Will J. J.

Day-to-day musings and occasional short stories for your delight.


Leave a comment

The Last Toy

 

Have you ever longed to return to a specific moment from your childhood, and change something? I can’t go back, but today it feels like I’ve finally done right by the little boy inside me, and I can’t help but smile.

 

Growing up, my family was very poor. My toys were few, mostly ragged trinkets from the goodwill. Every Sunday, my mom read the newspaper, and I would scour the toy ads, knowing that we couldn’t afford any of them. I would cut out the pictures of the toys and save them, playing with those pictures as if they were the toys themselves. I had an entire fleet of Star Wars ship pictures, and they were far more portable than most toys, because I could slip them all into a folder and take them anywhere. Still, any time one of my pictures was ripped or got wet, I was reminded of just how little I had.

kraft mac and cheese

In 1998, Kraft ran a promotion with their macaroni and cheese products for DC superheroes. If you mailed in a certain number of box tops from these kraft boxes, Kraft would mail back one of three toys: a Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman figure from the cartoons running at the time. As a kid, superheroes were the one fandom I was a part of, and seeing this promotion lit up my eyes. I had my sights set on the Superman balancing toy, because it portrayed him in flight, and I thought that was incredibly cool. We already ate mac and cheese on a regular basis, so all I had to do was collect the box tops and mail them in.

 

For the next couple of months, I carefully collected and stored the labels, until I had enough. I still recall the day I licked the stamp and mailed the envelope, specifying that I wanted the Superman toy. After that, I waited. Weeks went by, then months. In my naivete, I assumed that Kraft was simply slow with their response, and it would arrive any day. After over 6 months, I finally asked my mom, who had forgotten about the matter entirely. We called Kraft and explained that we had mailed in the box tops but never received anything back.The representative apologized, but said that they no longer had that toy line in stock. They offered me a Rugrats toy instead. A RUGRATS toy??? Are you kidding me? Rugrats cannot compare with the joy of imagining a hero flying over buildings and beating bad guys. Through tears, I told them not to send the Rugrats toy.

 

It might seem like a small matter, but to a 6 year old boy, it was devastating. I did everything I was supposed to. I collected the box tops. I mailed them in, following the instructions. I waited patiently for months, and I received nothing. When you’re a kid, your world is much smaller. You focus on the few things you’re aware of, and they are your everything. My view was even more narrow than most kids, so I invested a great deal of hope on that toy.

 

In the months and years to come, my life moved in other directions, but I never forgot about that Superman toy and that experience. I think it was the feeling of sorrow and injustice that stuck with me. Obviously I wanted the toy, but had I received it, I doubt I’d still be thinking about it years later. The lesson seemed to be that, no matter what you do, the world doesn’t always respond fairly, and that lesson stung. From that moment on, the toy represented far more to me than just play value.

 

When I reached my teenage years, I started intermittently combing through the internet, searching for the toy. It was years before I found any mention of the toy line or promotion, and I never found any for sale. After over a decade of looking, I had little hope of finding the toy, but I’d check every now and then, just in case. I never found any for sale until last week.

 

Emily and I were discussing a package UPS had shipped my way. There were issues with the shipment, and I was thinking through the steps I would need to take to get my package or a refund. Something about that thought reminded me of this toy, once again, and I offhandedly searched for it, the first time in a few months. Lo and behold, I found a man selling the exact toy on ebay, and I hastily bought the item, more excited than I would have thought possible.

superman toy

The toy came in yesterday, and I unboxed it in a fury. The man had never opened it, as the toy was still wrapped in the sealed plastic bag, as it would have in 1998. It felt like I was a 6 year old boy again, and all the expectation and sadness came rushing back to me, this time capped with a warm blanket of satisfaction, made all the more fulfilling because of the extremely protracted wait. I can’t go back and give this toy to that 6 year old boy, but even now, 19 years later, this is something worth celebrating 🙂

Advertisements


1 Comment

Mystery and Possibility

Day 3471

Hello my friends 🙂 Today I want to talk with you about my favorite thing in the world: the power of mysteries.

What is a mystery? Anything that is kept secret, is unknown, or unexplained, is a mystery. Mysteries are all around us. Anything that you don’t know can be a mystery. How big is the universe? What will the weather be like tomorrow? My favorite sorts of mysteries are the ones that enable us to wonder and test the limits of our imagination.

In mid-April, my girlfriend, Emily, and I celebrated six months together, and we traded gifts. Her present was one of the most thoughtful and incredible gifts I have ever received. Rather than giving me a single gift to unwrap right then and there, she gave me 10 individual gifts, each within a small, manila envelope marked with instructions detailing when to open it. Instructions like “open when you need a good laugh”, “open when you’re bored out of your skull”, and “open when you’re feeling down”.

Over the last month and a half, I’ve gradually been opening each envelope, as the situations have presented themselves, and three days ago I opened the envelope that read, “open when you need some inspiration”. I reached inside the manila envelope and found a smaller, blue envelope with a card inside.

 

photo (36)

Tearing open the blue envelope, I slipped the card out, and nearly opened that too, but I waited, holding the card in my hand.

 

photo (35)

Sitting there at my desk, I was excited and giddy, but I didn’t open the card right away. I set it on my desk and took a step back. I wanted to savor the moment. You see, I realized that no matter what was inside the card (more on that next journal entry), Emily had already given me the greatest gift possible. My mind raced, picturing what could have been inside. As long as I left the card unopened, it could have contained anything, and that possibility is what was so precious to me.

Looking at that card, I was reminded of my favorite TED talk, given by J.J. Abrams. In his talk, the writer/director spoke about a box he bought from a magic store when he was a child and had kept, unopened, all the way to the present day. J.J. showed the box to the crowd, and he said that the reason he had kept that box all those years, and never opened it, was because that box represented infinite possibility, hope, and potential. The actual contents of the box mattered far less than the potential for the box to carry anything he imagined, as long as it remained a mystery. So long as mystery is present, possibility is endless.

I’ve always found that thought powerful, and sitting at my desk with Emily’s card in hand, I could only smile, because she had invigorated me without me even having to open the card. Mysteries have been a big part of my life, ever since I was a child, and they’ve never failed to inspire me. The power in a mystery lies in its ability to get you asking questions. Imagination is built on questions, and a single question can redefine everything. Maybe you won’t ask the right questions at first, but if you never ask any questions, you’ll also never find the right ones.

You can check out J.J.’s talk here! I highly recommend it.


2 Comments

Catching Up

Day 3049
Image
     Hello friends! 🙂 Many apologies for my nearly two week absence. Truth be told, the past ten days have been an emotional roller coaster, and I just haven’t had much time to slow down until this very moment. So it seems only fitting that today, on my first opportunity to take a step back, I discuss the blistering pace of life.
     A couple of days ago, I reconnected with an old friend, and until we started talking, it hadn’t occurred to me just how much time had passed since our last conversation. I guess that’s just the way life goes sometimes. Your focus shifts, your priorities fluctuate, and before you know it, everything around you has changed. It’s not that you necessarily care any less about the people or places or events that once dominated your time and energy. It’s that life continues to move forward no matter what we do, and we can only carry so much with us along that journey.
     I remember, as a young boy, thinking that time moved far too slowly. I would look at the clock and eagerly wait as the minutes crawled by. An hour felt like a year, and a month felt so far away that I could not even fathom its span. As I’ve grown older, my perception of time has subtly, stealthily shifted, until it now feels like time passes so quickly that I can scarcely keep up. It is as if I am atop a high-speed train, and the wind is blowing so fiercely that I can only hold on for dear life.
     I’m fairly certain that most people experience a similar change in their perception of time as they age. That’s part of the aging process, isn’t it? The gradual transformation in viewpoint, imperceptible moving forward but impossible to mistake in hindsight. Recently, I watched a wonderful short film, called The Eagleman Stag, which portrays the quickening perception of time as a man progresses through his life. The film is, at times, very abstract and insists upon multiple viewings, but it is also absurdly inventive and insightful. Plus, it’s a stop-motion animation crafted entirely from foam, which is itself an astounding achievement. Definitely worth a watch, check it out here.

Image
     My own experience echoes the sentiments of the protagonist. As time passes, each moment seems smaller and smaller. The reason for that increase in momentum is a topic that has long fascinated me. The Eagleman Stag illustrates that the relative size of a single moment decreases as time passes because we have experienced more moments. In other words, a single drop of water seems far less significant falling into the ocean than it does into a tiny glass. I like to think, however, that there is more to this phenomenon than simply a changing of scale.
     Looking back at my childhood, it seems to me that one of the major differences between then and now is not just how much time I have been alive but also how much time I have to myself. As a kid, we have lots of free time, to play and learn and just BE. As we grow, we are slowly saddled with responsibility, and that free time diminishes. Not that it has to disappear completely, but it becomes much more precious to us, because the supply has decreased. Between the schools, relationships, jobs, and a thousand other priorities, the days blur together. Rather than having the excess time of our childhood, we are left with a deficit. Nestled within this transition is the fact that life itself has sped up. Seriously, everything moves faster now than it did even ten years ago. The pace of the world is increasing irresistibly every second, so of course our view of time has changed in response. In a world where instantly is too slow, patience is not necessarily seen as the virtue it once was.
     I, for one, love slowing down and reminiscing about old times. I used to read my old journals and relive old memories regularly, pondering how I had changed and what remained at my core, but over the last few years, I’ve found myself reminiscing less and less. I don’t believe it’s because I’ve grown any less fond of the past, I just don’t have nearly as much time to sit around thinking. Pondering, while personally rewarding, is not always financially so. The challenge is to gaze ahead without forgetting to look back.


2 Comments

Why Superheroes Mean Everything

Day 3036

Image

           Superheroes are awesome. They’re inspiring, iconic, and exciting. Superheroes have been a part of my life since a day when I was three years old, when my father bought me an assorted pack of comics from Kmart. Inside were issues of Iron Man, Captain America, Fantastic Four, Thor, and The Avengers. From that day onward, my love for superheroes was born.

            I may not have known what the words meant at three years old, but I knew that every panel, so packed with action, looked colorful and appealingly chaotic. As I grew up, those comics assumed greater meaning for me. My father and I used to visit the local comic shop every few weeks and pick up a few issues. My father was a stay-at-home dad, so I spent a great deal of time with him, but those trips to the comic shop were especially precious to me. I still remember the first time we stepped through the doors to that comic book store, and I spotted the display of action figures and statues lined along the walls. I knew that greatness surrounded me.

            What is it that makes superheroes so appealing? Beyond the colors and action, there is something distinctly relatable about most superheroes. They may possess extraordinary powers, but they grapple with their own personal struggles, just like the rest of us. The only difference is that their problems are amplified to ridiculous proportions.

 Image

 yup, pretty ridiculous

            Iron Man has always been my favorite superhero. Interestingly enough, Iron Man was not a popular superhero until the first movie was released in 2008, so I spent my childhood collecting comics of a character whom most of my friends were completely unfamiliar with. In many ways, the character of Tony Stark was the complete opposite of me as a child. Whereas I was shy and reserved to a fault, he was someone bold and brash who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. What attracted me to Iron Man above all other heroes, however, was his origin story.

            How do most superheroes gain their powers? Some are born with them, like Superman, Wonder Woman, and most of the X-Men. Many others receive their powers in freak occurrences, like the Flash, Hulk, and Spiderman. What made Iron Man so unique to me is that he created his own superpowers using only his mind, without any cosmic or uncanny influence. Iron Man’s real superpower isn’t his armor at all, it is his mind, and he used his intelligence to escape from his captors. The hallmark of many early Iron Man stories wasn’t the invincibility of his armor, but the ingenuity of its creator, and his ability to find a solution to the problem at hand, no matter the odds against him. That was a powerful message for me as a child, the idea that your mind could be the greatest superpower of all, leading you away from certain doom time and time again.

            When my parents divorced, that message became all the more meaningful. Throughout a custody battle that stretched on for years, one of the only constants in my life was Iron Man. His exploits were a sanctuary for me in times when all I wanted was to escape from my life. When the battles around me turned bitter and I didn’t know whom I could trust, I turned to Iron Man. He was someone I could look up to, even though he wasn’t real. What began as a bond between my father and me transcended that relationship entirely. The first comic I ever read was Iron Man issue 300, and that particular issue features a moment where Tony Stark must stand up to his father in order to escape a prison of sorts. Ironically, when push came to shove in my parents’ custody battle, my life mimicked that issue eerily, and it felt like déjà vu when I was forced to stand against my own father.

 Image

           the comic that started it all for me

             Superheroes provide a sense of wonder and excitement, but that is not all they do. There is so much more beneath the surface, beyond the outlandish scenes. Superheroes represent a source of strength inherent in each of us, and all the explosions and epic clashes merely exaggerate the conflicts of reality. If there is one lesson superheroes have taught me, it is that the ability to think and the will to press onward are superpowers in themselves, ones every bit as powerful as those from the comics.


2 Comments

The Best Spring Break Memories

Day 3023
     All this week, I’ve had friends sending me pictures and videos from all sorts of destinations as they enjoy their spring breaks. I’ve always been a big fan of spring break, because it seems to come at the perfect time, just when daylight savings time sets everyone’s clocks forward and the cold of winter begins to break. Additionally, any student (or teacher) will be quick to praise the week-long mental vacation in the middle of the semester to reset their batteries.
     Since I graduated last December, this is the first year that I can remember when I haven’t had a spring break, and if not for my friends’ messages, I might have forgotten that the institution existed at all. Over the past few days, I’ve been reminiscing about some of my favorite spring break memories over the years, and I thought I’d share two of them with you.
Image
David, me, and Bryan
     My cousins. Bryan and David. These boys have been two of my best friends and closest family members for my entire life. David is three years younger than me while Bryan is three years my senior, which allowed us all to mature in a staggered manner. As an only child, one of the occasions I looked forward to most was getting to see Bryan and David during my school breaks, and the moments I spent in their company helped guide me through many hard times.
     When I was 12, they took me to the Star of Texas Fair for the first time, which was much like the state fair with a massive carnival and lots of unique vendors. We went to that fair several times over the next few years, but that first year stuck with me most, because that was when we discovered the spray painter. I cannot for the life of me remember the man’s name, but he had an outdoor booth with a massive, white tarp laid across the ground and dozens of spray paint cans lined back and forth. When we approached his booth, I immediately noticed several pieces of his artwork displayed behind him, each painted in bold colors and depicting scenes from out of a dream. I was drawn in by their ethereal qualities.
     The man was crafting a new painting when we walked up, and another couple watched from the opposite side of the booth. He didn’t paint with a brush but straight out of the can, spraying wide swaths of paint before using torn bits of paper and cardboard to smear the paint into amazing designs. The entire process took only a few minutes, and he had transformed a blank poster into a moonlit beach paradise. After the couple paid him for the piece, the artist greeted us. David urgently begged for a painting, and the man joyfully accepted, promising that if he could not finish the painting before the song currently playing on his stereo ended, David would get the painting free. In less than two minutes, he painted a beautiful beach sunset with rich colors and exotic palm trees for my cousin, finishing the painting with time to spare.
     We visited the painter at the fair the following year, and I purchased a painting of my own, requesting a cosmic design with a staircase leading to the top of a tower on another world. He happily made my vision a reality in less time than it had taken me to explain it to him. I eventually had that painting framed, and it currently rests above my fireplace as a reminder of simpler times and the power of imagination.
     The following year, we returned to the fair once again, but the painter was nowhere to be found. We never did see him again, but wherever he is, I wish him only the best.
 Image
The painter titled it: Aurora
   The second memory I would like to share is one I hold very dear to my heart. This story describes one of the best days I have ever experienced, and I hope to never forget that day, no matter how long I live.
     I was 17, and it was the Friday of spring break. Bryan, David, and I had spent the break together, enjoying the kind of adventures we only seemed to have with each other. They were set to head back to Austin from Fort Worth that Friday morning, and as I woke up that day, I felt a sadness rising up within me, because I knew I would miss them, and I wasn’t sure when we would all be together again.
     All throughout my childhood, I always hated having to part with my cousins. Each time we said goodbye as kids, I wished I could spend just one more epic day with them. Alas, my wishes went unfulfilled every time, until this particular Friday. Once Bryan and David had woken up, I made them bagels and eggs for breakfast, and after a few parting laughs, they departed, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
     I paced around the house for a while, not sure what to do with myself. After flipping through channels for a bit, I shut off the tv and just laid on the couch, reliving exploits of the preceding days in my mind. Less than an hour after they had left, I received a call from Bryan telling me that he and David were stranded just outside of Fort Worth after a part fell off their car in the middle of the highway. Instantly, I rushed out the door and met them at the parking lot where they had stopped, just outside of a golf course. Sure enough, there was a pulley missing from the car’s underside.
     From there, the three of us set off on an epic quest across town to pick up the pulley along with tools to secure it. Everything that day seemed to fit perfectly into place. The task before us seemed daunting, but we were exuberant, because we saw it as a bold crusade for the three amigos. We needed google maps on my phone to find the nissan dealership, and just as my phone was about to die, we reached a Walmart and bought a car charger. The cashier at Walmart even recommended us to an auto parts store nearby with the best deals. At the nissan dealership, we found that our pulley was just cheap enough for us to afford. We were famished by that point, and one of the nissan salesmen offered us complimentary hot dogs and chips.
     When we reached the auto parts store, the cashier there helped us avoid a fatal mistake in sizing a socket to our pulley. Driving around town between destinations, we recalled old memories and told ridiculous stories that only we would find funny. There’s something about David’s laugh too. When I hear it, I can’t help but laugh even harder. Apparently my own laugh has the same reaction for him also, so things escalate quickly. Arriving back at Bryan’s car, we started disassembling the undercarriage, and several more kind folk offered us any help they could. I cannot stress enough how much the kindness of complete strangers astounded us that day. From the kind cashier at Walmart to the man who generously offered Bryan a few dollars, everyone we came across that day was genuine, friendly, and helpful beyond belief.
     By sunset, thanks to the help of countless others, we had successfully replaced the part and gotten the car working again. To celebrate, the three of us went to Chili’s and laughed so riotously about the day that our waitress thought we were drunk. It was a grand old time. At the end of our meal, when we headed our separate ways, there was no linger sadness, only bright smiles, because we finally got that one more day together, and it was better than perfect. It was a mission of contentment.
Just a reminder, my debut novel, Darkness Reflected, will be available across all ebook platforms on March 21st 🙂