You made me promises, promises, knowing I'd believe…
from Promises – by Naked Eyes
It has been, for once, a simply lovely week here in Lake-world-be-gone, my new home. Our weather forecasts here, at any time of year, change on an hourly basis—often while you’re looking at them. For weeks now, they’ve been moving predictions of the next rain around the two-week forecast map: ‘Tomorrow. No, Wednesday—for three days straight. Actually, we meant Friday through the weekend. Nope, tomorrow—just like we said. Or perhaps Thursday next week…” This week, they finally just gave up and took rain off the map completely. Spring has clearly vanquished winter for good—again this year. Nighttime lows are finally in the fifties—which means it’s safe to plant impatiens, and tomatoes, and basil, and all the other plants of tender heart. We’ve put up two extra hummingbird feeders to tone down the incessant dog-fighting outside our windows. Crested wood ducks, blue herons, mink (or muskrats, we’re not sure), squirrels, deer, and a thousand birds in their newly donned spring courtship plumage pass through our yard like extras on a Nature Channel special. Our garden is unambiguously a garden again—more full of flowers every day—and I’ve finally had guilt-free time to spend out in it. Here, at last, is that serene island life I’ve been so dubious of in previous posts.
And yet, the week was also productive! I’m tearing through some pretty enjoyable freelance illustration for clients who are actually happy with me—and paying well! Shannon continues to burn an ever-wider swath through the verdant fields of Medium.com. There is apparently a contract in the mail from a real publisher, who—apparently—wants to actually publish a collaborative novel by Shannon and me. Can’t say more now—about any of these things—but you can bet I’ll fill in some blanks when the product I am helping to illustrate comes out, and that contract actually arrives, and we’ve actually signed it.
And to crown all this, I have just become the President of an actual corporation! That’s right, cyber-pals! Already learning how to smoke cigars. The corporation’s other member is Shannon, our Secretary. Now before everyone starts howling about patriarchy, I’d have been de-lighted to let Shannon be President—given my well-known allergy to winning and all. But as she set about creating our corporation in response to this year’s appalling tax return, she explained that the only ‘officer’ with any actual power to do anything, is the Secretary—as anyone who’s ever paid any attention to corporations anywhere must surely know already—and the last thing she’d want is to have me doing any of it. Because, you see, she really does appreciate my talents—and knows better than anyone exactly where they lie buried. The ‘President,’ it seems, only exists because there is a slot for it on innumerable forms, and someone must exist to sign those slots. I was happy to do my part, of course—having a very nice signature, if I do say so myself—and with Shannon at the actual—rather than titular—tiller, I have some hope that our new ‘business identity’ will float.
But even that was not the best or most important event here this week. No, the top slot on this week’s list of landmarks goes to a Facebook message I received Monday night from Trent Walters, an old friend in Nebraska. But before I share the text with you, I’d like to provide some context.
Years ago, I lived in Omaha for a couple years. (Catastrophic compass malfunction—since repaired—which we may touch on later in the ongoing exploration of my vast woods) Trent and I met there via a group of aspiring writers who gathered once a month at various local restaurants to lick each other’s wounds. Trent taught English classes then at a very small high school in a very small rural community well outside of Omaha. Some of his students had apparently never even seen Omaha, much less the wider world. In an effort to widen their horizons a bit, Trent asked if I would come talk with his class about being a commercial illustrator. I’d been asked to do this sort of thing many times before in other places, and happily agreed—having no idea how different this experience was going to be from those other classroom visits.
I drove for an hour or two to get there, through a gray, overcast landscape containing nothing except low, rolling hills covered in dry grass. The ‘town’ itself, when I finally reached it, was little more than a small cluster of clapboard houses and some utility buildings—very literally, ‘in the middle of nowhere.’ As I parked outside the school complex—small, isolated and ‘gray’, like everything else there—Luke Skywalker’s voice rose in my mind: “Well, if there’s a bright center to the Universe…”
Here, I must pause to acknowledge that I knew, and still know, nothing at all about that place or the people who live there. If I were one of them, I might know a long list of marvelous people, marvelous relationships, fascinating local history, fun, charm and beauties—large and small—visible only to someone who knew the place as they do. I am neither qualified nor entitled to judge this town—which might have been a far more peaceful, nurturing, and, in fairer weather, even beautiful place to live and grow up in than any city today. All I do here is describe my own impression and experience of that morning—as a know-nothing outsider.
That said, I walked into Trent’s dimly lit classroom, took one look at the dozen or two farm kids looking very uncertainly back at me, and knew that I was not remotely in Kansas anymore. This was clearly going to be a very challenging interview… ‘Hi. My name is Mark. I’ve come from the moon. And I’m here to talk to you today about extracting blithinium solicitate from core samples of lunar substrate. Now, who here’s ever been to the moon?... Anyone?’
Because I had worked for Lucasfilm Games and a host of other game and sci-fi book publishers, and so much of what I did ended up in well-known video games, it had rarely been much work to charm the school kids I periodically gave these talks to into thinking—at least for a moment—that I was ‘pretty damn fly, the bomb, dope as hell…’ or whatever else kids used to say—back in the previous century—when I still had any feel for the native lingo. But as Trent introduced me, these kids just looked back with no—faint—idea who I was, or why—I—was—here.
Seeing that Plan B—or C—was needed—urgently—right out the gate, I thanked Trent for inviting me, and went straight for the big guns, telling them about my work for Lucasfilm Games, and listing some widely known titles my art had appeared in. Their initial expressions, ranging from blank to mildly skeptical, shifted not at all—though it did seem at least a few of them had heard of computer games—or of computers, at least. Toughest room I’d worked since junior high, peeps. And I used every most desperate skill I’d learned there to make some small connection with these children of the corn. By the time I asked for questions, the room had warmed—a little. Q&A is the part of any presentation I am best at and most comfortable with, because that’s when my audience hands me the material, telling me who they are—and how to play to that.
Trent’s students were…polite. I recall a question or two about whether I had a girlfriend, and if I’d ever seen the Golden Gate Bridge, and whether it was really gold, or just orange like in all the pictures…
It seemed I might have been sufficiently ‘interesting’—or at least ‘odd’—to liven family conversation a little at their dinner tables that evening. (“‘Saw a heffalump at school today.’ ‘Yeah? Wha’dit look like?’ [Shrug] ‘Differnt from a woozel, I expect.’ Wha’d’it do?’ [another shrug] ‘Talked a while. …Left again.’”) But as for getting them excited, or even thinking a little harder, about potential futures… ‘Digital art?’ ‘Commercial illustration?’ ‘Art degrees?’ ‘Publishing and software companies?’ …Here, ambling to and from this small, dim school room on the endless gray, wind-swept plains of Nebraska, light-years from Omaha, much less the galaxy? I might as well have invited them to pack up, fly to Rome, and become the pope. I just managed not to shrug apologetically to Trent as I thanked them for their time and attention.
Walking back to my spaceship to fly back to the moon, I wondered what on earth those kids had made of such a bizarre, useless gesture. Did they think I was just there to show off a life none of them had even the capacity to dream of? Or were they just shaking their heads and wondering if I had even half an idea about anything useful—like how to fix a broke-down truck, or rub a cow’s fur back to check for maggots? While it had been a strangely fascinating experience for me, I left there feeling…truly ridiculous. There seemed no path at all between these kids’ lives and the world I’d tried to talk about. Surely, all I’d shown them was a more sharply focused definition of the word ‘oblivious.’ Oblivious of them—their lives and their world. I drove off wondering what it must be like to know every single person who actually lived in your world, sharing this small nest of well-worn rhythms and certainties so far away from even rumors of a wider world too unimaginably nonsensical to be anything but a dream, a TV show, or a not-quite-comprehensible joke.
Now, flash forward to last Tuesday morning, when I read the following message from Trent:
“Hey a former student just said your coming to class was the single most important moment in his education. It set him on the career path he’s in. Quote: ‘When you brought Mark Ferrari in and showed the possibilities of digital art, it ushered in a new world of thinking for me. I wouldn’t be a digital creative without you.” [‘you’ being Trent, I believe.] “Granted, all I am is a production artist for a late retailer, but I aspire to be much more.”
Well…I’ll be friggin’ damned!
I went downstairs to tell Shannon about it, and—for the second time in a week—had trouble keeping the lump in my throat down, and my eyes dry. Of all the improbable… To think that…
I believe that everyone changes the world they pass through—far more, and more often than they guess. But if any of us ever had the chance to submit a list to ‘God’ of ‘the most important things’ they’d ever done, I’d bet all of next year’s corporate earnings that not one of the things that really changed someone else’s life would turn out to be on that list. I have experienced this strange phenomenon too many times before. It’s never the things you did meaning to make a difference that did. It’s always some small or inadvertent little thing you’d already forgotten ten minutes later, or were never even aware of to start with, that changed someone else’s course. At least, that’s how it’s always worked for me.
But knowing—even just for a minute every now and then—that something you’ve done, even accidentally, left the world better than you found it… Well, thanks Trent—for changing my week, completely. And to that young man, who’s come all that way—and aspires to even more—thank you most of all! Now you’re the one inspiring me. And I’m likely the least beneficiary of your encouraging example.
Now…in regard to that ‘promise’ I made last week—about going to high school… Well, I lied—again.
As I sat down to work on the post I’d intended to write this week, I realized that, before leaving this last big chunk of my ‘junior high jungle’ behind, it might be time again for me to take a look back and see just what story I’d ended up telling here—and how I’d told it—and what notable and/or telling omissions there might have been. And boy-oh-boy, did I find a truck load of telling omissions!
As I’ve said before, this whole series of posts has morphed into something very different than I was imagining when I started writing it. “A few ‘back-story’ posts to provide context for a few more weeks of exploring current mysteries in my life” has clearly morphed into something more like a memoir. NOT what I originally set out to do. So why not rein it in?
Well, as also stated in a previous post, one of the things I am discovering during this journey is that explaining one’s self to others turns out to be a very good way to better understand what you’re trying to explain. But I’d like to flesh that assertion out a bit more. One of the things I have discovered—repeatedly—while writing these posts is that I may not know ‘my story’ nearly as well as I believed I did when I sat down to share it with you.
Taking these ‘looks back’ at big chunks of what I’ve written is one of the places I have most clearly discovered this. The further I go here, the more often I am finding big gaps in parts of ‘my story’ that I thought were all nailed down, or apparent connections between events I’d never put together before, as well as not-insignificant elements that don’t fit together the way I’d always thought they did—if at all—in any easily comprehensible way. The more aware I’ve become of how little I may know ‘what my story is’ after all, the more I begin to think maybe I’d better just let this story go—where it’s going—and see what else ‘shows up’ that I hadn’t anticipated or understood the way it’s come out here.
I have not written here about everything I’ve ‘discovered’ this way—because, well, how many little deer trails should I drag you all down, right? But Shannon and I have had many lively conversations during the past few months inspired by surprises that popped up here. And in one of those this week, she was smart enough to suggest that maybe I quit trying so hard to ‘structure’ this process. Stop telling people where this is going to go ‘next week’—or what you’re trying to do—or where it’s all supposed to end up. Maybe you don’t actually know, Mark. Maybe you’ll ‘see’ more if you stop trying to pretend you do.
She didn’t use all those words, exactly. I heard some of that more ‘in-between’ than ‘in’ her actual words to me. But I got the message. So…I may go on making predictions about where I plan to go next week—because I’m me, and all. But from this point on, it’s probably best to just quit believing me. :]
And…this week’s post seems plenty long enough to me already. So I’m gonna stop here for now. As for next week…? Well, I do have my suspicions, but I’ll just keep ’em to myself for now. The only promise I will make is that I’ll continue doing my best to make it interesting—and brief and concise as always.
Yeah. That was a joke.
Didja like it?
:] Until next week, cyber-pals, I wish each of you well—in every sense of the word. Thanks—as always—for coming along.