A Winter Walk in Old New England (Or, Down the Rabbit Hole)

Winter in Vermont arrives early, and it hits hard.  Already there is a stubborn sheen of ice on my driveway, creating an adventure every time I drive down.  The meadow out behind the house, with its rolling hills and undulations, is an unbroken sea of pure white.  And the wind chills?  Let’s not even talk about the wind chills!

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I make no secret that winter is my least-favorite season.  People sometimes kid me about that.  “You live in Vermont, and you don’t like winter?” they say.  I reply that it’s not a big deal.  I love the spring, summer, and fall–three out of four seasons isn’t bad.  Nevertheless, winter in New England has a way of holding on, reluctant to let go.  Even in the brighter, milder months of March and April, winter digs in its heels, delaying the inevitable, resisting the birth of spring with every harsh gust of wind and squall of snow.

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So I am under no grand illusions.  A long, unbroken string of arctic-like months awaits.  Still, I have no desire to huddle beside the portable heater all winter, hot chocolate in hand.  (Though surely there will be some of that!)  I enjoy the outdoors, and on days not quite so harsh, on days when the sun–too often a stranger in New England–chooses to shine, I will take advantage.

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Recently, on one such sunny, crisp afternoon, I took a walk.  Navigating the icy slope of the driveway, I walked down to the road.  The road in question, as are so many in rural Vermont, is dirt–dry and dusty in summer, muddy and soft in early spring, hard and snow-packed right now.  If I turned right, I’d walk toward a paved road a mile away.  But if I turned left, within a third of a mile, the road would morph into a narrow trail, not maintained by the town.

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I went left.

As I walked, I was struck by the silence.  No cars.  No people.  No sounds.  There was a gentle breeze, but no leaves to rustle–only the empty spaces in bare trees and lonely expanse of snow-covered fields and stripped woodland floors.  Even the songbirds were silent.   Briefly, a sound to my right–a wild turkey, startled by my intrusion, scurried into the woods, disappearing from view.  More silence.  I inhaled.  The air was a winter knife, cold, sharp, as if it might draw blood if I weren’t careful.

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I walked on, reaching the trail, where the snow depth swelled, coming up above my ankles.  Even back here, though, there were tire tracks, the residue of rugged four-wheel drives and snowmobiles, no doubt.  My footfalls crunched the packed snow, punctuating the stillness.  My breath hung on the air before dissipating, molecule by molecule.

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Then I paused.  Stopped.  I listened to the silence.  It washed over me like a vacuum, snuffing out the sound.  I breathed again, in and out, in and out.  A gray squirrel chattered from a nearby tree, but then climbed higher.

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Everything was so quiet, so white–the world seemed asleep, slumbering beneath the blanket of snow.  For a moment, reality itself seemed slippery, as if, perhaps, I had gone down a rabbit hole and was standing there only as an apparition, or maybe some figure within the realm of someone else’s dream.

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What is real? I wondered, looking over the frozen pond that lay just meters before me, and, beyond that, the snowcapped mountains that rose in the distance like ancient giants worn and weathered by time.

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****************

In The Eye-Dancers, what we perceive as real is explored, and challenged, over and over again.  Indeed, in chapter 2, Joe Marma feels so disoriented that “reality felt too elusive, too fragmentary, as if it were crumbling away into jigsaw pieces that could not be put back together.”  Indeed–are his dreams, along with Mitchell Brant’s dreams and Ryan Swinton‘s dreams, real or “just a nightmare,” something to wake up from and escape and put safely and securely in the rearview mirror?  Who is this “ghost girl” who continues to haunt them?  And when they are transported to a different dimension, an alternate universe, is what they experience “real” or illusory?

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When the boys first arrive in the alternate town of Colbyville, Ryan isn’t sure:  “The line between dreams and reality had certainly been blurred, if it existed at all.”

Have you ever felt that way?

George Bailey did.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a holiday staple, and one I partake of every year.  Many people know the story of Bedford Falls and George and Mary and Old Man Potter.  We know George has a string of bad luck and at one point contemplates jumping to his death off a bridge, only to be saved by Clarence the bumbling but lovable angel who is still searching for his wings.  And we all know the movie ends with a rousing rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” along with Zuzu’s memorable line, “Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

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And George’s response:  “That’s right, that’s right.”

But how does Clarence ultimately convince George to step away from the cliff, or, in this case, the bridge?  How does he earn his wings at the end?

georgeatbridgehowdoesclarenceconvice

 

By showing George what the world would look like without him.  Admittedly, this isn’t Clarence’s idea.  It is his response to a despondent George’s muttering that he wishes he’d never been born.  Wish granted!  You want to be erased, George Bailey?  Consider yourself erased.

clarencegrantingwishneverborn

 

In other words, Clarence helps George to see his many blessings not by hopping on to his personal soapbox or through any words of wisdom; rather, he rescues George by taking him down the rabbit hole and in to an alternate reality, allowing him to witness the fallout of a world that could have been, might have been, had he never existed to touch the lives of others.

georgeseeingworldwithouthim

 

He saves him by changing the very nature and shape of what we deem to be real.

*****************

I stayed there on that path, overlooking the iced-over pond and the far-off majesty of mountains and sky, for several minutes.  The wind picked up, and the bite of the cold chomped down, stinging my face and eyes.  But I just wanted to take it all in.  What is real?

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In an age where unfiltered bias is immediately disseminated to millions upon millions of people, when individuals can and do attempt to delegitimize the press, when various forms of social media can be used to spread truth or lies with equal fervor, what is real?  If someone tweets out a lie, and sixty million people read it and believe it, is it now true?

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The shifting, changing, amorphous lens through which the world views itself, and through which we view the world, is in a state of disarray.  Reality for many has become as confusing and inexplicable as George Bailey’s journey through his own personal rabbit hole.

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But as I turned to leave the path, to retrace my steps in the snow and head back home, I attempted to answer the question that lingered on the air like wood smoke.  What is real?

George Bailey found the answers at the end of the movie.  Clarence the angel penned a personal note to George:  “No [one] is a failure who has friends.”  And with George surrounded by friends and family, singing off-key in a cinematic moment for the ages, he understands the truth, the essence, and so do we.

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So, as 2016 nears its end, as we forge bravely ahead into the uncertain climes of 2017 and beyond, maybe, just maybe, we can all pause for a moment and tune in to a corny old holiday classic, walking the avenues and sidewalks of Bedford Falls, reliving the miracle on 34th Street, soaring with a red-nosed reindeer as he leads the way, or witnessing a walking, talking snowman.

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These are, it seems to me, rabbit holes very much worth exploring.

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Have a wonderful holiday season and a happy and blessed New Year.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Words of Wisdom from a Cartoon Character–Or, Reminders of the Meaning of the Season

Sometimes we just need to be reminded.  Sometimes world events, presidential elections, and our far-too-often harried personal lives threaten to throw us for a king-sized and ever-expanding loop.  The weather this time of year doesn’t help.  Daylight Savings is more than a fortnight in the rearview mirror; it’s dark when you go to work in the morning, and dark when you come back home.  And what little light there is, especially here in northern New England, is often muted by brooding thick gray clouds that hang low and bloated over the land, like dirty laundry concealing the blue beyond.

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For me, the reminders begin with the little things, the homey things, the kinds of things Truman Capote writes about at the beginning of his gem of a short story “A Christmas Memory” . . .

“Imagine a morning in late November.  A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.  Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town.  A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it.  Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.”

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Every year, early on Thanksgiving morning, when the house is dark and the sunrise is yet a rumor, I flip through some of the old classic comic books I’ve had since I was a kid, when I began a lifelong hobby of collecting comics.  Many of the issues I have tucked away in closets and boxes were printed decades before I was born.  Their pages, musty and faded with age, never fail to bring a smile.  There are old ads in those pages, tempting the children of sixty years ago with baseball gloves and magic tricks, radio sets and sea monkeys.

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And then there are the stories, of course–simple, far too often devoid of any real character or nuance, distilled to the most rudimentary of plot devices.  But for all that, they are brilliant, ingenious, and, perhaps most important of all, fun.  They offer a break from the stresses and strains of daily living, an escape from the next doctor appointment or set of bills, while simultaneously laying out a bridge to an imaginary world that is always there, only a thought away, ready and willing to amuse and cheer and revitalize us, if only we take the time to visit it.

On Thanksgiving morning, I spend fifteen, maybe twenty minutes with these old issues, these relics from a bygone era, these simple reminders of childhood . . .

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comiccoversuperman117

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********************

In the 1965 musical The Sound of Music–based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway classic of the same name–Julie Andrews’s character, Maria, sings about some of her favorite things:

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“Raindrops on roses/And whiskers on kittens/Bright copper kettles/And warm woolen mittens . . . Cream-colored ponies/And crisp apple strudels/Doorbells and sleigh bells/And schnitzel with noodles . . . Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes/Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes/Silver white winters that melt into springs . . .”  These are a few of her favorite things!

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It’s a basic list, simple and everyday; it echoes the sentiments of Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.”

But perhaps it was everyone’s favorite bookworm, Marcie, who said it best in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving:

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“But Thanksgiving is more than eating, Chuck. . . . We should just be thankful for being together.  I think that’s what they mean by Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown.”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Quest for Archibald Leach

Cary Grant just wasn’t getting it.  He’d signed on to be the star of the film, was being paid handsomely for his efforts, and he was working with the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, no less.  What could possibly go wrong?

North by Northwest seemed destined to be a box-office smash when it debuted in 1959.

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Indeed, prior to the start of shooting, screenwriter Ernest Lehman was quoted as saying he wanted to write “the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.” He held nothing back, and created a melange of suspense, lighthearted fun, intrigue, and nonstop action.  There’s even a fight-to-the-death sequence that takes place on the face of Mt. Rushmore, not to mention arguably the most famous scene in Hitchcock’s long, storied career–the crop-duster attack!

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And, of course, and above all else, the film features Cary Grant.

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During filming, though, Grant wasn’t thrilled with the direction North by Northwest was taking. One day, he pulled Hitchcock aside, and said, “It’s a terrible script.  We’ve already done a third of the picture and I still can’t make head or tail of it!”  Hitchcock assured his leading man that things were going well.  The film is designed to be confusing, with myriad twists and turns, so if his lead actor was finding the story line hard to follow, all the better!

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All Hitchcock said to Grant was to be himself.  Don’t even worry about the acting.  Don’t worry about the script.  Just be Cary Grant.  The rest would take care of itself.

And it did.

Hitchcock understood a fundamental truth, and used it to his advantage–people just liked Cary Grant.  He’d been Hollywood’s most luminous star for decades, the epitome of charisma, debonair charm, and cool.  Indeed, Grant himself once famously said, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant.  Even I want to be Cary Grant.”

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Grant’s on-screen persona was larger-than-life.  If you wanted to see raw emotion, vulnerability, weakness, you weren’t going to find that here.  His roles were designed to match his never-let-them-see-you-sweat mystique.  He was made out to be more icon than actor, more romantic ideal than flesh-and-blood person.  Grant’s public image surely wouldn’t have been so spotless if he were acting today, but in Old Hollywood, he was lifted up to stratospheric heights, and for the duration of his career, he never came down from his perch.  Well on into his fifties and early sixties, Grant played the lead opposite actresses such as Grace Kelly, Eva Marie Saint, Audrey Hepburn, and Sophia Loren–all two or three decades his junior.

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Then, abruptly, in the mid-1960s, at the age of sixty-two, Grant retired from the cinema.  Hollywood’s quintessential leading man would not go on to play the sage, grandfatherly roles that would surely have come his way if he’d pressed forward with his career.  He would simply walk away and preserve the image, the concept, the legend that was Cary Grant.

It hadn’t always been that way.  During his growing-up years in the suburbs of Bristol, in southwest England, Cary Grant wasn’t known as Cary Grant.  He was born Archibald Leach, and his hardscrabble childhood bore little resemblance to the fame and prestige that would materialize decades later.  His father struggled with alcoholism and his mother was clinically depressed, sent to a mental institution when Grant was just nine years old.  His father simply told him that his mother had gone on a “long holiday,” and later, when she failed to come home, said she had died.  Grant didn’t learn of the lie for over two decades, and at that time, arranged to meet his mother just as his movie career was taking off.  But in his childhood, Archibald Leach, the future hero of the Silver Screen, was antsy, on edge, uncomfortable around others, nervous and awkward in his interactions with girls.  Described by a classmate as a “scruffy little boy” and by his teacher as “the naughty little boy who was always making a noise in the back row and would never do his homework,” Leach was expelled from school when he was fourteen.

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Over a decade later, after honing his craft onstage and in vaudeville, and on the doorstep of Hollywood superstardom, Archibald Leach was advised to change his name to Cary Grant.

If you were to choose between “scruffy” Archie Leach and his later, more celebrated alter ego, and select the winner to serve as the main character for a novel you wanted to write, the choice would seem to be obvious.

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And it is.

*******************

The four primary protagonists in The Eye-Dancers each struggle with their own personal hang-ups, outlooks, inner demons, and shaky self-esteem.  None of them are what anyone would call popular in school.  They don’t hang out with the “in” crowd, they’re not the trendsetters or movers-and-shakers of their peer group.  Mitchell Brant feels the need to fabricate and invent stories about himself, as he’s not confident that he’s “good enough” as he is.  Joe Marma lives in the shadow of his high-achieving older brother, and as the shortest boy in his grade, he has a king-sized chip on his shoulder.  Ryan Swinton doesn’t want to rock the boat; he likes to go along with the crowd and tell jokes to make people laugh.  Marc Kuslanski never met an equation he didn’t like; he closes his mind to the mysterious, the unexplained, the supernatural.  In his logical, rational worldview, everything, no matter how extraordinary, has a commonsense explanation.

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As the novel progresses, each character is confronted with circumstances that challenge his perspective, threaten to erode his already fragile sense of self, and even sabotage his ability to survive.  The boys can either be swept away and swallowed up by their own insecurities and weaknesses, or they can rise to the occasion to learn, grow, and adapt.

It strikes me that any character, really, needs to have the motivation, ability, and impetus to change over the course of a story.  If Character X begins a novel one way and ends the novel exactly the same way, we as readers might pause and ask ourselves, “What was the point of it all?”  Then again, maybe “character” isn’t the best word to use.

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“When writing a novel, a writer should create living people,” Ernest Hemingway once said.  “People, not characters.  A character is a caricature.”

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Real people are flawed.  They have moles and in-grown toenails, regrets and long-held secrets, wistful memories and would-be dreams that, through lost opportunity and the inexorable march of time, are now irretrievably lost.  The Cary Grant that the world saw, and thought they knew, was, in the words of Hemingway, a caricature–a glittering creation of Hollywood and the movies.  Archibald Leach was in there somewhere.  We just couldn’t see him.

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If a literary character is Cary Grant-perfect right from the first page, there is no room for growth, no way for readers to relate.  The plot may wind through hills and valleys, wander through wooded ravines and turn sharply around sudden hairpin curves, but the protagonist will remain static.  The story will not engage.

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If I were a producer or a director in Hollywood sixty years ago, the choice would be a no-brainer.  I’d take Cary Grant in the proverbial heartbeat.  But as an author, looking for a character to build a novel around?

Give me Archibald Leach.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

So . . . What’s a “Singularity Wheel”? (Or, a Title Finally Emerges)

Ideas are funny things.  Sometimes they strike with no warning, no foreshadowing, completely unasked for and unplanned.  Other times, you might be searching doggedly for the resolution of the next scene, the next chapter, the next story, and you peek around every corner, under every stone, every nook and cranny, hoping to find the missing piece–only to be rebuffed each time.  Sometimes ideas come complete, a gift from the muse, a fully developed story just waiting to come alive, one keystroke at a time.  And sometimes they tantalize, tease, coyly offering a hint or a lead, providing a glimpse but not revealing the whole.

ideastart

 

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I experienced all of this and more, and in fact the genesis of the story began two decades before the first word was even written.  When I was in high school, I had a dream one night, a taut affair where I saw a ghost outside my bedroom window–or, at least, I thought it was a ghost.  She was a little girl, no more than seven years old, and as I peered through the window, I saw her standing in the road, beneath the streetlamp that stood beside our mailbox.  The light from the streetlamp filtered right through her; she seemed more spirit than flesh-and-blood girl.  This “ghost girl” signaled for me to come outside and join her, and I was sure she wanted to lead me somewhere from which I would never return–perhaps the cemetery across town; perhaps a hidden hollow deep within the woods where boy-eating wolves or nameless, sharp-fanged creatures roamed; or maybe some ethereal phantom world, a far-away limbo on the other side of tomorrow.

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I felt myself fighting hard to resist, not wanting to leave the security of my room.  But there was an inevitability to it all, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I succumbed.

That’s when I woke up, sweating, my sheets a crumpled mess at my feet.  It took a moment for me to gather myself, but when I did, I knew this “ghost girl” from my dream was someone I needed to write about.  In the days that followed, excited, fired up, eager to launch into a new adventure, I tried putting her in various short stories, tried to begin a novel with her as the focal point.  I even tried writing a poem about her, and I am no poet!  Nothing worked.  Frustrated, I jotted down a few notes about the dream, making sure I wouldn’t forget, and filed them in a literary to-do pile, hoping one day a story would emerge.

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It took twenty years.  Then one night, I had the very same dream, taken back to the house where I grew up, seeing the same specter standing out there in the street.  Only this time, upon waking, I had the germ of an idea.  Over the next few days, the idea sprouted, watered by the suddenly giving and generous gifts of a capricious muse, fueled by enthusiasm and a drive to write the story.  And when I wrote the first words, the first scene–in which Mitchell Brant has the same dream of the same “ghost girl” I did–I believed this time would be different.  This time, the tale would be told, the story brought to its completion.

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The key word being “story”–singular.  I never thought or intended that The Eye-Dancers would be continued.  At the time, I had a fully developed single-story idea, not the beginning of a series.  I had no reason to believe there would ever be a sequel.

But again, ideas are funny things, and one late-winter day, three years ago, a dramatic visual formed in my mind’s eye.  I wasn’t thinking about any of the Eye-Dancers characters, wasn’t thinking of the novel at all.  I was merely out taking a walk, enjoying the crisp New England air, the sunshine, relishing the first, shy, almost indistinguishable signs of the coming spring.  And then, from out of nowhere, it seemed, I saw it.

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As if by magic, the image took shape.  There were Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–slightly older versions than what we see in The Eye-Dancers–standing before an impossibly large structure.  The building was easily the width of ten football fields, and it rose countless stories into a sky the color of ash.  And above the structure, in that ash-colored sky, were Monica Tisdale’s (the “ghost girl’s”) swirling blue eyes.  They dominated the scene, growing, expanding, overtaking the sky.  Her eyes glared down at the boys, as if challenging them to a duel.

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What was most striking about this image was the absence of color.  Aside from the “ghost girl’s” blue eyes, everything, including the giant building, was gray, a monochrome world of black-and-white. What could such an image mean?  On that day, taking that walk (I nearly collided into a tree, distracted as I was with this scene-from-nowhere!), I didn’t know.  I just knew something was stirring, a seed had been planted, the first kernels of a new idea were cracking open and waiting to grow.

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And grow they did until I realized–I had a sequel to write, after all.  Other scenes seared themselves into my mind:  Ryan, now a card shark, shuffling a deck of playing cards as if his life depended on it–and maybe, just maybe, it did.  A blue queen of spades, with eyes as blue as the “ghost girl’s,” staring out of the deck, her expression so real as if to be animate.  What did a blue queen of spades signify?  I didn’t know yet, but somehow I knew she was to be called The Singularity Queen and that she was the only blue card in the deck (all the other spades were the customary black).  The “ghost girl” herself splitting into a million versions of herself, a foot in each world, somehow in tune with an infinite number of universes.  Marc and Mitchell and Ryan and Joe vanishing from view, first a finger disappearing, then a foot, then an entire leg, and . . . ?  What did all these scenes signify?

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The ideas came in bunches, the story evolved, fleshed out, expanded tenfold.  The boys were older now, seventeen, on the verge of their senior year in high school.  And the “ghost girl” was older, too–no longer a girl of seven, but twelve now, on the precipice of the teen years.  What struggles would they all have now, five years removed from the conclusion of The Eye-Dancers?  As I started to write, the answers came, and the journey took off.

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It’s been a long, oftentimes challenging journey at that.  Several times throughout, I became stuck, at a crossroads or what sometimes felt like a dead end.  There have been gaps in the writing, periods of intense distraction or busy-ness where the next chapter had to wait.  But through it all, I’ve kept going.  It’s taken longer than I’d hoped, and the end has still not been reached.  Four more chapters remain.  The aim is to finish the first draft by the New Year, then edit the manuscript over the winter, and have it ready for release next spring.  As I near closer and closer to the finish line, I will post more about the story, the events, the challenges the characters will face.

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But one thing I can do right now is offer a title.  Titles are just as temperamental as ideas.  For me, sometimes titles come at the start, before I write the first word.  Often, though, when I sit down to start a story, I leave the title page blank.  “What’s this going to be called?” I wonder.  And I have no clue.

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It remained this way for two-and-a-half years with this sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  And believe me, I tried.  I spent hours trying to come up with a title.  Nothing came.  Then, one day this past summer, it did.  At first, I hesitated.  Would it work?  Or was it too confusing?  Too obscure, too odd?

I wasn’t sure, but it felt right.

The fourth definition of the word “singularity” in Webster’s dictionary reads:  “a point or region of infinite mass density at which space and time are infinitely distorted by gravitational forces and which is held to be the final state of matter falling into a black hole.”

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This coincided with another visual from the story–the blue queen of spades in the center of a circle of playing cards.  In the “ghost girl’s” alternate world, the card game in question is called The Singularity Wheel.

As it turns out, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers is called that, too.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Fantasy Football Draft Plan, Marching to the Beat of Your Own Drum, and–Going Over the Deep End?

I went back to my hometown of Rochester, New York, recently to spend the Labor Day weekend with my parents.  It was a great trip, and the drive across Vermont and upstate New York was pristine.  Town squares in the shadows of the Green Mountains were quiet in the morning hours as I rolled down the windows and listened to the give-and-take of blue jays, grackles, and other assorted early risers.

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Later, driving west through New York State, as morning gave way to afternoon, I passed through old Erie Canal towns, which were brimming with the activity of the holiday weekend–carnivals, farmers’ markets, people enjoying the weather and savoring summer’s golden swan song.  I take this trip back home every year on Labor Day weekend.  It has become something of a personal tradition.

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Another tradition is the annual fantasy football draft.  Way back in the 1990s (Is it just me, or does saying “way back” and the “1990s” in the same sentence strike anyone else as odd?!), my brothers heard about what at the time was a fairly new pastime called fantasy football.  Being a statistical nerd all my life, I eagerly joined them, my father, and some old friends in a fantasy league.  We’ve been playing ever since, now over twenty years strong.  The annual draft is like a reunion every year–getting together with childhood friends, catching up, and, well, drafting our teams!  To this day, we do it the old-fashioned way–everyone gets together in my parents’ front yard, seated around folding tables replete with snacks and other high-calorie fare, pencils and paper in hand, and we hold an in-person event.

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Over the years, I’ve been known ro utilize some extreme draft plans.  Granted, every league participant puts their own special, unique stamp on the team they select, but more often than not, I zig when everyone else zags.  This year, I took that mind-set to another level.  I crafted my most extreme draft plan to date, and was determined to see it through, no matter what.

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Midway through the proceedings, after yet another of my unorthodox picks, my brother John couldn’t resist.  He looked over the players I’d selected to that point, shook his head, and said, “Mike, I think you’ve finally gone off the deep end.  I think it’s finally happened!”  Of course, I enjoyed his jab.  One of the many fun aspects of employing an extreme, almost outrageous draft strategy is gauging the reaction of everyone else at the table.  But more importantly, the plan I incorporated was something I believed in, something I thought would work.

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Regardless of the prevailing opinion of the league or the fantasy football community at large.

*************************

There is a scene in The Eye-Dancers where Mitchell Brant talks with Marc Kuslanski, as they brainstorm over the predicament they are in–marooned in a parallel universe.  Marc, logical and rational to the core, is looking for sound scientific solutions.  But Mitchell, more intuitive and less bound by the “book,” eschews logic and contradicts Marc at nearly every turn, infuriating his data-minded friend to no end.

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Trying to explain himself, Mitchell says, “Haven’t you ever just felt something to be true?”  Against all logic, all objective analysis, has there ever been a time in your life when you knew the numbers were wrong, even when two plus two still added up to four?  Has there ever been a time when common sense screamed for you to do one thing, yet you deliberately chose the other?

2plus2

 

This is exactly what Mitchell Brant is getting at.

Going against the grain almost always elicits a strong reaction from others.  “Are you crazy?” they might say, with an eye roll or a head shake.  “Have you lost your mind?”  “Come again?  Did you just say what I thought you said?  Please say it ain’t so!”  As if refuting the counterarguments in our own mind isn’t hard enough, we are now confronted with the disbelief and disapproval of others.  It’s easy to crack at this juncture, to reign things in, get back on the well-traveled path, and return to our comfort zone.  After all, what if everyone else is right?  What if the idea we’ve come up with, the action plan we’ve decided to follow really is doomed to fail?  Conventional wisdom is conventional in part because it’s usually true, isn’t it?  The doubts seep in, the naysayers’ objections rise to a crescendo, and it is so easy to discard the idea we had once felt so passionate about.

goingagainstconwisdom

 

Albert Einstein once said, “The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd.  The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.”

einsteinquote

 

And Thoreau famously wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

waldenthoreau

 

The “different drummer” in question might be a particular job or place to live.  It might be an eccentric date or a loud tattoo, a new diet or an off-the-wall idea for a book.  It can be anything different than or apart from.

plutoanythingdifferenttattoo

 

As long as it’s uniquely your own.

*******************

When the fantasy football draft came to an end, as the sun slowly sank in the west, casting long, lazy late-summer shadows that undulated across the ground in the soft breeze, we lingered for a while, talking about everything, and nothing.  It’s a relaxing time–every year, following the draft.  There’s no reason to rush it.  But eventually, inevitably, the participants leave for home, one by one.

sunsetend

 

And before he left, my brother pulled me aside and said, “Seriously, Mike–are you deliberately trying to lose this year, though?  Your draft was crazy!”

“Like a fox,” I wanted to say, but didn’t.  All I did was smile.

foxend

 

When the season ends, we’ll see who has the last laugh.

lastlaughend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“Super,” “Fantastic,” and “Batty”? — Milestones All Around!

It was a gala event, an anniversary for DC Comics’ signature hero, and the creative team made sure to announce it to the world.

When Superman number 100 hit the newsstands in the late summer of 1955, the title had been going strong for sixteen years, and the character (introduced in Action Comics number 1, in 1938) for seventeen.

action1

 

The 100th issue would serve as a celebration of what the cover proudly proclaimed to be the “World’s Greatest Adventure Character!”

superman100

 

In 1955, this sort of special anniversary issue was a new phenomenon, in part because the comic book industry had yet to become the collectible gold mine it would morph into several decades hence, but also because most titles simply hadn’t been around long enough to feature major anniversary issues.  But the celebration of the Man of Steel’s status kicked off a trend in the industry.

supermanannual1gala

 

The following year, it was Batman’s turn.  The Caped Crusader’s title hit number 100 in the spring of 1956, and just as with Superman, Batman’s title was celebrating sixteen years at the time issue number 100 rolled around.  (The character of Batman had been around one year longer, introduced in 1939 with Detective Comics number 27.)

detective27

 

Once again, DC pulled out all the stops.  “Batty” stuff indeed . . .

batman100

 

Meanwhile, and several years later, another powerhouse in the comic book field–Marvel Comics–was marking the anniversaries of some of its signature titles:  The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men, and Mitchell Brant‘s favorite, The Fantastic Four. All hit their 100th issue in the early and mid 1970s.  By this time, it was fully expected that such a milestone issue would be celebrated with pomp and circumstance . . .

spiderman100

avengers100

xmen100

ff100

 

The stories housed within these special anniversary issues may or may not have been among the best of the genre.  In some ways, it didn’t matter.  More than anything, a title’s 100th issue represented a benchmark, a reminder, if you will, that the heroes had been able to stand the test of time and that the writers and artists involved still possessed a passion for storytelling and a desire to press on.

************

I began The Eye-Dancers blog in the summer of 2012, a complete novice to the blogosphere.  If you were to look up the word “blogging newbie” that summer, my picture probably would have been looking back at you.

me

(Okay, so putting my kindergarten picture here is probably a bit of an exaggeration.  Chalk it up to poetic license!)

I remember feeling overwhelmed and confused as I launched the blog.  I was about to release The Eye-Dancers, the novel, and I knew I wanted to “get the word out,” but how would I manage to do that?  And how many original posts would I be able to come up with?

eyedancerscover

 

So I thought about it, and struggled through the first few months, still grasping for blogging ideas, flailing and poking and writing posts that I doubted anyone other than myself would read.  I’d hit the Publish button and imagine the words drifting outward, not to other bloggers, but to some nowhere zone at the center of a lost cyber-galaxy, an eternally hungry black hole that feasted on unread sentences and paragraphs.

blackhole

 

But then I would see a Like appear, and before long a few intrepid fellow bloggers began to follow the blog.  Very few at first, but their support filled me with enthusiasm and optimism.  Someone out there was reading my words.  Encouraged, I again thought about what I could do, how I could potentially blog for the long haul.  And I decided–why not just write about things that interest me?  Sure, I would want them to tie in to The Eye-Dancers, the novel, in some way, but even so, the possibilities seemed endless.  I dove in, and a remarkable thing happened.  The insecurity lessened, the ideas started to arrive in waves, and I had a blast!  It was fun.  And more surprising still, more and more bloggers began following The Eye-Dancers.  Suddenly that black hole I had initially imagined disappeared, and an ongoing and wonderful adventure kicked into high gear.

endlesspossibilities

 

And now, four years after its inception, The Eye-Dancers blog has reached 5,000 followers. If someone had told me in the summer of 2012 that, by 2016, The Eye-Dancers would be fortunate enough to acquire such a following, I wouldn’t have believed it possible.  But that’s been the great thing about these four years.  The WordPress community welcomed me with open arms, and things just continued to get better and better.

5000

 

Then again, there’s no need for me to break out the past tense here.  I’m not going anywhere.  The sequel to The Eye-Dancers–as long as the literary stars stay aligned–will be due to come out during the early portion of 2017, and I will certainly be blogging about that, as well as many other things, in the months ahead.

starsaligned

 

It is my great hope that you all will continue to read and follow these ramblings and ruminations of mine.  Certainly, The Eye-Dancers doesn’t compare with the great superhero icons and their anniversaries from yesteryear, but your ongoing encouragement has often been as much a tonic for me as any radioactive spider bite or red Kryptonian sunlight.  You are the reason this blog is so enjoyable for me, and you are without a doubt the reason The Eye-Dancers blog is still going strong four years in.  I can’t thank you enough for all your support over these past four years.  You are all the best.

redsun

 

Thanks so much for reading, and I can’t wait to get started on the next four years!

–Mike

Finding Hope at Shawshank, the Swing Set in the Backyard, and the Transcendence of Story

There is a scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption that has always moved me.  Granted, many scenes in this tour de force of a motion picture, based on Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, leave an impact.  But one in particular stands out . . .

shawshankbeginning

 

Andy Dufresne, an innocent man convicted to life in Shawshank State Penitentiary for a crime he did not commit, has just spent the past two weeks in solitary confinement.  His offense?  He played a duet from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro over the prison’s PA system.

mozartrecord

 

 

figaromusicandy

 

During the rendition, every prisoner at Shawshank stood, transfixed, listening to lyrics they couldn’t even understand.  As  Ellis “Red” Redding, Andy’s fellow inmate and friend, and the film’s voice-over narrator, describes:  “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about.  Truth is, I don’t want to know.  Some things are best left unsaid.  I’d like to think they were singing of something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.  I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream.  It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

menlisteningtomozart

 

It didn’t matter.  The warden wasn’t amused.  And as Andy emerges from his solitary confinement and joins his friends in the prison cafeteria, he tells them his time in the hole was easy.  They scoff at this, but he tells them he had “Mr. Mozart to keep me company.”

“So they let you tote that record player with you into the hole?” one of the men at the table asks.

lunchatshawshank

 

Andy shakes his head, points to his head and his heart, explaining those are the places where Mozart played.  In response, he is greeted with blank, uncomprehending expressions.

“That’s the beauty of music,” he says. “They can’t get that from you.”  He pauses, glances around the table, then continues, “Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?”

Red replies, “I played a mean harmonica when I was a younger man.  Lost interest in it, though.  Didn’t make much sense in here.”

harmonica

 

Andy looks at him.  “In here’s where it makes the most sense.  You need it so you don’t forget.”

“Forget?” Red asks, not following.

“Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone, that . . . there’s something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch . . . that’s yours.”

prisonplacesmadeofstone

 

“What you talkin’ about?” Red says.

To which Andy Dufresne replies, simply, “Hope.”

*********************

When I went to college, as an English major, I was surrounded by fellow students who loved literature, and many were aspiring writers.  Some, like me, focused more on fiction, and others more on nonfiction.  I took creative workshops in both.

englishmajorslovingliterature

 

When I took the nonfiction workshop, a classmate named Kim approached me one day after class.

“I liked your essay,” she said, regarding a piece I had just shared with the class about a memorable and impactful childhood experience.  “Did you ever think about switching over to nonfiction exclusively?”

It was a question I had fielded before, from others.  I knew that Kim wanted to be a journalist.  She was passionate about social justice and hoped for a career crafting flaming editorials that hit her readers hard and forced them to tackle issues head-on.  Likewise, she knew my bent was to write fiction, to come up with stories “out of the ether,” as it were; or, to put it as she did, “to make things up.”

outoftheether

 

“Don’t you think you could have more impact if you wrote about relevant topics in the news?” she went on.  “I mean, don’t you just want to have someone read something you write and think, ‘Yeah!  That is so true!  We need to change that, we need to make this world a better place.'”

makeworldbetterplace

 

I wasn’t sure how to respond.  I had to think about it for a moment.  Then I said, “Of course.  I think we both want the same things, and we both have the same goals with the things we write.  We just go about them in different ways.”

I’m not sure she was satisfied with that answer, and I sensed she felt I was somehow on the wrong path.  But that’s the way we left it.  That was the only answer I could give her.

In the years since, especially in the wake of mass shootings and political upheavals and deep cultural divisions, I’ve thought about it more.  After all, didn’t Kim have a point?  Shouldn’t we strive to make a difference, in whatever areas we are called?  And if we write, if we feel the desire, the need, to express ourselves via the written word, shouldn’t we aim to tackle the big issues our world faces?  Shouldn’t we deal with the here and now rather than inventing characters and situations and, in the case of The Eye-Dancers, parallel dimensions that may not even exist?

paralleldimensionthatmaynotexist

 

But then I realize the answer I gave Kim that day, in the last, waning years of the twentieth century, perhaps wasn’t so off-base, after all.  It’s true, there are editorials, histories, social commentaries that move me and make me see things in new and different ways.  There are journalistic pieces that hit home with such force, it can feel you’ve been bludgeoned with a sledgehammer.  But there are also novels and plays and short stories that do the same.

storiesthatmakeimpactthelottery

 

A key word, that–“story.”  Even in journalism, or in speeches or long social or historical treatises, the major points are often illustrated through story.  We can read about the statistics of homicide or homelessness or student debt and shake our heads.  The numbers are staggering.  But then we can read about one situation, one individual, one person’s experiences, and we can be moved to tears.  The numbers are brought to life through the power of story.

No doubt from the dawn of humankind, from the first instance an individual mesmerized an audience with flair and creativity, story has always been this way, fleshing out and giving emotional meaning to the bare, bald skeleton of fact,  An engaging story can reel you in with a paragraph.  A strong opening sentence or two, and we are already there, transported, as if by magic, to a different place, seeing the world through another person’s eyes, living and breathing and experiencing with them, their joys and hopes, their losses and defeats.  And yet, simultaneously, through the eyes of the characters, whether they are from our culture or the other side of the world (or the universe!), our time period or some distant past or faraway and undreamed-of future, we can also see ourselves in them, and experience our own world more fully and richly.

timemachinesothersideofworld

 

And, it is my earnest hope, that this ability, this transcendence of story even applies to ghost girls, hypnotic blue eyes, and journeys through the long and timeless void.

timlessvoidnearend

 

*****************

When I was six years old, my parents bought a swing set.  It allegedly was for the entire family, but seeing that my siblings were already teenagers and in high school at the time, it didn’t take much deductive reasoning to figure out who among us would use it the most.  My father put it together and positioned it at the northern edge of the backyard.  “Don’t worry,” I assured.  “I’ll use it a lot!”

swingset

 

And I did.  I’d spend entire afternoons on that swing.  I’d swing after school until suppertime.  I’d swing deep into the fall, sometimes all the way to Thanksgiving, before the snow and the ice shut things down.  And then I’d be forced to sit it out through the interminable western New York winter, waiting for the arrival of a shy and capricious spring.  When the snow finally retreated, stubbornly giving way to April sunshine, I’d scamper out into the muddy yard and reacquaint myself with the swing set.

swingingthrutheseasons

 

Perhaps the best times were on summer evenings, swinging in the warm dusk of July, the crickets chirping, the cicadas playing their synthetic instruments from their hidden, unseen perches in the trees.  I’d pump my legs and go higher, higher . . . and I’d look out beyond the yard, toward the distant horizon.  Sometimes, I was sure I could see a glimmering city in the clouds.  But I only saw it when I swung high.  The higher I swung, the clearer the sparkling buildings and shiny, golden streets came into view.  I remember wishing for a way I could reach that city, walk down those streets.  If I could only swing high enough, maybe, just maybe . . .

cityinsky

 

It’s easy now, of course, looking back through the rational, commonsense lens of adulthood, to disregard my imaginings on that old swing set as the whims of a little boy, the flights of fancy and nonsensical musings of a child.  But I like to think it was more meaningful than that. More relevant.  Perhaps, in its own way, that shimmering city in the sky represented a hope–not unlike that of Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption–a yearning for something more, a striving for something pure and real and unifying, venturing beyond the boundaries of self and circumstance.

andyhopeend

 

I don’t swing anymore.  I write.  And, with luck, the stories I write offer that same hope, and dare to reach somewhere just beyond the stars.

beyondstarsend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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