“He’s in the Closet!” (Or, What Not to Say When the Tension Is High)

Back in the 1980s, when I was in junior high, I asked my older brother John if he could sneak me in to the old Waring Theater in Rochester, NY.  Why would I need to go to the theater on the sly?  The Waring was replaying the classic horror film Halloween that week, nearly ten years removed from the movie’s debut.  Since I was just a toddler when Halloween was originally released, I hadn’t yet seen it–and I dearly wanted to.  I enjoyed feeling scared at the movies, and who was scarier than Michael Myers?  I had to see this movie.  And John was my ticket in.

 

I was still a few years shy of seventeen at the time, and so, by law, the only way I’d be permitted into the theater to watch Halloween–and R-rated movie–would be if my parents accompanied me and stayed with me throughout the duration of the film.  I didn’t want that!  So I went to John for help.  He was friends with the guy at the ticket booth, and he assured me he could get me in.

 

He did.  It was easy.  The guy–a recent college grad, just like my brother, just shrugged when John asked for the tickets.  “Sure, why not,” he said, barely acknowledging my existence, then asked my brother what he was doing next Friday night.  Maybe they could get together.  And that was that.  I was on my way in, ready for a good scream-fest.  But it wouldn’t be just John and me.  A couple of his friends came with us, and if they felt uneasy or burdened by sitting beside a minor at an R-rated movie, they didn’t show it.  They made me feel like one of the guys.  It was a good start to what I hoped would be a memorable evening.

 

When the movie started, the audience quieted.  I figured most people in the audience had seen the movie before.  It was a replay, after all.  It was my first time, though, and I wasn’t disappointed.  I’d seen other horror movies, of course, but this one was different.  It made me fidget in my seat as no other movie ever had.  Where was Michael Myers?  You could never tell from one scene to the next.  He would jump out, unexpected, sudden, and the audience would gasp.  I realized, maybe many in the audience hadn’t seen the movie.  Or, if they had, they had forgotten just enough to be scared again.

 

A few times during the first hour of the film, my brother, seated beside me, asked me how I was doing.  I both appreciated and felt annoyed at the questions.  It was nice he cared.  But what was I–a baby?  I was fine!  Scared but fine.  On my other side, though, Mark, one of my brother’s friends who accompanied us to the theater, continually looked away during frightening scenes.

“Just thought I lost a contact,” he said when he caught me eyeing him at one juncture.  “But I didn’t.  Just had a speck in my eye.”

Mmm-hmm.  I guess he hadn’t seen the movie before either.  Who knew?

About an hour and fifteen minutes in, the tension on-screen reached a fever pitch.  The movie’s star, Jamie Lee Curtis, in the role of Laurie Strode, suspicious over the mysterious events of the evening, decides to cross the street and search her neighbor’s house, where some of her friends are staying.  Unbeknownst to her, these same friends have just been murdered by the film’s villain, Michael Myers.  And all we, in the audience of the old Waring Theater, knew was that Myers was hiding somewhere in that house.

 

“Don’t do it!” someone several rows behind us shouted.  “Don’t go in that house!”

But Laurie, on-screen, does not heed the moviegoer’s warning.  She enters the house, unaware that the killer is in there, somewhere, waiting.

She soon discovers her butchered friends, and panic rises.  She knows a maniac is at large.  She knows she is in danger, and she, and everyone in the theater, is on high alert.

 

As I watched the scene unfold on the big screen, I’m not sure I breathed.  What would happen next?  Would Laurie survive?  She was the protagonist, the hero!  She had to survive.  Right?  I wasn’t so sure.  Neither, evidently, was anyone else in the audience.  No one spoke.  The tension was thick enough to bite into and chew.

And that’s when, as the scene tested the limits of my fright-stamina, it all suddenly came crashing to a halt.

Let me back up.  Neither my brother, his friends, nor I knew that another of my brother’s friends, Ricky, was in the audience that night.  Ricky had graduated high school with my brother half a decade earlier, and he was known for his carousing, wild antics and no-holds-barred personality.  He once told me, on a visit to our house, that he spent more time in the principal’s office than the classroom.  He was the class clown, the prankster, the guy who was fun to hang around, but at a safe distance.

 

And that night, though none of us knew it, he was seated about a dozen rows in front of us.  As we watched the climactic scene play out on the screen, as the suspense rose still higher, Ricky decided that now was the time to make his presence known.

He stood up, turned around, faced the audience, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted, “He’s in the closet!”  Immediately, groans emanated from the throng of moviegoers.  Popcorn flew, hurled in Ricky’s direction.  He quickly sat back down as the popcorn continued to pelt him.  And sure enough, seconds later, there was Michael Myers emerging from the closet . . .

 

This memory, as with so many others, is crystal clear in places and blurry in others.  While I can see that popcorn flying through the air, striking Ricky in the face, the hair, the shoulders as if it were yesterday, while I can hear his “in the closet” shout like a firecracker in my head, even today, I cannot remember the drive to and from the theater, the trips to the concession booth, or what we did before and after the movie.  I can’t even remember seeing Ricky after the movie.  Likely he bolted as fast as he could to avoid the wrath of the crowd.  But the night lives on, the experience endures, and fragments of it swirl around like pieces of confetti through the chasm of thirty years.

 

As a writer, I sometimes think back to that night, and remind myself not to inject any “in the closet” moments into my stories.  After all, if something is meant to surprise, it should surprise.  There’s a fine line between telegraphing and foreshadowing.

 

I’d prefer the popcorn doesn’t fly in my direction.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Gift

The season is upon us.  It has arrived, and regardless of your faith, your beliefs, your worldview, there is no escaping the yuletide.  It is all around us, enveloping the streets and stores and online digital marketplaces like an omnipresent universal force, inexorable and all-consuming.  For many, Christmastime is stressful, tragic, depressing.  For others, it is joyful, energizing, the apogee of the calendar year.  And, perhaps for most of us, it is somewhere in between–a little of this, a little of that–some years tilting more toward the negative, other years more toward the positive.

 

For me, as I wrote last year, this time of the year will forevermore be bittersweet, and it will never, can never, be the same.  However, there are things I can do, memories I can cherish, perspectives I can take that contribute to making the yuletide a special season still and after all.  Be it watching a classic movie, or enjoying the company of family and lifelong friends, or remembering things, little things, that stay with me through the years, there is no shortage of material to work with.

 

This post is about a memory.

And a gift.

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

I’ve written many times on here about my love of comic books, how I was introduced to them at a young age, and formed a lifelong friendship with these pictorial tales of wonder.  I’ve also written about some of the various comics shops in Rochester, NY, in the 1980s, where I grew up.  And the one that stands out from the pack is, without question, Empire Comics.

 

Empire Comics was already a Rochester niche phenom by the mid-1980s, when I started going.  It didn’t take me long to see why.  Back then, in the ancient days before the internet, it was the comic book shop where collectors went if they wanted to buy “back issues”–those gems from yesteryear that seemed always to accrue in value exponentially each year.  If you weren’t wealthy, you had to pick your spots, and, for me, often, that meant selecting back issues that were ragged.  Maybe a water stain, a spine roll, a missing staple–maybe all three.  The fact was, the mint-condition issues were usually priced too high, so I needed to dig down, beneath the surface, and appreciate the singular aesthetic nuances of issues with plenty of wear and tear.

 

By the winter of 1987, Jim, the proprietor of Empire Comics, knew this about me.  I’d been a regular visitor and shopper to his store on the city’s south side for two and a half years by that point.  He also knew that, within a week of Christmas, the previous two years, I came into his shop with my mother to select a special “Christmas back issue”–the sort of issue I usually wouldn’t be able to afford the other eleven months out of the year.  (Okay, so my mother’s the one who actually paid for it, if you want to get technical!)  How do I know Jim knew about this developing Christmastime tradition within my family?  Because of what happened in late December 1987 . . .

 

We arrived midmorning, four days before Christmas.  It was a Monday; I remember that.  It was sunny, a rarity in western New York in December, the cloudiest month of the year.  Entering the shop, the bell Jim had placed atop the door tinkled, a welcoming sound I always looked forward to.  The store was free of other customers–validating my mother’s prediction.  “Monday morning, no one’ll be there,” she said.  She was right.  She often was.

As we stepped inside, Jim shouted my mother’s name–“Linda!”–as was his custom.  Though I was the collector, it was my mother he usually talked to.  I was busy flipping through the merchandise, and my mother, outgoing to her core, did not choose to simply stand there while I browsed.  So she and Jim had become friends.

This time, though, after calling her name, Jim beckoned for me to join him by the register.  It sat atop a glass display case housing Empire Comics’ most prized back issues–rare jewels from the 1940s and 1950s, so far removed from my price range, they might as well have been for sale on Mars.  That didn’t stop me from peering inside, though.  Looking through the glass was like looking into a realm of pure possibility.  It always made me think of the Gold Rushers from the middle of the 19th century.  Buried treasure.  Items so rare as to be precious.

 

Someday, I’d think, in awe.  Someday . . .

But that day, that sunny December day, like a sleight-of-hand magician, Jim pulled out a comic from underneath the register and set it atop the display case.  It was a worn copy of Fantastic Four number 20, originally published in November 1963 and featuring the first appearance of the supervillain The Molecule Man.  It was my ambition to own every back issue of the FF, as fans called them.  I was getting closer and closer by the month, but number 20 was one that had alluded me.  Jim knew that, too.

 

“Take it,” he said.

“Huh?”  It was the only thing I could think of.

“It’s yours, free of charge.  A gift.”  He spread his arms and smiled.  A few feet away, I saw my mother giving him the side eye.  Sure, he was a nice guy and sure, he’d become something of a friend.  But who ever heard of a shopkeeper giving away his merchandise?  While the issue before me was beat up–heavily creased with a slight mouse chew ripped out of the top right corner–it still likely garnered a $15 or $20 price tag (far higher today; if you’re looking for a strong “stock,” you can’t go wrong with old comics!).

“I got a bunch of ’em in the shop right now, and I know it’s one you need,” he said.  “So, take it.  On me.”

We talked for a while, my mother joining in.  It didn’t take long to see Jim was serious.  He was giving me a $20 comic book.

What was I to do?  Refuse the gift?

I took it.  I still have it to this day.

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

When I think of all this now, it strikes me as remarkably old-fashioned.  So 20th-century.  Almost like something you’d discover in a time capsule.  The fact it feels that way at all, however, is a warning, a signpost up ahead, if you will, telling us as a society to take a breath and slow down for a moment.

 

We live in an age that is so far removed from 1987 technologically, the distance ought to be measured in eons, not decades.  In the ’80s, we had landlines, the postal service, VHS tapes (video stores!).  Newspapers and the nightly news were still the media most people used to digest their information.  Even fax machines did not become widely used until late in the decade.  If you went to an office, you did your work on a typewriter, and a personal computer was a Commodore 64.  And smartphones?  Social media?  WordPress?  All the accoutrements that so monopolize daily life on the precipice of 2020?  These existed only in the pages of science fiction.  To a 21st-century native, the 1980s and the Mesozoic era are, no doubt, for all intents and purposes, synonymous.

 

Today we can buy literally anything we want, no matter how obscure, on a device we carry with us wherever we go.  We can look up information anytime, anywhere.  We can watch movies while we walk, find Babe Ruth’s 1929 batting average in ten seconds flat, interact digitally with people all over the world, any time of day or night.  In a way, we can do anything.

 

And yet . . . for all the value in finding that deeply discounted item on Amazon, or that comic book on eBay, there is something to be said for the human connection, for a store owner to know his customers well enough to plan ahead, prepare a holiday surprise for a middle-school kid who frequented his shop, month after month, year after year–and to be able to do it not because a software application told him to, but because he remembered, personally, all on his own, due to a genuine and real rapport that had been earned and nurtured through person-to-person interaction.

Honestly?  I don’t even remember what I purchased that day at Empire Comics.  Whatever it was has been blurred, swept away in the mists of thirty-two years.  All I remember is the gift.

“Merry Christmas,” Jim hollered as my mother and I exited the shop.

And a joyful and blessed holiday to all of you, in 2019.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Window to Nowhere

I am drawn to basements.  Dark places–cool, quiet, and, if you listen, alive with the whispers of long-ago events, memories, soft but enduring echoes.  On the surface, perhaps, this may seem odd.  Drawn to basements?  Why on earth . . .?

 

The answer is simple.  When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time in the basement.  I’ve written about some of my experiences in previous posts.  I often went down there alone–though only in the daytime, never at night!  It was a love-fear relationship.  As long as the sunlight streamed in through the small rectangular windows on either end of the cellar, I was okay.  I’d play pool (with myself), fiddle around with my older brother’s weights, write stories, imagine them.  But at night, when unverified sounds rose up from back corners, when I imagined unseen eyes watching me from the shadows, I steered clear.

 

Except when my friends were over (the same friends who inspired the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel).  There is strength, and bravery, in numbers.  They’d come over, and, oftentimes, we’d head into the basement.  We entertained ourselves in various and sundry ways–ping-pong, pool, board games, and just hanging out and telling stories, talking about nothing, and everything.  And, just as the boys do in the novels, we’d have sleepovers–in the basement.  As long as we were all down there, I was okay.  The settling noises of the house could more easily be attributed to things of this world as opposed to apparitions who were in the mood for a good haunting.  At least–that’s what I tried to tell myself.

 

I wasn’t above scaring them, of course.  I’d make up stuff about ghosts and goblins, ghouls who lingered in the dark.  They laughed–but they were nervous, too.  I could see it in their eyes.  Especially when I talked about The Window to Nowhere.

To back up, the basement in my parents’ home was partitioned into two halves–the “front” half, facing the street, was semi-finished, and that’s where the games, weights, pool table, and ping-pong table were.  It was a pleasant enough space with a bright ceiling light and food shelves; there was even a freezer, tucked tight against the wall.  A perfect spot for adventurous boys to congregate at night and let their imaginations run wild.  But the other half?  The back half?  That was a different piece of real estate altogether.

 

The back half of the basement was unfinished, with a cracked, cold concrete floor, an ancient, paint-splattered workbench, an old basin that looked like a relic from the 19th century (despite the fact that the house was built in the 1950s!), and the furnace, which hummed and thrummed like a beast alive on cold winter nights.  Beyond all that, though, the back half of the basement was dark.  The only light came from a naked ceiling bulb with an attached pull-chain.  And there was a “closet” of sorts, under the stairs, where long-forgotten items were stashed and where, I was certain, gremlins laid their heads to sleep each night.

 

Also, and most importantly, the back half of the basement was home to The Window to Nowhere–a dark, small, rectangular window that looked into the bowels of the crawlspace under the dining room.  When my parents purchased the house, back in the mid-1960s, years before I was born, there was no dining room.  My father added it on later.  When he did, he created the crawlspace underneath.  The Window to Nowhere, therefore, led somewhere . . . but it didn’t.  Not really.

 

When I looked through it, all I could see was total darkness.  Day or night, winter or summer, there was nothing to observe beyond the glass.  It was, to the eye of a growing child with overactive flights of fancy, a looking-glass to nothing, a gateway to zero, a Window to Nowhere.  I’d show it to my friends, tell them of the monsters who lived beyond the window, in the dark.  I’d tell them if they ever crawled in there (they wouldn’t, of course), they’d disappear from the earth, swallowed by the depths of no-space and no-time.  Could a human being exist in Nowhere?  None of them dared to find out.

 

The truth is, though, and always has been, that The Window to Nowhere represented its polar opposite.  For . . . wasn’t it, in actuality, a Window to Everywhere, and Every-When?  In the absence of anything but darkness through its glass, it opened the possibility to everything.  I imagined it leading to the center of a black hole, where all matter, all space, and all time was sucked into a vortex that predated the known universe.  I created, in my mind’s eye, negative-energy creatures, fanged monsters, vampires of the unknown, all of which resided in that crawlspace that defied and transcended the three-dimensional world I otherwise saw and experienced around me.  Without a doubt, the seeds of the void in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel were sown from that window, in that basement.  My love of speculative storytelling, my penchant to ask “what if,” and my lifelong tendency to get lost in my imagination surely stem, at least in part, from The Window to Nowhere and the mysteries it evoked.

I think most writers have their own, personal Window to Nowhere.  Maybe it’s an old attic, or a tucked-away room in your grandmother’s house.  Maybe it’s a remote wooded glen or an empty mall just before closing.  The possibilities and variances are as endless as the imagination, as limitless as thought itself.

Today, when I go back home and visit the old house, the house where I grew up, put down roots in this world, the house where I scribbled my first short story and first novel, and the house that will always be a part of who I am and what I write, I make it a point to go downstairs and take a good, long look at The Window to Nowhere.

But only in the daytime.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

In the Midst of the Action, a Quiet Remembrance (Or, Hanging Out in the Comic Book Shop)

In recent years, the world has been introduced to the Marvel universe through a series of Hollywood blockbusters, complete with endless action, A-list actors, and hi-tech special effects.  The result has been a surge in superhero popularity.  As a lifelong comic book aficionado and collector of the vintage comics from yesteryear, I view all of this as a positive development.  That said, I am not a huge fan of these movies.  I’ve seen a couple of them, thought they were okay, but I am far from a devoted watcher.

 

In a way, this seems counterintuitive.  Why wouldn’t I, of all people, who spent a good chunk of my childhood lost in the pages of The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and The X-Men, be the first in line to see the debut of a new superhero movie based on the comics I love?  Of course, it’s not that I dislike these modern-day box-office smashes.  It’s more . . . I can take them or leave them.  They’re okay.  Not bad.  If I had the choice to watch a recent Marvel movie or an episode of the original Twilight Zone or a rerun of Cheers or The Honeymooners, it wouldn’t be a close call.  I’d go for Serling and the sitcoms!

 

One reason for this, I suppose, is the fact that I am a comic book purist.  (Is there such a thing?)  I have a deep fondness for the comics themselves, the original stories, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and the talented staff at the old Marvel offices back in the 1960s.  So when I see the movie adaptations, which, while endeavoring to be as faithful as possible to these adventures from yesteryear, nevertheless take dozens of liberties with the characters and plotlines, I become, how shall we say, a bit unnerved.  I equate it to watching the film adaptation of a beloved novel.  It’s never the same, and you recognize the cinematic shortcomings and limitations within the first few minutes of the movie.

 

But it’s more than that.

The movies are loud.  In-your-face.  As they should be.  I’m not criticizing them for that.  They are, after all, action-packed blockbusters replete with the best special effects our technology offers.  But, for me, the comic books I remember, the comic books I still own in boxes and protective Mylar sleeves, are steeped in quiet.  Some of my favorite childhood memories revolve around the comics shop.  When I was a kid, before I was old enough to drive, and before the advent of the mobile digital age revolutionized our culture, my mother would usually take me to the local comic stores.  We didn’t have a comic book shop in our neighborhood.  We needed to travel to the other side of town–generally once or twice a month.  There were a couple of different comic stores we went to.  One was owned by someone I always thought of as The Lion Man.  But the store I went to the most was Empire Comics, located on Rochester, NY’s south side, across the street from Mt. Hope Cemetery, which at nearly 200 acres, is a destination unto itself, and just a few blocks removed from Highland Park, a verdant oasis amidst the urban hustle and bustle, and home every year to the Lilac Festival.

 

Sometimes I’d go there just with my mother.  Other times, some of my friends would tag along and we might make a day of it–starting out at the comic shop, then maybe taking a hike through the park or the cemetery (which is like a park), all topped off with lunch and ice cream at one of the many local restaurants.  Whoever was with me, though, I always savored my time in the shop.  Empire Comics was long and rectangular.  The owner, Jim, had his best, most valuable comics locked away in a glass display case by the register at the front of the store.  Beyond that, there were rows and rows of back issues, lining the shop, sorted in alphabetical order and arranged by issue number.  The layout and floor plan of the fictional Eastside Comics in The Singularity Wheel, where Mitchell works, is based on the interior of the old Empire Comics. (Empire Comics closed its doors about ten years ago.)

 

My mother, indifferent to the world of comic books, nevertheless made the most of these sojourns.  She’d talk to Jim and his staff–she was much, much more outgoing than I am.  It got to the point where, when my mother and I walked into the shop, Jim would yell her name, akin to the famous “Norm!” greeting from Cheers.  He wouldn’t shout “Michael!”  No–it was always, “Linda!”  I didn’t mind.  I just wanted to look at the comics.  And buy a few, too.  As my mother chatted away with Jim and the other workers, I lost myself in the comic book bins, browsing through hundreds of back issues.  I’d wander to the back of the shop, take in the sights–for me, it was heaven.  I felt as though I were in a magical cocoon.  It was quiet.  Oftentimes, my mother and I were the only customers in the shop.   I’d get lost in the musty smell of decades-old comic books, and I’d dread the moment when my mother would call over to me and tell me we had to go.

 

And so when I watch one of the new Marvel movies, they just seem too aloof somehow, too loud.  As the cliche goes, and as I’ve said aloud to more than one Marvel movie, “It’s not you, it’s me.”  Because, for me, those old comic books, those long-ago visits to Jim’s shop, are sacred.  Personal.  They are embedded, tucked away in a corner of my heart, entrenched in a permanent wrinkle of my soul.  In some ways, The Eye-Dancers saga is an extension of this, a literary shout-out to my childhood, the comic books I shared it with, and the remembrances that remain, steadfast and solid, like a faithful and devoted friend.

 

Will I watch another Marvel movie, despite my lukewarm, even critical, view of them?  Sure.  Any movie that features The Avengers can’t be all bad.  But while I do, you can bet I’ll be thinking of Jim and my mother and the sounds and silences of the old comic book shop on the corner of Langslow and Mt. Hope on the south side of Rochester.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Of Childhood Memories, Cars Full of Twix Bars, and an E-Book Sale!

Sometimes, memories and dreams mix and intermingle to the point where it’s difficult to discern one from the other.  There are times when I have to pause, take stock, and think:  “Did I really do that years ago?  Or did I just dream it?”  And, perhaps even more disconcerting:  “Is there truly a distinction?”  Who’s to say our dreams aren’t “real”?  Who’s to say they don’t represent an existence as actual as the one we live when we’re up and around?  This, of course, is a question central to The Eye-Dancers as well as its sequel, The Singularity Wheel, and one I am sure I’ll return to in future writing endeavors.

 

But, for the purposes of this discussion, I can say–right now, I am thinking of something from my past that combines both memories and dreams.  My own memory, but someone else’s dream.  Confusing?  Let’s proceed!

Sean was a childhood friend of mine from the neighborhood I grew up in.  He lived a street over from me and up the hill.  His family moved away after he and I turned thirteen, and I never saw him much after that.  But for a few years, on the threshold of adolescence, he and I hung around together a lot–he’d stop by after school or for an entire day during the summer.  In winter, we’d watch TV, play video games or board games, or just talk about stuff.  In more pleasant weather, we’d play catch, take walks through the neighborhood, or go hiking in the woods and pretend to be explorers blazing the trails of a remote and hitherto unknown jungle.  We’d listen to the bird calls and rustlings in the woodland shrubbery and imagine we were hearing flesh-ripping velociraptors who might emerge at any moment from the shadows and attack.  We needed to be on guard.

 

Our flights of fancy weren’t restricted to our jaunts through the woods, however.  We would also share with each other the highlights of some of our wildest, most reality-busting dreams.  I certainly told him about the nightmare I had as a six-year-old, wherein I jumped into a pool that, in turn, metamorphosed into a sinister ocean populated by child-eating monsters.  And one day–one summer’s day in the middle of a hot July in the 1980s, he told me about a dream he’d had.

 

“So, you know, I had a dream about food,” he said.  We were sitting at the old red picnic table in the backyard.  Some of the paint had peeled off, revealing the weather-beaten grain of the wood underneath.

“Food?” I said.  Didn’t exactly sound riveting.

“Yeah.  Candy.”  Sean loved candy.  “And not just any candy.  But my favorite candy.”

That one was easy.  “Twix bars?”  I said.  Almost every time I saw him, he had a Twix bar or two in his pocket.

 

He smiled.  “A carful of ’em!”  I raised an eyebrow, and he went on.  “I dreamt that I had a wish,” he said, shifting on the firm bench attached to the table.  The clothes my mother hung on the clothesline swayed and danced in the humid summer breeze.  “I could get as much of anything I wanted for just one dollar, and it would all fill the inside of a car.”

“Who granted the wish?” I wanted to know.  “A magician?  A genie?  A warlock?”

 

He shrugged.  “I don’t even know.  It was like, I just knew I had the wish already granted, and I could just ask for anything.  So, I went inside this car, put a buck on the floor–you know, for the payment–sat in the back seat, and . . .”

And . . . the car filled up with Twix bars?”

He smiled again, this time a prize-winner.  It was so broad, I thought his face might split in two.  “I was swimming in ’em!” he said.  “I was pinned down in the seat, Twix bars covering me all up, almost up to the roof.”

 

“Sounds kinda scary,” I said.  “I mean . . . could you move or get out if you wanted to?”

“Why would I?” he said.  “I was in heaven!  Besides.  I could just eat my way out.”

I let that sink in.  It was a curious visual.  “And all for a dollar,” I said.

“Best buck I ever spent,” he said.  “For real, or in a dream.”

I just nodded.  Who was I to argue?

 

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

All this week, the Kindle version of The Singularity Wheel is on sale for just 99 cents–or, one cent less than my friend’s all-you-can-eat Twix dream from decades ago.  The base price of The Singularity Wheel e-book is $2.99, so this is a good-sized discount.  For anyone who may be thinking of downloading a copy onto their Kindle or Kindle App, now would be the ideal time!

Okay, so that was a pretty blatant sales pitch, I admit.  But I hope you’ll consider it and give The Singularity Wheel a look–even if it won’t be accompanied by a thousand magical candy bars.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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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

“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.

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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.

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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

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