Haunted Houses, Coming Full Circle, and the Echoes of Ghost Wolves

Up the road from where I live, there is an old, abandoned house.  It sits back from the road, with overgrown shrubs obscuring the windows, a sagging front porch, a rusty metal roof, and an unlocked bulkhead that leads to what surely is an unfinished basement with a dirt floor and perhaps a tight crawlspace.  I know the bulkhead is unlocked because I tried it once.  It squeaked open without resistance, revealing a descent into darkness.  It was a descent I did not take.

 

The house, you see, is haunted.

Or, at least, some of the locals say it is.  And I don’t doubt them. It’s flanked by mature woodlands that encroach closer and closer with each passing year.  There are no nearby neighbors.  Rarely have I heard the birds sing when I visit the property, as if even they, on an instinctual level, detect a sense of malice and ill will about the place.  Yet, for all that, I feel drawn to the house.  I never go more than a month or two without stopping and looking and wondering.

 

And remembering . . .

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

“Hey, let’s go inside!”

My friend Matt uttered these words, but I doubted he wanted to act out on them.  He and I had taken a stroll through the neighborhood.  We didn’t really have a destination or a plan–we were eleven years old.  Who needed plans?  But as if guided by an invisible magnet that zeroed in on preteen boys, we found ourselves in front of the Ivy House.

 

The Ivy House was so named because rows of leafy, green ivy climbed up its clapboard siding like a pack of pythons seeking an unseen but sought-after prey.  It sat at the end of the street, with several tall maples providing shade and making the yard perpetually dark and cool.  It was also empty.  It had been unoccupied as long as I had been alive, and years before, to boot.

 

More riveting still, it was rumored to be cursed.  Stories varied depending on who you talked to.  My brother had told me a murder had occurred at the Ivy House in the 1920s, and the victim’s ghost wandered the rooms and halls, seeking vengeance on anyone she came across.  Matt’s brother had told him an old man once lived there, friendless and ornery.  He ate raw squirrels and racoon hearts, and fed the leftovers to a pet wolf.  This seemed far-fetched, even to my eleven-year-old, imagination-always-on-overdrive brain.  But Matt vouched for its veracity.  “It’s the truth,” he said, solemn as a tax return.  “A wolf.  People used to hear it howl at night.”

 

I nodded.  I still wasn’t sure I believed him.  But I wanted to.

As we stood there, the wind picked up, and I pulled my jacket in tighter.  It was early November, barely above freezing, winter’s approach unmistakable in the air.  Dried, fallen leaves swirled along the street, crackling.

 

“So, you really want to go inside?” I said then.  A woman walking her dog strolled past, giving us a sideways glance, surely wondering what we were doing loitering in front of the Ivy House.

 

Matt hesitated.  Shrugged.

“Chicken,” I said.  The house brooded in front of us, hidden behind the ivy.

You’re the chicken,” he shot back.  I bet you wouldn’t go in there.”

He had a point.  I couldn’t really refute his logic.  But if we both went, together . . .

We didn’t.  We never did.

The Ivy House was torn down a decade later.  A new, cookie-cutter ranch home now sits in its place, the maple trees in the front yard gone, the ivy a memory, a ghost from childhood, an echo whispering across the years.

 

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

It’s late October 2017.  On my way to work, early, the sun still a rumor, the sky dark and speckled with stars, I pull over in front of the abandoned house and get out of the car.  I am ahead of schedule on this day.  I have the time.

 

I walk through the front yard, up to the door.  Haunted, is it?  And I remember the Ivy House, the way it seemed animate to me in my boyhood, a living, sentient thing with a heartbeat and a soul.  This house is no different.  Perhaps all houses are alive.  Especially the old ones.

 

As I stand there, a hoot owl calls out, and I hear a rustling in the woods off to the right.  A fisher cat on the prowl?  A rodent rummaging for food?  Pennywise the Dancing Clown, come to Vermont from Derry, Maine?  But nothing emerges, and everything goes silent once again.

 

And I ponder–about life, about time, about the way things often come full circle.  Take Mitchell Brant, for instance.  Nine years ago, I began writing The Eye-Dancers, and the book began with Mitchell.  Now, on the verge of finishing the final edits, of dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s for The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, I am ending where I began–with Mitchell Brant.  The story ends with him.  He was there at the start.  He is there at the end.  He’s been with me, in spirit, on the written page, vying for my attention and understanding, for nearly a decade.

 

I tip an invisible cap to Mitchell.  To childhood.  To legends and ghosts.  To haunted houses.  To the unlimited vistas of the imagination.  To explorations of the mind and the universe.

 

To the creative life.

And somewhere, in the distance, despite the geographical impossibility of it, I am sure I can hear the howling of a wolf.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

An Enduring World Series Blooper (Or, The Ability to Move On)

In October 1912, six months after the sinking of the RMS Titanic and two years before the start of the First World War, the Boston Red Sox and the old New York Giants squared off in what would prove to be an exciting, competitive, and nail-biting World Series.  The series would go to a deciding seventh game (technically, an eighth game, as a game earlier in the series had been called off on account of darkness) as the two best teams in baseball went toe-to-toe.

 

The deciding game took place on Wednesday, October 16, in Boston’s Fenway Park, which had just opened for business that spring.  Trees were starting to turn, the air had a tang to it, and, one way or another, the 1912 baseball season was about to reach its conclusion.

 

The Spalding’s Official Baseball Guide that hit the newsstands the following spring wrote of the 1912 Series: “No individual, whether player, manager, owner, critic, or spectator, who went through the world’s series of 1912 ever will forget it.  There never was another like it.  Years may elapse before there shall be a similar series.”

 

For one player, though, the memories of that deciding final game would be far from pleasant.

Fred Snodgrass was a 24-year-old center fielder for the Giants, just three days shy of his 25th birthday.  He was a solid player–not a superstar by any stretch, but a consistent, steady contributor.  He had played in 146 games that year, batted a respectable .269, and stole 43 bases.  “Snow,” as he was called, would have been as likely as anyone in the Giants lineup to play the hero.

 

He did just the opposite.

The big game went to extra innings, the tension swirling around Fenway Park, thick as sea fog.  And when the Giants plated the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning, to take a 2-1 lead, it appeared that they would break the Fenway faithfuls’ hearts.  But in the bottom of the 10th, the first batter up for the Red Sox lofted a lazy fly ball to center field.

 

Snodgrass camped under the ball, reached up with his mitt, and . . . dropped the ball.  The baserunner slid into second base, safe on the error.  Later, Snodgrass tried to explain what went wrong, how he could have muffed such an easy ball.

“I didn’t seem to be able to hold the ball,” he said, unable to offer an excuse.  “It just dropped out of the glove, and that was all there was to it.”

Snodgrass made a brilliant play on the next batter, robbing him of an extra-base hit.  But the damage had already been done.  Ultimately, the Red Sox scored two runs that inning, aided by “Snow’s” miscue, and won the game, 3-2, and the Series, four games to three.  Snodgrass’s error would become known as “the $30,000 muff,” alluding to the difference between the winning and losing shares for World Series participants that year.

 

Sadly, this was what many fans and sportswriters remembered from the 1912 Series–up until that time, perhaps the best and most compelling World Series ever played.  The matchup between the Red Sox and the Giants that year included four future Hall of Famers and was the first World Series to be decided in the final inning of the final game.

 

But for Fred Snodgrass, he would be reminded of his untimely error for the rest of his life.

“For over half a century I’ve had to live with the fact that I dropped a ball in a World Series,” Snodgrass recounted in Lawrence S. Ritter’s delightful The Glory of Their Times, decades after his 1912 error in the Fall Classic. “‘Oh yes, you’re the guy that dropped that fly ball, aren’t you?’–and for years and years, whenever I’d be introduced to somebody, they’d start to say something and then stop, you know, afraid of hurting my feelings.”

 

The question was–would Snodgrass be able to move on and live his life fully, or would he remain stuck reliving an unforgiving and an unchangeable past?

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

In The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, set to be released in November, Mitchell Brant has a different, but at the same time, similar dilemma.  Five years have passed since the events in The Eye-Dancers, but Mitchell cannot seem to forget Heather, the girl he met in another world, as far away from our earth as can possibly be imagined.  As the years have gone by, Mitchell misses Heather more and more, holding imaginary conversations with her, saving the gold locket she had given him as a keepsake, wishing there was some way he might be reunited with her.  He’s dated other girls since, but no one can hold a candle to Heather.  Being with other girls only serves to remind him of what he’s lacking, the one person he longs to be with but can’t.

 

From chapter 1 of The Singularity Wheel:

“He knelt down in front of his dresser, opened the bottom drawer.  This was where he stored his most valuable comic books.  It was off-limits to everyone else, even Mom, and a perfect place to stash his secret.

“He pulled out stacks of Fantastic Fours, Spider-Mans, Avengers, and X-Men, and set them aside, revealing the necklace with the gold-shaped locket tucked back in the far corner of the drawer.  This was the gift Heather had given him.  Something to remember her by, she had said.  It was cumbersome having to perform this ritual every night.  There were a hundred other places he might store the locket.  But he wouldn’t risk it.  The locket was too precious, too sacred.  No one else could see it.

“He picked it up, sniffed it, wondering if some faint, long-ago fragrance from her might still linger there.  It didn’t.  He wrapped his fingers around it, tight, held it against his cheek.  It was silly, really, what she had said—as if he would ever need anything to help him remember her.  He just wished the way she had believed in him, had confidence in him, might be able to rub off on his own opinion of himself.  Maybe it would have been different if he’d been able to stay with her in Colbyville, be near her, every day.  As it was, it was hard, even impossible sometimes, for Mitchell Brant to believe in Mitchell Brant.”

Will Mitchell get the opportunity, against all odds, to span the void and see Heather again?  And if he does, how will their meeting go?  Will she still feel the same way he does, after all this time?  Or will she no longer care?

 

Moving on is hard to do.  Coming to terms with the regrets of our past, with things we cannot change, with hopes and dreams that may seem out of reach, is one of life’s great challenges.

 

But it’s not impossible.

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

Fred Snodgrass was never allowed to forget the error he’d made on baseball’s grandest stage.  But he didn’t let it ruin his life, or eat him up.  Perhaps Mitchell can take solace from Snodgrass’s perspective.

Perhaps we all can.

“Well, life has been good to me since I left baseball,” Snodgrass said in The Glory of Their Times.  “My lovely wife, Josephine, and I have enjoyed success and things have gone well, very well, through these many years.  In contrast, my years in baseball had their ups and downs, their strife and their torment.  But the years I look back at most fondly, and those I’d like most to live over, are the years when I was playing center field for the New York Giants.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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

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!

wintervermontstart

 

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.

snowsqualls

 

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.

hotchocolate

 

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.

winterdirtroadvermont

 

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.

turkeyinsnow

 

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.

tiretracksinsnow

 

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.

squirrel

 

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?

jigsawpuzzle

 

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.”

itsawonderfullifefirstmention

 

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?

georgeatbridgehowdoesclarenceconvice

 

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.

clarencegrantingwishneverborn

 

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.

georgeseeingworldwithouthim

 

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?

tweeting

 

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.

georgebaileyconfusednearendrabbithole

 

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.

clarencenoteend

 

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.

happyholidaysveryend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Words of Wisdom from a Cartoon Character–Or, Reminders of the Meaning of the Season

Sometimes we just need to be reminded.  Sometimes world events, presidential elections, and our far-too-often harried personal lives threaten to throw us for a king-sized and ever-expanding loop.  The weather this time of year doesn’t help.  Daylight Savings is more than a fortnight in the rearview mirror; it’s dark when you go to work in the morning, and dark when you come back home.  And what little light there is, especially here in northern New England, is often muted by brooding thick gray clouds that hang low and bloated over the land, like dirty laundry concealing the blue beyond.

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For me, the reminders begin with the little things, the homey things, the kinds of things Truman Capote writes about at the beginning of his gem of a short story “A Christmas Memory” . . .

“Imagine a morning in late November.  A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.  Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town.  A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it.  Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.”

achristmasmemory

 

Every year, early on Thanksgiving morning, when the house is dark and the sunrise is yet a rumor, I flip through some of the old classic comic books I’ve had since I was a kid, when I began a lifelong hobby of collecting comics.  Many of the issues I have tucked away in closets and boxes were printed decades before I was born.  Their pages, musty and faded with age, never fail to bring a smile.  There are old ads in those pages, tempting the children of sixty years ago with baseball gloves and magic tricks, radio sets and sea monkeys.

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adseamonkeys

 

And then there are the stories, of course–simple, far too often devoid of any real character or nuance, distilled to the most rudimentary of plot devices.  But for all that, they are brilliant, ingenious, and, perhaps most important of all, fun.  They offer a break from the stresses and strains of daily living, an escape from the next doctor appointment or set of bills, while simultaneously laying out a bridge to an imaginary world that is always there, only a thought away, ready and willing to amuse and cheer and revitalize us, if only we take the time to visit it.

On Thanksgiving morning, I spend fifteen, maybe twenty minutes with these old issues, these relics from a bygone era, these simple reminders of childhood . . .

comiccovermysteryinspace

comiccoversuperman117

comiccoversa46

 

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

In the 1965 musical The Sound of Music–based on the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway classic of the same name–Julie Andrews’s character, Maria, sings about some of her favorite things:

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“Raindrops on roses/And whiskers on kittens/Bright copper kettles/And warm woolen mittens . . . Cream-colored ponies/And crisp apple strudels/Doorbells and sleigh bells/And schnitzel with noodles . . . Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes/Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes/Silver white winters that melt into springs . . .”  These are a few of her favorite things!

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It’s a basic list, simple and everyday; it echoes the sentiments of Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.”

But perhaps it was everyone’s favorite bookworm, Marcie, who said it best in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving:

marcie

 

“But Thanksgiving is more than eating, Chuck. . . . We should just be thankful for being together.  I think that’s what they mean by Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown.”

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Fantasy Football Draft Plan, Marching to the Beat of Your Own Drum, and–Going Over the Deep End?

I went back to my hometown of Rochester, New York, recently to spend the Labor Day weekend with my parents.  It was a great trip, and the drive across Vermont and upstate New York was pristine.  Town squares in the shadows of the Green Mountains were quiet in the morning hours as I rolled down the windows and listened to the give-and-take of blue jays, grackles, and other assorted early risers.

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Later, driving west through New York State, as morning gave way to afternoon, I passed through old Erie Canal towns, which were brimming with the activity of the holiday weekend–carnivals, farmers’ markets, people enjoying the weather and savoring summer’s golden swan song.  I take this trip back home every year on Labor Day weekend.  It has become something of a personal tradition.

amsterdamnystart

 

Another tradition is the annual fantasy football draft.  Way back in the 1990s (Is it just me, or does saying “way back” and the “1990s” in the same sentence strike anyone else as odd?!), my brothers heard about what at the time was a fairly new pastime called fantasy football.  Being a statistical nerd all my life, I eagerly joined them, my father, and some old friends in a fantasy league.  We’ve been playing ever since, now over twenty years strong.  The annual draft is like a reunion every year–getting together with childhood friends, catching up, and, well, drafting our teams!  To this day, we do it the old-fashioned way–everyone gets together in my parents’ front yard, seated around folding tables replete with snacks and other high-calorie fare, pencils and paper in hand, and we hold an in-person event.

hicalsnacks

 

Over the years, I’ve been known ro utilize some extreme draft plans.  Granted, every league participant puts their own special, unique stamp on the team they select, but more often than not, I zig when everyone else zags.  This year, I took that mind-set to another level.  I crafted my most extreme draft plan to date, and was determined to see it through, no matter what.

zigzag

 

Midway through the proceedings, after yet another of my unorthodox picks, my brother John couldn’t resist.  He looked over the players I’d selected to that point, shook his head, and said, “Mike, I think you’ve finally gone off the deep end.  I think it’s finally happened!”  Of course, I enjoyed his jab.  One of the many fun aspects of employing an extreme, almost outrageous draft strategy is gauging the reaction of everyone else at the table.  But more importantly, the plan I incorporated was something I believed in, something I thought would work.

offthedeepend

 

Regardless of the prevailing opinion of the league or the fantasy football community at large.

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

There is a scene in The Eye-Dancers where Mitchell Brant talks with Marc Kuslanski, as they brainstorm over the predicament they are in–marooned in a parallel universe.  Marc, logical and rational to the core, is looking for sound scientific solutions.  But Mitchell, more intuitive and less bound by the “book,” eschews logic and contradicts Marc at nearly every turn, infuriating his data-minded friend to no end.

parallelworldmarooned

 

Trying to explain himself, Mitchell says, “Haven’t you ever just felt something to be true?”  Against all logic, all objective analysis, has there ever been a time in your life when you knew the numbers were wrong, even when two plus two still added up to four?  Has there ever been a time when common sense screamed for you to do one thing, yet you deliberately chose the other?

2plus2

 

This is exactly what Mitchell Brant is getting at.

Going against the grain almost always elicits a strong reaction from others.  “Are you crazy?” they might say, with an eye roll or a head shake.  “Have you lost your mind?”  “Come again?  Did you just say what I thought you said?  Please say it ain’t so!”  As if refuting the counterarguments in our own mind isn’t hard enough, we are now confronted with the disbelief and disapproval of others.  It’s easy to crack at this juncture, to reign things in, get back on the well-traveled path, and return to our comfort zone.  After all, what if everyone else is right?  What if the idea we’ve come up with, the action plan we’ve decided to follow really is doomed to fail?  Conventional wisdom is conventional in part because it’s usually true, isn’t it?  The doubts seep in, the naysayers’ objections rise to a crescendo, and it is so easy to discard the idea we had once felt so passionate about.

goingagainstconwisdom

 

Albert Einstein once said, “The person who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd.  The person who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever seen before.”

einsteinquote

 

And Thoreau famously wrote, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

waldenthoreau

 

The “different drummer” in question might be a particular job or place to live.  It might be an eccentric date or a loud tattoo, a new diet or an off-the-wall idea for a book.  It can be anything different than or apart from.

plutoanythingdifferenttattoo

 

As long as it’s uniquely your own.

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

When the fantasy football draft came to an end, as the sun slowly sank in the west, casting long, lazy late-summer shadows that undulated across the ground in the soft breeze, we lingered for a while, talking about everything, and nothing.  It’s a relaxing time–every year, following the draft.  There’s no reason to rush it.  But eventually, inevitably, the participants leave for home, one by one.

sunsetend

 

And before he left, my brother pulled me aside and said, “Seriously, Mike–are you deliberately trying to lose this year, though?  Your draft was crazy!”

“Like a fox,” I wanted to say, but didn’t.  All I did was smile.

foxend

 

When the season ends, we’ll see who has the last laugh.

lastlaughend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Finding Hope at Shawshank, the Swing Set in the Backyard, and the Transcendence of Story

There is a scene in the movie The Shawshank Redemption that has always moved me.  Granted, many scenes in this tour de force of a motion picture, based on Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, leave an impact.  But one in particular stands out . . .

shawshankbeginning

 

Andy Dufresne, an innocent man convicted to life in Shawshank State Penitentiary for a crime he did not commit, has just spent the past two weeks in solitary confinement.  His offense?  He played a duet from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro over the prison’s PA system.

mozartrecord

 

 

figaromusicandy

 

During the rendition, every prisoner at Shawshank stood, transfixed, listening to lyrics they couldn’t even understand.  As  Ellis “Red” Redding, Andy’s fellow inmate and friend, and the film’s voice-over narrator, describes:  “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about.  Truth is, I don’t want to know.  Some things are best left unsaid.  I’d like to think they were singing of something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.  I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream.  It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

menlisteningtomozart

 

It didn’t matter.  The warden wasn’t amused.  And as Andy emerges from his solitary confinement and joins his friends in the prison cafeteria, he tells them his time in the hole was easy.  They scoff at this, but he tells them he had “Mr. Mozart to keep me company.”

“So they let you tote that record player with you into the hole?” one of the men at the table asks.

lunchatshawshank

 

Andy shakes his head, points to his head and his heart, explaining those are the places where Mozart played.  In response, he is greeted with blank, uncomprehending expressions.

“That’s the beauty of music,” he says. “They can’t get that from you.”  He pauses, glances around the table, then continues, “Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?”

Red replies, “I played a mean harmonica when I was a younger man.  Lost interest in it, though.  Didn’t make much sense in here.”

harmonica

 

Andy looks at him.  “In here’s where it makes the most sense.  You need it so you don’t forget.”

“Forget?” Red asks, not following.

“Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone, that . . . there’s something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch . . . that’s yours.”

prisonplacesmadeofstone

 

“What you talkin’ about?” Red says.

To which Andy Dufresne replies, simply, “Hope.”

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

When I went to college, as an English major, I was surrounded by fellow students who loved literature, and many were aspiring writers.  Some, like me, focused more on fiction, and others more on nonfiction.  I took creative workshops in both.

englishmajorslovingliterature

 

When I took the nonfiction workshop, a classmate named Kim approached me one day after class.

“I liked your essay,” she said, regarding a piece I had just shared with the class about a memorable and impactful childhood experience.  “Did you ever think about switching over to nonfiction exclusively?”

It was a question I had fielded before, from others.  I knew that Kim wanted to be a journalist.  She was passionate about social justice and hoped for a career crafting flaming editorials that hit her readers hard and forced them to tackle issues head-on.  Likewise, she knew my bent was to write fiction, to come up with stories “out of the ether,” as it were; or, to put it as she did, “to make things up.”

outoftheether

 

“Don’t you think you could have more impact if you wrote about relevant topics in the news?” she went on.  “I mean, don’t you just want to have someone read something you write and think, ‘Yeah!  That is so true!  We need to change that, we need to make this world a better place.'”

makeworldbetterplace

 

I wasn’t sure how to respond.  I had to think about it for a moment.  Then I said, “Of course.  I think we both want the same things, and we both have the same goals with the things we write.  We just go about them in different ways.”

I’m not sure she was satisfied with that answer, and I sensed she felt I was somehow on the wrong path.  But that’s the way we left it.  That was the only answer I could give her.

In the years since, especially in the wake of mass shootings and political upheavals and deep cultural divisions, I’ve thought about it more.  After all, didn’t Kim have a point?  Shouldn’t we strive to make a difference, in whatever areas we are called?  And if we write, if we feel the desire, the need, to express ourselves via the written word, shouldn’t we aim to tackle the big issues our world faces?  Shouldn’t we deal with the here and now rather than inventing characters and situations and, in the case of The Eye-Dancers, parallel dimensions that may not even exist?

paralleldimensionthatmaynotexist

 

But then I realize the answer I gave Kim that day, in the last, waning years of the twentieth century, perhaps wasn’t so off-base, after all.  It’s true, there are editorials, histories, social commentaries that move me and make me see things in new and different ways.  There are journalistic pieces that hit home with such force, it can feel you’ve been bludgeoned with a sledgehammer.  But there are also novels and plays and short stories that do the same.

storiesthatmakeimpactthelottery

 

A key word, that–“story.”  Even in journalism, or in speeches or long social or historical treatises, the major points are often illustrated through story.  We can read about the statistics of homicide or homelessness or student debt and shake our heads.  The numbers are staggering.  But then we can read about one situation, one individual, one person’s experiences, and we can be moved to tears.  The numbers are brought to life through the power of story.

No doubt from the dawn of humankind, from the first instance an individual mesmerized an audience with flair and creativity, story has always been this way, fleshing out and giving emotional meaning to the bare, bald skeleton of fact,  An engaging story can reel you in with a paragraph.  A strong opening sentence or two, and we are already there, transported, as if by magic, to a different place, seeing the world through another person’s eyes, living and breathing and experiencing with them, their joys and hopes, their losses and defeats.  And yet, simultaneously, through the eyes of the characters, whether they are from our culture or the other side of the world (or the universe!), our time period or some distant past or faraway and undreamed-of future, we can also see ourselves in them, and experience our own world more fully and richly.

timemachinesothersideofworld

 

And, it is my earnest hope, that this ability, this transcendence of story even applies to ghost girls, hypnotic blue eyes, and journeys through the long and timeless void.

timlessvoidnearend

 

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

When I was six years old, my parents bought a swing set.  It allegedly was for the entire family, but seeing that my siblings were already teenagers and in high school at the time, it didn’t take much deductive reasoning to figure out who among us would use it the most.  My father put it together and positioned it at the northern edge of the backyard.  “Don’t worry,” I assured.  “I’ll use it a lot!”

swingset

 

And I did.  I’d spend entire afternoons on that swing.  I’d swing after school until suppertime.  I’d swing deep into the fall, sometimes all the way to Thanksgiving, before the snow and the ice shut things down.  And then I’d be forced to sit it out through the interminable western New York winter, waiting for the arrival of a shy and capricious spring.  When the snow finally retreated, stubbornly giving way to April sunshine, I’d scamper out into the muddy yard and reacquaint myself with the swing set.

swingingthrutheseasons

 

Perhaps the best times were on summer evenings, swinging in the warm dusk of July, the crickets chirping, the cicadas playing their synthetic instruments from their hidden, unseen perches in the trees.  I’d pump my legs and go higher, higher . . . and I’d look out beyond the yard, toward the distant horizon.  Sometimes, I was sure I could see a glimmering city in the clouds.  But I only saw it when I swung high.  The higher I swung, the clearer the sparkling buildings and shiny, golden streets came into view.  I remember wishing for a way I could reach that city, walk down those streets.  If I could only swing high enough, maybe, just maybe . . .

cityinsky

 

It’s easy now, of course, looking back through the rational, commonsense lens of adulthood, to disregard my imaginings on that old swing set as the whims of a little boy, the flights of fancy and nonsensical musings of a child.  But I like to think it was more meaningful than that. More relevant.  Perhaps, in its own way, that shimmering city in the sky represented a hope–not unlike that of Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption–a yearning for something more, a striving for something pure and real and unifying, venturing beyond the boundaries of self and circumstance.

andyhopeend

 

I don’t swing anymore.  I write.  And, with luck, the stories I write offer that same hope, and dare to reach somewhere just beyond the stars.

beyondstarsend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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