28: Unnecessary Novelizations

Plus: The Inventor of the Massage Chair

Sometimes I get an idea that just won’t leave my head until I do something with it. I’ve been thinking lately about novelizations of things that have absolutely no reason to be turned into stories. And as soon as I had that thought, I needed to scratch that itch.

So here’s the first one. See how long it takes you to figure out what it’s an adaptation of. (This one’s kinda easy). I call it…

Mikey’s Life

One thing the whole town seemed to know was that Mikey hated everything. Even before the incident, people knew. It wasn’t spoken of, but it was always there, just beneath the surface of every conversation. The grocer, the mortician, the gossipy old man who sat outside the barber shop, everyone knew. But it was as though they were afraid to talk about it. One day, someone said it out loud. That person was me.

The day of the incident is mostly a blur. I don’t remember getting dressed that day, or how I got home afterwards. But the thirty seconds of the incident are etched in my memory as clearly as if it had been recorded. And the aftermath was as though it had been broadcast to the world.

I was seven years old. Mikey couldn’t have been more than four. His older brother Jason was in my class at Quaker Elementary and we were best friends. We understood each other like nobody else. We both got the same bikes the same year for Christmas. We were co-Presidents of our imaginary Don Knotts fan club. We wore our striped shirts on the same days. We were kids like any other kids, full of youthful innocence. Until we weren’t.

Jason and Mikey moved to town a year and a half earlier when their mother got a job at the cereal factory downtown. Their father was in prison for forging checks, at least according to the gossipy old man who sat outside the barber shop, so it was just the three of them. I never wondered at the time how she afforded such a nice house on a cereal factory worker’s salary, and that oversight would eventually come to haunt me.

I later learned her name was Linda. But at the time she was just Jason’s Mom.

Jason’s Mom used to bring new foods home from the factory for us to try. There were granola bars, and oat-based crackers, but mostly cereal. So much cereal. The cereals all had one-word names like Entity, Soul, Essence, Verve, and Zest. It was as though whoever wrote these names was just using a thesaurus and listing synonyms.

None of them were ever good — the cereals or the names. Then came Life.

Pay attention now. This is the incident that is etched in my brain forever. We sat at the kitchen table, the three of us kids, with a box of Life cereal that Jason’s Mom asked us to try before she left the room. Where did she go? Was she observing us from somewhere? I never would find out.

Jason poured the cereal into a bowl and we all stared at it. There was something different about this cereal. It was just little squares of toasted oat flour with a sort of scaffolding structure, but it was also something more.

“What’s this stuff?” I asked Jason.

“Some cereal,” he replied. “It’s supposed to be good for you.”

“Did you try it?”

“I’m not gonna try it. You try it.”

I could tell that Jason was as suspicious as I was. “I’m not gonna try it.”

Suddenly Jason lit up. “Let’s get Mikey! Yeah!”

I tried to stop him. “He won’t eat it. He hates everything.” Jason must have taken my words as a dare. He was so excited by the prospect of giving this cereal to Mikey. But I didn’t mean it as a dare when I said it.

Mikey stared as Jason slid the bowl of cereal across the table to him. He picked up his spoon and, with defiance in his eye — or perhaps even sensing what was to come — he dug in and ate the Life cereal.

“He likes it!” shouted Jason. “Hey, Mikey!”

Those last two words, “Hey, Mikey!” rang in my ears as I watched what followed in horror.

If you get a copy of the official record of the incident, that’s where the dialogue ends, with Jason shouting “Hey, Mikey!” and no more. Not “Hey, Mikey! What’s happening to your arms?” or “Hey, Mikey! What are you doing?” or “Hey, Mikey! Stop! You’re hurting me!” Just “Hey, Mikey!” as though that wasn’t a call for help before carnage was unleashed. As though it were the sort of thing a person would say to end a conversation.

But that wasn’t the end. That was only the beginning.

-Excerpt from Mikey’s Life: A Novel, based on a Life Cereal commercial

A few notes:

  • Many years after the original “Hey Mikey” commercial, there was a sequel in which a much older Uncle Mikey introduces Life cereal to his niece and nephew. How could that be, if the above hints at some sort of tragedy? Why would Mikey even be allowed near Life cereal again? The answer, of course, is that the second commercial isn’t canon.

  • In the Life Cereal Universe (the LCU), the “imaginary Don Knotts fan club” is not an imaginary fan club. It’s a real fan club. Don Knotts is imaginary.

I have one other Unnecessary Novelization in my head. It’s pretty different from this one. You won’t guess what it’s about from just the first couple sentences, so I’ll give them to you as a tease:

We called ourselves surfers, although of course we’d never seen an ocean. Those were long gone by the time our grandparents arrived on Earth.

The rest of it is mapped out in my head. Some day I’ll write it down.

The Inventor of the Massage Chair

David Palmer was the 24th inventor I photographed. He invented the first massage chairs and techniques for seated massage. Until the 1980s, professional massage was done either lying on a table or sitting on a chair or stool, but David found that his clients kept falling over and needed something more stable.

He worked with a French cabinet maker to build his original model. It was made out of wood and collapsed down for portability. He called it a “chair in a box.”

Eventually he modified his design and made lighter weight versions that we see everywhere today.

David believes that touch is our underrated sense, and he wants society to be more comfortable with touch in general:

Massage is something that should be in every home. You know, it’s something that should be taught in every grade school, as far as I’m concerned, as a basic life skill that people should have. When I see massage integrated into the grammar school curriculum, then I’ll know my work is done.

Here’s a quirky little video I made about David Palmer and his massage chairs.

That’s it for this week’s newsletter. Be kind to each other. See you next week.