In Defense of Jim Theis: Part 2 (Mojo's Memories...)

(Okay, if you haven't read the Prelude to all of this, you will probably be missing out somewhat, since I will probably make a reference or two to it and there might be a test at the end of all this, and your entire future career might hinge on doing well. Or, ya know, not.)

I realized after I posted the Prelude that I had forgotten one of the most fascinating and interesting facts about my sure-to-be best seller. And that was THE TITLE. I had the title before I even began fleshing out the incredible action sequences. (See what you missed if you didn't read it? TOLD ya!)

I think in retrospect the absolute BEST thing about the title--above and beyond its General Awesomeness, that is--is that even though I was only eight or so, I still managed to create one of the greatest instances of "Let's Reveal Important Plot Points in the Title" known to mankind. My title, like all good titles, was only FOUR WORDS LONG (the general rule of a good title is, it has to be less than five--although I did not know that rule at the time), but they were four words utterly PACKED WITH ADVENTURE.

Are you ready? You might want to sit down for this. My opus was going to be called, ahem, (insert marquee hands here) "SAVED BY A HANGER". Which, technically, was not true, for my scientifical studies on laundry day had determined that one hanger alone would not support the weight of a typical eight-year-old girl, so more than one was needed for the story. Besides which (this is eight-year-old Mojo talking, in case you can't tell the difference between eight-year-old Mojo and grumpy pathetic FIFTY-year-old Mojo) WHO would be sent to their grandmother's house on an important errand with just ONE hanger? If you're gonna ask a neighbor for hangers, you wouldn't ask for ONE. You'd ask for a BUNCH. Walking ALL THAT WAY with ONE hanger would just be STUPID. But the title would lose all its panache if it were called, say, SAVED BY A BUNCH OF HANGERS or SAVED BY SOME HANGERS or some other, more truthful, depiction. And we all know by now that Wee Lass Mojo was MORE THAN WILLING to bend the truth if it meant avoiding painful lawsuits from E.B. White and Co. (See? You REALLY NEED to have read the first one.)

So my belabored, delightfully subtle Afterschool Special Moral of this whole hanger thing is: Even someone as gifted and talented as Mojo can OCCASIONALLY be guilty of WRITING ATROCIOUS THINGS. And if Mojo is capable of such a thing, what chance do you mere mortals have for excellence? It's almost Christmas; I don't even wanna think it. And yet through the years the sci fi community keeps pillorying poor Jim Theis over something he wrote when he was fifteen. As you will see if you keep reading this screed, JIM IS NOT THAT BAD OF A WRITER, and unlike most of you, I am in a particular position to, yes, JUDGE. (More than you might think, oh random internet stranger. Read on.)

Fern SwingingAgain, I was eight at the time when I penned the page and a half or so that comprised the utterly awesome SAVED BY A HANGER, but that's a FLIMSY EXCUSE. By most reasonable standards today, eight-year-old Mojo should have been pelted with rotten fruit and booed off the stage. Oh, and for those of you patiently awaiting the denouement to this dreadful setup, let me relieve that tension: THERE IS NO ENDING. That's right! I wrote the incredibly dramatic title, SAVED BY A HANGER, I wrote of Fern Not-Avery skipping merrily through the woods and across the rickety rope bridge, I described her terrible, frightening fall into the abyss and her unlikely salvation in the form of the wire hangers she was carrying… and then I got bored and left it and probably hiked down to the swamp behind our house to catch frogs. (Again, I WAS EIGHT.) Poor Fern has been dangling thusly for over forty years. If she is still alive she has the upper body strength of a lowland gorilla. And that whole page and a half of childish scrawl is likewise lost to the ages.

So in light of this whole terrible, terrible ordeal I have just INFLICTED upon you, let us now consider Jim Theis and THE EYE OF ARGON in a new light. Jim was sixteen when he wrote it. And a particularly naive sixteen, given that particular pre-internet time and my assumptions based on Jim's particular proclivities, which I shall discuss in a bit. What's so good about THE EYE OF ARGON? Pretty much NOTHING. It is, indeed, ATROCIOUS.  It is worthy of mockery and scorn. The party game of trying to read it aloud sounds HYSTERICAL.

But at least Jim FINISHED IT. He not only finished it, but he got it, uh, "published". That's more than I managed, be it SAVED BY A HANGER or a dozen other half-written monstrosities that lurked in my overwrought teenaged bottom drawer. Hell, there are ADULTS who call themselves "writers" to this DAY who have not finished a SINGLE THING, let alone submit their beloved child somewhere for publication and potential public scorn.

Jim Theis and THE EYE OF ARGON predate the internet by DECADES. I myself have been on the various incarnations of the internet since the late eighties, and in all my decades online, from Usenet newsgroups onward, I am willing to stand up and say the internet, taken as a whole entity, should probably not be the one talking all that loudly about someone being a bad writer. If I may pull a statistic out of my butt (which is where I believe most internet statistics reside, though not my butt in particular), I'd guess that at least NINETY PERCENT of the stuff on the internet is JUST AS BAD if not WORSE than ARGON. And I think we can all agree: that's pretty bad.

I think what sticks in my craw particularly is that--here it comes, people--I actually KNEW Jim Theis. We weren't by any means BEST BUDDIES or anything, but I went to college with him, and we were both staff writers on the school newspaper, the Webster University JOURNAL. He was about ten years older than I, which fit into Webster's demographic. (When I attended, the average age of the student body was 27, and my doe-eyed seventeen when I first set foot on campus was an exception rather than the rule.) Jim was older than I chronologically, but he was decidedly geeky, which socially put him slightly behind me in the Grand Scheme of Things, assuming one measures success in life solely based on how well the jocks and cheerleaders liked you in high school.

One of the many good things the internet has done is, it has aided in--and celebrated--the acceptance of differences. This was decidedly not the case in the early 80s, when I first met Jim. Differences were feared and avoided, and instead of being true to one's own calling it was not all that uncommon for cowards such as myself to tone down certain aspects of personality to better fit in. At least *I* did. If you did not, and you had some sort of interest outside the cultural norm, you opened yourself to teasing and bullying. Geeks in particular back then did not fare all that well, especially in high school. The Jim that I knew was quiet and reserved at first, but if you got him going he'd loudly talk of his love of science fiction and collecting comic books, and quickly defend something he loved if he felt you were slighting it. (Early lesson: making an astute observation like "What the hell? It's only a comic book" was Not Something You Said to Jim, unless you were tired of your old one and wanted a new one torn asunder.)

Our age difference was another mild social barrier; Jim was ten years older than me, and while I occasionally guessed, I never bothered to learn much about his past, nor his future. We were coworkers for a year or so, and had an affable enough relationship, but we were mutually uninterested in most of the other's interests (to this day I have little interest in science fiction and fantasy, and even less in comic books), so I never knew him much past exchanged pleasantries in the tiny, filthy trailer that was the JOURNAL office and the welcome professionalism he brought to his reporting. Yep. I said it.

Laughable as it may seem to those who have read THE EYE OF ARGON, ten or fifteen years after that terrible story Jim Theis was studying to become a journalist. He and I wrote for the same weekly paper for one semester, and later when I edited that same paper he would occasionally submit pieces. Pieces I welcomed. Because as a writer/reporter, Jim was PRETTY DAMNED GOOD. When Jim was assigned a story, there was no need to worry that he might be hung over from a keg party or oversleep his alarm or any of a dozen other excuses why a college student would fail to write the story assigned to them. When you assigned a story to Jim, it was a DONE DEAL. You could rest assured of some 500 or 800 words on your desk mere HOURS after the interview--and those 500 or 800 words were competent, by-the-book reportage that required remarkably little, if any, copy editing. When Jim was given a story, it was a mini vacation for the editor. It'd be done, there would be no drama, it would require minimal editing, and you didn't waste hours of your life defending your decision to cut those THREE PRECIOUS WORDS OF GENIUS out of the lede so-and-so spend a WEEK writing.

Maybe this will also disappoint ARGON readers, but the writer I knew as Jim was about as unflowery and unempurpled a reporter as you could possibly imagine. Perhaps the mockery he endured (we were unaware of any at the time) had already beaten any attempts at creativity out of him. I was utterly shocked to read ARGON, because Jim Theis the reporter did not have an adverb to spare.  He was fast--and these were they days of manual typewriters--and he followed the AP style manual and the proverbial inverted pyramid with a fierce intensity. He was prompt, he respected deadlines, and he was utterly, utterly dependable. As an editor, I would welcome TEN Jim Theises in my stable over ONE creative genius who had to be cradled and nurtured and indulged lest their delicate talent get somehow bruised in the process. At least with Jim you'd be assured the damned paper was going to get out on time. (Note to new writers: Editors like that.)

And Jim was FUN. Once we got past the initial social awkwardness over the fact that we had very little interests in common, there was a decent person beneath the comic books and sci fi. A funny person. An incredibly tolerant person. My thing with Jim was, at least once a week I would purposefully mispronounce his name within his earshot, and he was ALWAYS compelled to correct me, usually quite loudly. It was a mixture of real annoyance and mock rage that became a sort of mutual joke. It was akin, from my perspective, to having a private fireworks display at one's beck and call. Being young and stupid I did it over and over. I'd mention him in passing, and stumble over his last name--usually making it a variation of "The-iss"--and then I'd wait, with eyebrows raised and mouth agape, for his response. And he ALWAYS CORRECTED ME. He could be on the opposite side of the trailer and I could practically whisper the joke, and I'd hear "IT'S PRONOUNCED 'TICE'!!!" screamed across the din of our production room. Such is the burden of a nearly thirty-year-old man attempting to cope with a snotty, obnoxious teenager.

Jim and I got along quite well, all things considered. I learned from him that, apparently, a cashier mishandling comics at a bookstore when one is attempting to purchase them is one of the GRAVEST CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY EVAAR. (He was a VERY SERIOUS collector.) Eventually we figured out what we could talk about and what I shouldn't discuss unless I wanted to be lectured at for fifteen minutes. (Coming from an Irish household myself, I accepted his occasional bursts of volume in the gently corrective manner they were intended.) I witnessed his interviewing technique once: Jim did not feel the need for any sort of social patter to keep the conversation flowing, as they sometimes suggested in reporting classes. He'd ask a question, the subject would answer it, and then everyone would sit in silence for a minute or so while Jim carefully wrote down what was said, word for longhand word.

I think my witnessing this was when he was interviewing our faculty advisor, Art, about a new radio club we had started. Both Jim and I were founding members. I was more into old Bob and Ray shows, whereas Jim was actually an incredible authority on old serial dramas, especially precursors to THE TWILIGHT ZONE style of show--THE SHADOW, SUSPENSE, things like that. Old radio serials were another thing he was obsessed with. The Radio Club was mostly just an excuse for us to hang out in the college sound studio (I was an engineer, so I had a key) and listen to the bundles of tapes Jim would bring in. Classics, like Agnes Moorehead becoming increasingly hysterical in SORRY, WRONG NUMBER. (And occasionally produce our own stuff, which went nowhere; the only title I recall was a piece I wrote entitled THE AFRICAN QUEEN ON GOLDEN POND (again, this was in the early to mid 80s; I graduated college in '85), which was mostly me doing a bad Katherine Hepburn imitation while talking off the top of my head to another character (also voiced by me) called Slimy the Leech. If any of you misbehave I warn you: I reconnected with Art on Facebook and he sent me an MP3 of AQoGP, much to my chagrin, and I'm not afraid to post it and torture you all. But again, I digress.)

Aside from AQoGP and our friend Jack and I doing a GREAT Bob and Ray skit about Mister Science (from whence the line "You're not trying to slip me the ol' rubber peach just because I'm a gullible child, are you, Mister Science?" is forever stamped on my brain) the only thing I remember about the Radio Club was Jim introducing me to an old radio soap opera called THE ROMANCE OF HELEN TRENT. All he played me was the introduction, which had me in UTTER HYSTERICS. The Wikipedia entry for Helen Trent wrote out the intro as I remembered it, but it took me FOREVER to find the FULL intro on audio. Most of the versions I found doing a quick search on Google and YouTube have a truncated version which is not nearly as funny. But good ol' has at least ONE with the full intro with the way-exciting title "Helen is Working on a Costume". (SAVED BY A HANGER doesn't sound quite so bad now, huh? And CLEARLY they didn't get the five-words-or-less memo.) Here is the intro that had me literally rolling on the studio floor, laughing hysterically:

Jim played that, and after I had picked myself up off the floor and dried my tears he made one of his typically dry observations: "I figured YOU would like that."

Ahhh. But again, I've gone on way too long. I'll conclude this another day.


(Can't wait for it? Too lazy to search? Okay, HERE IT IS--PART THREE!!!)