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The hallways of the school had that bouquet of old varnished wood and the lingering scent of school lunches. If I closed my eyes, I could picture my own elementary school, closed now ten years ago. The ceilings were tall, unlike at my old school, where it felt like I had somehow tripled in size.

I found my way to the office and got my little name sticker announcing that my presence was validated, but I got the sense there was no high security here. I might have just been able to wander the halls if I knew where to go. I heard a basketball game being played and there was some young boy in the office who was explaining why he shouldn’t be there; it was all a misunderstanding, he said.

Student sprinkled the halls, some in between classes, others reading at a desk outside classrooms. Outside my designation classroom, I found both name plates but the door were shut. I was a little early, I guess. A student asked me if she could help and I told her who I was looking for. She confirmed I was in the right place.

I started to get my things out to maybe rehearse my little presentation one last time when the door opened and another student noticed me and announced to the classroom, ‘The guest is here.” So I hauled my box and backpack inside instead.

The classroom was humid and hot. There was no air moving inside, but all the students were engrossed in their chrome books working on something. A few looked up for a moment, wondering why I had wandered in.

I was early because I knew from experience that technical difficulties are expected. Myf first reading the video HDMI inputs just didn’t work and I had to improvise to show my slides. The second time needed a little rearrangement of cables. Here I just had to get the Apple TV up and running and switch an input on the projector and we were ready to go.

The fourth grade students gathered around on the carpet just like the Young Fives and Second graders did. I admit I was worried that fourth graders might be too jaded, find this too passé, but I was wrong; they were just as excited to hear what I had to say, and were eager to share. I was able to hear from just about everyone about what they liked to draw and what they liked to write.

Drawing #1.

This time I figured I had more of an attention span, as I was assured that second graders can’t sit still for more than 20 minutes so I planned my presentation accordingly. I had more planned for this one. After introducing myself and talking a bit about my first book, The Blob and having a few dad jokes fall somewhat flat, I had them do a little drawing. They all jumped at the opportunity.

This is what I remembered from doing art workshops in a previous life. The cynic might think that students just wanted something, anything, to distract from doing math problems on Chromebooks, but I think pretty much universally, all the students I ever worked with genuinely relished the opportunity to create something. These students were no different.

I had them think about and drawing a pebble, or a rock, or a bug, or anything they imagined in the grass. I skipped this part with the 5 and 8 year olds only because of time, but in retrospect I wish I would have tried it. The fourth graders mostly loved to share what they did, proud of what they dreamed up, from colorful flowers and spiders. I was so happy that they weren’t yet afraid of sharing.

After the drawing I went into my reading, and they all listened well. I didn’t get any giggles on my one silly voice, though they couldn’t stop snickering at the voice of The Three when I played that portion of the audiobook. I talked about revision, both in writing and drawing, and impressed upon them that it takes practice and persistence. One student asked me, “How long have you been doing this?”

What’s old is new

I’ve been drawing since I was probably 4 or 5. I wrote with freedom in Kindergarten and up through probably fifth grade. But after about seventh grade, I mostly stopped. I still wrote because I had to, but I didn’t write the kinds of stories like I did when I was younger.

I’ve only really been doing this with any real intent for the past 5 years. Between middle school and now, it’s felt like me constantly rediscovering this thing that I know I like to do, kind of like Hey, remember this? Yeah. you like to do this stuff. Maybe you could keep doing it now?

These fourth graders, like all the other students and my own two kids, remind me of the reasons why I do this. The way they dug into the drawing, the way they listened quietly to me read and picture what was going on as they listened to the audiobook. They way they all tried diligently to fold an origami elephant, and the amazement and wonder when they finally figured out how to fold it. They enjoyed the process, the doing.

I’ve figured out at least that I can’t not do this. It takes a while; I am not prolific. But what I do create I enjoy every sketch and revision, and in the I’m proud of what I create.

It’s sometimes difficult to remember that that’s what this has always been about for me. I have the kids to thank for the reminder.

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Music Box

Long ago, I was enthralled with soundscapes on tape. They were stories I loved, read by actors, and they painted a lush picture in my mind every time I listened.

While writing Zōsan and Tamaishi, I always knew I would write music to go along with them.

For a few weeks, Eliot requested to listen to a particular piece every night, falling asleep with it playing on repeat. I sensed he had a connection to it that I wanted to preserve. It was a written for the character Tayoki, a sparse piece played on a Japanese koto, but played in such as way that it echoes both Asian and Celtic sensibilities.

I’ve come to realize that part of my vision is create a tangible legacy: artifacts Eliot and Marcel can hold and remember. So I set out to create hardbound books and boxes for them. I plan on burning the audiobooks to millennial discs, which is my best shot at data longevity.

But it occurred to me: we have music boxes forty years old that still play. One is from Christine’s childhood that plays Happy Birthday, with a small wooden train and a place for a small wooden number. Another music box plays a tune I can’t name but two little figures twirl and dance around as the box spins. And of course, we have the Fisher price record player, although this one takes AA batteries an no longer actually reads the plastic records like a music box should.

Happy Dance!

So while I can do what I can do preserve all these things while I’m still here, I couldn’t shake the idea of making a custom music box — because I want to make things that my great grandchildren read, hear and experience. A music box, though archaic is made of metal and is an artifact that would survive generations. But… how to do it?

This dream would lead me down a number of paths. I thought about doing it myself but I have little skill in metal, nor do I really have the time to pursue it. I contacted Sankyo in Japan since their site suggested they might make a music box with a new tune, but declined, saying they could not ship anything outside of Japan. A company out in Hollywood claimed to do so but never got back to me after the first email. There were digital options but these never were satisfying. Batteries wear out and might become unavailable, and it would defeat the purpose, which was to make this something that would be playable for generations.

Ultimately I found an artist in Vermont, Jonathan Herz, who is still creating these musical time capsules of old. His best work is astounding: mechanisms that can play for minutes, subtly shifting their oversized cylinders to a different section of the piece through meticulous and immaculate mechanical movement. They are never something I’ll be able to afford. But one thing he was able to do was modify an existing music box movement.

That seemed like it would make this possible.

I was able to find one at a woodworking store online. It was a genuine Sankyo 30-note movement that played Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers. I took it as a sign that this was meant to be, because that particular piece happens to be one of my favorites. So I jumped in.

The process took several months. I had to reduce the original piece that lasted over a minute and a half down to thirty seconds. I was able to piece together some of the best parts into one arrangement. I sent it as a MIDI file to Jonathan. He had a wonderful suggestion to add a bass line to the piece which really enhances the second half.

When it was complete and silently arrived at my door I was overjoyed. It had really happened: a piece of my music, carefully inscribed on this tiny metal cylinder, singing its twinkling song to me.

I hope this is something that Eliot and Marcel will keep to remember me. Eliot in particular will probably be whisked away to distant memories of his dad, falling asleep peacefully saying “I love you Daddy.”, as I am transported when I listen to my music box that plays Swan Lake, remembering a time from long ago. All from a little wind up box.