I. Gran Mal Hilarity!
When I was a kid, I had so many seizures.
“How many seizures did you have?”
So many… that I… was epileptic!
My seizures began with a particularly severe and frightening one when I was three, in December of 1982, and continued for years. My face would pale, my eyes would roll white, and I would fall back and begin shuddering. A porch light would flicker, or a cartoon would move too rapidly, or smoke from a fire would make me feel sick, and everything would flash white and electric, and I would feel my body tighten, would feel as if I was being thrown around, and everything would thrum and stress and fragment, and my field of vision would crack and splinter, divide, shatter, and divide again. Or I would just lose track of where I was, would feel sick and lightheaded and displaced. It would happen while I was awake, and while I was asleep. I would wake up with the bed wet, a headache, and nausea. My mom would come into my room and find me motionless and disoriented, and I would invent reasons for what was happening. I would say I had fallen, or had hit my head. In Arizona, where I was born and where I lived the first several years of my life, I would have seizures so severe they required hospitalization. In Austria, where my family moved when I was seven, my seizures would continue, as would extensive neurological testing, medications, and hospital stays. I had so many seizures when I was a kid, that I use them as markers of time. This happened before that seizure. That happened after that other one. I had major seizures, gran mal seizures, and I had minor seizures, absences or petit mal seizures—but honestly, when I look back through my medical records, it doesn’t seem as if I had all that many. I wouldn’t say I had that many seizures.
So, as a kid, in the early 1980s, I lived in the desert suburbs of Tempe, Arizona, in a single-story middle-class house on an open-ended cul-de-sac, and nearly every house that ringed that sunbaked circle of asphalt contained families with children. Often families with a lot of children. Our family had six, and then seven. The Tolmans down the street had nine. The Phoenix Metropolitan Area, including Tempe, was and still is home to thousands of huge Mormon families—the result of much of that part of the West having been colonized by Mormon pioneers—members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—almost exactly a century before. Partly as a result of that, our neighborhood boiled over with kids, and all of us played together in the wide street; shared pools and trampolines; biked and scootered and skateboarded from one house to the next. We escaped from the heat into air-conditioned houses to watch new VHS copies of The Goonies, and E.T., and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. We collected dried skins of cicadas from the white-painted trunks of orange and grapefruit trees. We dug holes in vacant lots. We swarmed; we thronged; we ran half-wild. Almost every night, we played until dark, except for Mondays when all the Mormon families had Family Home Evening, a sort of casual, at-home, weekly church service. There were just too many of us for our parents to even try to control. In the center of the neighborhood was a large, cement-ringed gravel triangle—“the Island,” we called it—the star of our neighborhood solar system. The Island had three tall palm trees growing on it, which all the kids would try and fail to climb; some small gray desert boulders; and a few bushes, one clump of which I hollowed out with clippers and turned into a secret fort, a fort that protected us only from not getting scratched up by bushes.
Every Sunday, half the neighborhood kids and I would sit in a sparsely decorated, brown-walled Mormon chapel and listen to adults read scriptures and lecture; then we would sit in a big room full of mostly kids and sing songs like “Follow the Prophet” and “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission”; then all the kids my age would sit with me in a smaller classroom and a jolly woman called Sister Little would teach us how great it was that God gave us legs or invented flowers. At home, every day, we would sit and kneel for scripture study and prayers; my teenage siblings would attend weekday Mormon doctrine “seminary” classes at their high school; and we all grew up being taught that a farm boy named Joseph Smith had prayed about which church to join back in 1820 and been told by God to join none and start his own. We were taught that God and Jesus had appeared floating above Smith on a hill in the woods in New York, floating in two radiant white blurs of light, and then given him an ancient book made of solid gold—the Golden Plates—and then Joseph Smith had translated the words on those golden plates using two magic rocks, and the story he translated was published as The Book of Mormon, after Mormon, its alleged compiler. The Book of Mormon told all about how a Jewish family had escaped from Jerusalem to the Americas and how half of them sinned and so were cursed by God with dark skin—turned from Jews into Native Americans (from “Nephites” into “Lamanites”)—for being evil.
The neighborhood had a lot of kids, partly because it had a lot of big Mormon families, and it had a lot of big Mormon families partly because the area had been settled by Mormon pioneers. The neighborhood also had a lot of cats. It was overrun with them. I like to think this was partly because maybe the area had, maybe, been settled by cat pioneers. I like to imagine the cat pioneers heading west dressed in petticoats and bonnets and hats and overalls, riding along in mile-long wagon trains, in tiny covered wagons—wagons filled with bags of dried cat food and cat toys and pulled by pairs of Old English Sheepdogs. I like to think of the cat pioneers occasionally finding some wild catnip and then dancing all night in the desert, around a cat-sized bonfire, to fiddle tunes. I like to picture the cat pioneers meowing happy versions of “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” as they rode determinedly through the desert. I even like to think of the humble cat pioneers’ solemn outdoor church services, a single tear running down the furry cheek of one as he ponders the profound beauty of the Cat Gospel. And, of course, I like to imagine that, when at last they arrived in Maricopa County, Arizona, the cat pioneers felt an immense relief at learning they could stop wearing clothes and traveling all the time and could just let humans feed and take care of them.
What did the cat pioneer say when he arrived in Arizona?
Um… ‘It’s purr-fect’?
No, he just made some meowing sounds. Cat pioneers didn’t speak English.
It’s kind of like you don’t know anything about cat pioneers.
My early childhood took place in the 1980s, during the final years of the Cold War, when the United States of America and the United Soviet Socialist Republic each had thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at each other, and the very real threat of mutually assured destruction was a daily presence. I sometimes hear people talk about the Cold War as if it happened only in the 1950s and ’60s, but I remember it absolutely saturating life in the ’80s. Perhaps this was because I grew up in one of the most conservative counties in the U.S., in a churchgoing community, with parents who spoke of President Ronald Reagan like he was a demigod, but I remember an almost-constant fear of nuclear annihilation, of the U.S.S.R. killing us all and destroying the Earth, and of one day looking up from playing on the Island and seeing mushroom clouds rising into the sky over the city of Phoenix. I remember thinking of the Russian people as a monolithic, incomprehensible horror; as an “Evil Empire,” as President Reagan called them; and my older brothers Matt and Rob have told me they remember being constantly afraid of World War III and of getting drafted. I remember feeling how scared my mom was of nuclear war, and I remember how scared that made me.
Once, I accompanied my dad on a business trip—most likely in November of 1983, when I was four—and my dad let me watch The Day After with him, from our beds in a motel room. A widely advertised TV movie, The Day After showed what a nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. might look like. I remember nuclear missiles coming up from the ground near a school, and every car stopping suddenly in traffic, and mushroom clouds taller than skyscrapers, and ash raining down, and a family unable to let their radioactive dog into their bomb shelter with them, and nuclear fallout, and my dad turning it off because I was too scared to speak, and was crying.
But even with epilepsy, the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, and all the problematic weirdness that went with growing up Mormon, I had a good childhood. I was lucky. I had parents who loved me, and who I loved, and who loved each other; siblings who loved me, and who I loved, and who usually got along; cats and a dog that I adored; friends I thought were the best; and a degree of casual neglect that at the time just felt like freedom. There are so many scenes I remember only positively: singing Madness’s popular song “Our House” in our house’s kitchen, to amuse my teenage siblings and their friends; playing in my dad’s company’s seemingly infinite warehouse full of playground equipment; and being awoken in the middle of the night to see Halley’s Comet—a mysterious white spot of blurring ice and dust in the late-night sky—through a telescope set up on the Island.
I also had books. My siblings taught me to write my name, “MIKEY,” and a preschool teacher whose name I may never relearn taught me how to read in a single day, using purple, mimeographed worksheets. I still remember that surge of excitement, like discovering a superpower, and a feeling of intense adoration for the woman who taught me. In kindergarten, I read my first chapter book, Top Secret: Alligators!, a 1976 children’s book about alligators living in sewers, and many more soon after. Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, the Animals Do the Strangest Things books, joke books, comic books, and the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Before long I was writing and illustrating a forgettable little book of my own a day—usually just a few pages long, and usually about our pets—and, determined to be a writer, drawing little Caldecott or Newberry medals on their covers. And I’ve been writing ever since. It’s strange to look back at my childhood and see so much of my life laid out before me, more or less—and to see how I never really chose any of it. I choose to write, but did I choose to choose to write? Or did having a literate family and a house full of books choose it for me?
If these years were a joke, I’m not sure of the punch line.
The rest of my life, I guess.
II. Story Jokes to Seize to!
Because I was my parents’ sixth child (out of seven), they were in their forties, and they were tired. My dad also owned and ran a small business, a regional playground sales company, which he traveled for almost constantly, and he was an unpaid local leader in the Mormon Church. I remember my dad being impossibly tall and enthusiastic, almost always wearing a suit-and-tie, and then gradually being less tall. My mom kept busy raising kids and with church-related responsibilities, and probably had some sort of undiagnosed health problem that left her with very little energy. Despite being, like my dad, a relentlessly positive and loving person, I remember her doing most of her parenting from beneath a blanket on a couch. My brother Rob grew up to be a successful author, Obert Skye, and he depicts our parents during this time perfectly in a series of children’s books he wrote, The Creature from My Closet. Perhaps because of her continual tiredness, when I was in kindergarten, my mom signed me up for nearly every extracurricular class and activity she could find. At one point, I was in gymnastics, wrestling, two swimming classes, t-ball, and piano—ensuring that I would never like sports or be good at them, and would never learn to play the piano. I hated those sports. The kids were mean, and I couldn’t help it that I was so skinny, that the medications I was prescribed left me uncoordinated, and that I just wanted to run around or to be left alone to read. Once, my mom dropped me off at a school, for wrestling, but it was the wrong wrestling class, and all the kids were three or four years older than me, and I just got destroyed for hours. When she picked me up later that night, I could barely get it together to sob-choke out what had happened, and would never let her even get me in the car again to go back there.
Once, there were six children, who lived together with their parents in a house in Arizona.
One day, one entirely-fictional-except-for-one-thing day, the six children in the house made a bet—to see who among them could have the most seizures.
LeeAnne—a long-haired teenage girl, the oldest, who loved reading, and travel, and Neil Diamond—went first. She had zero seizures.
Matt—a gangly but popular teenage boy, the second-oldest, exactly one year younger than LeeAnne—went next. He had zero seizures.
Julie—a stylish young teenage girl, the third-oldest, and, in a way, the person who raised me more than my mom did—went after Matt. She had zero seizures too.
Bobby—a pre-teen, fourth-oldest, the sort of weird kid who frequently walked around on the bottom of our pool in a homemade diving bell—went after Julie. He also had zero seizures.
David—about ten, the fifth-oldest, born with a mostly unquestioning and generally happy-go-lucky temperament—went after Bobby. He also had zero seizures.
Finally, Mikey, only about three years old, at the time the family’s youngest, took a turn. That was me. I had one seizure, and I won the contest.
The t-ball kids in particular were barbaric little ruffians, and their leader, a kid named Michael, never missed a chance to hit me or trip me or say something mean. He was in my first-grade class too, and one day, toward the end of the school year, I was in the school library and saw him walk past the open door, and an idea hit me that I’m still involuntarily proud of, even today. At the time, of course, libraries weren’t computerized. When you checked out a book, you wrote your name on a card kept in a paper pocket in the front of the book, and then the librarian filed the card away somewhere and stamped the due date on a paper grid glued inside your book’s cover. So when I saw Michael in that doorway, I decided to check out all the Roald Dahl books I had ever wanted to own—every one the library had, and some other books as well—and write Michael’s name on all their cards. I did, and got a dozen free books, and about a month later had the thrill of hearing our first-grade teacher—Mrs. Cuomo, I think her name was, a wizened middle-aged woman from Hawaii who obviously lived to despise all children—read out the list of all the kids who needed to return books to the library or pay for them. I remember when she got to Michael’s name and told him how many books he had out, and how much he owed, he stammered, “I’ve never checked those books out! I’ve never even heard of those books!” and the teacher insisting he must have and then happily giving him a bill to give to his parents. I genuinely hope they didn’t beat him or anything like that, but I felt like a criminal mastermind, and I loved it.
My dad bought our family a VHS copy of The Muppets Take Manhattan, and thinking about it now, it really was a lot like The Book of Mormon. Both The Book of Mormon and The Muppets Take Manhattan are lesser sequels to more-famous works—The Bible and The Muppet Movie, respectively. In both works, a ragtag group of mostly goodhearted ne’er-do-wells leaves home for a second chance at success. In The Book of Mormon, that group is a family from the about-to-be-destroyed city of Jerusalem who builds a boat and crosses the ocean, and whose descendants then populate all of North America. In The Muppets Take Manhattan, that group is the Muppets—colorful, floppy puppets. In both works, the characters end up in New York. In The Muppets Take Manhattan, they try to make it as performers. In The Book of Mormon, the characters divide into two tribes, the Nephites and the Lamanites, and kill each other off until there’s just one righteous Nephite, Mormon, left hiding out and waiting for the vicious Lamanites to come kill him.
In both works, Jesus somehow appears in a dramatic second-act twist, except not in The Muppets Take Manhattan. Also, unlike with The Muppets Take Manhattan, I was taught The Book of Mormon was true.
We had two cats back then, Whiskers and Sweet Pea, a gray-and-white cat and a white Siamese cat. Whiskers was always having kittens. Probably the only thing our neighborhood had more of than kids, was cats. Or maybe palm trees. I don’t think anyone ever had their cats spayed or neutered there, during that time, as there were cats and kittens everywhere, most only slightly less wild than if they had been strays. Once, my dog, Fred, a happy mutt, escaped from our back yard, and was chasing a cat two streets over, and a car hit him and killed him. The man driving the car found us by calling the number on Fred’s license, then brought us Fred’s large brown body in a black trash bag. My parents let me ride with them to bury him, and I will always remember his body making a horrifying, dull thud when it hit the bottom of that dumpster.
In April of 1986, when I was six-and-a-half, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded in the U.S.S.R.—arguably still the worst nuclear-power disaster ever—sending clouds of radiation drifting around the world. At the time, I was old enough to follow the news a little—mainly because I had five talkative older siblings—but not really old enough to understand it. I remember being so sure the clouds of poisonous atoms—whatever those were—were going to drift across the ocean and kill me and my family and my pets and my friends and everyone. I remember intense anxiety, and fear. And I remember going to my half-day kindergarten at Curry Elementary, coloring pictures while sitting on the floor of the bright, colorfully decorated classroom, making a comment to J.R., or Laura, or some other kid, about the atoms, and then realizing no one knew what I was talking about. So I told them, and then my mom had to come pick me up early because I had convinced everyone we were all about to die, and Mrs. Falconer, the young teacher, couldn’t get the class to stop panicking and crying.
“Children, no one is going to die,” she said.
There once was a boy from Tempe
Who had seizures when he watched TV.
He would fall to the ground,
And then shake all around,
And his mom would go call EMTs.
“Father wears his Sunday best.
Mother’s tired; she needs a rest.
The kids are playing up downstairs.
Sister’s sighing in her sleep.
Brother’s got a date to keep;
he can’t hang around.
“Our house, in the middle of our street.
Our house, in the middle of our—”
Look! Mikey has a spot.
Mikey’s spot is not a dog.
Mikey’s spot is a spot!
The spot is in Mikey’s head.
Mikey’s spot is a black spot.
The Black Spot is a dead spot.
The Black Spot makes Mikey shake.
Shake, Mikey, shake!
Says Julie, “Mom was wearing a light-pink house-dress; she was pale, I remember.”
It was cold for Arizona; this was sometime in December.
Says Rob, just as certain,“Your lips had turned dark blue.”
This was 1983, he thinks. No: 1982.
Says David, “I remember saying, ‘Please don’t die,’ and praying hard.”
Says Matt, “I forgot that you had seizures,” though he does recall the yard.
Whoa, what’s going on
with that kid? Why’s he shaking
like that, that’s freaky.
“An EEG done on 3/4/83, which was a repeat, showed definite evidence of a right frontal region focus, consistent with a seizure disorder. With this in mind, the following story regarding today’s events is communicated to me by the mother. He was well until this morning when he appeared flushed and was palpably warm. Then suddenly, following coherent and appropriate conversation with his mother, he stiffened slightly and seemed to lose touch with his environment. This persisted for approximately 2 minutes and was unassociated with automatisms, tonic or clonic movements. He was incontinent of urine. Mom placed him in a reclining position, and tried to retrieve his tongue whereupon he bit down and clenched his teeth making it virtually impossible for the mother to extract her finger for about 3 or 4 minutes. Despite her pleading, he would not release her. Obviously, he was unaware of his behavior. Just as mysteriously, he settled into a post-ictal stupor, sporadically communicating with his mother but largely sleeping. She brought him here by car.”
III. Ictal Exchanges!
Mikey: It’s true, it’s true, it was even on TV, the atoms are coming across the ocean!
Bobby: Mikey, do you even know what atoms are?
Mikey: They’re… like… poisonous chemicals. They poison you.
Bobby: No. Everything is made of atoms. This chair is made of atoms. You’re made of atoms. I’m made of atoms. Even the air is made of atoms. Atoms are just really small little things that everything is made of. Most atoms aren’t dangerous at all.
Mikey: …They’re not?
Bobby: No! And now, even those bad atoms that are on TV, they’re on the other side of the world. They have to cross a whole ocean to get here, and most of them won’t even make it. People on TV just like to make a big deal out of things. Even Mom and Dad are making too big of a deal.
Mikey: Oh. Like they did with the newt being lost in the house.
Bobby: Well… we do need to find that.
Free Will: I exist! And Mikey can do whatever he wants with his life. Anything at all! Who he is today in 1986 does not have to determine who he’ll be in 2015.
Determinism: If you exist, you exist. But circumstances have led me to believe otherwise. Just take a look at Mikey. The epilepsy and Mormonism alone will affect the rest of his life. And then there’s his genetics, his eccentric family, the houseful of books, the stresses and fears of the panic-prone 1980s—and where do you come in? The seizures and the medications he’ll take for them will shape how he thinks about everything—even the structure of this essay.
Free Will: Well, but just look at me! I really am real. So real. And so handsome! How could anyone call me an illusion?
Determinism: I found myself reading a medical website once that described the lasting effects of childhood seizures, and it was like reading a description of Mikey’s—Mike’s—future personality: his recurring headaches, his near-inability to manage money or meet deadlines or navigate a city or remember faces, his tendencies toward distraction and variety, his anxiety and depression, even the inclinations in his writing away from long blocks of text, toward smaller, more discrete units of prose. It was all there, listed as symptoms. In a seizure, the electrical activity shatters its way through the normal patterns of the brain, and the result is fragmentation.
Free Will: I really do exist. I exist—and I have a strong jaw. Look. Look at it. Look at it in profile. And I made myself this way.
Mike: Anyway, thank you for the tacos, I appreciate it.
Ronald Reagan: Well, thank you, young man, for not telling anyone I’m still secretly alive, in 2015.
Mike: It’s fine. I know you like your privacy.
Ronald Reagan: So tell me, Mike, why did you structure your essay like this—like a joke book, with sometimes-partially-fictionalized jokes written around nonfiction details?
Mike: Well, I was a goofy kid. Always trying to make my siblings laugh. And I think the essay’s fragmented, diminishing structure echoes the way my seizures have affected my brain and shaped my life. Also, I don’t really think growing up with epilepsy is funny, and this format ironically highlights that.
Ronald Reagan: I… am 104 years old. Science has kept me alive.
Mikey: Watch this, Angie and Becky. Watch this, everyone!
Angie: Mikey, you’re not allowed to go in people’s backyards. We have to walk straight home! Get down off the wall!
Mikey: No, watch, it’s okay, I’m just going to jump down and see how long I can stay in this yard with this mean dog, before I jump out. I’ll jump out right… at the last… minute.
Becky: Mikey, you have to listen to Angie, she’s oldest, she’s in charge!
Mikey: Okay, I will, just one second.
Angie and Becky: Mikey, no!
All the other kids: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!
Mikey: Whoa. That was close.
The whole family, in the living room, singing: Tick tock / goes the clock. / What is that it’s saying? / It’s time to have Home Evening. / That is what it’s saying.
Dad: And now that I’ve wound the big clock, let me wind our other clock—
Mikey, laughing, squealing: No!
Dad, holding Mikey, twisting a metal clock key into Mikey’s side: No, it’s very important that all the clocks get wound, every Monday night, before Family Home Evening.
Mikey: I’m not a clock, I’m not a clock!
Mikey: Oh! The kitten! Did you see that?
Mike: I did. Back when I was you. It’s one of those things I always remember, though it wasn’t much of an event. It was one of those little things that’s stayed with me now for decades.
Mikey: A decade is ten years.
Mike: …It is. I had been playing on the Island, and a mostly grown kitten of mine—yours—ours—was running around in the street. A car came driving up the street too fast and the kitten ran right into the side of one of the car’s tires, and the little cat flipped upside-down into the air, landed on its feet, and then ran away fast, with its tail all bushy. The driver screeched to a stop, and rolled down her window.
Mikey: I know, I just saw.
Driver: Is that your cat? Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, is it okay?!
Mikey: Yeah… I think so!
Mike: It’s so weird that we’re hanging out right now, in two different times. I should tell you about 9/11. You could warn people.
Mikey: You’re… Marcos got his head stuck in the moon climber on the school playground! The fire department had to cut him out. Now we don’t have a moon climber.
Mike: I… remember that. But look, in 2001, these terrorists are going to—
Mikey: I collected the whole sixth series of Garbage Pail Kids! Every card!
Mike: This may be difficult.
IV. Knock-knock Neurology!
Jimmy—one of Whiskers’ kittens, your favorite kitten ever—a kitten with radial agenesis—a condition that shortens the bones between a cat’s wrists and elbows and makes its front paws look folded inward and makes it have to hop on its back legs—a kitten you loved more than any other pet ever because of his differences and because he was so happy—a kitten who would come bounding toward you, purring as he hopped—and who your mom explained would be harder to care for when he grew up, and who, one day, while you were at school, your mom had taken away and killed.
Death. Radioactive, planet-wide death. Your death and the death of everyone you love.
I don’t want to answer that. …I don’t answer knocking like that.
“Mikey, where are all my unicorn statues? All of my unicorn statues and figurines are gone. Did you take them?”
“LeeAnne! Say ‘Who’s there?’”
“Mikey, you can’t just come into my room and take all my things, they aren’t yours!”
“Say ‘Who’s…’ They’re in our fort.
“I don’t know. …I was using them. For decoration.”
“Your… oh my gosh. Where is your fort?”
“On the Island. In the bushes.”
An epileptic child.
An epileptic child who?
An epileptic child who’s having a seizure and needs help. Actually he’s not even knocking, that’s just the sound of him convulsing, against a door.
A scorching, all-pervasive heat.
A scorching, all-pervasive heat, who?
A scorching, all pervasive heat that clamps down around everything, that makes metal playgrounds dangerous, that causes the metal tongues of seat belts to leave burn marks that I still have decades later, that makes you not even need a towel when you finish swimming, you just get out and you’re dry.
That’s a good question. Though maybe “What’s there?” would be better. Blinking awake in your bedroom trundle bed, you can hear the sounds of your family working in the backyard garden late at night, the scraping of shovels, the flickering of voices, everyone working at night since at night it’s not so unbearably hot. You get out of bed, still in a sleepy haze, and walk outside, where your brothers and sisters are all planting things or carrying bags of mulch and your mom is putting support cages around her young tomato plants. The light on the back wall of the house lights up everything almost supernaturally—not supernaturally in a Mormon way, but in a deeper way, in a way that illuminates the fundamental, unshakeable strangeness of all existence, a strangeness you will come to know increasingly well. A sibling says “Hi” to you, walking past you, carrying something.
That’s a good questio… all of… that… who?
You are so small and close to the ground. The others are giants in the dark. As if directed, you find a small hand shovel and begin digging in a white-brick planter against the outer wall of a spider-filled workshop area. You dig in the dirt, and soon you come to a buried cicada nymph. It’s like the cicadas you see on the neighborhood’s paloverde trees and ocotillo plants shedding their skins and screeching peacefully. But this one is all white, and not quite fully formed. Wingless. Bulbous. Pincered. Glistening moistly in the rich, dark dirt. A white spot of mystery from underneath the soil, and it fills you with more of that feeling of another world. You explore the yard, stand alone in the darkness, and then, at last, return to bed.
Electroencephelogames and Fun!
Game #1: Collect some rocks. Several thousand rocks. Gravel-sized rocks, preferably. Or, find a suitable location where rocks have already been collected for you. If, for example, you are a six-or seven-year-old boy living on East Golf Avenue, in Tempe, Arizona, in the 1980s, perhaps a suitable amount of gravel will have already been collected for you on a large median, the Island, in the middle of your street. Well, now: that’s it. That’s the game. Gravel collecting!
Game #2: After playing Game #1, gather together all of your neighborhood friends—boys and girls, gentiles and Mormons—on the gravel island, and decide which of you will be Russians and which will be Americans. The Russians are evil. The Americans are good. Then, just start running around and yelling at each other. Now run around some more. Then yell some more.
Game #3: This game is called Fill Your Pockets with Ammunition. Here’s how it works: fill your pockets with as much gravel as you can. Remember, the Russians are so scary, they would just throw gravel right at your face. And then, if you were an American, you would have to throw gravel right back at them, otherwise they wouldn’t stop throwing gravel at you. You might even have to throw gravel at them first, to stop them from even starting to throw gravel at you. So you need to be ready. Always be ready. Always.
Game #4: With all of the other kids, the Russians and the Americans, throw handfuls of gravel at each other. When your pockets are empty, pick more gravel up from the Island and throw that. They’ll be hitting you with gravel too, and it will hurt, but maybe if you throw gravel hard enough at them, they’ll stop.
Game #5: Now see which neighborhood kid can be the first to stop throwing gravel when Dottie Lincoln, an elderly neighbor woman, runs into the street and starts grabbing children and yelling at them. She’s so kind and friendly normally, but now she’s just scary. She is so enraged and disgusted with all of you. See which one of you can most quickly offer an explanation for what you were doing, and for why nearly every kid in the neighborhood is crying and bleeding.
Game #6: This game is the least fun of the games. See which of you neighborhood kids can be spanked the most times by a parent. You might win this one, because your mom is really upset. She says a girl down the street may have to get stitches because of injuries from the gravel. Now see how many weeks can go by without being allowed outside to play on the Island. See which neighborhood kid can be grounded the longest. This game is terrible.
V. One-liners, Asides, and Other Automatisms!
Birth control is sinful, and the more children you have, the better, because billions of souls are waiting to come to Earth from the Pre-mortal Life!
A 1987 passport for Michael Farrell Smith, because the Mormon Church told my dad that God had called him to sell his business and move with his family from Arizona to Austria.
Neighborhood kids or teenagers tying a piece of metal wire painfully tight around my Sunday school teacher’s cat’s tail, making Brother Hunter too sad and angry to talk about it.
My mom watching the TV game show The Price is Right every weekday, and yet, despite host Bob Barker’s daily urgings at the end of every episode, never having her cats spayed or neutered.
Living with daily anxiety over the threat of a nuclear apocalypse.
Not a phoenix rising up from a fire, but a fire rising up from Phoenix—the world revolving not around a sun 93,000,000 miles away, but around a sun two minutes in the future—the world moving around so many arbitrary centers—some in the sky, some underground—a comet, the core of the Earth, a white spot, a black spot—some light, some dark, and one inside my skull.
Looking back thirty years and criticizing your parents and how they raised you. (As if anyone’s ever known what they were doing, including you. As if anyone ever chose to be how they are.)
“I’m just taking my third nap of the day,” says the supine mother in a cartoonish illustration in one of my brother Rob’s/Bobby’s/Obert Skye’s Creature from my Closet books. “Good for you!” says the always-optimistic suit-and-tie-clad father, holding a briefcase and swinging his fist in triumph. I don’t think Rob chose to choose to write either. He grew up with the same literate family and the same house full of books. Or maybe he did choose. Maybe we both did.
Being born with epilepsy!
“…He’s at the hospital right now. He’ll stay overnight while they run some tests but he’s doing great. I’m so thankful for the Church, priesthood & faith of my parents. I know that is what saved him. He’ll probably be home tommorrow and boy am I glad because I sure love Mikey. And Christmas is a week away! No more school and I plan to make this a super holiday.”
—My brother Matt’s journal, December 19, 1982
Pulling Angie Tolman’s hair on the way home from school; Angie crying; Angie yelling, “Mikey, you are meaner than the Devil!”; and then feeling a sickening horror as I realized she was right.
Kids on cinderblock walls, kids in rock gardens, kids on green-skinned paloverde trees, kids falling onto cactuses, kids on the Island—the Sun a black spot in the sky—the Black Spot a pulsing, magnet mass, shining blackly in my head, over all of these memories.
VI. Tonic-Clonic Q & A’s!
Q. Hey, Danny—want to come trick-or-treating with my brothers and me?
A. I can’t. My mom says Halloween is evil. It’s how Satan tricks us into thinking he’s cool.
Q. What time did you have to go to bed when you were my age, Julie? Mom says I can play until the streetlights go on.
A. Mikey! 6:30, and shush. You and Jeffy are just lucky we all wore Mom and Dad out.
Q. Matt, are you really going away for two years, to Denmark?
A. I am. On my mission! I have to go tell people all about the Gospel and the Priesthood.
Q. Does anyone else have a favorite story about the Prophet? Okay, yes, Mikey. Go ahead.
A. Oh! Oh! Me! I do! I like the one where President Kimball is at the airport, and he sees a little kid crying, and he gives the kid some gum, and then the kid stops crying.
Q. Do you want a kitten? Or two? Whiskers had kittens again.
Q. What would the legendary cat pioneers think of the hordes of ragged, half-feral cats that swarmed through that neighborhood in the 1980s?
A. They would be ashamed.
Q. Do you remember three months before the Chernobyl disaster, the Challenger space shuttle exploding, right after launching? You watched it happen on TV, when you were six years old, in your living room, home sick from school.
A. Of course I remember that. Everyone does. The other night, interviewing my brother David on the phone about the first and biggest seizure I had in December of 1982, he said, unprompted, “It was one those things, like the space shuttle exploding, that you never forget.”
Q. Could you talk about the Challenger explosion in the context of the Cold War?
A. I… guess so. Well, all those shuttles were a product of the U.S./U.S.S.R. space race, for one thing. And after the Challenger, when Chernobyl exploded and burned three months later, it felt as if some doomsday pattern was beginning. Everything was going to explode. Nothing was safe. Of course, I was just a kid, and what did I know, the world’s more-or-less fine.
Q. Why would you criticize anyone for believing what he or she believes or for being the way he or she is? It’s not as if anyone chooses to be born into a belief system, or to have a brain that works a certain way. You’re kind of a jerk for turning your brother’s mission into a joke.
A. Actually… yeah. I do feel a little bad about that.
Q. But why would you criticize me for what I do? My brother might have been wired to think religiously, but I guess I’m wired to question. And sometimes to criticize.
A. Some might say we’re going down a slippery slope of moral relativism here, but it sure does seem as if free will really is an illusion, that the only way any of us can be is exactly how we are, and that how we are is mostly determined at a very early age.
Q. What do you call a child who frequently suffers from seizures?
Q. What’s the difference between a young boy and a young boy having a seizure?
A. If you put them both in an MRI machine, you’ll notice the unconventional electrical patterns in the brain of the boy having a seizure. His brain is sending impossible and contradictory commands to his body, and so his body is shaking violently.
Q. Matt, Matt, wake up, wake up! Mom needs you! Something’s wrong with Mikey!
A. Huh? David? What?
Q. I found him like that! His lips are blue? He’s not breathing! Look at his eyes!
A. Oh no. Oh no. Mikey! Mikey, wake up!
Q. My three-year-old son isn’t breathing! He was having seizures. His lips are blue! We’re at 2152 East Golf Avenue, in Tempe! Hurry! Please hurry! My teenage son is giving him mouth-to-mouth. But hurry!
A. Ma’am, please remain calm. Help is on the way.
Q. Is he—is he breathing? He’s breathing! He’s gasping!
A. Just barely!
Q. How long had he been like that?
A. I don’t know, I don’t know!
Q. Julie, Bobby—someone get the door!
A. They’re here!
Q. Ma’am, how long has he been like this? We need to know how long his brain was without oxygen.
A. My son found him like this right before we called. But he wasn’t even gasping until now.
Q. What are they doing to Mikey, Mom?
A. I don’t know, David, just watch.
Q. Where’s Dad? Why isn’t he here?
A. He’s at church, at the Stake Center. He’s on his way.
Q. He’s crying! That’s a good sign. That’s a very good sign.
A. He’s going to be all right. He’ll probably be all right.
Mike Smith of Albuquerque is a historian, memoirist, explorer, podcaster, music critic, and dad. A recent essay of his has been nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and another has been featured as “Notable” in Best American Essays 2015. He is represented by Nat Kimber, of The Rights Factory, of Toronto and New York.