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.

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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

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

A Holiday Classic, and a Reminder to Imagine

We all have certain favorites that we like to turn to this time of year–go-to movies or television episodes or songs that beckon like a lighthouse in the dark.  And certainly, in my adopted state of Vermont, “dark” is an apt description.  The winter solstice occurs during the heart of the holiday season.  Sunset is early.  Sunrise is late.  In between, there are frigid, snow-filled days, gloomy with gray clouds that hover low over the frozen land like unwashed, soiled laundry.

 

It’s no wonder, then, that many people look for a tonic, some reliable holiday classic that never fails to elicit a feeling of warmth and thankfulness, of appreciation and goodwill.  For me, movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Trading Places serve to brighten my December, offering annual strolls down memory lane, retaining their luster and their shine.

 

The list of holiday classics is long, though.  I never have the chance to watch as many movies or select TV shows as I’d like to in any given holiday season.  But this month, I thought of one movie in particular that I hadn’t viewed in years, and I made a firm decision to remedy that oversight.  So, just last night, after a day in which nine inches of fresh snow had fallen on the Green Mountain State, I popped in the DVD, settled in with some popcorn and hot chocolate, and enjoyed . . .

 

Surely, Miracle on 34th Street is a Christmas classic.  Filmed in 1947, it as endearing now as the day it debuted in theaters seven decades ago.  And though I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen it, many of the scenes instantly came back to me as I watched, like being reacquainted with an old friend, too long absent but the memory of whom burns bright and vibrant in the soul.

 

The plot of Miracle on 34th Street is simple–corny, even.  And yet–there is a magic to this movie, and when the final credits roll at the end, you feel better for having watched it.  While Miracle on 34th Street is undoubtedly a Christmas movie, and deals with the theme in specific point of view–the true gift of this film runs deeper.  The crux of the plot centers around a lawyer’s attempt to “prove” that Santa Claus exists.  And in true vintage Hollywood fashion, he accomplishes this, and then goes one further by “proving” that an eccentric old man, who calls himself Kris Kringle and who plays a department store Santa at Macy’s in New York City, is, in fact, the genuine article.

 

For me, though, the heart of Miracle on 34th Street has very little to do with Santa, or even the holiday itself.  It has to do with faith. with the limitless power of thought, the vistas of our imagination, the lifelong struggle, and opportunity–even as we grow older and assume the responsibilities of adulthood–to retain at least some spark, some essence of our youth.

 

At one juncture in the movie, old Kris Kringle has a talk with Susan, a serious, thoroughly sensible little girl.  Susan tells Kris that she doesn’t like it when her friends and classmates play pretend games.  Such things are “silly,” she says–echoing her practical and everything-is-factual-and-tangible-minded mother.  Susan thinks to pretend is to depart from the real world, and is therefore a waste of time.

 

Kris flips the argument on its head, turning the perceived flaw into a strength.

In order to pretend, he tells the girl, you have to have the ability to imagine.

“Imagination is a place all by itself,” Kris explains.  “A separate country.  Now, you’ve heard of the French nation, the British nation.  Well this . . . is the imagi-nation.”  He promises her it’s a wonderful place.  “How would you like to have a ship all to yourself,” he asks, “that makes daily trips to China?  And Australia?  How would you like to be the Statue of Liberty in the morning, and then, in the afternoon, fly south with a flock of geese?”

 

Susan nods, moonstruck.  The old man is unlocking something heretofore buried inside of her, something real and essential, and needing to come out.

 

We all need the occasional flight of fancy.  We all need the ability to take a step back, temporarily forget about the bills, the doctor appointment, the in-box, the stack of papers on the desk, the planning for the party next week.  Granted, planning for the party next week is important.  And those bills won’t pay for themselves.  But it’s all too easy to get stuck on a treadmill, or caught on a straight and narrow path, hemmed in by featureless gray walls.

 

The Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street, in crisp black-and-white, the department store Santa Claus from the 1940s, the physical, earthy, jocular fellow, is a relic, the sights and sounds around him a living, moving time capsule.  But he has much to say to us even now, on the cusp of 2018.

 

The imagi-nation is a magical place, not just during the holidays, but the whole year through.

I’ll be sure to see you there.

 

Have a wonderful and blessed holiday, and thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Winter Walk in Old New England (Or, Down the Rabbit Hole)

Winter in Vermont arrives early, and it hits hard.  Already there is a stubborn sheen of ice on my driveway, creating an adventure every time I drive down.  The meadow out behind the house, with its rolling hills and undulations, is an unbroken sea of pure white.  And the wind chills?  Let’s not even talk about the wind chills!

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I make no secret that winter is my least-favorite season.  People sometimes kid me about that.  “You live in Vermont, and you don’t like winter?” they say.  I reply that it’s not a big deal.  I love the spring, summer, and fall–three out of four seasons isn’t bad.  Nevertheless, winter in New England has a way of holding on, reluctant to let go.  Even in the brighter, milder months of March and April, winter digs in its heels, delaying the inevitable, resisting the birth of spring with every harsh gust of wind and squall of snow.

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So I am under no grand illusions.  A long, unbroken string of arctic-like months awaits.  Still, I have no desire to huddle beside the portable heater all winter, hot chocolate in hand.  (Though surely there will be some of that!)  I enjoy the outdoors, and on days not quite so harsh, on days when the sun–too often a stranger in New England–chooses to shine, I will take advantage.

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Recently, on one such sunny, crisp afternoon, I took a walk.  Navigating the icy slope of the driveway, I walked down to the road.  The road in question, as are so many in rural Vermont, is dirt–dry and dusty in summer, muddy and soft in early spring, hard and snow-packed right now.  If I turned right, I’d walk toward a paved road a mile away.  But if I turned left, within a third of a mile, the road would morph into a narrow trail, not maintained by the town.

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I went left.

As I walked, I was struck by the silence.  No cars.  No people.  No sounds.  There was a gentle breeze, but no leaves to rustle–only the empty spaces in bare trees and lonely expanse of snow-covered fields and stripped woodland floors.  Even the songbirds were silent.   Briefly, a sound to my right–a wild turkey, startled by my intrusion, scurried into the woods, disappearing from view.  More silence.  I inhaled.  The air was a winter knife, cold, sharp, as if it might draw blood if I weren’t careful.

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I walked on, reaching the trail, where the snow depth swelled, coming up above my ankles.  Even back here, though, there were tire tracks, the residue of rugged four-wheel drives and snowmobiles, no doubt.  My footfalls crunched the packed snow, punctuating the stillness.  My breath hung on the air before dissipating, molecule by molecule.

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Then I paused.  Stopped.  I listened to the silence.  It washed over me like a vacuum, snuffing out the sound.  I breathed again, in and out, in and out.  A gray squirrel chattered from a nearby tree, but then climbed higher.

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Everything was so quiet, so white–the world seemed asleep, slumbering beneath the blanket of snow.  For a moment, reality itself seemed slippery, as if, perhaps, I had gone down a rabbit hole and was standing there only as an apparition, or maybe some figure within the realm of someone else’s dream.

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What is real? I wondered, looking over the frozen pond that lay just meters before me, and, beyond that, the snowcapped mountains that rose in the distance like ancient giants worn and weathered by time.

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In The Eye-Dancers, what we perceive as real is explored, and challenged, over and over again.  Indeed, in chapter 2, Joe Marma feels so disoriented that “reality felt too elusive, too fragmentary, as if it were crumbling away into jigsaw pieces that could not be put back together.”  Indeed–are his dreams, along with Mitchell Brant’s dreams and Ryan Swinton‘s dreams, real or “just a nightmare,” something to wake up from and escape and put safely and securely in the rearview mirror?  Who is this “ghost girl” who continues to haunt them?  And when they are transported to a different dimension, an alternate universe, is what they experience “real” or illusory?

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When the boys first arrive in the alternate town of Colbyville, Ryan isn’t sure:  “The line between dreams and reality had certainly been blurred, if it existed at all.”

Have you ever felt that way?

George Bailey did.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a holiday staple, and one I partake of every year.  Many people know the story of Bedford Falls and George and Mary and Old Man Potter.  We know George has a string of bad luck and at one point contemplates jumping to his death off a bridge, only to be saved by Clarence the bumbling but lovable angel who is still searching for his wings.  And we all know the movie ends with a rousing rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” along with Zuzu’s memorable line, “Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

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And George’s response:  “That’s right, that’s right.”

But how does Clarence ultimately convince George to step away from the cliff, or, in this case, the bridge?  How does he earn his wings at the end?

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By showing George what the world would look like without him.  Admittedly, this isn’t Clarence’s idea.  It is his response to a despondent George’s muttering that he wishes he’d never been born.  Wish granted!  You want to be erased, George Bailey?  Consider yourself erased.

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In other words, Clarence helps George to see his many blessings not by hopping on to his personal soapbox or through any words of wisdom; rather, he rescues George by taking him down the rabbit hole and in to an alternate reality, allowing him to witness the fallout of a world that could have been, might have been, had he never existed to touch the lives of others.

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He saves him by changing the very nature and shape of what we deem to be real.

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

I stayed there on that path, overlooking the iced-over pond and the far-off majesty of mountains and sky, for several minutes.  The wind picked up, and the bite of the cold chomped down, stinging my face and eyes.  But I just wanted to take it all in.  What is real?

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In an age where unfiltered bias is immediately disseminated to millions upon millions of people, when individuals can and do attempt to delegitimize the press, when various forms of social media can be used to spread truth or lies with equal fervor, what is real?  If someone tweets out a lie, and sixty million people read it and believe it, is it now true?

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The shifting, changing, amorphous lens through which the world views itself, and through which we view the world, is in a state of disarray.  Reality for many has become as confusing and inexplicable as George Bailey’s journey through his own personal rabbit hole.

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But as I turned to leave the path, to retrace my steps in the snow and head back home, I attempted to answer the question that lingered on the air like wood smoke.  What is real?

George Bailey found the answers at the end of the movie.  Clarence the angel penned a personal note to George:  “No [one] is a failure who has friends.”  And with George surrounded by friends and family, singing off-key in a cinematic moment for the ages, he understands the truth, the essence, and so do we.

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So, as 2016 nears its end, as we forge bravely ahead into the uncertain climes of 2017 and beyond, maybe, just maybe, we can all pause for a moment and tune in to a corny old holiday classic, walking the avenues and sidewalks of Bedford Falls, reliving the miracle on 34th Street, soaring with a red-nosed reindeer as he leads the way, or witnessing a walking, talking snowman.

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These are, it seems to me, rabbit holes very much worth exploring.

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Have a wonderful holiday season and a happy and blessed New Year.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (in St. Louis or Anywhere)!

There are magical moments in movies, in stories, in life–they become frozen in time, as it were, there to be captured, and recaptured, like old friends always ready to greet us with a hug and a smile.

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There are, for example, signature moments I can recall from my past–memories, highlights, experiences that remain vivid and true, though decades may have elapsed. All I have to do is close my eyes, remember, and I am transported back, across a chasm of time and distance, as if by magic.

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Favorite scenes in books, movies, television shows offer a comforting helping hand, as well, only in this case, you don’t need to remember anything.  You can reread a favorite passage, rewatch a favorite scene–experiencing anew the special bond these creations share with you.

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For me, one such movie is Meet Me in St. Louis, which hit the theaters in 1944 and starred Judy Garland, just five years removed from her signature role of Dorothy Gale, in The Wizard of Oz.  In Meet Me in St. Louis, a period piece, Garland portrays Esther Smith, against the backdrop of the 1904 World’s Fair.  Though much of the movie takes place in warmer months, I will always view Meet Me in St. Louis as a Christmas classic.

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I’ve always enjoyed old movies.  Even as a kid, I’d happily tune in to old black-and-white classics, films from yesteryear, featuring larger-than-life icons like Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Katharine Hepburn.  So it was no surprise, one snowy December night, when I was fourteen years old, that I was watching Siskel and Ebert.  I used to watch their show every week back in the day, enjoying their analysis, their banter, their arguments.  But on this night, on the eve of the yuletide, they closed their program by showing a clip from Meet Me in St. Louis.

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“Here’s Judy Garland singing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,'” Gene Siskel announced–and instantly I entered into a story, a set of characters, a movie I had never seen or experienced.  But none of that mattered, because when I watched that clip–Garland’s character singing one of my favorite holiday songs to Margaret O’Brien, who plays her little sister in the film–it made no difference that I didn’t know the context of the scene or how it interacted with the overall flow of the film.

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All that mattered was a magical performance, a holiday classic, a song and a scene that transcended its WWII-era audience and, somehow, managed to speak to me, a teenager in western New York State, born decades after the movie was filmed.

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And today, more than seventy years after Judy Garland sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on the Silver Screen, may the song’s spirit and sentiment reach everyone this holiday season.

“Let your heart be light,” and may your “troubles . . . be out of sight . . . as in olden days, happy golden days of yore; faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more.”

Wishing all of you a happy and joyous holiday, and a blessed and merry New Year.

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See you all in 2016!

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

(Not Quite) All Quiet on the Western Front . . .

As someone who has pursued his flights of fancy in written form since childhood, there are times when I’m asked why I write the things I do.  What motivates me to write a certain short story or a novel featuring four seventh-graders who cross through the void to a parallel world?  It’s a fair question, of course.  After all, what inspires any of us to do the things we do, to create the things we create?

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There are multiple answers, layered answers.  Interests, passions, points of view . . . each of us pursues those things that matter to us, those things we feel a need to share with others.

But there is also a simpler answer, something that delves deeper, moves beyond the subjects and themes, similes and metaphors.

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There is something more . . .

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Consider an event that took place one hundred years ago–on the battlefields of western Europe, enemy lines entrenched mere yards apart from each other, five months in to the “War That Would End All Wars.”

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Already the combatants were shell-shocked.  Each side had entered the fray believing one knockout blow, one decisive thrust, would assure a quick and easy victory.  The initial German push had caused great alarm in the Allied capitals, and, for a brief moment, Paris itself felt threatened.  But the offensive sputtered at the Marne before bogging down in the cold mud of Flanders.  By the time the 1914 holiday season rolled around, soldiers on both sides of the line had taken to earth, digging trenches and establishing firm boundaries that squared the forces directly across from one another.  It was beginning to be apparent that this would not be the short conflict both sides had hoped for.  Like a thick, toxic fog seeping in through unseen holes, a harsher reality was setting in.

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Thousands upon thousands of soldiers had already died in the fighting.  Ancient rivalries and hatreds burned deep.  Neither side considered defeat, thought about surrender.  These attitudes and beliefs, so firmly ingrained, make the events of December 1914 that much more remarkable.

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In the days leading up to Christmas, official requests for at least a temporary cease-fire had emerged from various factions, including a call from the pope himself that “the guns may fall silent.”  But leaders on all sides shrugged these pleas off.  This was war.  It was no time for cease-fires.

But some of the soldiers living and fighting in the trenches took matters in their own hands.  As the month of December pushed on, signs were evident that something different, something unusual, was in the air.

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Many soldiers would later write home about the events that followed.  One of the most well-known such letters was penned by British soldier Frederick W. Heath, a Private.  In his epistle, Heath writes of the “ghostly shadows that haunt the trenches,” the “grave-like rise of ground that marked the German trenches two hundred yards away.”  “The soldiers’ Christmas Eve had come at last,” he states, but “it was hardly the time or place to feel grateful for it.”

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Homesick, “with overcoat thick with wet mud, hands cracked and sore with the frost,” he writes: “Back somewhere in England, the fires were burning in cosy rooms; in fancy I heard laughter and the thousand melodies of reunion on Christmas Eve.”

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But then, in the middle of this reverie, Private Heath sees “a light in the enemy’s trenches”–something “so rare at this hour that I passed a message down the line.”  He “had hardly spoken when light after light sprang up along the German front.”

It is at this point where the young Private hears a voice rising from the German trenches.  “English soldier, English soldier, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas!”  The voice urged the British to rise out of their trenches and “come out here to us.”  Heath and his comrades feared a trap, and remained where they were, though a running conversation with the Germans ensued all through the night.

Finally, “came the dawn, pencilling the sky with grey and pink,” and the Germans were moving “recklessly about” on top of their trenches, “no seeking the security of the shelter but a brazen invitation to us to shoot and kill with deadly certainty.”  But they did not shoot.

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The German soldiers continued to ask them to rise from their trenches, to meet halfway, and began walking toward the British line.  Initially Heath and his comrades were cautious, staying where they were, but “not for long could such an appeal be resisted.”  They met the Germans in No-Man’s Land, between the trenches, and “out went the hands [which] tightened in the grip of friendship.  Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends.”

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“Here was no desire to kill,” Heath continues, “but just the wish of a few simple soldiers . . . that on Christmas Day, at any rate, the force of fire should cease.”  The men gave each other cigarettes and exchanged “all manner of things,” along with names and addresses on field service postcards.

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They “stayed together for a while and talked,” and after they had chatted, they “turned back to our respective trenches for breakfast.

“All through the day no shot was fired.”

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But then, after Christmas had come and gone, Private Heath writes, “As I finish this short and scrappy description of a strangely human event, we are pouring rapid fire into the German trenches, and they are returning the compliment just as fiercely.  Screeching through the air above us are the shattering shells of rival batteries of artillery.  So we are back once more to the ordeal of fire.”

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Undoubtedly, the Christmas Truce of 1914 has been mythologized and romanticized in the years since, especially this holiday season, which marks the one-hundred-year anniversary of the event.  Tall tales, legends concocted from pure imagination, fictional narratives have thrived.  But something very real and very remarkable did occur a century ago on the mud- and frost-strewn battlefields of France and Belgium.  “It was absolutely astounding,” one British soldier wrote, “and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”

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And why not?  In the midst of a terrible war that would drag on for four interminable years, across the still, cold lines, the silence was broken by the sounds of soldiers singing the Christmas carols of their youth, the songs they missed and loved and remembered.

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And perhaps this, more than anything, is what lies behind the need we feel to write, to share, to create.  We are all human, in our frailty, our faults, our conflicts, but also in our love, our joy, and our triumphs.  The duality of life never ceases to amaze.  From the Christmas Truce of 1914 to the horrors of Verdun, the Somme, and Ypres a mere two years later, the highs and lows of the human condition mystify and astound.

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Maybe, when it’s all said and done, we write because we have no other choice; we need an outlet, a way of communicating ourselves to the world and the world to ourselves.

Have a wonderful holiday, full of the spirit of the season, and thanks so much for reading!

merrychristmas

–Mike

“Nick of Time”–Or, a Three-Month Holiday Promotion!

In a second-season Twilight Zone episode titled “Nick of Time,” newlyweds Don and Pat Carter, on a honeymoon trip cross country to New York City, are temporarily stranded in the small town of Ridgeview, Ohio, while their car is repaired.  With several hours to kill, they enter a nondescript diner.

As they sit down at a booth, they notice a “mystic seer”–a penny fortune-telling machine.  “Ask me a Yes/No question,” the machine reads.  “One cent per question.”

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Don, up for a promotion at his place of employment and obsessing over the outcome, honeymoon or no, inserts a penny and asks the machine about it.  Has he been promoted at work?  He presses down on the lever, causing the machine to jingle, and a slip of paper spits out.

“It has been decided in your favor,” the slip reads.

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Don decides to make a long-distance call back home, to the office, to find out if this is really true.  It is.  He’s made it.

“And he knew,” Don says, sitting back down at the booth, pointing at the mystic seer.

Amused, he decides to ask the fortune-teller another question.  Would they really have to wait four hours for their car to be fixed?

“You may never know,” the machine responds.

Taken aback, Don asks more questions.  The answers are cryptic, threatening even, but they always fit, always make sense.  He grows more frantic, while his wife becomes concerned.  Why is he taking this thing so seriously?

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The seer suggests they should remain in the diner until three o’clock.  Looking at his watch, Don sees it’s only quarter after two.

“If we don’t stay here till three, something bad will happen to us?” he asks the seer.

The machine answers, “Do you dare to find out?”

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With each answer, Don’s wife grows more upset.  “Let’s go,” she says.  But Don stalls, says he hasn’t finished eating, hasn’t ordered ice cream yet.  Finally, at five minutes before three, Pat coaxes him to leave the diner.

As they walk outside and cross the street, a car nearly runs into them.  They escape unscathed, but it was a close call.  Don looks at the church tower clock across the street as soon as they reach safety.  Exactly three o’clock–just as the seer warned.

He convinces his wife to go back inside the diner.  Why is the machine so accurate?  He is determined to find out.

“You don’t really think that gizmo can foretell the future, do you?” Pat asks him once they’re back inside.

“Well, it foretold ours,” he says.

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She refutes this, saying it was Don himself who provided the machine with the details.  All the seer did was churn out vague generalities.

Don asks the machine if it knows about the car that almost hit them.

“What do you think?” the ejected card reads, in response.

He then asks if it will still take four hours for their car to be fixed.

“It has already been taken care of,” the seer responds.  Not a minute later the mechanic from across the street steps inside and tell them, by a stroke of luck, the part he needed turned up, and their car is all set.

Once again, the “mystic seer” is proven to be right.

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Pat is still unconvinced.  Don tells her to ask the seer a few questions.  She tries to trick the machine, asking if they’ll reach Columbus by tomorrow, even though they don’t plan on driving through Columbus at all.

In response, the seer answers, “If that’s what you really want.”

Question by question, Pat becomes more agitated, more unglued.

“It’s not possible to foretell the future, is it?” she asks.

“That’s up to you to find out,” the machine replies.

“You’re just a stupid piece of junk, aren’t you?” Pat shouts.

The seer answers, “It all depends on your point of view.”

That does it.  Pat has had it.  She tells Don they need to leave, that he can’t let this machine run his life for him.

He is torn.  The machine is predicting his future!  How can he just walk away?

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His wife implores him.  She tells him he can decide his own life.  He doesn’t need some penny fortune-telling machine to decide it for him.  “I don’t want to know what’s gonna happen,” she says.  “I want us to make it happen.”  It is up to them to make the most of their lives, to determine the roads and byways they travel along.

Don understands.  He gets up, tells the seer they will go where they want to go, whenever they please.  He has been freed from the grip of fear and superstition . . .  in the “nick of time.”

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If there were in fact a “mystic seer” available to me, I might even now know who will win The Eye-Dancers promotion that runs today straight through the holiday season, and into 2015.  As it is, it will have to remain a mystery until the promotion ends.

The details of the promotion are simple.  Between today’s date and January 4, 2015, if fifty copies of The Eye-Dancers are sold, a winner will be chosen to win a $125 gift card to a retailer of their choosing.  Amazon?  B & N?  A favorite restaurant or department store?  The choice is yours.

Beginning today (October 12) and ending January 4, 2015, if you buy The Eye-Dancers, wherever it is sold, in either paperback or ebook format, please notify me–either with a comment on this website, or via email at michaelf424@gmail.com.  I will keep track of  each person who buys the book during this time frame and then, on Monday, January 5, 2015 , the day after the promotion ends, I will randomly select the winner of the $125 gift card–provided, of course, that fifty copies of the book have sold during the promotional period.

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The Eye-Dancers, the ebook, is available for purchase at the following online retail locations . . .

Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/The-Eye-Dancers-ebook/dp/B00A8TUS8M

B & N:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-eye-dancers-michael-s-fedison/1113839272?ean=2940015770261

Smashwords:  http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/255348

Kobo:  http://store.kobobooks.com/books/The-Eye-Dancers/nKFZETbWWkyzV2QkaJWOjg

And The Eye-Dancers, the paperback is sold at . . .

Amazon, http://www.amazon.com/The-Eye-Dancers-Michael-S-Fedison/dp/0692262784/ref=tmm_pap_title_0/190-9007348-1553839

and CreateSpace, https://www.createspace.com/4920627

 

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Even without the aid of the Twilight Zone‘s “mystic seer,” I hope you’ll take part in this promo!

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

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