Life is an exploration for 11-year-old Ronald “Cheesie” Mack, the narrator of the Cheesie Mack book series. He leaps into and through each day with irrepressible curiosity and zest.
So do I. Even though I am long past fifth grade, I, too, leap into and through each day. (Cheesie’s knees, however, never complain like mine!)
My fifth grade adventure took place in 50’s Southern California. Perfect weather, unlocked doors, twilight hide-and-go-seek, and tall, sappy trees to climb and build forts in. I rejoiced in friends I could count on, Pacific Coast League baseball, and a complete disregard for gravity and any other force that tried to hold me down.
When I had my own children, I told them stories, some in Seuss-like rhyme. Decades later these poems, with the help of my Grammy Award-winning brother, Doug, turned into songs on My ‘Magination, my CD of children’s music. Performing as Pobba, I have done scores of free concerts for kids (K-4), parents, and teachers from Hawaii to the US Virgin Islands. I sing and jump around. There is outright prolonged laughter. Contact me. I’ll do a show for you.
And now, with Cheesie Mack becoming such a big part of my life, I happily travel the country giving author presentations, talking to students about the writing process and the joys and challenges of reading. (I think I enjoy these author events as much as the kids do!)
I prize curiosity. As a blogger, I look for the unusual, the unexamined. I have written with nostalgia about Little Songs on Big Subjects, the 1947 album that championed tolerance; soberly about the tragedy of Lake Chad’s shrinking; and with surprise about Ohio’s Januarius MacGahan, Liberator of Bulgaria. I do the research and debunk viral fallacies and misrepresentations, investigate geothermal energy, and reminisce about being a teenager pulling a steep-sided wagon behind a bicycle, delivering eggs door-to-door. I was 15, running my own business, an eggman long before John Lennon was the walrus.
My father hadn’t finished high school. My mother hadn’t gone to college. My immigrant grandparents had little formal education. In my farm town’s public school classes, I had always been one of the brightest kids. But my world was small; my vision, limited. Until…
I came upon a beanstalk at 16… and climbed it. At the top was the Summer Science Program, one of the USA’s positive and ultimately successful reactions to the how-did-the-USSR-beat-us shock that Sputnik engendered. SSP was high school juniors—future rocket scientists—sequestered for six weeks and intensely challenged with cosmology, astrophysics, spherical geometry, and the like. In that techno-world decades before iPhones, Internet, and PCs, we were, I think, the only teenagers in the world with daily access to a real computer.
SSP changed my life. I learned calculus, saw other galaxies, and among them, chose Harvard.
After four years in Cambridge came:
- IBM—I was a white shirt and tie, with an employee card identifying me as TechnoDweeb #419715 (actual number!).
- Apollo I—My contribution was an elegantly tiny subroutine that cleared the memory of the onboard computer to all zeroes. My geek quotient increased.
- MIT/Lincoln Lab—Hunched over five-inch-thick printouts beside colonnades of stop/start tape drives, I was a Fortran expert, debugging programs for engineers. I achieved nerd maximization.
- Harvard Business School—My MBA thesis on the future of the software industry, predicting the rise of packaged software (like Supercalc, Wordstar, etc.), was published in book form and received little notice… even from me, who, neglecting to follow my own augury, missed the boom. “I could’ve been Bill Gates. I could’ve been a contender.” My mother bought ten copies.
- Rapifax—I was product manager for the first high-speed, commercial fax machine. “Someday,” I told Boeing’s head purchasing agent, “everyone’s business card will have a fax number on it.” He shrugged. Ahead of our time, and ahead of our customers, we ran out of money, sold out to Ricoh, and I quit technology.
I switched to the other side of my brain in the mid-70s:
- Hollywood—Writing for TV and film. Every story you every heard about this town is true (chicanery, occasional success, lawsuits, more chicanery).
- Big 3 Music—Singing at work while running the worlds’ third-largest music publishing company, which was also the very smallest division of Transamerica Corp, and having the manager of The Knack turn down my offer as “way too cheap because they’re going to be bigger than The Beatles.”
- United Artists Pictures—Assistant to the President. I served six such prexies (actual Variety lingo) in less than two years, including one who had previous been convicted of embezzling from another studio. I thought he was the only one truly qualified for the job because he had a proven track record.
With kids in college, my MBA asked for a second chance, so in the mid-80s, I went back into business at San Francisco’s Montgomery Securities. I became a securities analyst, focused on telecommunications companies, keeping my sanity by satirizing the research reports in song. Then I became a securities salesman. I was good, but my boss said I could’ve been great if I “only had more larceny in my heart” and realized that my “real job was to turn my client’s portfolio into my personal net worth.” (Don’t blame me for the financial melt-down of 2008; I left years before…with almost all my integriity intact.)
I quit and went back to my right brain in 1994, writing and producing Heartwood, an independent feature film starring Hilary Swank and Jason Robards. I felt like a Marine general directing a WWII landing on a heavily fortified beach. We took the island with many casualties. The film was a bust; my war would be won elsewhere.
In 1997, I found a magic bean from SSP’s beanstalk deep in my memories and gave a talk to the future scientists at the 39th annual summer session about connecting creativity to technology. Reconnected to SSP, I resolved to rejuvenate and expand what had become one of the longest-lived, but terminally tired, science enrichment programs in the world. Replanting the magic bean I had long carried, I became chairman of an alumni-operated non-profit (SummerScience.org) that took over SSP, expanded to two campuses, built an endowment, and reconnected with its 2,000+ alumni. I suspect my work at SSP will live and thrive long after I don’t.
Through all of life’s meander, I have remained 11 years old in my outlook. That’s why Cheesie Mack, narrator of my series of middle-grade novels, is 11. It’s a terrific age. He examines life, is capable of and willing to try anything, and puberty has not yet become a headlock.
The first book in the series, Cheesie Mack Is Not a Genius or Anything, was released March 2011; the second volume, Cheesie Mack Is Cool in a Duel, in June 2012; the third, Cheesie Mack Is Running Like Crazy!, in June 2013; and the fourth, Cheesie Mack Is Not Exactly Famous, in February 2014. The fifth book, Cheesie Mack Is Sort of Freaked Out, was released August 2014. Cheesie’s amazing and extensive website accompanies the books. Check it out.