over the eight hours I was there, even though this was easily the smallest convention I’ve ever attended, I sold more copies of “Collect All 21!” than I ever have before, probably because it was aimed directly at Star Wars fans, and I had something in common with every visitor who walked in.
In the silent auction for charity, I wound up the high bidder for a sweet DVD packed with a hundred and ten 1970s and 80s Kenner Star Wars commercials. (Wampaaa! Wampaaaaaaaa!)
Spent some time talking Legos with a very friendly builder from the Toy and Plastic Brick Museum (practically right across the river in Bellaire, Ohio, and if I’d had more time, I’d have tried to work a stop there into the trip, because she made it sound awfully neat).
I left for home just before 5 p.m., my boxes of books a bit lighter, my spirits high, my nerves about the race still at bay, and the sun just starting to turn the hills to fire and rust.
There are five good reasons to shop Lulu.com this weekend: From today through May 25, grab the discount code off the front page for five bucks off an order of $25 or more (before shipping costs – I already checked for you!).
So, let’s see, to hit that magical $25 plateau (and then knock it down to twenty), you could order:
Two fun-filled nostalgia-packed 1970s-and-80s-flashbacking copies of “Collect All 21! Memoirs of a Star Wars Geek – The First 30 Years,”
One “Collect All 21!” plus one alternate reality/love and friendship/phantom train story in the form of “Crossing Decembers,” a novel of “well-written weirdness,”
go for the Magnificently Bargainic DRM-free electronic download editions of both books (just a virtual five-spot each!) plus a print copy of Adam Besenyodi’s superb “Deus Ex Comica: The Rebirth of a Comic Fan.”
I mean, you really can’t lose here. There’s a lot of good stuff on Lulu. Wil Wheaton has distributed his last two works through the site – and as it happens, he just did an intervew about it with The Washington Times; Julian Dibbell’s “My Tiny Life” is there, too, as is the big ol’ prank “Atlanta Nights,” which has a great backstory.
Don’t be afraid! Visit Lulu! Buy stuff! And have a great weekend!