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 . . .

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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.

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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

Tony-Time (Or, The Fine Art of Going Against the Grain . . . Naturally)

Have you ever encountered it?  You know . . . the tilted head, the accusatory look, the reprimand over approaching something in an unorthodox manner.

“You can’t do it like that,” they might say.  Or, “That’s just not the way it’s done.”  Or again, “Are you out of your mind?  Why would you even think of something so . . . so . . .”

Different?  Unusual?  Countercultural?  Weird?

 

Being different, going against the tried-and-true, can be hard to do, in large part because of the reactions of others.  Certainly, in most endeavors, advice tends to be centered around what has worked before, what methods have stood the test of time, what approaches and techniques have been replicated hundreds, thousands, or millions upon millions of times.

 

For writers, these “unwritten rules,” if you will, are numerous.  “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.”  (To which Churchill famously replied, “That is a rule up with which I will not put.”)  “Write about what you know.”  “Be sparing with adjectives, and especially adverbs.”  “Don’t split the infinitive!”  Not to mention following trends and generic marketing advice.  What’s hot?  What’s trending?  What are people reading right now?  I know, in the case of The Eye-Dancers, I was criticized at times for making the protagonists just twelve years old.  “Too young,” a friend of mine said.  “Make them older! And throw in at least one girl!” he added.  “I mean, four boys?  Seriously?”  But, in the end, I just went with the story I had–and it featured four twelve-year-old boys.  I wasn’t going to change that on a whim.

 

Anytime I am asked for advice on writing and publishing, I always say, “Write what you want.  Don’t just follow the patterns and trends.  Start your own trend.  Break new ground.  Write your story.”  But there is a caveat attached.  A writer shouldn’t start his or her own trend just for the sake of being different.  It’s not something that can be force-fed.  After all, if your story does naturally fit into an established niche, a “hot” genre or topic, more power to you.  If that’s the way the story came to you and if it’s the story you feel compelled to tell, and it’s honest, then it deserves to be shared with the world and enjoyed.  Altering a story for the sake of being different is just as disingenuous as altering it for the sake of fitting in.  Neither approach represents your true voice, the idea and perspective that are uniquely your own.

 

Being different, “other than,” cannot be an end unto itself.

Just ask Tony.

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

Tony was one of my best friends throughout junior high and high school.  He was that rare teenager who seemed to have an “in” with both the brainy crowd as well as the jock crowd.  Tony could do it all–a solid, well-rounded student and a muscular athlete who played football and ran track.  But, more than anything, Tony was . . . well, Tony.

 

He had a way about him, a mastery, a comfort in his own skin.  He wasn’t arrogant–he just kind of glided down the halls, eased his way into conversations, and never appeared to shy away from anything.  He wasn’t loud.  He wasn’t obnoxious.

He was confident.

He was different.

But he was different in a manner that suited him.  He didn’t make an effort to go left when everyone else went right.  He just did.

 

I’ll never forget sitting next to him in Lunch one fall day in 1987, an early October afternoon replete with sunshine and the last, lingering warmth of the season.  We were in junior high, and I had brown-bagged my lunch, as I usually did.  Tony got a tray from the cafeteria, as was his wont.  And the topic of the NFL came up–specifically, the players strike that was moving on to its second week.

 

It was a PR disaster for the NFL.  The players didn’t want to play under their current collective bargaining agreement, but the owners were determined to put a product on the field.  The result?  Teams found players “on the street”–guys who had been cut or released, or who were never good enough to try out in the first place.  They recruited accountants and construction workers and teachers–any able-bodied young men–and some not so young–who could contribute in a pinch.

 

The outcome was predictable.  For the three weeks the “replacement players” competed, the quality of the game suffered.  There were shanked extra points, fumbles and bumbles, fluttering passes that missed their target by the proverbial mile.  It was painful to watch.  No one liked it.

 

Except Tony.

“It’s good to see pro players making all these mistakes,” he said during lunch that day, taking a bite into the thin cafeteria hamburger.  “Usually, NFL players are perfect.  They make all the kicks, are good with their assignments.  But these guys.  I mean, it’s like watching a game at the playground.  It’s kind of cool.”

 

I couldn’t believe he preferred replacement players to the real thing.  And yet . . . when Tony said it, it somehow sounded reasonable.  He wasn’t pushing an agenda, saying something for shock value.  It was just the way he felt, his retrograde perspective on the world.

 

It got to the point where I eventually called his views “Tony-Time,” which essentially meant anything that goes in the opposite way you expect it to.  Are you hot?  Tony-Time says you put on an overcoat.  Feeling full?  Eat a pizza!  Are you tired, lacking sleep?  Pull an all-nighter!

 

I still use the term, to this day, even though I haven’t seen Tony since we graduated from high school.  I especially say it about our cat.  He has a habit of doing things you wouldn’t expect.  “Tony-Timer,” I’ll say to him when he refuses the refreshing breeze of an open window in favor of a stuffy corner at the back of the room.  And he’ll look at me, knowing it’s a compliment.

 

And it is.  Because Tony made it seem as easy as breathing, as natural as the sun rising every morning.  Effortlessly opposing the mainstream.  Like the time when our tenth-grade English teacher told us we could write an essay on anything we wanted, and Tony wrote his from the perspective of a piece of paper feeling the pain of a sharp pencil point grinding into its surface.  He read the essay aloud to the class, and I remember thinking, “It actually sounds like the voice of a sheet of paper!”  Or the time when he decided to play quarterback in gym class one period but only allowed himself to throw left-handed, even though he was a righty.  No one thought it odd that he would try that.  It was just Tony, Tony-Timing.

 

And today, all these years later, Tony is still with me.  Not on the phone or in person, or in emails or texts.  But in my mind, my heart, in a spirit that, despite the protests of others or the criticisms of the crowd, urges me to press forward, to swim upstream if the situation or the job, or the story, warrants it.

 

Even if it means enjoying a few missed field goals and botched extra points along the way.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Capricious Muse Comes to Call (Or, A Walk Through the Neighborhood)

There are times when, antsy and frustrated at the lack of creative direction, I sit down and try to force the issue.  I’ll hold a brainstorming session . . . with myself.  It’s not like I don’t have any ideas.  On any given day, I generally have a handful of what I like to think of as decent possibilities.  None of them are fully formed, and all of them are as amorphous as a literary amoeba.  But they’re something.  They represent a start.

 

The thing is, these ideas have been lying around for a while, uninspired, limp and about as riveting as day-old baked potatoes.  Sure, they’re workable.  But only in the barest sense.  I don’t get excited about them.  I don’t really care.  The very thought of crafting a story around them feels like a chore.  And one thing I have learned the hard way from experience, after repeated sessions of banging my head against a granite wall, is that if I don’t feel revved up about a story idea, no motivational pep talk is going to imbue it with the necessary vigor.  Whenever I’ve attempted to begin a story in such a halfhearted manner, the result is a flat, anemic piece that never goes anywhere.  It is doomed to fail before the first word is written.

 

So what do I do, then, between stories, when I don’t have any new, inspired ideas to build upon?  Granted, in the days directly after completing a long writing project, this dilemma takes care of itself.  For a while, maybe a few weeks or even a few months, I may not want to undertake a new story.  Kind of a post-novel sabbatical, if you will.  But the literary malaise doesn’t last forever.  Eventually, as surely as fall follows summer, the need to write, to plot, to form, to create, returns, with the force of a pile driver.  And this is when the lack of a ready-made story can cause a sense of unease.  I need to write something!  But I don’t have any ideas worth writing about.

 

After a few weeks of this stalemate, this nowhere zone of literary quicksand, I begin to feel genuine panic.  Is that it?  Has the well run dry?  I can’t make ideas happen.  They either come, or they don’t.  And if they don’t, what will I do?  The questions continue in rapid-fire, machine-gun succession, taunting, accusing, pleading.  The creative path, far too often, is one laced with insecurity, and when searching for an idea to write about, the insecurity rises to a crescendo.

 

So, in response, all I can do is live my life.  If I had a magic formula, an “ideas button” I could press, I would.  Any writer would.  If I had a surefire way to send an SOS signal to the muse, the signal would be sent!  Alas.  The muse cannot be paged or prodded.  It comes when it comes, and the job of any writer is to remain open, watchful, observant, vigilant not to miss the cues.

 

Because the cues can arrive at any moment, and often when we least expect them.

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

For my “day job,” I work as a technical writer for a small-town New England software company.  The office sits at the edge of town, and there is a neighborhood directly behind it.  It’s an old neighborhood, with houses dating back to the 19th century, many of which are large colonials with covered front porches and crisp, black shutters that frame the windows.  Mature maple trees and sturdy oaks dot the lawns, in summer creating a green canopy filled with the chirping of songbirds.

 

I frequently take walks through this neighborhood.  On my lunch break, I’ll head out and weave through the side streets for the better part of an hour.  When I walk, my mind usually wanders, perhaps calculating my options for the fantasy football draft, reliving old memories, thinking about my WIP, if I’m in the middle of one.  Or, just as often, I simply observe my surroundings, taking it all in, enjoying the New England summer, which is all too fleeting.

 

And sometimes, every now and then, something will hit me.  It happened just last week.

As I neared an abandoned cape, at the back end of a dead-end street, I paused on my way.  Something about the place struck me–which was strange.  After all, I’d walked by here hundreds of times on previous lunchtime excursions.  What was so different on this day?  And yet, I was transfixed.  If a neighbor from across the way had been peering out the window just then, they may have wondered why I was just standing there, stock-still, in the middle of the road.

 

The house had seen better days.  The beige siding was peeling in places, the roof had a few shingles missing.  The lawn was uncut, the weeds spreading like a contagion, overtaking the porch.  In the driveway, parked in front of a dilapidated garage, there was a rusted-out car, its tires punctured and flattened, the out-of-control shrubbery from the side yard enveloping the vehicle in a greedy, green embrace.

 

The place looked easily a hundred years old, likely more.  Though abandoned now, no doubt much life had been lived within its walls in previous decades–children playing, laughing, people talking, planning, scheming.  Crying.  Especially that last one.  Maybe it was the angle of the sun that day, the quality of the light.  Maybe it was the cawing of a crow that flew overhead.  Or perhaps it was the silence on the street.  Not a soul stirred.  No one was outside.  The breeze picked up, and in it there were echoes.  Whisperings.  Secrets of past hauntings, past tragedies.

 

Of course, I don’t know if there were any tragedies in the old house.  Perhaps its history is as nondescript as a November Wednesday.  But something was calling out to me.  Something was resonating.  And that’s when I realized.  After a months-long hiatus, the muse was speaking to me . . .

Since finishing The Singularity Wheel. and publishing it in January, no new idea had energized me.  But now, at the back of this quiet dead-end street, gazing upon this decrepit, empty house, here it was.  Out of the ether, unplanned for, unscripted, completely of its own accord, it came.  It wasn’t complete–not even close.  The idea would need fleshing out, muscle and sinew attaching to bone; veins and arteries would require a still-absent heartbeat to manifest, to pump the blood that would drive and propel the story.  But that would come later–with hope.  At the moment, I was just riding the high that an “a-ha” creative moment always brings.  Where, seconds ago, there was nothing, now there was a firm foundation, a foothold upon which to build a literary structure.

 

I continued to look at the house.  A squirrel leaped onto a low tree branch and climbed to the top, shaking leaves as it went.  I wondered if the rodent was vying for a better view to peer in to the house, through an upper window.  Perhaps it, too, had caught wind of the muse.  And the secrets that upstairs room held . . .

 

In the story idea that had materialized, a boy, perhaps eleven or twelve years of age, with a bent toward science and inventiveness, a self-professed “nerd,” is arguing with his best friend.  Because, though they are best friends, there is jealousy, too, rivalry.  Anger.  And this boy, this nerd, has conspired with a handful of classmates–all present–to gang up on his friend, scare him . . . just a little.  Push him toward the window, make him worry that he might fall.

 

And then something goes terribly wrong.  A trip, falling backwards, toward the window, out the window, down.  He didn’t kill his friend, did he?  No–he’s not dead.  But somehow, in its own way, the result is even more horrific, even worse . . .

The nerd and his co-conspirators must live with what they’ve done.  We follow this nerd through high school and college into adulthood, as he wrestles with this catastrophic accident.  How can he erase the past, or even change it?  Is there a way?  And as he seeks and quests and pursues, how does his guilt and his obsession affect his relationships with his wife and kids, his family and friends?  And, even if he can alter the past, or twist reality itself, what would the ramifications be?  Would something unintended happen?  Is he risking too much?

 

I took one last look at the abandoned house at the back of the dead-end road.  The squirrel chattered from above.  Then I walked back to the office.

I didn’t have the answers to the story’s questions and possibilities–yet.  And I couldn’t even be sure the story would be written, or finished.  But it was good to be fired up, to have a story to start.

To have a literary path to follow.

I’ll just need to see where it leads.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Solving the Unsolvable Problem . . . in Secret

My eighth-grade algebra teacher, Mr. Edwards, a cheerful, enthusiastic guy with a mop of straight sandy-blond hair and a thick beefy mustache, was in his mid-fifties when he taught my class.  And Mr. Edwards loved numbers.  Now, being a math teacher, you would expect that.  But he really loved numbers.  He would spew out facts and figures like a flesh-and-blood computer, and he’d do it with gusto.  You never knew what mathematical morsel he would divulge on any given day.  One such tidbit that stuck with me was that, when you turn on a light, the room temperature increases by one-eighteenth of a degree Celsius.  So, later, whenever I’d turn on a light in summer and my brother or sister would complain about the heat, I’d fire back, “Yeah, but it only upped the temperature by one-eighteenth of a degree Celsius!”  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, indeed.

 

Mr. Edwards would also give us special, multi-layered problems to solve–not necessarily as required homework or on quizzes, but for fun.  Math fun.  He’d go to the blackboard and frantically write out formulas and numerical scenarios for us to iron out in our spare time.  Since these exercises weren’t required, few students made the effort to conquer them.  But some of us did, at least every now and then.  And I’ll never forget the day of the Unsolvable Problem.

 

It was at the end of class on a dreary, cloudy, raw early December afternoon–the kind of early-winter day in western New York State that makes you want to curl up in a ball and nestle beside the furnace, snug as a napping cat.  We’d gone over the lesson for the day, the homework was assigned, the quiz had been lethally administered.  And now, with a few spare minutes remaining in the period, Mr. Edwards smiled and made a grand announcement.

 

“Today,” he said, his smile widening, “we have the longest mathematical problem in junior-high history!”  And he wasn’t exaggerating.  Mr. Edwards proceeded to write a War and Peace-length equation on the blackboard.  And then came the challenge: “Solve this mystery, and you’ll be awarded high praise and class distinction!” he said, the exclamation point audible for all to hear.  “But fair warning.  It’ll take an hour, probably two, to get to the answer.  Anyone brave and motivated enough to solve the unsolvable can raise their hand tomorrow in class and share their genius with the rest of us!”

 

I glanced over at the student on my left, a girl named Tina.  She rolled her eyes.  Yeah, right, she seemed to be saying.  Like I’m gonna waste my time on math when I don’t have to.  And yet, for some reason, I decided I would take up the challenge.  I’m not sure why.  Perhaps I was just a glutton for algebraic punishment.  But that evening after supper, I sat at the table and tackled the problem, step by painstaking step.

I can’t tell you, all these years later, what that algebra problem entailed.  I honestly don’t remember any of the details–just that it was akin to wandering through a maze–only in this case, it wasn’t a maze of walls and tunnels, with a few funhouse mirrors thrown in for good measure; rather it was a maze of numbers and formulae and odd mathematical symbols, of figuring out what to multiply, what to divide, what to add, and what to ignore.  It took me well over two hours.  And when I finished, I felt like a balloon that had been popped with a jagged-edged saw.

 

Just as with the problem itself, I cannot remember my answer–not specifically, anyway.  But what I do remember is that it was large.  Very large–so large, in fact, that I needed to count the digits, one by one, to figure out the value of the number.  Suffice it to say, it was in the hundreds of billions.  I couldn’t believe it.  I had spent all that time, all that effort, only to arrive at such a ridiculous answer?  There was no way I had it right.  I had convinced myself, for some reason, that the answer would be a more manageable number:  6, maybe; or 3; or 45; or zero; or maybe even a negative number to throw us off.  But a number that required half the width of the page to write it out?  Not a chance.

I tried watching TV for a while after I had finished.  But I couldn’t get into it.  After channel-surfing for a few fruitless minutes, I went to bed.  It took a while before I managed to drift off.  I kept replaying the problem, over and over, in my mind’s eye.  I had gone through the equation slowly, methodically, had double-checked my work.  It all felt right.  But my answer was simply too absurd.  I saw mathematical equations, laughing at me with exposed fangs, in my dreams that night.

 

The next day, in algebra class, Mr. Edwards went through the lesson, not even acknowledging the unsolvable problem from yesterday.  Good.  Maybe he forgot. But then, near the end of the period, he closed the textbook with a flourish, smiled at us, and said, “Ah ha!  We’ve arrived at the big moment.  So who’s done it?  Who solved the equation, crossed the Rubicon, won the prize?”  No one ever accused Mr. Edwards of understatement.

 

I remember my heart rate, and how it accelerated then.  This was my chance.  After all the work I had put into the problem, shouldn’t I at least raise my hand and give my answer, just in case I was right?  A boy named Greg volunteered, reaching for the ceiling.  “The answer is zero!” he said when called upon.  Of course, I thought.  I knew it.  And he probably hadn’t even worked on it–he’d just called something out on a whim.

 

Mr. Edwards, however, shook his head.  “I’m sorry, Greg,” he said, maintaining his smile.  “That’s not the correct answer.  Anyone else?”

Sandy, a studious girl who always brought three thick spiral notebooks to class (these were the late 1980s, after all, long before the advent of smartphones and tablets), dared to raise her hand.

 

“Yes!” Mr. Edwards beamed.  “Sandy!  Share with us!”  But she, too, gave the wrong answer.

Hmm, I thought.  Maybe I was right.  Maybe I should . . .

But I didn’t.  Even as Mr. Edwards asked again if anyone else wanted to take a stab, I held back, afraid of being laughed at.  I mean, yeah, Greg had gotten it wrong, but no one laughed at his answer of zero.  And Sandy, too, had given a reasonable number as her answer–I can’t remember what it was, only that it consisted of far fewer than 18 digits!  I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  My arm felt weighted down with dumbbells.  I would just let Mr. Edwards provide the class with the right answer, and that would be the end of it.

 

“Well, okay,” Mr. Edwards said, though he didn’t seem disappointed.  He maintained his smile.  “The answer is . . .”  And he wrote it on the blackboard.  The first few digits matched mine.  No, I told myself.  Then the next cluster of digits matched.  No way.  And then the next, until, finally, the correct answer was there, displayed for all to see.  And it was the same result I had arrived at the evening before, at the dining room table.  I had been right.

Wait a minute, I wanted to shout.  I got it!  I got it.  I worked on it for two hours, and . . . I had it nailed.  But of course I didn’t say anything.  Who would believe me now?  I felt sick.  It was a small thing, really, an inconsequential blip on the journey through junior high.  Who really cared?  And yet . . . it was a significant thing, too.  Something I regretted.  Even today, I can recall how I felt, sitting there, wishing, angry at myself for backing down.  I had it.  I had it!  Don’t you all see?  But no–they didn’t see.

 

They didn’t see at all.

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

We’ve all been there, at one time or another.  Ryan Swinton and Mitchell Brant experience similar hesitations in The Singularity Wheel.  Can they trust the outcome of what they desire to do?  Can they believe in themselves enough to do what must be done?  It’s a struggle, and it doesn’t end with the completion of junior high.  It follows us into adulthood like an inescapable shadow, a personal black hole that threatens to suck us in and snuff out our potential like a parasite.

 

Have you written a song, crafted a story, a poem, an essay?  A blog post?  But you’re not sure if it’s “good enough” or “right enough” or “brilliant enough”?  Is there a job opportunity you’ve worked years to apply for, but now, as you stand at the doorstep, you doubt your talent and abilities?  Do you have something to say or do or inspire or create, but you’re not sure if you should bring it forth into the light of day?

 

I am confident Mitchell and Ryan, and old Mr. Edwards, would join with me and encourage you to do it.  Write that poem.  Paint that picture.  Ask that question.  Make that speech.  Risk that rejection.  Sing that song.  Finish that story.

And then share it with the world.

No equations, once solved, should remain hidden in the dark.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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