The Adventure of the Beagle and the Pilfered French Bread

It’s funny, the things we remember.  There are the big things, of course–weddings, funerals, graduations, disappointments, loves, rejections, triumphs.  But there are little things, too, small details that live on in our consciousness like echoes reverberating through the decades.  Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why we remember the things we do.  At some level, some things–even what, on the surface, appear to be minor things–affect us in such a way that our minds hold onto them, tightly, as if grasping a precious jewel.

 

And these memories are not buried, hidden beneath the surface, like trinkets in a dusty attic chest.  They whisper into our ears, make subtle suggestions when we least expect it, and, for those who create stories, they sometimes weave their way into our narratives–not always exactly as they happened, but close enough to inspire a scene or a chapter.

 

One such memory for me involves our dog when I was eight years old and a loaf of French bread.  I don’t believe it’s ever worked its way into one of my stories–but it likely will.  And it is the focus of this post.

 

First, allow me to back up.  For years, going back to before I was born, my mother always named the family dog “Poopsie.”  Don’t ask me why–I don’t know.  And I never asked.  But “Poopsie” was a given in our family.  If we got a dog, male or female–didn’t matter–we didn’t have to wonder what the dog’s name would be.  The first two Poopsies were before my time. But when I was eight years old, we adopted a beagle and named her Poopsie III.

 

Now, Poopsie III was athletic!  And naughty!  She spent much of her time in our backyard, which was fenced.  We figured this would keep her safe and prevent her from running away and exploring the neighborhood.  We were wrong.  Almost every day, it seemed, Poopsie would hop the fence, spend a couple of hours doing we could only guess what–and then come racing back down the street, usually cresting the big hill in the distance and sprinting down its slope, eventually reaching our driveway and hopping the fence again to head to the rear corner of the yard, where her doghouse was situated.  She sometimes dug under the fence, too, and crawled underneath–just to mix things up.  A lot of times, we’d keep her on a leash so she couldn’t get out of the yard.  But Poopsie was a dog built for running.  So my mother was adamant that she shouldn’t always be constricted to a ten-foot-by-ten-foot circle of yard.  That didn’t stop my mother from scolding Poopsie, though, every time she came back home from one of her adventures through the neighborhood.

One such adventure stands out above all the rest.  It was a pleasant summer afternoon back in the 1980s, and, looking out the back window, I stated, “Poopsie’s gone.”  Indeed.  Her doghouse was abandoned, and she was nowhere to be seen.  Evidently, she had hopped the fence and was out in the neighborhood, somewhere, doing something.

 

About an hour later, we learned what she’d been up to.  My parents, my siblings, and I were all out front–I’m not sure what we were doing.  Maybe peering down the street, wondering when Poopsie would be back.

And then, sure enough, there she was, cresting the hilltop up the road.  She then raced down the hill, heading straight for us.  But . . . was there something in her mouth?  There was!  Though she was still too far away to discern exactly what it was.

Seconds later, as she raced closer, closer, we all saw it.  A large, long, full loaf of French bread.  She carried it dead-center, the loaf sticking out half a foot on each side of her mouth.  And as she neared us, running the whole way, she was undoubtedly smiling.

 

“What did you do?” my mother yelled at her.  And then, as she often did when Poopsie came back from a neighborhood run, she pointed to the backyard and commanded that she “get in [her] house.”  Poopsie didn’t hesitate.  She raced to the backyard fence, and like Superdog, bolted over it in a single bound.

 

We were all shocked.  How had she gotten hold of an entire loaf of French bread?  There were no grocery stores in the direction from which she’d come–not close enough, anyway.  But there was a small, family-owned bakery up that way.  Had she entered the bakery and pilfered a loaf of their bread?  Or had she taken the bread out of the hand of a pedestrian walking home from the bakery?  We never found out.  Certainly no one was chasing Poopsie, attempting to reclaim the bread.  It was a mystery.

 

We all had a good laugh about it, right there in the front yard.  My mother, even while yelling at Poopsie, was laughing.  We decided to go inside and see what the dog was up to.  Looking out the back window, we saw Poopsie trying to enter her doghouse, but she couldn’t.  She still carried her loaf of bread in her mouth, and as she tried to enter through the small opening in front, the bread would ram up against the front of her doghouse, pinning her in place.

Eventually, she dropped the treasured bread directly in front of her doghouse and then went inside.  But she’d left the bread close enough to the open doorway where she could lean out and take large, gluttonous bites of it.  In just a couple of minutes, she ate the entire loaf.  She had a good nap after that.

 

And still to this day, all these years later, I can recall the smile on her face as she ran down the street, bread in mouth.  It will stay with me as long as I live, the memory like an old friend ready and waiting to cheer me up whenever needed.

“Thanks for the memories, Poopsie.  You will not be forgotten.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

 

The Sibling’s the Thing (Or, Broken Bones and Unpaid Bets)

In The Eye-Dancers novels, siblings play a sizable role–and a dominant one in Joe Marma‘s case.  This naturally evolved during the writing of the stories, but also it is a reflection of the siblings in my own life.  As the youngest of four children, I know firsthand what it’s like to share a household with multiple siblings growing up.

 

In my case, I am more than seven years younger than my next-oldest sibling, so there is an age gap–nothing that matters now that we’re adults, but back when I was a little kid, my siblings were already in high school.  They seemed like full-fledged grown-ups to me.  And sometimes, they were tasked with watching me–especially when we visited the neighbors’ pool across the street.

My family used to have a pool when I was too little to swim.  But by the time I could actually use a pool, it was long gone.  And so we’d use the pool in the backyard of the neighbors’ house–kitty-corner and across the street. (In fact, these neighbors were the same family the Marmas were inspired by in The Eye-Dancers!)

 

I remember especially the summer I was eight years old, I would go over to their pool every day.  Joe and his brother did not use the pool much, and so it was usually just me–and sometimes my brothers.  My mother would often be there, too, to supervise.

But one time she tasked my brother Dave to watch me.  He was outside the pool.  I was the only one in the water.  “Don’t throw anything into the pool!” my mother had warned us before we crossed the street and I jumped into the pool.  She knew I liked to play “diving catches” in the pool, where someone would throw a ball several feet away from me and I would dive to try to catch it before it hit the surface of the water.  As luck would have it, that day, there was a volleyball in the neighbors’ backyard, not ten feet from the pool.  How could we resist?

 

“Dive!” Dave said, and whipped the ball just out of reach.  I dived, reached for the volleyball.

Crack!  My left pinky snapped back, the force of the ball rivaling a Nolan Ryan fastball.

Houston Astros Nolan Ryan pitching

 

“Ow!”  I grabbed my finger, the pain immediate and sharp.  The game ended as fast as it had begun.

I wound up with a broken pinky for the summer.  My mother was not pleased.

Another time, later that same summer, once my pinky had healed enough for the cast to be removed, my other older brother, John, made a wager with me.  He was in the pool with me. He knew I liked to submerge and swim underwater from one end of the pool to the other multiple times, seeing how many laps I could complete before needing to come up for air.

“I bet you ten bucks you can’t make it across the pool underwater six times,” he challenged.  My record was four.  Six was a stretch.  But I accepted the challenge.

“Ten bucks?”

 

“Ten bucks,” he reiterated.  In the 1980s, to an eight-year-old, ten dollars was a fortune!  I was all in.

“You’re gonna owe me,” I said, and dove under.  I made the first two laps easily.  The third was a little harder–I was starting to feel the lack of oxygen.  The fourth lap–my old record–was harder still.  Then the fifth–I was venturing into uncharted waters, never having stayed under this long before.  But I made it, tapping the far end of the pool.

Can I make this last lap? I wondered.  I seriously considered coming up for air, losing the bet.  But I wouldn’t give my brother the satisfaction.  I kicked off the side, determined to complete the final lap.

My lungs felt like they would rupture; I was getting woozy.  But I made it, tapping the side of the opposite end and surfacing.  I gulped in the air, letting it slide down into my lungs like a healing balm.  I couldn’t talk for several seconds, gasping, regaining my wind.

 

Finally, I said, “I want my ten bucks!”

My brother swam up to me.  “I can’t believe you did it!” he said.  “I didn’t think you had a chance.”

“Fork it over,” I said.  “When we get home.”

“What?  The ten bucks?”  He smiled.  I didn’t like the looks of that smile.  “Here.  Ten bucks.”

And he proceeded to hit me on my upper arm.  Ten times.

“There!” he said.  “There’s your ten bucks!”

I laid into him, told him it wasn’t fair.  But all he did was laugh.

Now, decades later, I look back at both of these scenarios and smile. I sure wasn’t smiling when they happened!  But now they are treasured memories.  It is memories such as these–little things, anecdotes, small events really, but monumental in their own way–that inspire me to write.  To capture something of the spirit of youth, of my past, of life in a previous century.

 

I am grateful and blessed for the memories.

And yes.  My brother still owes me ten bucks.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“Who’s That Tree?” (A Childhood Holiday Tradition)

Without question, Christmas was the most looked-forward-to day of the year for my family when I was growing up in Rochester, New York, in the 1980s.  I look back at those days now with a sense of nostalgia that would have mystified my child-self.  Back then, the 1980s were the alpha and the omega, the here and the when, the be-all and the end-all.  Little did I realize in that last decade before email and the internet that at some future point, decades hence, popular culture would “look back” at the decade in which I spent my childhood and use it as the backdrop for television shows and movies.  I wouldn’t have thought such a thing possible.  When you’re ten or twelve, you are eternally young, and the world where you grow up is young with you.  It feels like a forever state, a permanent condition of things.  But of course it is not.

 

It is fleeting.

I blinked and the 1990s came and went.  Then the 2000s.  Then the 2010s.  And here we are now, on the precipice of 2022.  So many years.  So many changes.  Yet the memories remain.  The traditions and stories and experiences of childhood linger, like woodsmoke on a winter wind.  Enduring.  Tangy.  And real.

 

And while there were many traditions my family shared when I was a kid, the most festive ones revolved around Christmas.

It started with my mother.  She had the most exuberant Christmas spirit in the neighborhood.  One of (many) holiday traditions she started was shopping for the family Christmas tree the first Sunday every December.  It was the same every year.  She’d round us up early that Sunday morning, and we’d drive the family station wagon the mile and a half through the neighborhood to Wambach Farms, an old country store/farmstand that, during the Christmas season, had an enormous variety of Christmas trees for sale out on the back lot. We’d park the car and head right back to the lot, wasting no time to examine the trees.

 

It was serious business.  We weren’t going to settle for just any tree.  It had to be the perfect one.  Not too tall, not too fat, not too thin.  Just right.  The process generally took twenty minutes to a half hour.  We’d fan out–me, my two brothers, my sister, my parents–and scan the merchandise.  Without fail, within a couple of minutes, someone would yell, “Hey!  Everyone!  Mom!  I found it!  This is our tree!”  And we’d all go over to whoever exclaimed it, and, also without fail, the consensus would be to keep looking.  “Nah, it’s too tall and skinny,” someone would say. “Who’s that tree?”  “It looks like Bigelow (a colleague of my father’s at work).  Or, “No way.  That tree is too short and squat, like Reggie!” (a neighborhood dog).  The hunt for the perfect tree went on.

 

Since we shopped for our tree when the store opened, early Sunday morning, there were usually very few other shoppers around.  It was quiet, still, the frosty December air surrounding us like an icy embrace, breath smoking in front of us.  And the excitement was palpable.  It was an honor to be the one to discover the perfect tree.

 

And eventually, of course, someone did.  It was one of those things, hard to define, difficult to establish a template or a set of exact parameters.  Our trees from year to year did have some similar characteristics, but they were also different, unique, individualized.  You just knew it when you saw it.

 

When we did, we’d check out–old Mr. Wambach making small talk with my parents at the register–and then we’d drive the tree home, my father tying it down in the trunk of the car.  It would take hours to decorate.  We’d spend the rest of Sunday morning on it.  And when it was done, the Christmas season in our house would officially begin.

 

Every year in the 1980s, we repeated this Christmas ritual.  And yes, at the time, it felt eternal.  Every year would be the same.  It would never change.  Ever.  The mind of a child, a kid growing up, lucky to be secure in his family and surroundings, living in the moment of his youth.

The thing is, those days are eternal.  They endure.  In my mind, and in my heart.  They will never grow old.

 

I hope you have memories like that, too, during this holiday season or during another one.  I hope you continue to make such memories.

A blessed and merry holiday season to all.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

An Easy Memory in Stressful Times (Or, a Long-Ago Conversation about Nothing . . . and Everything)

It’s no secret that the main characters of The Eye-Dancers are based on some of my neighborhood friends growing up in the 1980s in a suburb of Rochester, New York.  From the novel, Mitchell, Joe, Ryan, and Marc are inspired by flesh-and-blood comrades from my youth.  The real-life versions were Matt B, Joe, Rick, and Matt K.  (Yes, two Matts, and three if you include the person who inspired the supporting character of Grronk.)  Back then, more than anything, we were summer friends–out-of-school-on-vacation friends who would hang out in those days before the internet and smartphones and enjoy all manner of adventures . . . and conversations.

Amazon.com: The Eye-Dancers (9780692262788): Fedison, Michael S., Gaston, Matt: Books

 

And I have to say, in the turbulent and tempest-tossed years of the 2020s, as we toil through a pandemic, remembering those long-ago days of childhood is an elixir for the soul.  Writing The Eye-Dancers was a labor of love, drawing on the old memories . . . but the memories persist, endure, and still provide comfort and diversion.

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

Scene: The house where I grew up, standing on the driveway, bouncing the basketball, summer evening, sometime in the late 1980s.

Yes, bouncing the basketball.  (And taking a few shots at the hoop that was attached just above the gutter over the garage.  In my memory, I never missed.)  Rick was my neighbor, and Joe lived across the street.  More often than not, on summer evenings, if I wanted to “call” them, I’d simply head outside and start shooting baskets.  They’d hear the dribble-dribble-dribble of the ball, and, almost without fail, there would come the slam-click of their screen door snapping shut behind them as they darted outside.  They’d walk over to me, shoot a few baskets themselves.

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Sometimes, one of them would go back in their house to call Matt, or Matt, or Matt (remember, no smartphones).  And sometimes they’d come, and sometimes they wouldn’t.  (All three Matts lived on different streets, but all within a mile of the house I grew up in.)  Either way, we’d spend the evening shooting at the hoop and talking.  About nothing at all.  About life itself.

“You think anything’s up there?” Joe might say, pointing at the heavens as late afternoon slowly bled into evening, the sky darkening, random stars appearing, as if by magic, glittering like celestial diamonds.  “I mean, you know, for real?”

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And I’d nod.  “Absolutely.  The odds that there isn’t anyone else out there” (and I’d point to the sky myself) “are astronomically remote.”  Then I’d smile.  “‘Astronomically.’  See what I did there?”  They’d roll their eyes.  “There’s almost no chance we’re alone in the universe.”

Rick nodded again.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Wonder what they’re like?’

Joe shrugged.  “Prob’ly not so different from us.”  In the gloaming, he shot at the basket.  Missed.  Swore.  “I mean, people are people, right?  Everywhere.”

“Who says they’re people, though?” I’d counter, and shoot at the hoop myself.  Nothing but net.  “Maybe they’re scorpions or one-celled organisms, or giants with twenty-seven heads and brains the size of peas.”

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“Brains the size of peas,” Rick said.  “Like my brother.”  His brother was Bill, “Tyler” in The Eye-Dancers, four years Rick’s junior.  Bill would sometimes emerge from their house, too.  But not tonight.

“Is Matt coming?” I asked.

“Which one?” Joe said.

“Any of them.”

“Maybe Grronk,” Joe said.  “But you know Grronk.  Maybe, maybe not.”

Rick shot at the hoop.  Missed.  Swore.  “You guys hungry?”

“I’m always hungry,” Joe said, taking another shot.  He missed.  Swore.

“What?  You want to order a pizza?” I said.  They shrugged.  Maybe later.

 

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“Damn.  Can’t believe school starts in three weeks already,” Joe said.

I took a shot.  Swish.

“We gotta have fun till then,” Rick said.  “Why is it that summer seems to go by in a week, and the school year seems to take ten years?”

“Yeah,” Joe said.  “That’s true.  I wonder what I’m gonna do.”

“What do you mean?”

He shrugged.  “I don’t know.  When I grow up.  I don’t think about it much.  But sometimes . . . it’s like . . . what will I do?”

Rick and I shrugged back.  Why talk about adulthood and earning a living now?  It was summer.  We were young.  Now wasn’t the time.  Or . . . maybe it was.  Nothing lasts forever.

“I don’t know what I’ll be,” Rick said.  “Just so long as I make money, I guess.”

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We agreed with that.  But even back then, I knew I wanted to write.  To have an audience.  To reach people.  Inspire them, even.  So I said it.

Neither Joe nor Rick replied, but they seemed to understand.  The silence was comfortable, warm, like a snug glove you put on your hand in winter.

Joe took a shot.  Swish!  He cheered.

We moved on to discussing superheroes.  Who was better?  Batman or Superman? (Superman.)  Spider-Man or Wolverine? (Give me Spidey any day of the week.)  We argued, laughed, took a few more shots.  We didn’t order pizza, and Grronk never showed.  We talked about subjects so ridiculous, any outside observer would surely laugh and shake their head.

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But we didn’t stop talking until close to midnight.  And even then, we just hung out for a few more minutes, looking up again, the stars having multiplied.

I remember feeling very young and very strong and very free, with a future as limitless as the night sky above.

And today, especially today, during this challenging year of 2021, those old conversations and feelings and vistas are needed. They represent the musings and beliefs of a child–long ago.  From a different time, a different century.

I’ll always remember them.  And hopefully have the wisdom to keep them alive.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Nine-Year Thank-You

I have always been a believer in the old saying “time flies.”  And I wouldn’t qualify it with the often-added “when you’re having fun.”  Time simply flies.  Period.  Always, fun or no fun.  One day, you wake up, and it’s spring, a golden May morning with blooms and fragrances and new beginnings.  Then, you blink, and it’s February, snow falling, the world a monochrome of grays and whites, the sky the color of lead.  Where did the months go?  Where do the years go?

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I think of all this presently because, it occurred to me just this week that I have been blogging for nine years now.  Nine years!  Indeed.  Where does the time go?  And, indeed, in this case of interacting with the WordPress community, it has been nine years of fun.

The thing is, my schedule has changed over the years.  During the first few years of The Eye-Dancers blog, I was able to post regularly–as often as two or three times per week.  As time went on, that dropped to once a week, then twice a month, and now, nine years in, I generally publish one solitary post per month.  I also have far less time to read the blogs of others–which I deeply regret.  I still do sometimes–I enjoy it!  But not nearly as often as I used to.

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All this to say, my presence in this wonderful blogging community has been lacking in recent months.  Honestly, I’m not sure that will change.  I likely will only be able to post once per month going forward, and I won’t be able to visit others’ blogs as much as I might want to.  (But I will pop in from time to time, and that’s a promise.)

The reason for sharing all of this now, on the last day of February?  (And yes, it is gray and monochrome here in Vermont.)  Just a thank-you to all of you for sticking with this little corner of the internet all these years.  Even as the posts have dwindled to one per month, you still take the time to read my digital scribbles, and for that I am eternally thankful.  I genuinely enjoy sharing my thoughts with you, and I hope some of those thoughts are worthwhile.

How much longer until the snow is gone in Vermont?

 

So, no.  I am not going anywhere.  I intend to stay and keep blogging–even if only once per month.  I’m sure I’ll blink and it will be summer.  That’s how time works.  But I hope you’ll still be here then, too, and that you’ll enjoy the once-monthly posts and stories and memories shared on here.

Thank you for reading these past nine years!

–Mike

Thankful (for the Memories, and the Inspiration)

Late November, the northeastern United States, the hill country of east-central Vermont.  No snow whitens the landscape yet this year, as the fields and meadows remain a stripped, subdued green dotted with dead, scattered leaves.  Cows and sheep enjoy the cool, bug-less weather.  There is a stillness, a quietness in the air.  It is a season of thanksgiving, even amid the calamitous year of 2020.

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And for me, today, this year–and always–one thing I am eternally thankful for is my childhood.  I was lucky.  I was raised in a stable and loving family.  My father still lives in the same house where I grew up.  I never had to move as a kid.  And, with that stability, I acquired neighborhood friends who stood the test of time, season after season, year after year.  Fixtures of my youth.

Indeed, as I’ve mentioned previously over the years on this blog, the protagonists from The Eye-Dancers were inspired by the friends I grew up with, the kids from the old neighborhood.  And I think, even back then, in those long-ago summers of the 1980s, navigating a childhood without the Internet, without smartphones and tablets and smart speakers and Wi-Fi, I knew that what we shared was something special.  Something enduring.  To this day, when I hit a dry patch in my creativity, I pause, think back, and remember.  Because I know that the essence of creativity–my creativity, anyway–streams forth from those adventures decades ago–the inquisitiveness of childhood, the explorations, the stories, the inventions.  The wonder.

1980s retrospective - National Library of Scotland

 

I am thankful for that.

Rick and his brother, Bill (Ryan and Tyler from The Eye-Dancers), lived next door, and Joe (well, Joe, from The Eye-Dancers) lived kitty-corner across the street.  Grronk (well, Grronk from The Eye-Dancers), Matt K. (Marc from The Eye-Dancers), and Matt B. (Mitchell from The Eye-Dancers) lived a few streets away.  If I felt bored or had nothing to do on a weekend or a summer day, I’d head outside, grab the basketball, and start shooting at the hoop my parents had in place above the garage.  And–like clockwork–snap!  Screen door opening and shutting.  Rick next door, coming over, responding to the bouncing basketball.  And, moments later: slam!  Joe’s screen door across the way banging shut, as he waddled over. And we’d shoot at the hoop.  Talk.  And plan something for when Matt, Matt, and Grronk would come.

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There were sleepovers, too.  We’d head down into the basement, where we’d play games I had invented.  Sometimes I’d read aloud from stories I’d written, and it would be well past midnight before we turned in in our sleeping bags.  The basement was old, creepy, with mysterious noises and strange clicking and hissing sounds that would come unbidden, in the dark.  As we drifted off to sleep, I’d be sure to tell them of the ghosts, the goblins, and the vampires that hid, silently, underneath the stairs.  Invariably, a flashlight would flick on, cutting through the gloom.

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Mostly, though, I just remember the camaraderie.  The walks we’d take.  On some of those summer sleepovers, we’d take a walk around the neighborhood, after midnight.  Was it safe?  We thought so.  Safe enough, anyway.  Besides, there was strength in numbers, and there were half a dozen of us.  As we walked, we’d look at the houses.  Most were dark.  A few still had lights on.  We’d guess who lived there (if we walked far enough afield and no longer knew), what they might be doing on the other side of the walls and windows.  We’d look up at the sky, and if the stars were out, we’d talk about space travel, time travel, and how the light from those stars took millions and millions of years to reach us, and how, seeing them now, we were, in effect, gazing into the past.

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“Is it possible that some of those stars aren’t even there anymore?” Matt B.  (Mitchell) would ask.

“What kinda stupid question is that?” Joe shot back.  “‘Course they’re there!”

“Well, I don’t know,” Matt K. (Marc) would chime in.  “Theoretically, they could be gone.  The light we’re seeing is from millions of years ago.  We have no way of knowing what’s happened in the intervening years.”  (Hey, Marc Kuslanski didn’t materialize out of thin air!  Matt K. was a grade-A inspiration for the character.)

We’d keep walking, talking, wondering, arguing.  We felt very young, and very strong.  Full of potential, the years ahead of us yawning wide, decade upon decade.

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That’s what I remember the most.  The feeling of possibilities.  Ambitions.  Dreams.  The sense that we had all the time in the world, and nothing was going to stop us.  The full-throated expression of creativity and what-ifs.  Daring to imagine.  To wonder.  To consider.  Nothing was off-limits.

Which brings me back to today, 2020, decades removed from those days of my childhood.  Back then, the year 2020 would have seemed like a century away, some distant, inconceivable future on the other side of tomorrow.  Yet here I am.  Here we are.

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But those memories live on.  And the energy and enthusiasm of those long-ago days, and the friends with whom I shared them–spur me to press on, to continue dreaming and writing and creating.  To continue looking up at the night sky and asking questions.

And to never, ever forget.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Name’s the Thing (Or, “Call Me Galen!”)

By all accounts, I have a simple first name.  “Mike” is as run-of-the-mill as it gets.  Throughout my life, whenever I’ve been in a group of people and someone says, “Mike!  Hey, Mike!” several heads turn toward the voice.  It’s a common moniker.

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In my case, though, there are backstories, and stories behind the backstories.

When I was a toddler, I decided early on that I loathed the name “Michael.”  “I don’t like the ‘cole’ at the end,” I said.  “Everyone call me ‘Mike.'”  And, basically, they did.  In fact, this is a preference I still hold to this day.  I still prefer “Mike” to “Michael”–though I do not loathe my “proper” name anymore.  It’s okay!  I don’t hate the “cole” anymore.  But “Mike” is still the name of choice.

Coal | Facts, Uses, & Types | Britannica

 

The thing is, shortly after I declared that childhood proclamation, I swerved headlong into a new name.  When I was four years old, I fell in love with Planet of the Apes.  And I mean, head  over heels!  I watched the movie dozens of times, collected the action figures, played made-up games with all the characters.  One time, my cousin Symone–born in the same year I was–came over to play.  She wanted to play with my Planet of the Apes action figures.  “Okay,” I told her.  “Just don’t play with Galen!  You can touch anyone else, but not Galen.”  I can’t remember why I didn’t play with her.  I just let her play with my action figures, and did my own thing.

Ape Soldier (Planet of the Apes 1968) | Deadliest Fiction Wiki | Fandom

 

To back up, as much as I loved Planet of the Apes, I loved the character Galen more.  I wanted to be Galen.  In fact, in my mind, I was Galen!

“Call me Galen,” I announced one morning to my mother.  She may have thought I was joking.  I was not.  “I won’t answer to ‘Mike’ anymore.  My name is Galen!”

Galen (APJ) | Planet of the Apes Wiki | Fandom

 

I also announced this to my sister and two brothers, my father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, everyone.  I was Galen!  Not Mike.  Who was he?  He didn’t exist anymore.

So, when Symone did exactly what I told her not to do, I lost it.  The first thing she did was reach for Galen.

Instantly, I snatched the figure away from her.  But that wasn’t all I did.  I got up, ran out of my room, Galen in hand, and yelled to my mother, “She touched Galen!  She touched Galen!”  I felt compelled to make the case against her, as if arguing before a grand jury.  This was an infraction of the highest order.

Virtual Grand Juries? | New Jersey Law Journal

 

Symone came running out, too, trying to take Galen back.  “It’s not fair!” she said.  “It isn’t fair!”  (Keep in mind, we were both four!)

I honestly cannot remember how it all turned out that day.  But even now, all these years later, the family gets a good laugh out of it.

But that was just the start.

I didn’t limit my new name of choice to my family.  Far from it.  My mother had recently signed me up for a book club at the local library.  Two dozen or so toddlers would sit in a circle in the library once a week, and the librarian would read to us, the parents watching, nearby.  Each child in the group had a name tag they needed to wear.  I insisted the librarian write my name in as “Galen.”  I’m sure my mother had to explain why, but in the end, “Galen” it was.

Library / Library Policies

 

It was summer.  There were two months before I would begin kindergarten.  My mother, surely, was anxiously eyeing the calendar, hoping against hope that my Galen obsession would clear, like the summer heat and humidity, at the start of the school year right after Labor Day.

But right then, in mid-July, it was going as strong as ever.

My parents took the entire family to the Adirondack Mountains, a three-hour drive through upstate New York, before arriving at our destination of Whiteface Mountain.  It was a rare mini-vacation for us back then.  And I was in full Galen mode.  Both of my older brothers mocked me on the drive up, taking liberties with my adopted name.  Bring it on!  I was Galen.  I didn’t care what they said.

Exploring Whiteface Mountain - The Whiteface Lodge

 

At one point during the trip, after we’d arrived, I was frolicking in a playground, my mother right there, monitoring.  Several other children were there, swinging, sliding, running around in circles like puppies chasing their tails.  I was having a blast.  But then my mother called out, telling me it was time to go.

“Michael, we have to go,” she said above the din of children’s voices and the sounds of our play.

I ignored her, kept right on playing.

“Mike!” she said, knowing that was the name I preferred.  I didn’t acknowledge her.  She knew what my name was.

There was a pause.  Then:  “Galen!”

I came running!  All I asked was to be called by my new name!  There were other parents there, too, no doubt glancing askew at the child with the odd name.

But from there, the Galen fascination did in fact wane, I moved on to other things, and, indeed, by the start of school that fall, I was “Mike” again.

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

In the years since, I have never populated a story I’ve written with a character named Galen.  But I always think about what to call my characters.  They are not named without consideration and consequence.  It’s an odd feature of being an author–we create people, living, breathing human beings on the page–and we must name them.

What Are the Different Parts of a Book?

 

For The Eye Dancers, the protagonists were inspired by real-life friends of my childhood.  Each character’s initials mirror those of my actual friends, so Mitchell Brant is inspired by the real-life “MB,” Ryan Swinton by “RS,” Marc Kuslanski by “MK,” and so on.  Beyond that, why Mitchell Brant?  Why Marc Kuslanski?  Why Joe Marma?  Like Galen when I was four, something popped.  The neurons fired.  The names felt right.  It’s the kind of thing where . . . you know it when you see it (or hear it).  It’s more an art than a science.

Amazon.com: The Eye-Dancers (9780692262788): Fedison, Michael S., Gaston, Matt: Books

 

So much of writing, creating, exploring, imagining, is.

The main thing is–when you write for your characters, when you craft their dialogue, personas, loves, hates, dreams, fears, hopes, and aspirations . . . invest in them.

Maybe even as much as I did when I was four with my favorite character from Planet of the Apes.

AusReprints - Planet of the Apes (Marvel, 1974 series) #5

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Curious Case of the Beagle and the Purloined Loaf of French Bread (Or, You’ll Never See Unless You Look Up)

She’d been gone the entire morning, and I was worried.

“Mom, we should go looking . . . in the car.”  I’d already walked the neighborhood, without any luck. I didn’t see our dog anywhere.  And, at eight years old, I couldn’t very well drive myself.  I needed someone else to step up.

“I’m sure Poopsie will be back soon,” Mom said.  “You know how she is.”

To step back, yes, you read that right.  Our dog was named Poopsie.  Well, Poopsie III, if you want to be precise. Don’t blame me.  It was a family tradition.  Every dog we ever had, my mother named Poopsie.  She wouldn’t have it any other way.  We had four in all, and number four would end up being my best friend throughout my teen years and beyond.

 

But Poopsie III was a good friend, too.  She was a beagle, who spent most of her time in the fenced-in backyard.  My father built her a doghouse, and she would hole away in there for hours on end, only to reemerge ready for food and play.

 

Play, indeed.  Poopsie III was a high-energy dog, often running around in circles chasing her own tail, hunting birds, and playing fetch with the stamina of superdog.

And, oh, yeah.  She liked to run away.

We tried to prevent it, but it was a losing proposition.  We didn’t want to keep her on a leash 24/7–she was too rambunctious and full of energy.  And we hoped the fence would keep her safe and secure in the yard.  It didn’t.  Not only did Poopsie III have the stamina of superdog; she had the leaping ability of superdog, too.  She jumped the fence with ease.  (She also dug underneath it, burrowing down and crossing into the neighbor’s yard via her hastily constructed subterranean path  The neighbor had a poodle, Satch, and when Satch was in his own backyard, Poopsie would invariably tunnel under the fence to go play with him.)  Of course, I recommended that we just let her in the house and have her live with us inside.  My mother objected (though Poopsie IV, a cocker spaniel, would indeed be an indoor dog).  What could I do?  I didn’t have the necessary clout as an eight-year-old.

 

And on that day, that overcast, muggy August morning, Poopsie was missing.  When I checked the clock that hung above the sink, the hands told me it was nearing noon.  And Poopsie had been gone since before eight–four hours ago!  She’d never been gone this long.

“Mom!” I protested, unwilling to let this go.  But my mother stood firm.  She gave me a two o’clock deadline.  If Poopsie didn’t show up by then, we’d head out in the car and search for her.

Those two hours crawled by like a tortoise lugging a piano.  Finally, though, 2:00 p.m. arrived–and still no Poopsie.

“Okay,” Mom said.  “Let’s go.”

 

We headed out to the driveway.  But rather than entering the car directly, we decided to walk into the street and peer into the distance–just in case.  By this time, there was a break in the cloud cover, and a warm summer sun shone upon the neighborhood.  I shielded my eyes with my right hand and peered up the road.  A few seconds went by, and nothing–only a few neighbors milling about in their front yards. The street was empty–not even a car. But then, I saw movement–a shape emerging atop the hill that lay beyond the stop sign at the nearest intersection . . . could it be?  I took a few steps forward.  I sensed Mom did the same, though I didn’t know for certain as my focus was 100 percent on the tableau playing out before me.

 

As the shape in the distance grew nearer, sprinting down the hill, closer, closer, running faster, I knew.  Poopsie!  There was no doubt.  But where had she gone?  Why had she been missing for so long?  And . . . what did she have in her mouth?

Indeed, as she bolted through the intersection, now on flat ground, and approached us, we could make out what she had: a long, full loaf of French bread.  She hadn’t taken a bite out of it–and it had to be two feet long.  She gripped on tight, careful not to drop her catch.  When she finally reached us, my mother and I burst out laughing.  How could we not?

 

“Poopsie!” Mom shouted.  “Where did you get that?”

There was a bakery way up and over the hill, two miles up the road on a different street–Ricardo’s.  We went there sometimes to acquire fresh bread and other delectables.  Had Poopsie gone inside the bakery?  Or had she hid in the shadows nearby and waited for an innocent customer to emerge with a loaf of French bread?  I tried to picture the theft.  How had she managed it?  And why wasn’t anyone chasing her?

 

Before Poopsie could settle in and partake of her ill-gotten bread, my mother yelled at her for running away and for stealing the loaf.  Instantly, Poopsie–still with a vice-grip on her prize–darted toward the backyard and hopped the fence.  We went back in the house, looked through the window, and there she was . . . trying to enter her doghouse with the loaf of bread.  But the bread was too wide and kept barring entry.  She’d plow ahead, but the bread would catch on the wood of her house, rebuffing her time and again.  Finally, Poopsie solved the riddle, dropping the load and nuzzling it into her doghouse with her nose.  When she vanished inside her abode, we knew she’d be there for a while.  We just hoped she wouldn’t get an upset stomach!

 

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

Have you ever felt desperate for an idea?  Have you ever experienced writer’s block?  Do partial ideas come your way, tantalizing in their promise, but frustrating in their incompleteness and the many gaps that still need to be filled?  The muse isn’t always in a giving mood.  Sometimes, we just need to wait.  Because I know that, at least for me, ideas cannot be forced.  Creativity cannot be coerced.  I can think about a skeletal idea, I can attempt to build muscle and sinew and attach them to the bones, but, in the end, the full flower of the idea, the complete telling of the story, will come when it comes.

 

And this happens a lot.  More times than I can count, I get fragments, partial inspirations, intriguing scenarios and what-ifs.  But until those scenarios can be expanded, until characters and subplots and layers upon layers of story can be added to the initial idea, until a palette of colors can be applied to the sketch, I am stuck, in an embryonic state of the process, waiting on a capricious and too often shy muse to come to call.

 

And there are times when it all feels so hopeless, when the lack of workable ideas rises up like a taunt, when it’s easy to wonder if the literary well has gone dry and the pump forever malfunctioned.  But in those moments, after searching and cajoling and overthinking and obsessing, when characters and dialogue are silent as the grave, be sure to look up.

To believe.

To survey that hill in the distance.

Because maybe, just maybe, the answer, like a jubilant, rediscovered dog with a purloined bakery prize, will come dashing toward you with the answers you need.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Better Angels of Our Nature (Or, Rediscovering the Wonder)

When I was growing up, in the halcyon days of the 1980s, I used to invent things . . . and they ran the gamut. I scribbled my first stories with a yellow #2 pencil.  Most were short–eight pages max–and all involved some aspect of fantasy or science fiction.  I then began writing plays–epic adventures featuring my real-life friends, journeying to other worlds, other times, other places. We’d have sleepovers and I’d read them the entire play!  Hard to believe, looking back on this, that they stayed awake through the whole thing.  It would take hours.

 

I also invented games.  Active games that incorporated running and jumping and searching. Takeoffs of existing sports, too.  One game was a combination of soccer and basketball, where, outside ten feet of the hoop, soccer rules reigned, but within ten feet of the basket, the rulebook switched over completely to basketball.  We called it “Manny Ball”–christened for a neighbor who had been a professional soccer player in his youth and who would sometimes come over and watch us play.

 

But there were sit-down games, too.  I collaborated with my friends (the same ones who inspired the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers) as we created our own board game–an adventure epic with ourselves as characters in the game, along with other people we knew and some select professional athletes and celebrities.  We played that a few times.

 

And spoken-aloud stories!  Lots of those.  We’d stand on the driveway in July, the sun setting to the west, and we’d start talking about nothing, and everything, and I’d just make things up, invent narratives, what-ifs, scenarios, and we’d go from there.  I told them about the “window to nowhere” in the basement, the “dirt hole to the center of the earth” in the backyard, the swing set (also in the backyard) that, if you were able to get high enough, pump hard enough, you’d be able to see into a shadowy other-dimension, similar to the “Upside Down” in Stranger Things. Maybe the Duffer brothers telepathically listened into our conversations, via time and space travel . . .

 

All in all, I admit.  It’s fair to say that a good portion of my childhood was spent on fantasy, on invention, on transporting my mind to . . . elsewhere.  Did I do that more than the average kid?  Almost for sure. I’d head into the backyard, play wiffle ball with myself, going through the lineups of a fictional World Series matchup, creating my own teams, broadcasting the play-by-play as I went, televising to an audience of one–me.  I was on a cloud somewhere, in my own universe. Letting my mind wander where it will.

 

All children do that to a degree, of course.  That’s an aspect of childhood that inspired The Eye-Dancers–the unfettered ability to imagine, to allow the “unbelievable” to permeate the consciousness, to accept without question that supernatural forces exist in the universe (well, unless you’re Marc Kuslanski). On the surface, this quality, these whims and megrims of children, don’t appear to be overly important or eventful.  Kids are kids, after all.  They invent things.  And then they grow up and deal with reality.  Isn’t that the way of the world?  But maybe we have it backward.  Maybe it is we, the adults, who can learn from the ghosts and fancies of our long-ago past.  Maybe we had it right back then.  Maybe there is wisdom in the games and inventions of our youth.

 

It’s not as if “reality” is going so well.  The year 2020 is rapidly deteriorating into one of the worst in recent memory–and perhaps non-recent memory.  A worldwide pandemic.  Employment numbers that compare to those of the Great Depression.  Intolerance festering and spreading.  Governments laced with corruption and grift.  We have to deal with it all.  We can’t pretend it away.  But then again . . . in the face of it, in the dark bowels of the muck and mire, a little pretending, a little escapism never hurt anyone.  In fact, escaping when you can might just well be the tonic you need to remain sane and productive as we trudge forward as a society and a world.

 

And here, I believe, creativity is a godsend.  For, as authors, we can make our own worlds, our own characters, even, as in the case of The Eye-Dancers, our own universes.  We can leap across the chasm of the solar system in a single bound.  We can imagine a parallel world into existence, and make it come alive on the page (or the screen, as the case may be).  We can imbue our protagonists with a sense of wonder, and send them on a mind-altering journey across the void.  We can imagine.  We can rise above.  We can believe in the unbelievable, the grand, the mysterious, the magical.

 

In short, we can tap into the sense of discovery and boundlessness we had once, long ago, a spirit of imagination and possibilities that we too often lose upon the mantle of adulthood.  So yes.  Some might say writing a novel, creating a fictional universe, is frivolous.  But you know what?  If allowing our minds to soar above the clouds, to picture the what-ifs of a new and better way, to imagine worlds and places and times where things could be different, to pursue the unvarnished creativity of our truest self is frivolous–then I would counter that we should all be frivolous in our own way.  For you, it might be through painting.  Or singing.  Or cooking.  Or inventing a new form of mathematics.  Or dancing.  Or playing softball.  It doesn’t matter what the outlet is.  It just matters that there is one.

 

Because, when it’s all said and done, imagination and creativity are aspects of our humanity that allow us to strive to become more human, more understanding, and more compassionate.

Or, as Lincoln said long ago, at another time in our history fraught with peril and uncertainty, they pave the way for us to live our lives according to “the better angels of our nature.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“And a One-Two-Tree-Tree, Two-Two-Tree-Tree . . . (Or, the Endless String of Jumping Jacks)

School memories are enduring.  Regardless of how many years have elapsed, the events and experiences from adolescence and young adulthood stay with us, forever fresh and seemingly tailgating us in our own personal rearview mirror.  And for me, some of the clearest and most vivid memories are of high school physical education.  Gym class.

 

Now, I have to say . . . most of the time, I dreaded gym class.  When I was a teenager, back in the antiquity of the late 1980s, I was an introvert who often worried for days on end what our phys ed instructor would have in store for us.  I was actually very good at sports, but not in that environment.  I preferred neighborhood games with friends, matches with my brothers, where I could be myself and feel comfortable.  But in the dog-eat-dog world of high school gym class?  With the ruthlessness of the locker room, the specter of square dance sessions, the mile run?  Back then, these were my school Waterloos, the things I most loathed about high school.

 

But through it all, regardless of what activities we were pursuing in gym class (soccer and football in the fall; basketball, swimming, and square dance in winter; baseball and track in spring–not to mention other odd assortments thrown in, like dodge ball–a personal favorite!–or rope climbing), one thing remained constant, especially when Mr. DeVos was the instructor.  Calisthenics.  Or, as Mr. DeVos liked to call them, “Cals.”

 

Let me back up.  By the time I had him as a phys ed instructor, Mr. DeVos was a veteran coach and teacher of two decades.  He was a former Marine, who enjoyed nothing more than putting his charges through the ringer.  I wasn’t on the high school track team–which Mr. DeVos coached–but those who were would regularly share with classmates the horror stories of practice under Mr. DeVos.  He would run his track team ragged, and, famously, when they needed a drink, would offer up cups of warm water.

 

He was a stickler for regular old gym class, too, and he began every class, rain or shine, come what may, without fail, with his beloved cals.

“We need to warm you up,” he’d say.  A few times, he would tack on “men” at the end, even though the class was always co-ed.  “Get the blood pump-pump-pumping!” he’d shout.  And he’d make us run laps around the gymnasium, do a set of sit-ups and push-ups, perform a series of sprints between cones.

 

But the one exercise he religiously made us do, every class, was jumping jacks.

“Get ready!  Jumping jacks!” he’d say, and some in the throng would utter a groan, as if they, somehow, had hoped the jumping jacks might not be on the agenda that day.  I always felt like asking them which Mr. DeVos they thought was teaching the class. Jumping jacks were an automatic, a given.  Every time.  Expecting anything less was ludicrous.

 

Mr. DeVos would have us assemble in a long straight line, and he’d stand in front of us, whistle around his neck.  Then he’d say, “Okay. Ready, Aaaaaaannnnd . . .”

And then he’d blow his whistle and say, “Give me thirty!”  And he’d do the set of jumping jacks right along with us.  He’d not only do them; he’d count aloud, so we all knew where we stood in the progression.

 

The thing was, thirty jumping jacks for Mr. DeVos wasn’t really what it sounded like.  Officially it was thirty.  In reality, it was several times that.  Why?  Because of the way he counted . . .

“And a one-two-tree-tree,” he’d begin.  (He pronounced “three” as “tree.”)  Keep in mind, this represented one jumping jack.  In the duration it took him to utter all this, we’d all probably completed three jumping jacks, maybe four if his cadence was especially slow.  And on and on he’d continue, in this way, all the way up to thirty . . .

 

” . . . one-two-tree-tree; two-two-tree-tree; tree-two-tree-tree; . . . eighteen-two-tree-tree; nineteen-two-tree-tree; . . . twenty-nine-two-tree-tree; and tirty-two-tree-tree.  Alley-oop!”  That was the signal that we were done.  And when we were, many of the students in the long line were panting.  A hundred (officially thirty) jumping jacks could do that!  Not to Mr. DeVos, though.  The old ex-Marine wasn’t breathing hard at all.  He never did.

The thing I remember the most about all of this was the feeling of duration, of no end in sight.  While the set of jumping jacks probably lasted no more than a couple of minutes, it always seemed like hours. “And a one-two-tree-tree; two-two-tree-tree . . .”  We all knew it was going to be a long road ahead until Mr. DeVos finally got around to thirty and blowing that whistle.

 

He was a man who took his time, particularly when it came to exercising his gym-class pupils.  He wasn’t rushed.  He wasn’t looking to finish the regimen too soon.

A few times, he’d surprise us, mid-jacks, and announce that we’d push onward to forty or even fifty jumping jacks.

 

Endless.

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

Endless can also describe what it feels like to finish your work-in-progress. True, there are times when you’re struck by a bolt of pure inspiration, and, especially for a shorter work such as a short story or poem, you may be able to ride that current of creative electricity to its necessary and satisfying conclusion within a single day.  More often, though, and particularly for a novel-length manuscript, that initial surge of optimism and energy is replaced by a grueling marathon of stops and starts.  A novel is a maze, and what begins so promising in chapter one can ultimately turn into a literary quagmire by chapter twelve.

 

Where is the story going?  Why did I introduce that tangent in the previous chapter?  What should I do with it?  Is Character X really going to do that?  I never thought she would!  What changed her mind?  (As we all know, characters tell you, the writer, what to do much more than the other way around.)  The questions seem endless; the decisions and consequences, daunting.  And then, then!  Even when you are able to key in those magical words, “The End,” having navigated the twists and turns of the first draft . . . the work has only just begun.  Because now, you have entered the revisions stage.

 

Flipping back to page one, you painstakingly go through everything you’ve written.  For me, this is the hardest part because I see, with clarity, that wide swaths of my first draft were awful.  Character and story arcs that weren’t followed up; needless repetition and wordiness; entire scenes that can and should be sliced off.  It is always humbling, and whatever sense of accomplishment, of completeness I may have had upon finishing the first draft, vanishes like vapor.  The race has just begun.

 

Of course, editing and revising the manuscript is rewarding, in the end.  Taking a rough draft and polishing it, rubbing away the hard edges, the plot abnormalities, the padding that weighs the story down is gratifying.  It’s a long, often tortuous process–but when you finally finish this stage, that sense of completeness, this time, is genuine.  Perhaps one last proofread is in order–but the heavy lifting and the hard yards have now been accomplished.

 

Now is the time to celebrate.  But only now.  There are no shortcuts.

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

I certainly thought of old Mr. DeVos as I was going through the revision stage of both The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel.  I even mimicked his cadence at times, doing a series of internal jumping jacks.  Heck–sometimes I did actual jumping jacks, to try to get myself going.  And as I did, I realized that the very thing I dreaded in gym class long ago was now something I appreciated, and called on, to help get me through.

 

So, thanks, Mr. DeVos.  This jumping jack is for you.

Everybody now . . . “And a one-two-tree-tree; two-two-tree-tree . . .”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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