A Walk Across Upstate New York (Or, The Rewards of a Step-by-Step Process)

I’d been looking forward to it for weeks.  We had been talking about it since the early spring, and now, at the height of summer in western New York, the time had come.

It was 1995, I was still in college, and the prospect of a new century, a new millennium, was still five years into the future.  Cell phones were still mostly a novelty, and the Internet was a newborn, slowly gaining traction, just beyond the outskirts of the mainstream.  No matter.  As summer approached that year, I was excited, eager to partake of the adventure.

 

It wasn’t hard to plan.  School was out, we had cleared our schedules.  We had a full week to do it.  I had hoped to corral the entire gang–Rick and Joe and Matt and Andy, the neighborhood friends I had known for years–and also the people who inspired the protagonists in both The Eye-Dancers and its soon-to-be-released sequel, The Singularity Wheel.  But some of the guys backed out, citing potential dangers, scheduling conflicts, previous commitments.  That was okay.  We still had three of us going.

 

So it was that on the warm, humid morning of July 10, 1995, precisely twenty-two years ago today, my neighbor Rick (on the right), my cousin “Moose” (left), and I (center) set out on our mini-journey.

 

We would spend the next week walking across a portion of upstate New York.  I had long romanticized about walking across America.  This bite-sized facsimile would have to do.  We’d trek west from Rochester, traveling through remote, rural towns, experiencing the pastoral heart of the Empire State on foot.  And while our experience would only last a few short days, I knew, even before we started, that I would never forget.

 

The first day was the hardest.  We weren’t used to walking so many miles.  Our feet ached, we drank copious amounts of water, and we rested every few miles.  But we had a blast.  Walking mostly on the shoulder of the road, we traveled along both main thoroughfares and sparsely used back roads.  With our packs and gear, it was obvious to passing motorists what we were up to.  Some cars honked at us.  A group of college students sped past at one point, calling us “nerdballs.”  That made our day.  A middle-aged man in a straw hat, doing yard work at the base of his lawn, stopped us and offered us water.  We politely declined, letting him know were well stocked.  He asked us where we were going.  I’d like to say we were honest–just a weeklong walking trip across western New York.  Alas, we embellished the details–substantially.  Something about Colorado to Cape Cod, and back again.  What’s worse, the guy believed us.

 

“I wonder if we should have told him the truth,” I said, a mile up the road.

“Well, we’re walking across most of the country in spirit,” Rick said.  “So, I mean, it’s kinda, sorta the truth, right?”  That was good enough for us.  I have no good excuse to offer now.  What can I say?  It was a heady moment.  We were young.

That first night, we stayed at the farmhouse of a family friend just outside the small college town of Brockport.  Well, we didn’t spend the night in the house.  We slept out in the yard, in sleeping bags, under a sky dotted with stars.  We were tired–we had walked twenty miles that day, and had run through the wheat field out back behind the farmhouse that evening.  It took us a while to get to sleep, though.  We lay down, listened to the cries of hoot owls, the rustlings in the plants and shrubs that flanked the yard, the whispers of the night breeze as it shared its sacred, eternal wisdom.

 

We talked.  We joked.  We savored.

And the next morning, bright and early, we set out west again.  The walking was already growing easier, our bodies acclimating to the journey, adjusting to the rhythm.  It rained, briefly, and then the sun came out, a hot, large July sun that tested our stamina.  More cars beeped at us.  More insults were hurled.  More strangers stopped us, took a moment to chat.  For every derogatory remark we received along the way, we got ten more that were kind.

 

We walked through tiny, speck-on-the-map towns, with names like Clarendon and Holley and Albion, dotted with old capes and town squares and corner stores.  Interspersed between the towns, acres and acres of cornfields and dairy farms spread across the land like a luxurious green carpet.  We slept in cheap motels and ate convenience store pizza.  And then, on the fourth morning, we turned around, headed east, back to Rochester.

 

Suddenly, it seemed, the miles grew longer, the movements more laborious.  We had lost some of the spring in our step.  It was easy to understand why.  While we had journeyed west, away from Rochester, we were exploring new ground, in full discovery mode.  Sure, we’d seen many of these same towns before, but it’s far different zipping by in a car than it is taking the time to really look and listen and experience while walking.  Not to mention, a few of the smallest towns were in fact new to us.  We had never visited them prior to the walk.

 

Now, though, we were going back, covering much of the same ground we had just days earlier.  We took a few different roads, tried to change it up a bit.  But the truth was undeniable.  The return trip back was a known quantity.  We were heading back to the point of origin, no longer breaking new ground, no longer heading away, deeper into the unexplored.  The sun felt hotter, the humidity more taxing, the water supply less plentiful.  Even the pizza lost some of its zing.

 

As I reflect back on the experience now, two decades later, I realize the entire episode was not unlike writing a novel.  The walk away from Rochester was akin to the twists and turns and highs of creating the first draft.  You know where you’re going in a broad, general sense, yet the specifics of how to get there are shrouded in mystery and intrigue.  There is always a bend up the road, and until you take it, you can’t be sure what lies beyond. The euphoria of discovery is in the air as you boldly journey into the unknown.

 

Likewise, the return trip back to Rochester, plodding through familiar territory, was like the editing process, hashing over material already on the page, pruning, crafting, reshaping.  There is nothing new here.  The story has already been written.  This is the time to sharpen the focus, tighten the prose, and make sure the plot developments and characters and events link seamlessly together from front to back.  If Character X does this in chapter two, the reverberations must be felt in chapter twenty-seven.  The editing process can be tedious and slow–but it is a crucial aspect to completing a finished project.

 

And that’s where I am currently, in the process of finishing The Singularity Wheel.  I’m walking back to Rochester, as it were, through towns and streets and along back roads I have traveled along before. And yes, it can feel like walking uphill sometimes.  But I have to hope that the extra time and effort will help to shape the final product into something worthwhile.

 

One thing I do know for sure.  When we did get back home to Rochester that hot July of 1995, we felt as though we had accomplished something.  Sure, it would have been easier to hitch a ride back, shorten the journey.  But it wouldn’t have been the same, wouldn’t have meant as much.

 

That first evening back, the sofa had never felt so good.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Journey to the Center of the Earth (Or, The Dirt Hole at the Side of the Yard)

The summer when I was eight years old, I fell in love with digging.  Not just any digging.  Not some small pea-hole in the corner of the yard.  No.  I went all-in. I recruited my friend Matt, and together, we planned on digging our way straight through to the center of the earth.

centerofearth

Of course, the question had come up–where could we even undertake our mission?  My mother wouldn’t go for us digging up her flower garden or vegetable garden.  She wouldn’t want us to tear up the front yard, either.  That didn’t leave us with many options.  We asked if we could use the side yard.

flowergarden

The side yard consisted of a narrow alley that separated our house from our neighbor’s.  Abutting our house was a red-brick patio that led to the back gate, but beyond that was a small strip of grassy real estate just begging to be ripped into.  The thing was, that small strip wasn’t technically on our property.  It belonged to our next-door neighbor, George.

George had lived in that house since it was built, decades ago.  He lived there with his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and two grandsons (who, incidentally, inspired two of the characters in The Eye-Dancers!)  At the time, he was a tall, jovial man in his sixties who, every Christmas, dressed up as Santa Claus.  As far as I was concerned, there was no chance he’d tell us we couldn’t dig a dirt hole in the side yard.

santa

And he didn’t.  He said, “Go ahead!”

My father handed Matt and me a pair of shovels and told us not to overdo it.  “Just take it easy,” he said.

gardenshovel

By lunchtime, we’d already tunneled down several feet.  When my mother came out to check on our progress, I was standing in the hole, nearly up to my chest.  Matt was up top, examining a large rock we’d unearthed.

“I don’t think George thought you’d be digging a hole that deep,” she said, her eyes wide.  I swelled with pride.  All this in just a few hours . . .

We ate heartily, our appetites stoked, and then resumed with our work.  We widened the hole, making sure we had plenty of elbow room, and created small earthen “steps” on one of the sides, ensuring that we’d be able to climb out once we dug in over our heads.  By three o’clock that afternoon, we were both drenched in sweat.  But we didn’t stop, didn’t slow down.

“We’re almost in all the way,” Matt said when the top of the hole was at eye level.  “How far do you think we can go?”

“All the way,” I said.  In my mind, we had only just begun.  We had an entire summer before us, yawning like a chasm full of wonders.  “And who knows what we’ll find down here.  Maybe we’ll even see Merwks.”  Merwks (not a typo–the “w” was very important!) were creatures who inhabited the depths of the earth.  They were small, brown, furry monstrosities with no eyes and fangs sharp enough to sever stones.  I had first imagined them two years earlier, and was convinced they existed.  When I told Matt about them, he was sold.

fangs

“We better be careful,” he said.  “Merwks have sharp teeth!”

We brought our shovels down again, and again, and again, striking earth, eager to discover ancient secrets, buried treasures, perhaps even a skeleton or two.  We were tired, bone-tired, but our effort did not flag, our eagerness did not waver.  There was a new universe that awaited, monsters in the dark we needed to reveal.  Looking back now, I can still remember, clearly, vividly, the elation I felt that day.  I was young and free, embarking on an adventure for the ages.

buriedtreasure

But then my mother came outside and put an end to it.

“That’s enough for today, boys,” she said.  “Time’s up.”

We whined a little, but we were tired enough not to carry on with it too long.  There was tomorrow, after all.

Or was there?  My mother warned me that when George came home that night, he might not like seeing his side yard with a four-foot-deep hole smack dab in the middle of it.

“But he already said we could dig,” I protested.

“I’m not sure he realized how . . . committed . . . you were,” she said.

When George got back, we all joined him at the side of the yard.  He smiled at me when I looked up at him.

My mother apologized for the size of the hole, told him she hadn’t expected it to be such a crater.  But George held up a hand.

“They’re only kids once,” he said.  “Let ’em dig.”

playonlykidsonce

And so we did.  Matt and I were at it the next day.  We had Merwks to find.

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Anytime I begin a new writing project, I need to feel excited.  I might have a workable idea, a complex plot, an intriguing protagonist, but if I don’t feel completely fired up, I know, before I even start, that the story will go nowhere.  Over the years, I have tried to force it, attempted to manufacture enthusiasm that wasn’t there organically.  It never works.  At least not for me.

enthusiasm

When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I truly believed it was a one-shot deal.  Sure, I’d write other stories, other novels.  I wasn’t retiring as a writer.  But I didn’t plan or intend for there to be a sequel.  Then, about a year and a half ago, I had–for lack of a better term–a vision.

I was lying in bed in the middle of the night–something had jarred me awake.  A dream?  A nightmare?  Something my subconscious had been wrestling with, interacting with?  I suppose I’ll never know.  All I know is that, when I woke up, I visualized something with crystal clarity.  I saw a huge building, larger than a dozen football fields, its walls and columns climbing high into a nighttime sky.  I saw the four main characters of The Eye-DancersMitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–standing before the structure, gazing up at the sky.  They weren’t looking at the moon or the stars or a meteor that had entered Earth’s atmosphere, afire, burning up as it sped toward the surface.

meteor

They were staring, transfixed, at a pair of blue eyes that stretched across the entire canvas of the night sky.  The eyes glared at them, swirling, the blue in them darkening like a bruise.  And I knew.  I had a surge of momentum rush through me like a lava flow.  I didn’t have a plot.  I didn’t have a direction.  But I had an inspiration, a need, to tell a story.  There was no silencing it.  It was time to write a sequel.

And as I sit here, eighteen months later, nearing the end of the middle portion of the novel, as the stretch run comes into view, just around the next bend, I still feel that enthusiasm, that desire, that need to make it all the way, to tell the story to the best of my ability straight through to the end.

aroundthebend

That, I believe, is the key to it all.  Whether you’re writing a novel or painting a picture, crafting a memoir or singing a song, you have to feel that same sense of wonder and excitement you once did, when you were eight years old.  Sometimes, I think, writing novels is nothing more than my way of remaining a kid, discovering new adventures to explore, new avenues to traverse, new enthusiasms to pursue.

senseofwonder

“May you live with hysteria,” Ray Bradbury once wrote, “and out of it make fine stories. . . . may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days.  And out of that love, remake a world.”

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Matt and I continued to dig throughout that summer.  Granted, our efforts waned as the calendar ticked on, as the start of the school year and third grade approached.  But we kept at it, telling each other scary stories the deeper we went, wondering if our next shovelfull of dirt would finally unearth a sightless, sharp-fanged monster.

It never did.  Try as we might, we never came face-to-face with a Merwk.

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My parents still live in the old house, and, invariably, when I visit, I wander over to the side of the yard and walk along that narrow strip of grass.  The dirt hole has long since been filled in, of course.  But I always look, and remember.

The thing is, even to this day, I still believe in Merwks.

If you want to discover them, you just have to dig a little deeper.

diggingdirtholeafterlunch

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Time Machine

Tomorrow I will be traveling in a time machine.  No, not the kind you might find in an episode of The Twilight Zone or in the pages of Ray Bradbury or H.G. Wells–but a time machine, nonetheless . . .

timemachine

 

For many years now, I have taken the drive from Vermont, where I currently live, “back home” to Rochester, New York, for Labor Day weekend.  It’s always nice to visit family and old friends.  My parents still live in the same house where I grew up.  Sometimes, at night, when they’re asleep, I will walk through the old house, head down into the basement, where I spent a lot of time when I was a kid, keeping cool on hot summer afternoons.  Mostly, though, I’ll pause, listen, listen–until I hear them.  The echoes of the past.  Memories upon memories built within those walls, living things, so near it often feels I could reach out and grab a whisper of 1985, inhale it, and be a boy again.

echoes

 

After I arrive and get settled in tomorrow, some old, old friends will stop by, and we’ll re-create various elements of our childhood.  You probably don’t know these friends of mine “for real,” but you may know them in another way.  You see, the main characters of The Eye-Dancers were modeled after several of the friends I’ll be visiting with.  The characters in the book, of course, took on a life of their own–it’s not a one-for-one match.  But the friends I grew up with definitely were the primary inspirations for the protagonists in the novel.   “Joe” will be there tomorrow, “Mitchell” and “Ryan,” too–even supporting characters like “Tyler” (“Ryan’s” brother in the novel) and “Grronk.”  Our friendship goes way back, to the days before the Internet and email and cell phones.

cellphones

 

The Eye-Dancers is, in many ways, a tribute to our childhood, the adventures we shared, the conversations we would have, the things we would wonder about.  Some of our old “in” jokes made their way into the novel.  Some pet phrases and favorite expressions did, as well.  More than anything, I hope, the spirit and curiosity of childhood, the quest to know and learn and discover, made their way into the book, too.

There will be a special quality to our get-together on Friday.  There always is, every year we meet like this.  We reenact some of the old childhood games.  We talk about the past.  We act like kids, even if for only one night out of the year.  For a moment, on an end-of-summer evening, as the days grow shorter and the first subtle hints of autumn manifest themselves in ways so quiet, so soft-spoken, you will miss them if you’re not looking, we are twelve years old again, running, and playing, and laughing like we used to.  The kind of experience that inspires novels, indeed . . .

latesummer

 

It strikes me as fitting that this nostalgic weekend falls at the end of August.  Summer’s end in the Northeastern United States has always been one of my favorite times of the year.  The oppressive heat and humidity that sometimes weighs down June and July days is, for the most part, gone now, blown to lands far to the south.  The angle of the sun is noticeably lower, as darkness falls an hour earlier than it did during the height of summer.  Long shadows filter through the trees, lingering, not in any hurry to leave.

longshadows

 

There is an easy comfort in the air, the sunshine languorous, the breeze a soft kiss upon your cheeks.  It feels as though Time itself, tired of being perpetually on the go, has decided to take a moment to relax on the back porch, sipping a glass of cold lemonade, and just rest for a while.

backporch

 

Sunflowers dance and bob in the wind.

sunflowers

 

Fields of goldenrod carpet the land.

goldenrod

 

Farewell-summers and marigolds and rows upon rows of corn stalks, six feet tall, whisper a fond good-bye to the heat and a subdued hello to the chill of the coming fall.  It is a quiet time, a time for memories and stories and old friends reliving the days of their youth.  For me, it is an especially creative season.  When I began writing The Eye-Dancers, it was evening on a late-summer day, with the light fading, the shadows slowly spreading across the lawn.  A plump woodchuck waddled through the yard.  A hummingbird filled up on sugar-water at our feeder, preparing for the long migration south in just a week or two.

hummingbird

 

Looking at it all, I felt ready.  I knew I had a story to tell.  I knew I needed to share it.

So, to my friends, my lifelong friends, who I grew up with and  will see tomorrow–thanks, guys.  If it weren’t for you, The Eye-Dancers wouldn’t exist.  And for one weekend each year, you remind me why I wrote the novel . . .

  • The universe is full of questions we often do not even ask, let alone answer.
  • Friendship, especially a friendship forged in childhood, is a special and life-affirming gift.
  • An open mind is a mind able to learn and discover and ask the question, “Why?” and then be receptive to the answer.
  • And if we want it to, if we cultivate it, nurture it, and never stop believing, the magic we knew and wished upon when we were kids still exists, even into adulthood.

magic

 

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And to all of you in the wonderful WordPress community, I thank you so much for reading!

–Mike

A Harvest of Friends

In the first-ever episode of the iconic, long-running television series Little House on the Prairie, titled “A Harvest of Friends,” farmer Charles Ingalls and his family move to Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

harvest1

 

Immediately, Charles gets busy, working several jobs, until he can bring in the harvest.

landon

 

But then misfortune strikes, and Charles loses money and breaks his ribs in a fall.  As things deteriorate from bad to worse, and it appears the Ingalls may lose their farm, the community of Walnut Grove steps in and helps the family through to the harvest.  As the episode ends, Charles realizes the truth.  Yes, he will keep the farm, and yes, his crops will grow and the family will make it, after all.  But, more than anything, the real harvest is one of new friendships and community support.

I have said it before, and will say it again.  When I began The Eye-Dancers site late last summer, I had no idea what I was getting into–I had never blogged before.  All I knew at the time was that I wanted  to create a website to help get the word out regarding my new young adult sci-fi/fantasy novel, The Eye-Dancers.  Beyond that, I didn’t know what to expect, and didn’t know what the response would be.

Like Charles Ingalls when he moved to Walnut Grove, I have quickly discovered what a great community I have joined.  A harvest of friends, indeed.  Today The Eye-Dancers has reached the 1,000-follower milestone, and so it’s a perfect time to say thank you to each and every one of you.

I am honored that The Eye-Dancers has been nominated for more blogging awards–The Most Influential Blogger Award, The Wonderful Team Member Readership Award, and The Interesting Blog Award!

But first, a shout-out to Kavita at Talking Experience for nominating The Eye-Dancers for the Tag You’re It! Award;  the Ambitious Poet for nominating me for the  Liebster Award; and Kristy at Family, Friends, and Everything in Between for the nomination for the Shine On Award!  I was lucky enough to have received these awards previously, but I wanted to encourage everyone to visit these wonderful blogs!

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A hearty thank-you to Samina at Samina’s Forum for police support for nominating me for a Most Influential Blogger Award.  It is a privilege being nominated for an award like this from someone who has such an influential blog herself.  Thanks you, Samina!

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The rules for the Most Influential Blogger Award are as follows . . .

  • Display the award logo on your blog.
  • Link back to the person who nominated you.
  • Answer seven questions.
  • Nominate (no limit on the number of nominations) [an aside–this is good, since, for this one award, I am not technically breaking the rules!] other bloggers for this award and link back to them.
  • Notify those bloggers of the nomination and the award requirements.

The seven questions are:

1. If you could create your own planet what would it look like?

A. It would look a lot like Earth.  Our planet is full of natural wonders and variety.  I think it would be difficult to create a more naturally beautiful planet.

earth

 

2.If you could visit one nation you have never visited before. What nation would that be?

A.  Scotland, probably.  But it’s hard to choose just one!

scotland

 

3. Have you ever taken a long distance train trip?

A.  I have!  From Rochester, New York, to Denver, Colorado . . .

amtrak

 

4. What is something you would collectively change about humanity?

A.  I would encourage everyone to keep an open mind.  Nothing is impossible.  Many of the great inventors or thinkers were ridiculed in their day.  Be open to possibilities, potentialities, and the unity of all things.  Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t make it “wrong” or “foolish.”

openmind

 

5. What is your favorite song?

A.  I don’t really have one that stands out, head and shoulders, above the rest.  It’s hard to choose just one!  I have always loved the song “Edelweiss,” from The Sound of Music.  And I enjoy some of the classic ’50s songs–“Only You (And You Alone)” by The Platters, for example.

edelweiss

 

6. If you could meet one person who is still alive who would you choose to meet?

A.  The person around the next corner.  I wouldn’t know who they are until I meet them . . .

aroundthecorner

 

7. If you could choose one symbol to represent you, what would that symbol be? Why?

A.  Probably an image of the universe–something vast, infinite, mysterious.  I always want to keep searching for the unknowable, and reaching for the stars . . .

universe

 

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Thank you very much to Joseyphina at Joseyphina’s World, Lisa at She’s Losing It!, and Katie at the D/A Dialogues for nominating The Eye-Dancers for the Wonderful Team Member Readership Award!  You all have great blogs, and I very much appreciate the nomination!

wonderful-team-membership-award

The rules for this award are  (and I will break them!):

The Nominee of the Wonderful Team member Readership Award shall display the logo on his/her blog.

The Nominee shall nominate 14 readers they appreciate over a period of 7 days, all at once or little by little.

The Nominee shall name his/her Wonderful Team Member Readership Award nominees on a post or on posts during 7 days.

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And another thank-you is in order to Katie at the D/A Dialogues for nominating me for an Interesting Blog Award!  If you haven’t checked out Katie’s site, please pull up a virtual chair and do.  It is a delightful, fun, and very engaging place to spend some time!

Interesting Blog Award

 

The rules (meant to be broken??) for the Interesting Blog Award are as follows:

Thank person who nominated you.

List 5 random facts about yourself.

Nominate 5 other blogs.

Answer the 5 questions the blogger awarding you The Most Interesting Blog Award asked you.

Ask 5 questions of your own to nominees.

Here are 5 random things about myself:

1. When I was a kid, I never had to move.  In fact, even to this day, my parents still live in the same house where I grew up.  That’s a rare and special thing these days, and it makes “going home,” when I visit Rochester, NY, that much better.

2.  One of my favorite all-time shows is Jeopardy!.  I remember, growing up, I would watch it with my parents, and we’d try to guess the answers to the questions.  Or, seeing that it is Jeopardy, the questions to the answers!  Like any true geek, I used to keep a personal scorecard, tallying up how many questions I got right, each show, every week . . .

jeopardy

 

3.  I have never Skyped!

skype

 

4.  I am an introvert by nature, very much an observer.  I’m fascinated watching people–at parties, out on the street, at work, in stores . . .  And I have always loved to listen to conversations–the manner in which people talk, their accents, their pet expressions.  It never gets old.

5.  I do not like heights!  I wouldn’t say I’m terrified of them, but I avoid high places if I can.  You will not find me up on the roof!

heights

 

The five questions for me to answer (from Katie):

What is your favorite moment in history?

Any time a decided underdog has stood up to, and bested, the favorite.

If you could eat one food item for the rest of your days, what would it be?

Easy.  French fries and ketchup!

fries

 

What is your fondest childhood memory?

Honestly, I can’t choose just one.  I was lucky.  I had a wonderful childhood, all in all, and I am always grateful for that.

If a madman in a box whisked you away and said you could go anywhere and anytime in the universe, what would you choose?

Tough choice!  But if I had to choose just one, I would like to have the best seats in the house in Yankee Stadium on October 8, 1956, the day Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history.

larsenp

 

If training, ability, and money were not an issue, what would you like to be when you grow up?

A best-selling novelist, of course!

My questions for the nominees of this award are:

1. Seinfeld or Cheers?

2. Country music or heavy metal?

3. You have a chocolate muffin and a piece of cherry pie before you, but you can choose only one.  Which do you choose?

4. What city, anywhere in the world, would you like to visit and why?

5. There is a zombie movie on one channel and a James Bond movie on the other.  Which do you watch?

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Rule-breaking time!  I would like to nominate all of my followers for the above awards.  If you want to accept all of them, please do!  I hope you do!  Or perhaps you’d only choose to accept one or two of the awards.  Or none.  It doesn’t really matter.  What does matter is that you know how much I appreciate your comments, feedback, and support.  You are the ones who make blogging fun and worthwhile.

I thank you, very much, for reading these ramblings of mine!

–Mike

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