Being a geek saved my life.
I’m sure that to many, that might seem like an exaggeration. It’s not. I honestly don’t know how else to describe the period in my life from August 1996 to May 1999 if not that way. Oh, not that I stopped. Visit my house after all. I had an Avengers groom’s cake. I’m choosing to focus on that period though because it begins, more or less, with my introduction to Star Wars and ends with The Phantom Menace. And more to the point it begins middle school and ends it. Middle school was a nightmare.
If my life were as neat and orderly as a hollywood film, then I would know nothing of the major geek world until the start of my story but that’s implausible in this culture and it sure ask hell didn’t work that way. I was definitely what you would call a dabbler. Biggest area of dabbling was The X-Files. I watched that show quite avidly. But yeah, I’d read the occasional comic book. (1) I had read novelizations of The Death of Superman and Batman: Knightfall. (2) I knew a tiny bit about Star Wars and Star Trek through cultural osmosis. I’d read FoxTrot though hell if I got the references. Loved the strip then and now btw. So yes, I was primed to become an intense geek. I just wasn’t there.
I should discuss elementary school. How was that for me? Well from I’d say first until 4th grade, it was fairly, um, not good. For starters I was a horribly disorganized student, always losing things. My handwriting was awful. I hated math. And then I had a tendency to explode over anything. Violent outbursts for me were just expected. And oh how the other kids figured that out. Things were bad in Houston but when we moved to Conway they only got worse. I was chased home a time or two. It was made explicitly clear that nope, I wasn’t wanted.
And then in fifth grade, it just…stopped. Don’t ask me why. It just stopped. I blossomed. Things were great. I have no idea what happened. It just did.
But the calm wouldn’t last. I hate change and changing schools scared the hell out of me. Suddenly I was growing up. I didn’t like it. And so I spent a full summer fighting it. I didn’t hide it either. Oh, I fought it tooth and nail. And my first day? It was traumatic and it didn’t get better. About the only good thing? The library. The library was awesome. And it had two books that would spark me to life: the novelizations of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and most importantly Star Wars.
So it was I grabbed the books and read them. CE3K was great and really touched me, but Star Wars… Man, there’s something about that first moment you grasp a first sip of something massive like that. I was hooked, at least until I left the book at school in the middle of reading it. Fortunately I could grab the full trilogy for 6 bucks at the local independent bookstore. (3) So it was that I powered through. And yes, my first exposure to Star Wars came in prose. This thread will run through my story. I did of course watch the films though! Of course I did. The books failed to capture what the films had to show.
From there, I was hooked. But with a mass of books on the market, how to decide where to go next? I started with Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, the novel based on the idea for what a Star Wars sequel would have been had the film not been a hit. Like the novelization it came from the pen of the great Alan Dean Foster, who is still working in the field today. And about that time, I got the news that the films were coming back to theaters in the Special Editions. I was really to fling myself into this new world.
And about that time I had very good reason to. Middle school was overwhelming in every way. Getting from class to class, remembering several sets of homework, and being out of my routine were all hell to me. But they paled next to the teasing. Here’s what adults didn’t understand then and I strongly doubt they understand now: kids fundamentally can’t ignore teasing because they hear the message inside the message which is simply that they are different and they are lesser for it. You tell a kid to ignore it and it won’t work. You also put the onus on the victim. So yeah, forgive me if I couldn’t ignore the constant reminders that I wasn’t like everybody else.
How was I teased? Mostly screaming in my ear. They’d do that and I’d go off. In retrospect, this has to do with my suffering sensory overstimulation. I am extraordinarily sensitive. No filter at all And yes, I suffer from outbursts. Let me stress that present tense. I still face these issues. Medicine does help but yes, I have issues with anger. They were really bad then though. And the treatment: go to the counselor where I’d be told to ignore it. To not react and give them the power. He was a nice guy, I stress and I thank him for trying as best he could. The system just wasn’t set up right.
Before I shift back, there are people to thank. Guy Gault, LoriAnn Gregory, Shawn Edquist, David Maxwell, Laura Harvey. You guys were there. Thanks eternally. (and of course my family.. We’re tight knit)
So, with things where they were, how did I get by? Geeking. If you discover Star Wars, Star Trek can never be far behind and First Contact hit in November. Man, I love that film. I knew only the bare bones of Trek walking in but I was entranced by the cast, especially Patrick Stewart conveying the pain of a trauma victim facing his attackers again. To non-fans, I still recommend it. There was also the animation geek in me (4) who got a sad taste of being let down by Space Jam. (5) Still, I saw Independence Day about the same time. It wasn’t all bad.
Christmas came and went. My dad got me a documentary on the making of Star Wars. I should note my nerdiness exists as a gene not shared within my family. But my dad always tried and succeeded to encourage it. Awesome little doc. And it had a first taste of the Jabba the Hutt footage that would show up in the Special Editions. So let me pause here to note that this is not a comment on the quality of the SEs because you know what? I needed them. And sitting in that theater watching A New Hope, man that was bliss.
That was month one. February 1997 brought a moment that started dark and, I’m uncertain to say became a happy one. My grandmother went into the hospital and, being stuck in Huntsville at their house (6) while my father went to the hospital. And so I went walking around Huntsville for the first time. I wonder if I’ve fully conveyed what going for a bike ride or walk meant. Another note. But anyway, that morning in Huntsville, I grabbed a Star Wars paperback–The Truce at Bakura which was solid–and walked back up that hill. This might not be essential but here’s the thing: it wasn’t a great time for me. The teasing weighed on me.
Then, the week of my 13th birthday, I got sick. OK, before I get to the illness, let me stress this: things were still really bad at school. The teasing was brutal, especially on a field trip, I recall. And I was dreading turning 13 because I hated change. So yes, I got very sick. A nasty flu. I’d also broken my arm that winter. Not a great time to be me. Until I hit 2-27-1997. Sure I was sick but that day was a good one. My parents got me the Star Wars trilogy–widescreen edition–on VHS as well. That, that I cherished. Beautiful slipcase. The week ended with seeing The Empire Strikes Back at the Wynnsong 10. (7)
And then… Well I had to get to Spring Break which brought a trip to Memphis, the first of many. And that was nice. I went to the Memphis zoo, though I preferred my second trip. (8) Then I went back to school and things broke. That’s the best review for it. The facts are this: after another episode, I was pulled out of Conway Public Schools in Mid-April 1997 and did not return until August 1998. I was homeschooled instead. The plain and simple truth was things were rotten and the school showed no sign of fixing it.
Thus begun the first of two lost periods in my life. (9) So what happened during it? Well my mother oversaw my education through May and starting again in August. In my free time, I was as if a ghost. The movies took on a new meaning. There was of course Return of the Jedi SE at the first Breckenridge Village. Austin Powers. I also first really got into online work, becoming a message board moderator on Compuserve. I debuted at that with what was in retrospect a way too nice review of The Lost World.
And that brings us to the summer. I just plain flung myself into the world. The Han Solo trilogy popped its first two books out this summer, and they were so very satisfying. The Fifth Element was in theaters. The online world was embryonic but it was there. Star Wars Episode I was confirmed that summer. The X-Files movie too. There were hard moments too. Batman and Robin, though that sent me into the source material to understand why Batman was so mangled there. Men in Black was one of the first moments I realized how much trailers could ruin a movie.
And then we hit the fall. And honestly, it was a very quiet time. My moviegoing hit a near record low. My usual weekend consisted of going to Hastings, buying a book or two, and reading it. But again, I leaned into my geekery. I eagerly followed the progress of the X-Files movie, my head exploding seeing the teaser at the movies. That Star Wars prequel was out there. As were Lost in Space and Godzilla. (10)
Then there was the moment in December. The diagnosis. I’ve written about it before. I will write about it again. Look, what you need to know is that it was the moment I could never say that I would just grow out of it. Things would get better. They were fated to. But know this: I didn’t know that. But yeah, the diagnosis happened.
And then in the spring, two things happened. First, the message board died. It was heartbreaking when it did. My contacts faded fast. It was a support system. The second seems silly but was seismic. With change from the Lost in Space novelization, I bought an Iron Man novel. I knew nothing about the character. His armor just looked cool. So I read it and it was instant. The first hit of an addiction destined to consume a man. I wasn’t new to Marvel, having read at least one other. But this, this was something powerful. I read every Iron Man book, well both of them. Then to Spider-Man. Then to X-Men. Hulk. I was in. In on the prose novels. The actual comics wouldn’t show up until after this story is over. (11) But if you know me, you know they did.
I saw very few movies that summer. Godzilla which I liked once then quickly realized had problems. Armageddon, same deal. And The X-Files movie. My first true movie geek moment at least in modern form. The film itself has definite issues. But this isn’t the place. I’d followed that film from announcement to release. When it finally hit, I was just happy to have crossed that mark. It was a long journey through a rough year. And damn it felt good to watch.
August came and brought signs of hope. I took a mission trip with two of the Marvel novels stashed in my bag. I started preparing to go back to school half days. (Four core classes) Oh, my appendix burst. That happened. It kept me from my first days of school. In general, the tone towards the end of summer was a landing after a long flight. The lights had come up after the darkness.
And things were better. The half day structure was a nice ease back in. I had friends. But most importantly, everybody forgot about me. That was a genuinely nice feeling. If I couldn’t be liked, I’d be forgotten. A unit on newspapers also gave me a source of joy. Getting a first taste of journalism was destined to lead me to my present.
My geekiness was of course fueled that fall by the first trailer for Star Wars Episode I. The internet was of course all abuzz with the hype and I was deep in it. To kill time though, I leaned into print. The Star Trek novels were unusually god during that era. The Star Wars novels ended their time at Bantam with a thundering finale. I continued to dig my way through the Marvel Prose novels. Film was a bit lighter. I mean I was a burgeoning geek and even I wasn’t touching Star Trek: Insurrection.
The spring continued that narrative. Lots of books but mostly the wait for Episode I. That wait was incredible. It infused every trip to the movies with a sense of just marking time. Hell even visiting the bookstores felt hollow since hey, I was just waiting for the tie-ins. Not that there weren’t good ones. Adam Troy-Castro’s Sinister 6 trilogy started, though it was sadly fated to go unfinished at Boulevard due to legal issues. (12) But Wing Commander–which I never saw–sure as hell wasn’t Episode I.
Then May hit and it hit well. I co-hosted a talent show which was a ton of fun. The next year I was slated to go into high school at full time and on a journalism path. I was genuinely kind of excited about my future. I had friends. Bike rides were frequent. Why shouldn’t my life feel good?
So I’m choosing to end this on seeing Episode I. It’s the logical place to stop. And look, I could argue the merits of the film but why? I think it’s a mixed bag upon studying with equal parts great and several really horrid things. But that’s not what I felt. I enjoyed the film when I watched it that day. It was far from ideal, a 4:30 afternoon showing at towne centre. No geeks there. But it was new Star Wars and it was a joy to say that I made it. So when those beautiful notes signaling the end of a Star Wars film hit, I felt happy. (13)
What happened next? Well, that’s a story for another day. Another episode if you will. But that summer the casting began on X-Men and Spider-Man… 😉
(1) Archie fan for life. Archie and Disney comics. Still a fan. I also had a few comics here and there from the big 2. But I hardly had any idea of the stories in the books. Heard about the Clone saga once at that time. Nope.
(2) I still own copies of both. And have heard audio dramas of both.
(3) Ah the late and mildly lamented Bookmasters, open from November 1995-May 1998. I liked the owner. I bought some formative purchases during their run. The big issue? Once I memorized the stock, it didn’t change. Common to small bookstores. Not their fault. The store shifted from a mainstream store to a Christian bookstore due to the cultural climate. Lots of great memories.
(4) Very short version: I figured I would outgrow animated films which saddened me since I liked them so much at that age. Did that happen? Well look, I took my wife to see Frozen so no, it didn’t. The only films I outgrew were the ones I don’t feel bad about outgrowing.
(5) http://thefilmroom.podbean.com/2013/07/18/tfr-7-send-in-the-toons/ I said everything I could about that film here.
(6) That house is today occupied by my brother and his wife. There are still happy memories being made there.
(7) The Wynnsong 10 was open from December 1995 to August 2004. I went during the tail end of their run. It was kind of eerie honestly. Not even 10 years and they went from THE theater in Little Rock to forgotten. Too much competition from the new Breckenridge village which remains a great theater and the Rave. Honestly, I saw a few good films there. Not much else to say.
(8) The second trip had two real pandas and one metaphorical.
(9) The second was summer 2007-summer 2008. There will be an entry in time.
(10) Never did watch Lost in Space. Never going to fix that.
(11) Summer 2002. If there’s not an entry there will be. A lot of these will overlap.
(12) Boulevard lost the license in 1999. They would briefly get to clear out their stock in 2000. The Sinister 6 trilogy was complete by iBooks in July 2001 and March 2002. Of course I have both. Decent reads. First book was best.
(13) OK, on the Star Wars prequels since I’m dealing with them. As I said, I have severe issues with Episode I including Jar Jar and Natalie Portman’s awful work. (Jake Lloyd was a kid. Not his fault) I really love Attack of the Clones. It’s goofy and yeah the love story could be better but it’s so much fun! I go to the movies for rides like that. I’m not blind to the flaws. I just enjoy the film. Revenge of the Sith I give no qualifiers to. It’s an excellent film.