“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

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

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

The Eternal in the Transitory (Or, The Power of a Moment)

I am a dreamer.  I always have been.  There’s no other way to say it.

Indeed, there have been times in my life when I’ve been accused of being distant, with a faraway look in my eyes exploring the unseen and ephemeral worlds and galaxies that stretch beyond the purview of the here and now.  As someone once told me, “Even when you’re here, you’re not always here.”

 

From the time I could walk and talk, question and imagine, my mind has been prone to wander.  When I was a child, I’d visualize batting cleanup for the New York Mets, in the bottom of the ninth, the World Series on the line.  I’d create an entire scenario, announcing the action from a phantom broadcast booth, crafting a plot full of twists and intrigue, complete with regular-season backstory and statistical analysis.  Or I’d invent new games with my friends, the same friends who provided the inspiration for the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel.  The games could be anything, and played anywhere, from the dark corners of the basement to the dining room table to the neighborhood street out front.

 

More than anything, though, I’d think of stories.  I wrote my first story in the second grade, and once I started, I was hooked.  Through the years, I have written dozens upon dozens of short stories, a couple of novels, hundreds of blog posts, and pretty much whatever strikes my fancy at any moment.  Writing to me is akin to breathing.  I wouldn’t survive without it.

 

The thing is, when I dust off the cobwebs of my earliest stories (the ones I still have, anyway), there are paragraphs, scenes, large chunks of pages that I can’t even remember writing.  Reading through these works from yesteryear provides a primary-source window into my preteen or teenage self, a glimpse into what I was thinking and how I was interpreting the world.  The stories, penciled on paper that has yellowed and faded with the passage of time, preserve a part of me that, absent the written testimony, might have been irretrievably lost.

 

But then, life itself is like that, isn’t it?  We get up in the morning, still half-asleep, and, on auto control, we stagger through the routines that keep us going and prepare us for the day ahead.  Sure, at some point, we wake up and can function at a higher level.  But even then, how much of what we do is mechanical, prescribed, almost as if we were a software program patterned in a particular way to perform a certain and specific set of duties?

 

What did you have for breakfast on April 6, 2006?  What time did you go to bed on October 25, 2015?  Who did you meet, hang out with, talk to, on March 2, 1997?  Did you watch TV on August 7, 2017?  If so, what did you watch?  What did you do in school on November 10 during your junior year?  These questions, and countless more, are all but unanswerable, the contents lost amid the swirling miasma of our collective memories.  When you consider it, you begin to realize that, unless you are eidetic,  perhaps as much as 99 percent of our life is forgotten, stored away in a file, deep within the crevices and folds of our brain, accessible, perhaps, but only in our dreams or a state of subconsciousness that liberates us from the shackles of our peripatetic and ever-racing world.

 

Perhaps that is as it should be.  Though I have always wished for a way to press a mental button, as it were, and access any tidbit of information, no matter how trivial, from my past (because, yeah, now that we’re asking, what did I have for breakfast on April 6, 2006?!), I realize that having so many conscious memories floating around simultaneously would be akin to circuit overload.  We’d have so much data, so many moving images competing for supremacy, we’d feel as though we were in a perpetual wrestling match with individual and specific recollections from our past.  While not nearly as overwhelming as the predicament in which Monica Tisdale finds herself in The Singularity Wheel, where she has accessed her memories and experiences from a billion billion universes, the effect might nonetheless feel similar.

 

From chapter fifteen of The Singularity Wheel:

“She felt like crying again.  The memories he spoke of were stacked, multi-faceted.  She had shared these things with her dad in a limitless number of worlds.  They mixed together, like particles in a celestial blender.  In gaining access to everywhere, all of her, in all places, she had lost her essence.  While she could now sip from every cup throughout all creation, she could not drink deeply from any single one.  Everything was a fragment, a fleeting glimpse, here and gone in a moment.”

 

And so, as a mental safety valve, as a firewall against oversaturation, our brain grasps onto the meaningful things, the memories that matter, the events that shape us and form us and leave their mark, like a calligraphy of the soul.  Sometimes, these events are ordinary on the surface, just little things, a subtle gesture, a kind word, a remark from a teacher we never forget.  Moments.  Fleeting, but essential, so essential, in fact, that our mind, our heart, our core, recognizes them for what they are and sticks a flag in them, a reference point that can always be accessed down through the years.  “Remember this?” the flag will say.  “Remember how you felt when that happened?”

 

Not all the markers are positive, of course.  Sometimes, we wish we could forget, but we hold on.  But many of them are positive, and they beckon to us like stands of nourishment and refreshment scattered along the winding, broken, uneven road of life.  And while I will always find it frustrating that I forget so much, that so many moments are erased into the fog of oblivion, I have learned to appreciate the things I do remember.  Moments with my mother that will endure for the rest of my life, despite her passing this winter.  Moments with family and friends, childhood memories that persist, to this day as fresh and vibrant as when they occurred.

 

I’ve written about some of those memories in this blog.  I will write about others in future posts.  Still others have been “fictionalized” in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel.  I suppose I’ll keep writing about them for as long as I’m here.

Because any moment, no matter how brief or “small,” and no matter how long ago it may have happened, can be eternal.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Perception or Reality? (Or, “What’s That Behind Your Ear?”)

When I was growing up, in the now-vintage years of the 1980s, there was a family friend who stopped by from time to time.  His name was Bill.  And Bill was a lot of fun.

 

He’d hang out on the driveway and shoot baskets with me and my brothers, at the old hoop we used to have perched atop the garage.  He’d tell stories of his life in the military, the places he’d seen, the memories he’d accrued over the years.  He’d tell jokes, one after another, with a repertoire so vast he could have had a career as a stand-up comic.

 

But for me, back then, what I liked most about Bill was the magic.

“Pick a card, any card,” he’d say, and I would.  I’d fake taking one, then pluck out another, hoping to derail him.  I never did.  Bill was always letter perfect with his tricks.  And they weren’t limited to cards.

 

He would make items disappear, then reappear, cut things in half and then somehow present them, in the next moment, as whole.  And he’d invariably pull something out from behind my ear–usually a quarter or a silver dollar.  Sometimes, he’d even let me keep it.

 

“Your ear’s a real moneymaker,” he’d say.  Little did I know at the time, but Bill’s showmanship and style would, decades later, manifest themselves in The Singularity Wheel.  No doubt, his tricks and performances from my youth played a sizeable role in shaping Ryan Swinton‘s passion for legerdemain in the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.

 

Of course, I often asked Bill the secret behind the wonder, the key that would unlock the mysteries of his many and varied tricks.  But he never revealed a single one.

 

“A magician never shares how he does what he does,” he told me one rainy night in those long-ago days before Google and YouTube made discovery so much easier.  “If he did, he wouldn’t be a magician.”

 

But then he leaned in closer, and, in a soft, conspiratorial whisper, said, “I can tell you one thing, though.  Magic isn’t what it seems.”  I waited for him to continue.  With a performer’s appreciation for drama, he waited a beat.  Then he said, “It’s all about what I want you to see.”

I asked him what he meant.

 

“In a way, life and magic are one and the same,” he said.  “It’s not so much about what happens, or what you see.  It’s really about what you think happens and what you think you see.  That’s really what a magician specializes in.  Nothing more.”

He didn’t elaborate beyond that.  He wanted me to chew on his words, let them marinate and take root.  And they did.

 

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

“There is no truth.  There is only perception,” Flaubert said.  On a cloudy day, you may see only the gray and the gloom.  Someone else may perceive the blue beyond the gray, the sunshine that exists above the clouds, waiting to break through.  I may rail against the catalogue of snowstorms that have beleaguered Vermont this month, impatiently longing for the arrival of the ever-capricious and timid New England spring.  You may counter that the snow is beautiful, a natural wonder, and that I should enjoy it while it lasts before it yields to April’s warmth and sunshine.

 

Note, I am not talking about facts.  Facts are facts, or at least they should be.  That concept has been sorely tested since November 2016.  But a tenacious protection of inviolate laws of the universe must be preserved.  No.  This isn’t about facts.  It’s about the interpretation of those facts, the way we perceive and filter reality, the very world around us.  How we respond to love and life and loss.

 

Where some may perceive a setback, others may see an opportunity to learn and to grow.  Where, on the surface, there may be death, perhaps, more profoundly, there is renewal and deliverance.

 

Yeats wrote, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”  Indeed.  Is it possible that miracles abound, only we do not see them?  Do not notice them?  Do we think we’re free when we’re trapped, and trapped when we’re free?

 

In the final stanza of his poem “To Althea, From Prison,” 17th-century British poet Richard Lovelace expressed it this way:

“Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage;
If I have freedom in my love,
And in my soul am free;
Angels alone, that sore above,
Enjoy such Liberty.”

I’m sure my old friend Bill would agree.

Thanks so much for reading!
–Mike

The Value of Ten “Bucks” (Or, The Belated Announcement of a Book Release)

When I was nine years old, back on a summer day in the now all-too-vintage 1980s, I made a bet with my older brother John.

We were in the swimming pool, in our neighbors’ backyard across the street.  Lucky for us, growing up, our neighbors had an open-door (or, perhaps in this case I should say, open-water) policy with their pool.  I used to swim in their pool almost every day that summer.  But this day, something different happened.

 

“I’ll bet you ten bucks you can’t swim six laps underwater without coming up for air,” my brother crowed.  He was nine years my senior, and had just graduated from high school.  He was riding high that summer.

 

“You’re on,” I said.  I doubted I could do it.  The most number of laps I had ever swum underwater was four–six would push my lungs to the breaking point.  But ten dollars was a lot of money to a nine-year-old, especially back then.  I was all-in.

 

“This’ll be fun to watch,” John said, and waded over to the side of the pool.

“Ten bucks?” I called over to him, just to be sure.

“There’s no way you can do six laps, Mike,” he said.  “But yeah, if you shock me, the offer stands.  Ten bucks.”

That was good enough for me.  I didn’t hesitate.  I dove under and completed the first lap.

The next couple of laps were easy–I was feeling strong and still had plenty of air in reserve.  But by the time I completed the fourth lap–my old limit–I was starting to suffer.  My lungs were growing hotter, my arms and legs were getting tired.  But I pushed on, kicking harder.

 

I completed the fifth lap.  One more to go.  I nearly gave up then and there.  My chest was on fire.  I worried I might black out.  It was agony to attempt that final lap.

But I did, and when I tapped the opposite side of the pool to finish the sixth lap, I rose to the surface, gasping for air.  Oxygen had never tasted so sweet.

 

“Wow,” I heard my brother say.  I was vaguely aware of him approaching me, swimming toward me from the other side.  “I can’t believe you did it.”

I wasn’t able to respond for several seconds.  I continued to take deep breaths, savoring the air.  Finally, when my lungs had sufficiently recovered, I said, “What about those ten bucks?”  As I had propelled myself through the water on that final lap, it was the promise of the ten dollars that made it seem worthwhile.  That and seeing my brother admit defeat.

 

“Oh, sure,” John said.  “That was the deal, right?  Ten bucks.” And he proceeded to punch me, lightly, on my arm–ten times.  “There you go,” he said.  “There’s your ten bucks!”

With that, he got out of the pool, dried himself off with a towel, and bent over laughing.

 

I never did see that ten dollars.

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

Looking back, benefited by the cooling perspective of time, I remember the incident fondly.  It’s a memory of childhood I’ll always carry with me–and to this day, I remind my brother of his antics on that long-ago afternoon.  All in good fun, of course.

But as the editing process for The Singularity Wheel–the sequel to The Eye-Dancers–has dragged on through various and sundry delays these past few months, I have thought often of that phantom ten dollars.   I’ve pushed the release date of The Singularity Wheel back half a dozen times, to the point where it almost began to seem like it would never be released, that it was a ghost-book, a figment, as immaterial as pollen on the wind or the light, feathery strands of gossamer in the dark heart of a primeval forest.  How many times would I say the release was imminent, only to see it pushed back?  Was my word no better than my brother’s that day, decades ago, in the neighbors’ pool?

 

Now, however, I can at last report that the manuscript is finished, the edits done.  After a seemingly endless catalogue of revisions, of much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair and debates with characters, the story is truly over and done.  Even now, I have a hard time admitting that.  After all, no story is without flaw.  Even Anna Karenina and The Grapes of Wrath have warts.  Nothing created, nothing put to the page is without blemish.  There is always something, some word, some turn of phrase, some snippet of dialogue that can be made better.  Saying, “I’m done,” is one of the most difficult aspects of the creative process.  But here, today, I can finally say it.

 

The Singularity Wheel is far from perfect.  No doubt it is chock-full of issues and shortcomings.  But it’s the best I can do.  After four and a half years of working on it, there are no stones left to be turned, no closets remaining to open.  For better or worse, this represents my full and utmost effort.

 

So it is with great relief that I say, The Singularity Wheel will be released, on Amazon, within the next fortnight.  The files are being readied for publication, the last steps in the process are being completed.  My birthday is January 26.  The goal is to release the book prior to that date.

 

And this time, once and for all, that represents ten bucks you can most assuredly take to the bank.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Putting the Face to the Name, or the Cover to the Book

When I first got out of college, I found a part-time job as a legislative aide for the City of Rochester, New York.  It wasn’t exactly the field of my choice, but it did involve some writing, and it served as worthwhile experience.  I was thankful to have the job.

 

I didn’t stay there long–only seven months.  But while my tenure as a legislative aide was brief, it was not without a healthy helping of intrigue, office politics, and political pugilism, as I served as the buffer (i.e., punching bag!) between the councilwoman (who was rarely in her office) and her constituents.  Indeed, one of my job responsibilities was to man the councilwoman’s phone, talking one-on-one with the residents of her district.  Some of the calls were low-key; but many were heated, with angry residents giving me an earful about perceived slights and local policies they disagreed with.  Each new day was an adventure.

 

There was one person who stood out from the pack, though.  His name was Terry, and he called several times per week, sometimes several times per day.  He had a laundry list of complaints, and he wasn’t shy about expressing them to me, usually with a raised voice.  One issue in particular that irked him was a pothole on his street.  “It’s huge!” he’d yell at me.  “You gotta fix it!  It’s gonna wreck my struts.  I ain’t rich, you know.  Tell ‘er that!”  (He always referred to the councilwoman as “she” or “her,” or some variant thereof–never by name.)

 

I listened to him as long as I could, letting Terry vent his frustrations.  Sometimes, though, he would start attacking me, personally.  “Do something about it!” he’d say.  “Don’t just sit there in that cushy office of yours.  Lift a finger for the people in your district for a change!”  I reminded him that I wasn’t on the city council.  I was only an office worker.  I couldn’t make or change policy, couldn’t direct the road crews to alter their service schedules.

 

One day, it was too much.  Terry berated me with four-letter words and insults directed at family members of mine he didn’t know and had never met.  “Sorry,” I told him.  “This isn’t going anywhere.”  I wanted to say so much more, but had no choice but to bite my tongue.  One thing I could do, however, was hang up the phone–which I did.

 

He called back immediately, yelled at me some more.  I hung up again.  He called back.  Yelled.  I hung up.  Finally, the phone stopped ringing. I tossed a crumpled piece of paper into the wastebasket, counted to ten.  Terry had a way of pushing my buttons.

 

I had long since created a mental picture of him.  I’d never seen Terry, but, based on his voice and his very direct and colorful vocabulary, I imagined him to be stocky, burly, with short, sandy hair, a thick, retro’80s-style mustache, and a perpetual scowl on his face.  If I wanted to, I would have been able to sketch a picture of him–he was that clearly defined in my mind’s eye.

 

Consider my surprise, then, when, later that same day, a tall, rail-thin bald guy showed up at the councilwoman’s office.  Of course, the councilwoman wasn’t there.  I was.

“Can I help you?” I said.

And the guy introduced himself as Terry.  I did a double-take.  He couldn’t have looked more unlike the Terry I had imagined.  Stocky?  The man standing before me now was easily six foot four if he was an inch.  Burly?  He had the girth and width of a rail spike.  Sandy hair?  Try no hair.  Mustache?  His face was clean-shaven, not a whisker in sight.  And a scowl?  He was actually smiling!

 

He extended a hand.  Discombobulated, I took it.

“I just wanted to apologize,” he said, looking at his shoes.  “Was in the area just now, and wanted to stop.  I know I got a little carried away on the phone today.  I know you can’t do nothin’ about nothin’.  It’s not your job.  So I just . . .”

I shrugged.  It was hard to find the words.  Finally, I told him not to worry about it.

“I ain’t sayin’ I won’t call again,” he said.  “You’ll hear from me until she does something.”

He smiled again, and this time I returned it.  “It’s good to put a face to the name of my highest-volume caller,” I said.  And it was.

 

Terry called the next day, complaining about the pothole.

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

Books can share certain characteristics with constituents.  They don’t scream at you, the way Terry sometimes laid into me, but they might make you want to scream.  They have value, share opinions and knowledge, and express a point of view.  What’s more, they are incomplete without a face, or a cover.

The Singularity Wheel–the sequel to The Eye-Dancers–is nearing its release date.  It’s still on target for publication at the very end of the year or within the first few days of 2018.  And now, as the day of publication approaches, the cover is complete.

My longtime friend Matt Gaston, who also created the cover for The Eye-Dancers, has worked his magic again on the cover for The Singularity Wheel.  And here it is.

 

Thanks, Matt, for all your help–with both novels.

I think even Terry would approve.

And thanks so much to everyone for reading!

–Mike

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