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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Where Freedom Lies

Have you ever turned your attention heavenward on an overcast day? I think it’s safe to guess you probably have.  I know I have.

Maybe you’re feeling low, beaten down, hampered by circumstance and the unfortunate course of recent events. And when you look up, hoping, perhaps, for a kind of solace, a jolt of inspiration, instead you are confronted with a sky that is low and gray, appearing as if some celestial giant has dumped their dirty laundry into the dark slate of the clouds.  And sometimes it’s easy, and natural, to feel trapped.  Is there any way out?  Is there some unseen escape hatch that can be discovered and pulled?

 

We’ve all been there, at one time or another.

In The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel, the protagonists find themselves in an alternate reality, after having traveled through an interdimensional void.  Quite literally, during their adventure, their very survival depends on their point of view, their ability to transcend their predicament with perspective, insight.

 

And thoughts.

In The Eye-Dancers, as he ponders the manner in which Mitchell Brant, Ryan Swinton, and Joe Marma have been able to tap into the “ghost girl’s” otherworldly powers and navigate through time and space, Marc Kuslanski, as is his wont, attempts to drill everything down to the rational, the scientific, disregarding anything that is supernatural.  As he does this, however, he reflects on how quantum mechanics intersects with the limitless capacity of thoughts.

 

From chapter 22:

“If a person could alter reality simply by observing something, then how much more powerful were his thoughts?  Take Ryan and Joe and Mitchell.  They had convinced themselves that some ‘ghost girl’ was contacting them in their dreams.  They had no doubt that this was true.  And so . . . their thoughts created a new reality. . . . Their potent and shared belief had transported them from one world, one universe, to another.”

Indeed.  The realm of the physical is finite, limited, and restricted.  We can only walk so many miles, jump so high, meet so many deadlines.  But the internal space, the world of the mind . . . is as boundless as the universe itself, able to traverse infinity instantaneously, able to elevate and overcome and conquer.

 

Able to be free.

In the last stanza of his poem “To Althea, from Prison,” 17th-century British poet Richard Lovelace expounds on this liberation of the mind, this ability of thought . . . and love.

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

 

I find that all of this is especially germane to the creative world.  The transformative quality of the story, the magic of the written word, is an elixir for the soul.  On the writing side, I can be having a long day at work, slogging through a pile of bills, cleaning out the attic–but the story, the idea–it lives on.  It just needs to be written; or, if a work in progress, continued, edited, polished.  I can lose myself in my characters, their struggles, triumphs, tragedies, and accomplishments.  I can be lifted high above the clouds during that “aha” moment when the plot clicks together, a jigsaw puzzle fitting in place after months of searching.

 

And as a reader?  The dynamic is similar.  Open a book.  Or scroll through a Kindle.  With no visual aid, you are transported, instantly, to the time and place the author has created from their imagination.  It’s a kind of magic, really, a form of telepathy.  You can find yourself in a drab, windowless room, a gray office cubicle (not that you should be reading on the job, mind you, *wink*, *wink*), or a crowded, stuffy waiting room.  It doesn’t matter.  The words on the page (or the screen) offer an almost out-of-body experience, where, regardless of what’s happening around you, you can live vicariously through characters born from the mind of someone who may live half a world away, or who may have died hundreds of years earlier and yet is able to speak to you across the chasm of centuries.

 

Magic, indeed.  The ability to soar high above, to travel through the depths of space and land on the far side of the universe.  Or right in your own hometown, able to see your world in a new and different way through the adventures of the characters you read about.  Or created yourself.

Freedom can be found anywhere, so long as you can dream, and think, and imagine.

“The stars are yours,” Ray Bradbury once wrote, “if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Shelter

Walls.  We’ve been hearing a lot about them lately.  Concrete walls and steel walls and bollard fences. But walls are not just physical barriers that stand between people or communities or nation-states. There are other kinds, as well.

 

Some walls are not built with metal or wood or whatever else technology or ingenuity can manufacture.  They are, rather, erected within our minds and our hearts, born from blind prejudices and long-festering hatreds that too often span centuries and generations.  These walls, these soul-killing monuments harbored by far too many for far too long, aren’t visible to the eye.  But they are experienced every day, in all corners of the world.

Rod Serling knew this well, and some of the more memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone dealt with such issues.  One in particular, which sometimes flies under the proverbial radar, was a third-season tour de force called “The Shelter.” (Airdate September 29, 1961.)

 

The episode begins with a panoramic view of a suburban neighborhood, at night.  Everything looks peaceful, serene, the American ideal.  And when we enter the home of Dr. William Stockton, we witness a gathering of friends and neighbors, celebrating the doctor’s birthday.  One of the neighbors, Jerry Harlowe, gives a speech honoring the doctor.  He says that Stockton is a good friend, an excellent doctor, someone who has treated them and their children for twenty years.  They make lighthearted fun of Stockton and the bomb shelter he has built off of his basement.  Laughter is plentiful, and hearty.  These are people who know each other–or so it seems.  They know and respect Dr. Stockton.

 

Just then, Stockton’s son enters the room, tells everyone that the picture on the television set just went dark and an announcer came on, informing the audience to tune into the CONELRAD (Civil Defense) station on the radio.

Stockton does, and the throng of neighbors is shocked by what they hear.  The CONELRAD announcement states that there is an unidentified flying object on radar, traveling southeast.  The president of the United States has declared a “yellow emergency.”  The announcer tells his listeners to retreat to a shelter if they have one; if not, go to a basement or, lacking that, to the centermost position in the house, while closing all doors and windows.

 

The neighbors run out of Stockton’s house and into the street, in a panic.  The announcement can mean only one thing–a nuclear attack.  This is the event the nation, the world, has dreaded.

 

At this point, Rod Serling provides the opening narration.

 

“What you are about to watch is a nightmare,” Serling intones.  “It is not meant to be prophetic.  It need not happen.  It’s the fervent and urgent prayer of all men of goodwill that it never shall happen.  But in this place, in this moment, it does happen.  This is the Twilight Zone.”

 

The doctor, his wife, and his son prepare for an extended stay in their bomb shelter.  They fill jugs with water, gather canned goods.  Efficiency is paramount.  Lights are flickering, the power threatening to cut out.  They may have twenty minutes, perhaps a half hour at the outside, to supply the shelter with everything they’ll need to weather the cataclysm of the potential bomb blast and resulting aftermath.

 

The food and water procured, the family of three locks themselves inside the shelter.  There is a radio within.  Stockton turns it on, as they listen for updates.

Upstairs, neighbor Jerry and his wife let themselves in.  Realizing that Stockton and his family must already be secured in their shelter, Jerry heads down to the basement.  He knocks on the shelter door. Stockton opens, it walks out.  Jerry tells him that he and his wife have no basement in their home.  Theirs is the “only brand-new house on the block.  We’re sitting ducks over there.”

Dr. Stockton tells them they can use his basement.

“Your basement?” Jerry says. ” What about your shelter?  It’s the only place we can survive!”

The doctor explains that the shelter was designed for his family, for just the three of them.  They don’t have enough room, or enough supplies, to take in anyone else.

Jerry won’t give up.  “We’ll sleep standing up,” he says.  “We won’t use any of your stuff.”

“What about air?” Stockton snaps back.  “Will you bring your own air?  I’m sorry, Jerry.  God as my witness, I am sorry!  But I built this shelter for my family.”

 

At this, Jerry becomes hysterical, and knocks a jug of water from Stockton’s hands.  It breaks on the concrete floor, the water spilling out.

Stockton pulls away, retreats into the shelter, shouts at him.  “I kept telling you, Jerry.  All of you.  Forget the card parties and the barbecues–for maybe a few hours a week.  Admit that the worst was possible.  But you didn’t want to listen, Jerry.  None of you wanted to listen.”

He finishes by telling his neighbor it is now out of his hands, and he slams the shelter door in Jerry’s face.

Meanwhile, another neighbor–Marty, along with his wife–arrives at the Stockton home.  When Jerry tells them that Stockton won’t let anyone in the shelter, Marty is incredulous.  “He’s got to let us in.”  But he, too, runs into a locked door–literally and figuratively–when he descends into Stockton’s basement and pleads with the doctor, to no avail.

Marty returns to the upstairs portion of the house as still more neighbors arrive.  None of Stockton’s friends are ready for the cataclysm.  All want refuge in the shelter.

One of the neighbors, Frank, is angry.  They should break into the shelter, he says.  Batter in the door.  But Jerry reminds him that the shelter is too small.  They couldn’t all survive.

Marty opines that they should pick out one family, just one, who could join the Stocktons inside the shelter.  But then they argue over which family should have the privilege.

 

Here, Frank snaps, and he tells Marty, who is Hispanic, to shut his mouth.  “That’s the way it is when the foreigners come over here,” he says.  “Pushy, grabby.  Semi-American.”

The two come close to blows, and Frank, still full of rage, races downstairs and pounds on the shelter door, demanding entry.  Stockton remains firm.  No one gets in.

A member of the growing throng of neighbors says he knows someone down the street who has a steel pipe they can use as a battering ram.  If they get their hands on it, they can bust through the shelter door.

Jerry tells them to stop.  “You’re all acting like a mob!” he shouts.  Marty concurs, tells them to cool down, think it through.

 

To this, Frank scowls and says, “Wasn’t I clear before?  Nobody cares what you think, you or your kind!”  This time, the two do come to blows.  Frank punches Marty in the mouth.  There are shrieks, screams.  A siren goes off, whining in the distance.  Frank yells that they need to batter down the door, and they run off for the steel pipe.

Moments later, they are back, in a frenzy.  They swing the pipe, crash it against the shelter door, frantic, violent.  Again and again and again, until the door gives way.

 

And then . . . the power flicks on, the lights come to life.  And the radio crackles, the announcer speaks.  The president has determined that the UFOs are not nuclear missiles, but satellites.  “Repeat–there are no enemy missiles approaching.”  There is no danger.  The state of emergency has been called off.

 

Everyone smiles and laughs.  Couple hug each other.

But then a startled, regretful expression comes to Frank’s face.  He approaches Marty, apologizes, explaining to his neighbor that he “went off [his] rocker” and that he “didn’t mean any of those things I said to you.”

 

Jerry chimes in.  Feigning joviality, he says they’ll pay Dr. Stockton for the damages to his property.  “We’ll take up a collection right away.”

“We can have a block party tomorrow night,” Marty says.  “A big celebration!”

Jerry is all for it.  “Anything to get back to normal.”

Stockton, exhausted, defeated, tells them he doesn’t know what normal is anymore.  And paying for the damages?

 

“I wonder if any one of us has any idea what those damages really are,” he says.  “Maybe one of them is finding out what we’re really like when we’re normal.  The kind of people we are underneath the skin.  A lot of naked, wild animals who put such a price on staying alive that they’ll claw their neighbors to death just for the privilege.”

 

Rod Serling sums it up at the closing, as the camera pans the Stockton living room, the tables overturned, casualties of the neighbors’ recklessness and rage during the crisis.

 

“No moral, no message, no prophetic tract, just a simple statement of fact: for civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized.  Tonight’s very small exercise in logic from the Twilight Zone.”

And, no doubt, it’s an exercise at least as relevant in 2019 as it was in 1961.

 

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 . . .

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

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

“The Trade-Ins” (On Love)

Mitchell Brant has a problem.  Five years have elapsed between the end of The Eye-Dancers and the start of The Singularity Wheel, and numerous life events have taken place in the interim, but for Mitchell, there is still only one girl he longs to be with, one girl who has captured the secret inner chambers of his heart.  Heather.  The girl he met, five years ago, in the alternate town of Colbyville, the girl from a thousand universes away.  His friends tell him to let her go.  What’s the point of wishing you could be with someone so unattainable, so far away the mind cannot even begin to comprehend the distance?

 

But logic, practicality, reason cannot cut through.  Mitchell thinks of her all the time, imagines she is right there beside him, a smile on her face.  He cannot turn off his feelings, tell his soul to forget what it yearns for.

 

Love is like that.

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

In a third-season Twilight Zone episode called “The Trade-Ins,” a similar dilemma presents itself.  John and Marie Holt are an elderly couple–he is 79; she is 74.  What’s more, Mr. Holt is in declining health, often wracked by intense and ever-increasing bouts of pain.  But a new hope exists in the futuristic world where they find themselves.  The New Life Corporation shines like a beacon on a cold, dark night.

 

The New Life Corporation specializes in “youth, new life, rebirth,” the salesman at the office, a Mr. Vance, explains to the Holts.  They have the technology to switch an elderly person’s body, or a sick person’s body, with a new body, a body that is “perfect in composition, concept, and construction.”  All the while, the person who makes this anatomical switch will retain all of their memories, personality, and emotions.  As Mr. Vance tells the Holts, even after the switch, physiologically and psychologically they will be exactly the same.  The only difference will be that each of them will be placed in a younger body, “in the prime of health.”  They are told the average life span of a New Life body is 112 years.

 

And then he shows them the models.  All are attractive, in perfect physical condition.  But the Holts decide on the bodies of a young couple–a couple that, following the procedure, will be them.  Mr. Vance tells them they will have an entire new life before them–they will return to the beginning, in the full flower of youth.  Old age will be but a memory.

 

But then the price comes up.  Mr. Vance explains the model couple comes as a package deal of $10,000, surely a bargain, he says, considering all the Holts will gain.  Perhaps.  The Holts, however, only have $5,000.  And Mr. Vance will not accept it as a down payment.  There are rules, he says, government-mandated, that require the full payment, up front.

Mr. Vance then pitches a half-deal.  “One of you could get it,” he says.  The $5,000 the Holts have is enough for John or Marie to switch into a youthful, healthy body.  Marie encourages John to do it–he will be free of his pain, and she assures him, “I can wait”–until they can scrounge up the remaining $5,000 for her switch.

 

John does not commit, though.  “We can’t be separated,” he says.  “We’re no good without each other.”

Desperate, his pain worsening, John later locates a back room in a bar, where a high-stakes poker game is under way.  He has the $5,000, hoping he can gamble his way to the $10,000 he and his wife would need to acquire new bodies as a couple.  But John is out of practice, a naive and woeful poker player.  It is only the compassion and empathy of the gamblers he goes up against that saves him.  Observing the pain John is in, listening to his story, the gamblers allow him to leave with his $5,000, choosing not to “clean him out,” as they assure him they could.

 

His pain continuing to escalate, John decides to undergo the switch, by himself, with his wife’s blessing.  “Yes, yes, yes,” she tells him, over and over when they return to the New Life Corporation.  She wants him to be pain-free, to go through with the procedure.

 

And when he emerges hours later a young man, running and doing various calithsenics, amazed at how energetic and strong he feels, he joyfully tells Marie, “Do you know what happens now? . . . We’ll do everything we haven’t been able to do.  The big things, the little things, the crazy, illogical things that we were too old, too sick, and too tired to do.  Every day is going to be a wedding, every afternoon a reception, and every evening a honeymoon.  Marie, my darling, you and I are going to begin to live!  We’re going to–”

 

But here, Marie steps away, covers her face with her hands, looks at this strange young man in horror.  He is her husband, and yet . . . he is not.  Not anymore.  Their eyes meet.  She is 74.  He is 22.  They no longer match, no longer a unit, a team, lifetime partners.  The procedure has created a gulf between them, unspoken but undeniable.  John’s eyes are just as wide, just as understanding as his wife’s.

 

Mr. Vance tells John to come with him to sign some papers.  They leave.  And when, later, John reemerges, he is old again, the young body gone, the tired, pain-riddled body returned.

“Marie, my darling,” he says. “If I have to have occasion of pain, so be it.  I wouldn’t want it any other way, darling.”

When she protests, he stops her with a Robert Browning quote she herself had uttered earlier in the episode.

“Grow old along with me.  The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.”

And then they walk off . . . together.

 

Rod Serling’s closing narration sums it up tenderly:

“From Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet: ‘Love gives not but itself and takes not from itself, love possesses not nor would it be possessed, for love is sufficient unto love.’ Not a lesson, just a reminder, from all the sentimentalists–in The Twilight Zone.”

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

For a few weeks now, I have been AWOL on WordPress.  There is a reason for that.  I went back home, to Rochester, New York, the city where I was born, where I grew up.  But this time, I went back because someone close to me–so close to me–was, suddenly, near the end.  There were endless days in the ICU, walking the long, long hallway, turning the corner, calling in, visiting, hours spent by the bedside, the machines beeping, the respirator pumping air into lungs that could no longer breathe on their own.  Then there were funeral preparations, time spent with family, mourning a devastating loss, grieving.  Reflecting.

 

There were tears, so many tears.  Tender moments.  Heartbreaking moments.  Memories.  Discussions with doctors and nurses, trying to pry an ounce of hope out of a hopeless situation, seeking some possible path, some new and groundbreaking treatment.  But there was none.

 

And all I could do when it was over was to say–I love you, Mom.  I will miss you always.

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

In the days leading up to this post, I had intended to end it there.  But then something happened.  Something remarkable.

I returned to my current home in Vermont recently, a day removed from the funeral and after being in Rochester for the better part of two weeks.  I had to try to get back into a routine, to go back to work.  To live and carry on.  But then, first thing the following morning, I noticed something in the basement.

Let me back up.  We have a walkout basement.  It leads to the garage.  Every time I leave the house or come back, I walk through the basement.  And in the back corner, there is an old light fixture, a simple naked bulb screwed in to a socket attached to the ceiling.  The thing is, last spring, the chain that turns this light on or off became stuck.  The light was on, but I couldn’t switch it off.  I yanked on the chain–too hard.  It broke, severed like a mowed grass blade, falling to the concrete floor.  There was no way to turn off the light.  So I unscrewed it, removed it from the socket, and replaced it with a dead, burnt-out bulb.  The socket was “on,” but the bulb was a dud, and so it stayed dark.

 

Until that morning–my first full day back in Vermont following the funeral.  When I went down into the basement, I was surprised to see the bulb was lit.  It had been dead when I screwed it in last May, had been dark all through the summer, fall, and winter.  But now it was on.  A dead bulb come to life.  An oxidized, broken-apart filament burning brightly. And instantly I knew.

 

It was a message, a very personal one, from a mother to her son.  An assurance.  A comfort.  A lesson and a reminder.

That of all things, and across all time and space, eternal, bridging dimensions, spanning life and death, gentle but unyielding, conquering the darkness with light, love remains.

Love endures.

 

Thank you for letting me know, Mom.  Thank you for showing me.

 

And thank you to everyone, as always, for reading.

–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

Arriving at the Intersection of Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Classic Comic Books

What is your nostalgic pleasure, the thing that makes you hark back to a simpler time?  For me it is, and has always been, old, vintage comic books.  Since I was in junior high, these gems from yesteryear have called out to me with a song and a story I can’t resist.

 

I have always found it easy to imagine transporting myself to a time years before I was born–say, circa 1955 in a drugstore or a little corner shop, browsing through the comics rack, listening to the squeak it emits when I make it spin, and figuring out which issues to plunk my dimes on.

 

When I started collecting comics, the mid-1950s were, to me, an alien world glimpsed primarily via old, grainy, black-and-white TV shows or Hitchcock classics.  I enjoyed them, but they belonged to another era, beyond the purview of my personal experience.  Vintage comic books, however, brought the mid-20th century alive to me in ways television and cinema never could.  The culture of that period jumped off the pages, both from the stories themselves as well as from the ads and fan letters. I couldn’t afford the issues that were in tip-top condition.  I could only buy the ragged copies, with missing staples and spine rolls and water stains.  Some even had corners chewed off by rodents who had no doubt long since met their demise.  If anything, though, these imperfections just made me love these comics even more.  They were more personal this way.  More mine.

 

To this day, I still have hundreds of old comics.  I have the tried-and-true titles, such as Mitchell Brant’s favorite, The Fantastic Four, along with other stalwarts like Superman, Batman, The Avengers, and The X-Men.  But it is the science fiction comics from the 1950s, sans superheroes, that appeal to me the most.  The ingenuity of the stories, the old-fashioned and innocent tone, the crisp, imaginative artwork all inspire.

 

Perhaps more than anything, though, I respect the attempt these vintage issues made to educate as well as entertain.  Granted, it was with a light touch, but the effort was deliberate and consistent.  The authors and editors of DC’s (the same company that gave birth to Superman and Batman) famous sci-fi duo of Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space eschewed all-out, no-holds-barred fantasy in favor of hard science fiction that always managed to have one foot firmly planted in the laws and realities of science.  By approaching their work in this way, the creative team inserted tidbits of learning for their readers.  The hero would generally solve a puzzle, perhaps even save the world, through some ingenious application of a scientific principle.

 

While it’s true that many liberties were taken, nuggets of actual science were always there to be mined.  For example, in Strange Adventures number 95 (August 1958), in a little tale titled “The Boy Who Saved the Solar System,” the protagonist, a twelve-year-old son of a scientist, accomplishes what the best minds of the Solar System cannot.  (Indeed, in the story, we meet the brightest minds from Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Saturn.  Liberties!)  The entire Solar System is imperiled by a great gaseous cloud that emits a blight, the effects of which are ruining the crops and farmlands and limiting the food supply.  As the twelve-year-old’s father tells him one evening, “”It’s slow starvation, Son–for the entire human race.”

 

The boy is interested in science himself, and while his father tries to find a remedy for the worldwide (actually, Solar System-wide) blight, he fills balloons with hydrogen gas.  When his father forgets his wedding anniversary (he’s busy trying to save the world, so the date slipped his mind until it was too late!), the boy tells him not to worry, he’ll find something to give to Mom and then offer Dad the credit.  The boy picks some roses from the backyard–from the same rosebush one of his hydrogen balloons broke on the day before.  The thing is–the roses are perfectly healthy, not a sign of the blight that has plagued virtually all other plant life on Earth.

 

That’s when the boy and his dad realize–hydrogen kills the blight!  And Dad dutifully informs us that hydrogen is the simplest element in the universe.

 

So we have a good son, covering for his absent-minded dad, and in his kind act, he accidentally discovers the cure for the worldwide blight.  A neat and tidy (and deliciously corny) tale wrapped up and delivered in six pages.

In addition to the stories, there were other methods of sharing scientific information with the audience.  Take this same issue, Strange Adventures number 95.  In a page called “Amazing Ratios,” we learn that the weight of the earth in tons is equal to the number of atoms in a single drop of rain–6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000!  And that Phoebe, the outermost of Saturn’s moons, takes longer to revolve around the planet it orbits (550 days) than Earth does to revolve around the sun (365.25 days).

 

There is even a “Spotlight on Science” letters page, where readers ask science questions for the editors to research and answer.

Likewise, in both The Eye-Dancers and its sequel, The Singularity Wheel (scheduled for release this fall), an attempt is made to tether the far-out and the mind-boggling with some semblance of scientific explanation.  And the primary vehicle for achieving this, in both novels, is Marc Kuslanski, the science wiz, who is, in some respects, the scientific mouthpiece for the unfolding events.  When Mitchell or Ryan or Joe stray far afield in their speculations, Marc is there to reel them back in, often with a theory or a hypothesis grounded in quantum mechanics or cold, hard logic.  And does he ever have his work cut out for him in The Singularity Wheel--which takes the concept of parallel worlds from The Eye-Dancers and expands it exponentially.

 

At the outset of The Singularity Wheel, Monica Tisdale, “the ghost girl” from The Eye-Dancers, is five years older and five years more advanced in her ability to bridge the chasm between dimensions.  And she wants to explore.

From the opening scene of The Singularity Wheel:

 

“She was endless.  Infinite.  She knew that now.

Monica Tisdale smiled.

With her eyes tightly closed, she sent out a mental thought-wave to . . . herself.

No.  That wasn’t right.  Not to herself.  To herselves.  She was more than one—far, far more.

She had practiced religiously, diligently, ever since she’d contacted the boys who had rescued her.  The boys who had come here from another world.  That knowledge had awakened a thirst in her, a quest to learn and discover.

And connect.

She was not like other girls.  The day-to-day happenings in Colbyville, New York, bored her.  Sure, she loved her mom and dad, liked a few of her classmates at school, and sometimes just wanted to have carefree fun.  But she had always been different, attuned to phenomena most people didn’t recognize and didn’t see.  As the weeks merged into months, and the months to years, her awareness of these things had sharpened.

She was ready.”

 

And in so doing, Monica sets off a chain reaction that will push her to the brink, as she sees and experiences her life in an infinite number of worlds, remembering things from a billion places, unable to know one world from another, one self from another.

 

Marc will be there, of course, to try to make sense of it all–if he can.

So while The Singularity Wheel will be as much fantasy as sci-fi, it will, hopefully, in the tradition of the classic sci-fi comic books from decades ago, keep its eye on the factual and the actual as it ventures off into the shifting, capricious landscapes of the unknown.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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