Mud Season (Or, “Signs of a Literary Spring”)

Vermont is a land of seasons–hard seasons.  There is nothing subtle about them, from the rich green landscape of summer, to the reds and golds and oranges of autumn, to the icy, interminable wasteland of winter, and the riot of color that signals the rebirth of spring.  People in New England often say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait around five minutes.  It’ll change.”  Except . . . that’s not necessarily true, especially this time of the year.

 

March is, arguably, Vermont’s least attractive month.  Winter hangs on, stubborn, digging its frostbitten fingers into the earth.  Snowstorms still arise.  Freezing rain and melting snow that re-freezes overnight create conditions more suitable to ice skates than shoes or tires.  Trees remain bare, their trunks gray and brown against the rust and heaviness of the low-hanging clouds.  And as the month pushes on, the days inching inexorably forward toward a longed-for if mercurial April, there is enough snowmelt that the grass finally emerges after being buried and hidden since November.  But it’s not a green, healthful-looking grass.  No.  It’s yellow and flattened, bereft of vibrancy.  It will be weeks before it begins to turn.

 

Perhaps more than anything, though, March in Vermont is famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for its mud.  Rural Vermont is replete with dirt roads that wind along and through the hills and valleys of the state’s rugged terrain.  I myself live on a dirt road, and when Mud Season–as they refer to it here–arrives, well, let’s just say you need a good pair of boots and a tolerance for swerving while driving along the rutted, grooved surface of the road.  Some tire grooves are a foot deep or more–and many drivers have become stuck over the years during Vermont’s season of mud.

 

This all grates on the residents.  Cabin fever sets in.  After all, come March, Vermonters have endured nonstop Arctic conditions for months.  We long to see the tangible manifestations of spring.  The calendar, late in the month, tells us it’s spring–but it doesn’t look like it, and it sure doesn’t feel like it.  I always think about Groundhog Day, February 2nd.  If old Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, we’ll still be cursed with six more weeks of winter, they say.  That’s supposed to be the bad news.  But, in Vermont, if, on February 2nd, you were told there would be just six weeks left of winter, you’d celebrate.  Six weeks?  Is that all?

 

And yet . . . and yet . . . for all of its bleakness and unwillingness to yield, a Vermont March offers hope.  There are shy, subtle hints that Old Man Winter is retreating, or, at least, about to retreat.  On the surface, these hints can be easily missed if one focuses exclusively on the sub-freezing temperatures, the snow, the ice underfoot.  But they are there.  Like the daylight–which increases.  The four-o’clock evenings of November and December have melted away to longer afternoons and later sunsets.  (Not taking into account Daylight Savings Time, which, of course, creates its own species of havoc!)  There are also the blackbirds and the grackles, who arrive by the middle of the month, returning from their winter migration.  And . . . what’s that?  A sneeze?  Runny eyes?  A scratchy throat?  It’s not a cold.  It’s the first manifestation of seasonal allergies, the pollen that is my lifelong scourge stirring somewhere, unseen, in the shadows.  No life, no renewal is evident.  All looks as stripped and cold as ever.  But something is happening.  A latent life-force is awakening.

 

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

It can be like that with creativity, too.  Much like the seasons of our natural world, there are seasons in our creative life, as well.  Sometimes we’re swept away in the lava flow of words, ideas, images, inspirations, epiphanies.  Other times, however (and far too frequently), we lie fallow and windswept, our stories, our paintings, our songs snowed under, cut off from the light.  It’s as if we’re lost in a maze, with no idea how to find our way out.  In the distance, around the corner, through the mountain pass, there is an other side abundant with flowing waterfalls and fields of flowers, basking in the midday sunshine.  We long to get back to that place, where the art seemingly creates itself.  And when we’re not there, we wonder if we’ll ever return.

 

The winter wilderness, when ideas seem perpetually blocked, can cause a sense of panic.  Will I ever get a good, workable idea again?  Has the well run dry?  Is that it?  Am I done as an artist?  Have I written my last story? Believe me, I have been there.  (I was there in the months after finishing The Singularity Wheel.)  And I’ve learned that, sometimes, when we’re particularly fortunate, we emerge from our unwanted creative sabbaticals with a flourish.  A new story comes, like a gift from the muse, and you feel as if you must write it immediately.  A picture forms in your mind, as if by magic–and you know you have a tour de force in the making.  Such unasked-for inspirations are the ultimate highs.

 

But other times, and probably far more often, the rebirth of your creative self is gentler, quieter, less flamboyant.  It doesn’t soar from 23 degrees to 84 degrees Fahrenheit in a single bound.  It takes time.  Maybe a new idea comes, but it needs work still.  The foundation is there.  Now you need to build up, create rooms for the characters in which to live and breathe, and dream. But you’re moving.  You are escaping the dark heart of literary winter.  You have discovered the way out of the maze.  Now, you just have to get there.

 

One step at a time.

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

It’s cold today–temperatures not even reaching 20 degrees.  But the sun is shining high in the sky, and the rays are soothing.  And above me, ahead of me . . . what’s that?

The distinct, watery sound of a red-winged blackbird.  The first time I’ve heard a blackbird this calendar year.

 

I look at him, perched on the bare limb of a sugar maple.  He returns my gaze, a knowing sparkle in his eye.

He understands.  Despite the frigid conditions today, he realizes.  And he’s returned.  He’s flown hundreds and hundreds of miles for this.

Spring is almost here.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Shelter

Walls.  We’ve been hearing a lot about them lately.  Concrete walls and steel walls and bollard fences. But walls are not just physical barriers that stand between people or communities or nation-states. There are other kinds, as well.

 

Some walls are not built with metal or wood or whatever else technology or ingenuity can manufacture.  They are, rather, erected within our minds and our hearts, born from blind prejudices and long-festering hatreds that too often span centuries and generations.  These walls, these soul-killing monuments harbored by far too many for far too long, aren’t visible to the eye.  But they are experienced every day, in all corners of the world.

Rod Serling knew this well, and some of the more memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone dealt with such issues.  One in particular, which sometimes flies under the proverbial radar, was a third-season tour de force called “The Shelter.” (Airdate September 29, 1961.)

 

The episode begins with a panoramic view of a suburban neighborhood, at night.  Everything looks peaceful, serene, the American ideal.  And when we enter the home of Dr. William Stockton, we witness a gathering of friends and neighbors, celebrating the doctor’s birthday.  One of the neighbors, Jerry Harlowe, gives a speech honoring the doctor.  He says that Stockton is a good friend, an excellent doctor, someone who has treated them and their children for twenty years.  They make lighthearted fun of Stockton and the bomb shelter he has built off of his basement.  Laughter is plentiful, and hearty.  These are people who know each other–or so it seems.  They know and respect Dr. Stockton.

 

Just then, Stockton’s son enters the room, tells everyone that the picture on the television set just went dark and an announcer came on, informing the audience to tune into the CONELRAD (Civil Defense) station on the radio.

Stockton does, and the throng of neighbors is shocked by what they hear.  The CONELRAD announcement states that there is an unidentified flying object on radar, traveling southeast.  The president of the United States has declared a “yellow emergency.”  The announcer tells his listeners to retreat to a shelter if they have one; if not, go to a basement or, lacking that, to the centermost position in the house, while closing all doors and windows.

 

The neighbors run out of Stockton’s house and into the street, in a panic.  The announcement can mean only one thing–a nuclear attack.  This is the event the nation, the world, has dreaded.

 

At this point, Rod Serling provides the opening narration.

 

“What you are about to watch is a nightmare,” Serling intones.  “It is not meant to be prophetic.  It need not happen.  It’s the fervent and urgent prayer of all men of goodwill that it never shall happen.  But in this place, in this moment, it does happen.  This is the Twilight Zone.”

 

The doctor, his wife, and his son prepare for an extended stay in their bomb shelter.  They fill jugs with water, gather canned goods.  Efficiency is paramount.  Lights are flickering, the power threatening to cut out.  They may have twenty minutes, perhaps a half hour at the outside, to supply the shelter with everything they’ll need to weather the cataclysm of the potential bomb blast and resulting aftermath.

 

The food and water procured, the family of three locks themselves inside the shelter.  There is a radio within.  Stockton turns it on, as they listen for updates.

Upstairs, neighbor Jerry and his wife let themselves in.  Realizing that Stockton and his family must already be secured in their shelter, Jerry heads down to the basement.  He knocks on the shelter door. Stockton opens, it walks out.  Jerry tells him that he and his wife have no basement in their home.  Theirs is the “only brand-new house on the block.  We’re sitting ducks over there.”

Dr. Stockton tells them they can use his basement.

“Your basement?” Jerry says. ” What about your shelter?  It’s the only place we can survive!”

The doctor explains that the shelter was designed for his family, for just the three of them.  They don’t have enough room, or enough supplies, to take in anyone else.

Jerry won’t give up.  “We’ll sleep standing up,” he says.  “We won’t use any of your stuff.”

“What about air?” Stockton snaps back.  “Will you bring your own air?  I’m sorry, Jerry.  God as my witness, I am sorry!  But I built this shelter for my family.”

 

At this, Jerry becomes hysterical, and knocks a jug of water from Stockton’s hands.  It breaks on the concrete floor, the water spilling out.

Stockton pulls away, retreats into the shelter, shouts at him.  “I kept telling you, Jerry.  All of you.  Forget the card parties and the barbecues–for maybe a few hours a week.  Admit that the worst was possible.  But you didn’t want to listen, Jerry.  None of you wanted to listen.”

He finishes by telling his neighbor it is now out of his hands, and he slams the shelter door in Jerry’s face.

Meanwhile, another neighbor–Marty, along with his wife–arrives at the Stockton home.  When Jerry tells them that Stockton won’t let anyone in the shelter, Marty is incredulous.  “He’s got to let us in.”  But he, too, runs into a locked door–literally and figuratively–when he descends into Stockton’s basement and pleads with the doctor, to no avail.

Marty returns to the upstairs portion of the house as still more neighbors arrive.  None of Stockton’s friends are ready for the cataclysm.  All want refuge in the shelter.

One of the neighbors, Frank, is angry.  They should break into the shelter, he says.  Batter in the door.  But Jerry reminds him that the shelter is too small.  They couldn’t all survive.

Marty opines that they should pick out one family, just one, who could join the Stocktons inside the shelter.  But then they argue over which family should have the privilege.

 

Here, Frank snaps, and he tells Marty, who is Hispanic, to shut his mouth.  “That’s the way it is when the foreigners come over here,” he says.  “Pushy, grabby.  Semi-American.”

The two come close to blows, and Frank, still full of rage, races downstairs and pounds on the shelter door, demanding entry.  Stockton remains firm.  No one gets in.

A member of the growing throng of neighbors says he knows someone down the street who has a steel pipe they can use as a battering ram.  If they get their hands on it, they can bust through the shelter door.

Jerry tells them to stop.  “You’re all acting like a mob!” he shouts.  Marty concurs, tells them to cool down, think it through.

 

To this, Frank scowls and says, “Wasn’t I clear before?  Nobody cares what you think, you or your kind!”  This time, the two do come to blows.  Frank punches Marty in the mouth.  There are shrieks, screams.  A siren goes off, whining in the distance.  Frank yells that they need to batter down the door, and they run off for the steel pipe.

Moments later, they are back, in a frenzy.  They swing the pipe, crash it against the shelter door, frantic, violent.  Again and again and again, until the door gives way.

 

And then . . . the power flicks on, the lights come to life.  And the radio crackles, the announcer speaks.  The president has determined that the UFOs are not nuclear missiles, but satellites.  “Repeat–there are no enemy missiles approaching.”  There is no danger.  The state of emergency has been called off.

 

Everyone smiles and laughs.  Couple hug each other.

But then a startled, regretful expression comes to Frank’s face.  He approaches Marty, apologizes, explaining to his neighbor that he “went off [his] rocker” and that he “didn’t mean any of those things I said to you.”

 

Jerry chimes in.  Feigning joviality, he says they’ll pay Dr. Stockton for the damages to his property.  “We’ll take up a collection right away.”

“We can have a block party tomorrow night,” Marty says.  “A big celebration!”

Jerry is all for it.  “Anything to get back to normal.”

Stockton, exhausted, defeated, tells them he doesn’t know what normal is anymore.  And paying for the damages?

 

“I wonder if any one of us has any idea what those damages really are,” he says.  “Maybe one of them is finding out what we’re really like when we’re normal.  The kind of people we are underneath the skin.  A lot of naked, wild animals who put such a price on staying alive that they’ll claw their neighbors to death just for the privilege.”

 

Rod Serling sums it up at the closing, as the camera pans the Stockton living room, the tables overturned, casualties of the neighbors’ recklessness and rage during the crisis.

 

“No moral, no message, no prophetic tract, just a simple statement of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized.  Tonight’s very small exercise in logic from the Twilight Zone.”

And, no doubt, it’s an exercise at least as relevant in 2019 as it was in 1961.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Anatomy of an (Incomplete) Story Idea (Or, The Adventures of Ferdinand)

Imagine this scene . . .

A man is driving along a lonely country road as midnight approaches.  I don’t know how old the man is–perhaps 40, maybe 45.  For the time being, it’s not important.  Nor do I know his name.  Jeff?  Fred?  Ferdinand?  Pick a name, any name.  Just as with his age, it is irrelevant right now.

 

The man (okay, we’ll settle on Ferdinand!) glances in his rearview mirror.  A dark stretch of asphalt merges into the background, swallowed by the night.  He can’t help but inhale deeply, taking in the warm summer air through the open window of his car.  Above, in an oily canvas of night sky, hundreds of stars sparkle like diamonds.  He used to study astronomy as a kid, and, momentarily, he looks up, through the windshield, seeing if maybe, just maybe, he can identify some of those stars.  No such luck.  Like eighth-grade algebra, the knowledge is gone, captured by the wide gulf of years, of time and distance.

 

He hasn’t driven through a town of significant size for miles.  He’s “smack-dab in the middle of Nothingville,” as his mom used to say about the house and town he grew up in.  Where is he headed?  I’m not sure, and neither is he.  Doesn’t matter.  What matters is the drive, the stars, the gentle night breeze wafting in through the window, the fields and trees that come and go, come and go, as he drives on.  There are few houses.  But occasionally, there is a porch light in the distance, a beacon in the dark.  It makes him reminisce.  He grew up on a farm.  He couldn’t wait to get away, escape to the city.  Now he wonders if perhaps that had been a mistake.  His life isn’t what he thought it would be.  Maybe that’s why he’s on this long drive.  Maybe he’s running away, fleeing something from a long-ago, irretrievable past.

 

Ferdinand sighs, turns on the car’s radio.  He scans through the stations–not getting much, this far away from populated areas.  He comes across a sports-talk station with a caller screaming in a heavy Brooklyn accent about why the New York Jets need to move in a new direction.  The host cautions restraint, the caller yells again.  Ferdinand presses a button, and the angry Jets fan is gone.  For a moment, Ferdinand imagines the owner of that voice, that frustrated fan.  He’s shut him out, erased him from the confines of the car, but surely the man is still raging from somewhere in Brooklyn.  An apartment, perhaps?  Maybe the guy lives above a bakery or a pizza parlor, or a pawnshop.  Maybe he owns a brownstone on a busy corner, with cars honking and people talking on the streets and sidewalks outside.  Miles away from Ferdinand.  Worlds away.

 

He continues to drive, cruising along at 55.  Not a single car passes him. The road is his, and his alone.  He imagines driving through a vortex, through an intersection of space and time, plunging into a parallel world, as if a character in an old Twilight Zone episode. And all the while, he continues to scan through the radio dial.

 

There’s one station playing ’80s pop.  He pauses on this one.  Some of the songs he remembers well from his youth.  This makes him feel at once nostalgic, and old.  Could that really have been thirty years ago?  He glances in the rearview again, not to look out for traffic–he knows there isn’t any–but to check his thinning hair and the worry lines on his forehead.  Where has the time gone?

 

Muttering, Ferdinand fiddles with the dial again.  The scanner skips over stations and plays back static with others, interspersed with a few more songs that he doesn’t care for–there’s a heavy metal piece, a country song.  A grunge number from the ’90s.  Just as he’s about to switch the radio off entirely, he hears something odd.  A voice, talking to him.  But not just any voice.

 

His voice.

“Don’t do it,” the voice on the radio–his voice–says.  “Think twice, champ.  Don’t.  It will be the biggest mistake of your life–and that’s saying something, considering your track record.  Don’t go there.”

Ferdinand shakes his head, hits his forehead with the palm of one hand.  Don’t do what?  Don’t go where? And how can he be hearing himself on the radio?

“I need some sleep,” he says.  The next sign of life, the next town–he’ll pull over, get a room for the night.  Maybe order some takeout, watch a movie.  Relax.

 

He reaches to turn off the radio.

“Not that easy, you don’t,” his voice says back to him, tinny and crackling, as if losing reception.  “You’re not going to shut me out . . . or up.  Listen, for a change.  Don’t do it.  Don’t you dare.”

He takes a long, deep breath, looks out the window at the stars, at the empty, open vastness of the night.

 

Is he losing his mind?

And if he’s not . . . what does it mean?  How can it be?

Maybe he has driven into the Twilight Zone, after all.

 

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

This is an idea that hit me with the force of a hammer last week.  The scene unfolded in my mind as described above, formulated within seconds upon waking from an overnight sleep.  As I always do when an idea that energizes me comes, I immediately jotted down the gist of it, the essentials–so I wouldn’t forget anything important.  I did the same thing with the scene that came to me in a dream back when I was in high school–the dream that morphed into Mitchell Brant‘s dream in the opening chapter of The Eye-Dancers.  For two decades, I couldn’t seem to fit that episode into a story–until, at last, The Eye-Dancers was born.

 

Will this new idea, this new situation, also take weeks or months or years to grow and expand and flesh out into a story, or even a novel?  I hope not.  But I don’t have much control over it, either.  This is how ideas work for me, most of the time.  Every now and then, an idea arrives fully formed, beginning to end, a complete story that only needs to be written.  But that is the exception, not the rule.

 

The rule is both riveting and frustrating.  Exhilarating and tantalizing.  Because what normally happens is–I am given a piece, a small slice of the whole.  Just enough to hook me, pull me in, grasp onto to me like a feisty dog taking a firm hold and not letting go.  I am forced in, unable to discard, feeling the need to explore the path and see where it leads.  See what discoveries await on the other side.  Sometimes that process is sudden and immediate.  Other times it is slow and full of pitfalls, as I await the pleasure of a capricious and all too often stingy muse.

 

So, for right now, I reluctantly set Ferdinand aside.  Oh, I’ll think about him.  I’ll turn his predicament over in my mind a thousand times before Sunday.  But I know the full story cannot be forced.  Just as Ferdinand’s voice spoke to him from the radio, so it will to me–in its own way, at a time and place of its choosing.  I can coax and goad and ponder and cajole, but I cannot dictate.  The creative process must be allowed to work its magic in its own inscrutable way.

 

Then again, maybe tonight I will dream of this again, and, maybe, upon waking, the riddle will be solved, and the story will be written.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Pass the Capricorn (Or, Recognizing the Blessings Even in the Loss)

This year, Christmas just isn’t the same for me.  All my life, especially growing up, Christmas represented the most treasured, the most special time of the year.  And now, looking back, it’s clear what the glue was that held it all together, the one indispensable person who made the holidays something the entire family could enjoy and look forward to.  (Not that it wasn’t clear before, but sometimes loss hones the focus, makes you see things with a crystalline clarity made pointed and sharp from the stiletto blade of absence.)

 

My mother loved Christmas.  She started preparing for it weeks in advance.  The first Sunday in December, in that long-ago world of the 20th century, she would round up the family, and we’d head over to Wambach Farms (a family-owned Rochester, NY-area market that, after serving the community for generations, sadly, closed its doors earlier this year) to buy our Christmas tree–and choosing just the right tree was no small task!  We’d examine them all, until we found the one we all agreed on; then my father would load it into the trunk and tie it down, and we’d head back home and decorate for hours.

 

Mom also spread Christmas cheer to non-family members.  She baked cookies for scores of friends and neighbors, invited people to the house all through December, and invented participatory games each year the visitors could enjoy.

 

For the past two decades, I’ve lived in Vermont–having moved away from my hometown at the dawn of the 2000s.  But Christmas was no less special, even then.  Until this year.

Last winter, my mother passed away from lung cancer.  It was sudden, unexpected, undiagnosed until the very end.  And now, at Christmastime, I find it’s hard to want to celebrate.  For me, and what this time of year has always meant to me, the essence, the guts, have been ripped out.  There is a part of me that wants to fast-forward a fortnight, bypass the holidays, and emerge on the other side of 2019.

But then I pause, catch myself. And think of my mother’s all-time favorite Christmas movie . . .

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

When It’s A Wonderful Life debuted in movie theaters in 1946, it wasn’t the box-office hit its producers and director, Frank Capra, hoped for.  It seemingly had everything going for it–a rousing, feel-good message on the heels of a nightmarish, horrific world war, a first-rate cast and crew, and the return of popular actor James Stewart to the Silver Screen after five years away, during which time he’d served with distinction in the war.  But, despite being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (losing out to The Best Years of Our Lives), the movie fell flat with audiences that year.  It was only decades later, when television audiences were re-introduced to it every holiday season, that its star rose.

 

Even for all that, there are, and always have been, critics of It’s A Wonderful Life specifically and Frank Capra more generally.  His films are too mawkish, the naysayers argue.  They view life through rose-colored glasses.  Long before It’s A Wonderful Life graced the Silver Screen, Capra had made his mark with pictures such as It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, among many others.  His detractors coined the term “Capricorn” in response to his movies, brushing them off as “sentimental hogwash,” as old Mr. Potter himself grouses in It’s A Wonderful Life.

 

Capra responded with his motion pictures and successful career as a film director, and with quotes like this one: “My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.”

And of course no Capra movie, perhaps no movie, period, embodies this sentiment more than It’s A Wonderful Life.  Most are familiar with the story of George Bailey, the character played by Stewart, an “everyman” who falls on hard times and sees his fortunes dwindle to the point where he is facing jail time for a mistake his uncle has made with their family-owned bank’s finances.  George, upon learning and coming to grips with his dire situation, returns home on Christmas Eve after a fruitless day searching for the lost money.  Frustrated, fed up with his life, he rails, throws a tantrum, berates the kids and the “drafty old house” they live in.  “It’s like living in a refrigerator,” he yells.  And when he reaches for the cap on the newel post of the staircase banister, about to head upstairs, it comes off, loose–as it has always done.  But this time, this time . . . He motions to throw it, but, pulling himself back together–at least for the moment–he puts it back in place.

 

Later, he leaves, heads to a bridge in a blizzard, and considers jumping off, into the cold water, ready to end it all.  Just as he is about to take the plunge, Clarence, his guardian angel, who has been observing the entire sad tableau, dives in first.  He knows George will be compelled to jump in after him and rescue him to safety, which is exactly what happens.  It is at this point that the true magic of this Capra classic reaches its apogee.  Clarence ultimately shows George what the world would be like if he’d never been born, how much worse off people would be, how things George has always taken for granted would be wiped away, gone, as if stricken by a sorcerer’s spell.  This causes George to realize he’s really lived “a wonderful life,” and he begs Clarence to take him back, to allow him to return to his old life with all the problems and trials and jams.

 

When George does return, he’s a new man, grateful for the very things he had been cursing before the experience with Clarence began.  He runs home, hugs his wife and children, even kisses the loose newel cap when it comes off the post again.  And then, of course, we learn that George won’t be going to jail, after all.  His wife has set in motion a miracle.  The town, his town, is coming to the rescue.  And as his brother, Harry, proclaims, amidst the gathering throng of family and friends, George is “the richest man in town.”

 

Corny?  You bet.  Sentimental?  Gushing!  But it’s pure cinematic gold.  And every time I watch it, I feel better for the experience.

 

This year, more so than ever.  Because, for all its contrivances and old-fashioned saccharine qualities, It’s A Wonderful Life emphasizes the good things in life, and reminds us that, even amidst pain and loss and hard times, we have things to be thankful for.  Yes, it’s true.  For me, Christmas will never be the same.  There is an absence there that can never be filled again. But watching George Bailey kissing his broken staircase and laughing over his bloodied lip helps me to see that if I feel loss this Christmas season, it means there is something in my life, in my past, that is special enough and pure enough and loving enough to elicit this feeling in the first place.  It’s something to embrace, not flee from.  To appreciate and value.  And remember.

 

So, during this holiday season, I don’t care what the critics say.

Pass me the Capricorn.

 

Thanks so much for reading, and I hope you all have a blessed and joyous holiday.

 

–Mike

Superman Without the “S” on His Chest? (Or, The “Flaws” That Make Us Special)

By the turn of the year, 1940, Superman was already a sensation.  The Man of Steel had been around for just under two years, and, as the first comic book superhero, the titles he starred in (Action Comics and Superman) always were at the top of the marquee.  Imagine the surprise, then, with the publication of Action Comics number 20 (January 1940)  when the world’s greatest adventure hero appeared on the cover with a major omission on his costume.

 

It’s not hard to visualize the youth of America that holiday season of 1939-1940 (historically, comics always appear on the newsstands a month or so earlier than the date listed on their cover) as they spun the squeaky comic book rack at the corner store.  Browsing the covers of the new issues, trying to decide which one to plunk down their hard-won dime on, surely they would have paused when confronted with the cover of Action Comics number 20.  What sacrilege was this?  How could they make such a mistake?  And yet . . . there it was, for all to see.

The yellow triangle with the signature red “S” at the center that was supposed to grace the Man of Steel’s barrel chest was . . . missing!  In its place was . . . nothing—a blank, an empty spot orphaned of its famous emblem.  Was DC Comics changing Superman’s costume?  Had they decided it was too flashy, too loud?  But no.  Of course not.  When the following month’s issues arrived, the “S” had returned on Superman’s costume, confirming that the cover of Action Comics number 20 had been . . . an oversight.  A mistake.  A gaffe.

 

The result?  Not much.  It’s not as if the youth of the day rebelled and planned a “Superman strike,” protesting the publication’s carelessness.  They continued to support the Man of Steel, and Superman has not suffered.  He has been around for eighty years, after all, gracing thousands of comic books, not to mention a wide array of TV series and movies.  The Man of Tomorrow is enduring.

 

But so is the cover of Action Comics number 20.  Maybe the buying public of 1940 didn’t create a stir (though surely there were letters streaming in to the publisher’s offices that winter), but, as the decades ticked on and as comic book collecting became a major hobby worldwide, vintage comics enthusiasts began to take notice.  In fact, they especially sought out the issue.  Action Comics number 20 is now a prized item, often priced higher than the issues that immediately preceded it (a rarity in comic book collecting, unless a particular issue introduces a key character or for some reason had a smaller print run).  Look it up in the comic book price guide and the note will be provided:  “Superman appears without ‘S’ on his chest.”  Rather than creating a black eye for the issue, the costume oversight has made it something special, something unique, a one-of-a-kind presentation.

 

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

In The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel, the protagonists also must deal with what they perceive as slights, flaws, blemishes that make them feel less-than or even freakish.  Mitchell Brant has a speech impediment.  Joe Marma is the shortest boy in his class.  Ryan Swinton is the tallest, and has a nasty case of acne.  Marc Kuslanski, as a junior-high student, is the class nerd; as he matures, he feels the need to shed his thick glasses and rid himself of the label.  And Monica Tisdale, “the ghost girl,” feels like an outcast, wielding a rare and devastating power that makes others—and sometimes even she, herself–fear her. Each of them must learn to accept, even appreciate, the very things they are ashamed of, the things others make fun of, belittle, name-call.

 

They are not alone, of course.  We all carry insecurities inside of us.  Some of them are nagging things, relegated to the back burner, a little voice that whispers in our ear at certain moments.  Others are monsters, albatrosses, wound tight around our neck like a gallows waiting to snuff the life from us.  No one is immune.

 

There is no magic spell, of course, no secret code or talisman to erase the things that dog us and threaten to drag us down.  Whether it’s some aspect about our appearance, or the way we talk, or the way we walk, or our professional acumen, or the way we furnish our home or the car we drive, or any and every other permutation imaginable, we are all imperfect, and we all feel the weight of it.

 

But, in this season of Thanksgiving, perhaps we can at least try to perceive our “faults” a little differently.  Maybe, just maybe, that “S” that’s missing from our chest makes us stronger, more genuine, more compassionate.  Maybe it’s the flaws that radiate the beauty and the potential within.

 

Just ask the Man of Steel.  If any character is said to be “perfect,” surely Superman—with his super-strength and super-memory and super-intelligence and super-morals and super-everything—tops the list.  And yet, for all that, it’s his decidedly imperfect cover from eight decades ago that is still, all these years later, remembered and treasured by the collectors and pop-historians who know him best.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“My God Is Better Than Your God!” (Or, Applying the Lessons Learned from a 20th-Century First-Grade Bickering Match to the World of 2018)

For the most part, Anita and I got along.  She lived just up the road from me, and we went to the same school.  In first grade, we were paired as deskmates in Mrs. Northrup’s class.  Mrs. Northrup was known to be an old-school, no-nonsense teacher, so on the first day of class, Anita and I resolved to work together and try to get through the grind with honors.

It went well for about a month.  Then, on a sparkling October morning, Mrs. Northrup came to class bearing gifts, and doling out treats.  Cookies!  Home-baked!  She told us she was pleased so far with the progress of the class, and this was a small way of showing her appreciation–though she did issue a warning, along with the sweets: “I expect each of you to keep up the good work,” she said, her thick-rimmed glasses low on her nose as she looked out over the room.  “Let’s not get sloppy and forget why we’re here—to learn.”  Anita looked at me and smiled, then rolled her eyes. Just give me my cookie, her eye roll said, loud and clear.

 

I wasn’t going to poke holes in that logic.  It sounded good to me.  And I indeed wolfed down three cookies, in rapid succession.  I ate so fast, I’d made something of a mess, so I licked the tip of my index finger and used it to pick up the rogue crumbs that had scattered over my half of the desk; then I licked the crumbs clear off my finger.  All done.

 

That’s when I realized Anita was staring at me.

“What?” I said.

“That’s not right,” she said.  She looked genuinely upset.  Meanwhile, all around us, our classmates chewed and laughed and talked, while Mrs. Northrup kept glancing at the clock high on the wall at the back of the room.  I kept expecting her to break in and say, “Cookies down, books open!”  But so far, she just stood there, waiting.  She didn’t eat any of the cookies herself.

 

Truth be told, I almost wished she would announce the cookie party was over.  That way, maybe, we could get back to work and Anita would stop glaring at me.

“What is it?” I asked her again.  “What isn’t right?”

“Your fingers,” she said, her voice dripping with disgust.  “You licked them!”

“So?”

“So,” she said, as if addressing a one-year-old, “you aren’t supposed to lick your fingers.  That’s what napkins are for.”  Here, she held up her napkin.  Indeed, I had one, too.  Mrs. Northrup had made sure each student had one.  “It’s just wrong using your fingers like that.  It’s a sin.”

 

A sin?  I knew Anita belonged to a different religion–Jehovah’s Witness.  She was the only Jehovah’s Witness in the class—and she never participated in holiday celebrations or birthdays.  I remembered feeling bad for her the previous year, during kindergarten, off by herself while the rest of us played and ate and had fun.  But I’d never talked to her about it.  Until now.

 

“Yes,” she said.  “It’s a sin to be sloppy and disgusting.  And that’s what you just were!  Is that what they teach you in your church?”

My church growing up was Catholic.  But I didn’t spend much time thinking about it, and surely never thought twice about licking my fingers!

 

“I always knew it,” she said.  “My God is better than your God.”

“What?” I said.  And then I told her she was wrong.  My God was better than hers; she had it backward.

We went at it for a couple of minutes, neither of us yielding or giving an inch.  We raised our voices.  Anita stuck her tongue out.  So did I.

Suddenly, there was the sound of someone clearing her throat. Mrs. Northrup.  She was standing beside our desk, a scowl on her face.

“If the two of you feel the need to yell and act like toddlers, I think you can do that just as well in the hall.”  And with that, she kicked us out of the classroom.

“Regular class resumes in five minutes,” she told us.  “You work out your differences in the hall, and then I’ll collect you when it’s time.  And when I do, you better behave.  Do you both understand?”

We did.  Mrs. Northrup was not to be trifled with.

Mrs. Northrup’s classroom was at the end of the hall, and there was a bay window there, below which sat an old radiator, a clunky monstrosity—presently not running—that appeared as though it had been installed decades prior.  But it was positioned directly under the bay window at the end of the hall—an inviting perch.  Anita and I hopped up, sat on the sill above it, the sunshine streaming through the window warming our backs.

 

We just sat there, swinging our feet.  Ahead of us, the hallway was empty, just a dull-gray floor lined with closed classroom doors.  Even the janitor, old Mr. Roberts, was nowhere to be seen.

 

I felt bad.  I think Anita did, too.  I felt stupid.  What a stupid fight!  And then I just said something—I can’t remember what, and we talked.  About small things, little things . . . and yet everything.  The animosity that had existed between us mere minutes ago was gone, evaporated like morning dew in the rising warmth.  And when Mrs. Northrup emerged from our classroom five minutes later, punctual as always, Anita and I quietly followed her in and went to our desk.

 

Throughout the rest of the day, and the weeks and months beyond, Anita and I had no more run-ins, no more shouting matches.  We never openly apologized to each other.  We didn’t have to.

But the next time we had cookies, I was sure to use my napkin.

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

In some ways, that experience I shared with Anita so many Octobers ago, before the advent of smartphones or digital tablets or Netflix, seems inconsequential—just a couple of little kids fighting about something neither of them understood.  But then, as I reexamine it, turn it over in my mind, suddenly there is a larger theme afoot.

 

When she brought up “her God,” and I rebutted with “my God,” the two of us were instantly polarized.  There was no middle ground to be found in those tense moments when we bickered, cookies on our breath.  She was in her corner.  I was in mine.  And we were determined to prove who was right and who was wrong.  This polarization, this us-against-them mind-set, also summarizes much of what we’re seeing in the world today.  Certainly, in the United States, fellow Americans are at each other’s throats.  Sure, there has always been division and discord, animosity and open, outright hostility.  This is not new.  But the extent of the division, the vitriol, the tribalism that has emerged and thrived in recent years is as widespread as it is alarming.

 

Who’s right, and who’s wrong?  I have strong views on the matter, and surely, so do you.  But a big part of the problem is the growing, yawning gap between us.  All you have to do to see the ugliness, the hate, the anger is log onto Twitter or Facebook, or watch a Senate hearing, or listen to a rally.  Longtime journalist and Watergate veteran Carl Bernstein has described what is presently going on in America as a “cold civil war,” and I believe he is right.

 

But how do we remedy this?  Is there a way to repair the damage, to bridge the gap, and to bring back a means for intelligent, respectful civil discourse? Perhaps a place to start is to realize we have much in common, whether we want to admit it or not, and to endeavor to see our “opponents” not so much as enemies as fellow human beings.  This is where first-graders seem to have more understanding than adults.  Yes, Anita and I, all those years ago, engaged in a childish, fact-free argument.  Again, tune in to the cable news or social media, and you will find we adults are often no better or wiser, and often far worse.  But what Anita and I were able to do was transcend the moment.  When we were ushered into the hall, we didn’t continue to debate.  We didn’t try to one-up each other.  We just sat there and talked; we remembered our friendship, the things that we shared as opposed to the things that divided us, and we moved on.  Perhaps it was easier because we were children.  Perhaps when you’re five or six years old, the essentials in life, the things that matter, are not always so hidden or locked away behind bars of prejudices or hatreds or grudges or polemical ideologies.

 

Perhaps the kids—both the kids of today, as well as the kids we ourselves used to be—have a lot they can teach us.

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

Anita and I continued on in school together straight through graduation.  She was my deskmate again, seven grades later, in our junior-high Earth Science class the day The Challenger space shuttle exploded.  And a few years ago, we met at a high school reunion.  It was the first time we’d caught up with each other since our senior year.  But the words flowed easily, as we talked and laughed and reminisced.

Not once did we discuss whose God was better than whose.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Into the Dark (Or, Braving the Basement at Night)

Growing up, I had something of a love/hate relationship with the basement.  Though perhaps “hate” isn’t the most appropriate word.  It was more like fear–a fear of what might be lurking in the shadows.  I believed in monsters, that was certain, and ghosts, and goblins who dwelled in cobwebby corners, their feral eyes gleaming.  Not to mention the living doll.  I had encountered her face-to-face!

 

And yet, for all of that, I loved the basement, too.  It was a quiet, cool place to escape to, to think and reflect and imagine.  Several of my earliest short stories were birthed down there.  I’d head down the flight of stairs, shoot some pool on the bumper-pool set, maybe mess around with my brother’s weights, or just poke through the canned goods my parents kept on the wooden shelf lodged tight against the front wall.

 

Oh, and I’d turn on the light switch, too.  That was the first thing I did.  The switch was right at the base of the stairs, so I didn’t need to journey into the basement itself to flick on the light.  Nor would I have.  The only time I felt bold enough to brave the basement in the dark was when my friends were over–the same friends who inspired the characters of Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Marc Kuslanski, and Ryan Swinton in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel.  On those occasions, we’d play “Rubber Animals,” a kind of hide-and-seek affair where one team would hole away and the other team would pursue, armed with numerous rubber snakes and giant rubber insects that, when whipped at you from close range, would sting and sometimes leave a bruise.  “Ow!” we’d hear, in the dark, after a rubber rattlesnake found its mark.  We’d usually play at night, in the pitch-blackness.  When an animal missed its target, it would crash into the wall or against the pool table.  Thud!  Whomp!  Sounds in the dark.

 

One night, however, when I was eleven years old, I decided to go for it.  To be brave.  To face the dark heart of the basement, alone.  No friends around to protect me and insulate me from the unknown.  No strength in numbers.  Just me, and my fear.  Just me and the dark.

 

It was late–a weeknight in midsummer, after midnight.  I’d been in bed, waiting for the entire family to turn in.  My parents went to bed early.  My two older brothers stayed up later, and my sister latest of all.  I remember the light from the living room filtering in through the slight crack in my bedroom door, the low, muted undertone of the television, and wishing my sister would hurry up and shut it off and retreat down the hall to her room.

 

Then, finally.  It went quiet, and the lights went out.  I heard my sister’s footsteps, softly, tiptoeing, fading.  The sound of her door across the hall, shutting.  The house lay in darkness, the night beyond the walls thick and heavy with July humidity and buzzing with the serenade of crickets.  The whine of a late-night motor drove past, down the street, temporarily drowning out the crickets.  Moments later, they were back, playing their unseen fiddles in the grass.

 

I waited–a minute, maybe two.  Just to be sure.  Then I hopped out of bed, slowly opened my bedroom door, hoping the squeaky hinges wouldn’t be overheard.  Down the hall, through the living room, the kitchen . . . to the top of the basement stairs.  Up here, there was a night-light on the wall, giving the room a faint orangish glow.  But when I looked down the stairs, into the basement, there was only a Stygian veil, black as the moonless night.

 

“Why am I doing this?” I said aloud.  But I knew.  I felt foolish for fearing the dark, for imagining things that couldn’t be real, for being afraid of a space and a portion of the house that I loved–in the daylight.  “When you’re afraid of something,” my teacher had told the class that spring, “the best thing you can do is confront it.  Lots of times, you’ll find that what you were so scared of is really nothing to be scared of at all.”  Lots of times.  What about the other times, though?  The times when what you fear turns out to be even worse than you imagined?  What then?

 

“Shut up,” I whispered.  “Just do it.”

I took a step down, then another, plunging into the dark.

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

There are times in life when we’re at a crossroads, when the decision we know we need to take feels harder than administering our own, unmedicated root canal.  In times like these, it is tempting to bail, to waver, to rationalize a path of least resistance.  “No one will even notice if I don’t do it.”  “Why should I be the one?  Leave it to somebody else.  I have enough stress in my life already.”  “But what’s the point?  No one will listen to me anyway.”  Or, if hemming and hawing about a piece of writing:  “Why submit it?  It’ll just get rejected.”  Why go for that job interview?  Why report that crime?  Why confront that person with the cold, unvarnished truth?  Isn’t it easier to just withdraw and hunker down and look the other way?

 

But, if something’s important–it won’t let go.  It will claw and dig in, and will not let us alone.  It will demand release, insist on action, urge us forward, no matter the resistance. Just like what happens with Mitchell Brant, in The Singularity Wheel.  He knows he must see Heather again, find out how she feels, if what they had shared before, five years earlier, is enduring and real; or fleeting, like an errant wish.  Or Joe Marma when confronted with the mental image of his brother telling him to deal with the ugly, inconvenient truth about his pursuit of a football scholarship.  Or Ryan Swinton finding the courage to “play a trick” on Monica Tisdale, the “ghost girl,” to save them all.  Or Marc Kuslanski daring to approach his mom and brave the wrenching conversation they’ve been avoiding since his brother’s accident.

 

None of this is easy.  None of it is a “want to.”  But they realize they cannot run, cannot duck forever.  They each need to face their personal Cerberus.

 

Eventually, we all do.

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

As I climbed back up the stairs, emerging from the darkness below, I forced myself not to go too fast, not to ruin it at the end–but to walk slowly, step by step, unwavering.  I had explored all corners of the basement, no matter how sinister or menacing.  I even dared to journey to the very back, by my father’s old workbench, a place where, I was sure, little boys went to die.  I didn’t know how long I’d been down there–it felt like hours, in the dark.  (Moments later, I would learn, upon checking the wall clock, that it had been merely ten minutes.)

 

But as I reached the safety and security of the kitchen, finally back at ground level, none of that mattered.  Ten minutes or ten years–who cared?  I had made it.  I had gone into the after-midnight basement and returned, unharmed and whole.

I took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and walked through the kitchen, down the hall, to my bedroom.

Shortly after falling into bed, I drifted into a sound sleep undisturbed by the specter of dreams.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: