A Walk Down Memory Lane (Or, Where the Inspiration Comes From)

Recently, I took a short trip “back home” to visit my family in Rochester, New York, where I was born and spent the first two-and-a-half decades of my life.  Only . . . “Rochester” is too general.  I stayed at the old house, the house where my father still lives, where I grew up, where I spent a childhood and adolescence living and learning, and dreaming.

Rochester, New York - Wikipedia

 

Mostly dreaming.  I was an introvert growing up (and still am), and I spent a good portion of my time “elsewhere” in my mind.  I’d go out into the backyard and hit the Wiffle ball, pretending to be participating in the World Series.  I’d create lineups, do play-by-play, and even keep statistics.  Or I’d head out to the driveway and shoot baskets.  My parents had a hoop attached just above the garage.  The gutter that lined the garage bore the brunt of numerous misfired shots–by me, my friends, my brothers–you name it.  Even today, though the hoop is long gone, that gutter still wears its decades-old battle scars.  Other times, I’d go down into the basement and spend hours writing in the cool, dimly lit space, escaping the heat and humidity of summer days.  The common theme was–a lot of solitary activities, sequestering myself away from others, content to create an alternate universe, as it were, one as boundless as my imagination, with no limits and no restrictions.

The Wiffle Ball, Inc. - Official Site

 

That’s not to say I was always alone!  I often got together with my neighborhood friends, some of whom were the real-life inspirations behind the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers.  We’d do all manner of things throughout the year, but especially during summer.  We’d even have sleepovers, in my basement, that same space in which I spent so much time on my own.  I’d tell them of the ghosts and vampires that lurked in the shadows, under the stairs, in the crawlspace.  I was so convincing, I avoided going down there alone after sundown!  My solo basement adventures were exclusive to times when the sun was up and streaming through the cellar windows.  To be down there at night, I needed the company of my friends.

Soundbytes: Pop Music's 5 Best Vampire Songs | Wisconsin Public Radio

 

In the main, however, I was a loner.  Though often by myself, I never felt “lonely.”  There was always so much going on in my imagination, so many story plots being concocted, so many “out-there” scenarios playing across the movie screen of my overactive and fanciful mind.  And these flights of fancy did not occur only within the confines of the house.  No, indeed.

I would take walks through the neighborhood, sometimes for hours.  I’d go far afield at times, several miles out, walking, observing, saying hi to the cats and dogs that sometimes would follow me for a block or two.  I’d look at the houses, the architecture, especially examining the older abodes.  Two stories, with rotting shingles, mature oak trees and maple trees, and surely full of memories and experiences lurking within their walls, these houses never failed to capture my attention.  Sometimes I’d stand there on the sidewalk, just looking at the house, a corner of the yard, a specific tree or bush.  More likely than not, people inside probably watched me and wondered what the odd boy on the sidewalk was doing, and what he was staring at.  No one ever came out to interrogate, though.

Toronto seeks to save oak tree older than Canada | CTV News

 

Numerous story ideas were born on those walks.  Potentialities, possibilities, hauntings, evil, goodness, all manner of things would percolate in my mind, to the point where, often, when I arrived back home, I would whip out my old-school pencil and paper and jot down notes, or even dive right in to the story proper.

When I visited the old house, the old neighborhood, earlier this month, I took a long walk.  It was along the same route as some of my childhood walks.  Some things had changed.  Some of the houses–especially the ancient, haunted ones (or at least what I always told myself were haunted)–were gone, replaced by newer, more sterile homes.  Much of the neighborhood remained unchanged, however, and as I walked through the interlocking streets, it felt as though I were walking through time, my steps commingling with those of my younger self.  Memories swirled, regrets.  Joys.  And when I returned to the house, I whipped out a pencil and some old-school notebook paper, and jotted down a few new story ideas.

Meet the Andromeda galaxy, the closest large spiral | Astronomy Essentials | EarthSky

 

Works every time.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Dalkowski vs. Koufax (Or, the Importance of Sharpening Your Tools)

There is likely something you take to–something that, for as long as you can remember, has always come naturally to you.  As a child, when others around you struggled, you enjoyed doing it; it flowed like water down a mountain slope, easy, fast, and free.  The something in question can be anything: tennis, a foreign language, algebra, memorization, dancing, singing, juggling, writing.   But whatever it is, you always knew you had a natural bent toward it, a tilt, as if the skill in question were a star and you were a planet kept in orbit through its gravitational pull.

How to Understand Algebra (with Pictures) - wikiHow

 

For Steve Dalkowski and Sandy Koufax, the talent in question was throwing a baseball.  Indeed, it’s possible that someone could be a bodybuilder, the world’s strongest human, and still not be able to throw a ball inordinately hard.  And then you get someone like Dalkowksi, an unremarkable five foot eleven and 175 pounds but who could, reportedly, throw a baseball as fast as 110 miles per hour.  Koufax wasn’t quite as fast, but he was a contemporary of Dalkowski’s, and he threw plenty hard enough.

the long, hard journey of steve dalkowski, possibly the fastest pitcher ever!

 

Both men were lefthanders, and, at least early in their careers, despite their obvious inborn natural gifts, they were not overly successful.  Dalkowski, in fact, never was.  He never made it to the Major Leagues.  Blessed with that golden arm though he was (every batter who faced him maintained no one ever threw harder), he was fragile mentally, heaping enormous pressure onto himself before he took the mound.  He also, how shall we say, enjoyed a good time and did not train with the vigor he might have.  During his minor-league heyday, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dalkowski would essentially strike out, or walk, every batter he faced.  In 1960, for instance, he both walked and struck out 262 batters in a single season.  Statistics that would be unthinkable for anyone else.

Dalkowski never made it out of the minor leagues.  He toiled away for nine seasons before flaming out, a footnote in baseball history despite being the fastest pitcher who ever lived.  He had all the natural talent in the world.  But talent, alone, wasn’t enough.

Meanwhile, Sandy Koufax began his career in much the same manner.  Admittedly, Koufax was never as wild as Dalkowski–no one was.  And he did make it to the Major Leagues at a young age and stuck around.  But for the first handful of years of his career, Koufax was a mediocre pitcher–full of potential but not coming close to realizing it.  Like Dalkowski, Koufax was a lefthanded flamethrower, but he was also blessed with an off-the-table curveball that, coupled with his fastball, made batters look silly.  He had one major problem, though–he did not have pinpoint control.  He would walk too many hitters and didn’t hit his spots consistently in the strike zone.  As a result, for the first five years of his big-league career (1955-1960), Koufax was a forgettable player–just “a guy” as they say.

Sandy Koufax Gallery | Trading Card Database

 

But he worked at it.  He was determined to get it right, smooth out his form, take away the hitches in his delivery, and overcome his control issues.  The hard work really started to pay off in 1961, when he won eighteen games and posted a 3.52 ERA.  Not earth-shattering numbers, but he was on the right track.  Then 1962 came along, and the countless hours he’d put in, perfecting his craft, would manifest in the best five-year stretch of any pitcher in baseball history.  From 1962 until his forced early retirement in 1966 (Koufax had suffered massive arm injuries during his career), the lefthander was virtually untouchable, posting ERAs as low as 1.93 and 1.85, winning twenty-five or more games in three of those magical seasons, and striking out 382 overmatched hitters in 1965.  “Trying to hit Sandy Koufax,” Pittsburgh Pirates great Willie Stargell once said at the peak of Koufax’s career, “is like trying to drink coffee with a fork.”

From Oakland to Pittsburgh, Willie Stargell - African American Registry

 

Two pitchers–both blessed with almost freakish talent–but only one of them “made it.”  The difference?  One honed his craft, worked endless hours, refused to accept mediocrity, and never relied on just his talent alone.  If you are a writer, for example, maybe you have an innate sense of pacing, of language, of turning a phrase just so.  Maybe people have said things to you like, “Wow.  You are such a poet!  The way you put words together.  You make them sing.”

 

All may be true.  But if you don’t take that gift and work with it, if you don’t master grammar and punctuation; if you don’t study story structure and learn how to “kill your darlings”: if you don’t strive to prune and pare down and remove pesky adjectives and adverbs and redundancies from the text, you will be the equivalent of the 100-mph pitcher who couldn’t throw strikes.  Your talent will shine through, but it will be buried underneath too-wordy and sloppy prose.  It will not be maximized, and your potential will not be reached.

Off to the Red Pen! – Heidi Eliason

 

So, whether you write or sing or play basketball, or pitch a baseball–put in the hours necessary to master your skill.  Sweat the small stuff.

It can make all the difference.

Just ask Steve Dalkowski and Sandy Koufax–and the batters they faced.

PRACTICE CHART - Callirgos Music

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Thankful (for the Memories, and the Inspiration)

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

Post-Thanksgiving R&R AND Putney Craft Tour! Nov 27-29 | Vermont Gay Male  Rock River B&B Resort near Brattleboro

 

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

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

1980s retrospective - National Library of Scotland

 

I am thankful for that.

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

93,032 Basketball Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock

 

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

A guide to ghosts by Jonathan Stroud | Children's books | The Guardian

 

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

What's Your North Star? A Short Guide In Defining Your Purpose | The  Minimalist Vegan

 

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

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

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

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

ᐈ Vortex stock pictures, Royalty Free vortex images | download on  Depositphotos®

 

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

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

The City of the Future: Closer than We Imagined? | IndustryWeek

 

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

And to never, ever forget.

What's the matter with the Universe? Scientists have the answer | Deccan  Herald

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

An Ode to Fluff (in a Sober Season)

It is indisputable.  We live in historically stressful times.  While a worldwide pandemic rages on, growing worse by the day, while crises arise in both far-flung places and close to home, and while perhaps the most consequential election in American history approaches, people everywhere feel a sense of anxiety, a tightening of the chest, a species of fear.  When will the pandemic end?  How will we get out of this?  When will we feel safe again?  When can we return to a sense of normalcy?  Stressful times, indeed.

Great whites found to contain very high amounts of mercury and arsenic -  Insider

 

And while it is important to engage, to tackle the issues and problems of our time head-on, to speak out for truth and common sense–there is also something else that is important: our well-being, our state of mind.  Our sanity itself.  One thing is certain–too much stress and anxiety, especially over a protracted period of time, can have a deleterious effect on our health.

So, what to do?  Well, there is much we can do.  Go out for a jog, get the heart pumping.  Write a poem, or a novel.  Or a song.  Read a book.  Do Pilates or Tai chi.  Volunteer in the community.  Mow the lawn.  Meditate.  Take a night and go to bed early–regardless of what you have to do.  But one thing I try to do when the pressures of life seem too great, when the vice pinches tighter, when the clouds darken and multiply in a bruised sky the color of gunmetal is–to seek out something fun.

Dreary and cool day ahead

 

I am a proponent of the serious, the studious, the deep, and multilayered as much as anybody.  But in times like these, when the world is collectively holding its breath, there is also much to be said about lighthearted, airy entertainment.  Do you have a “guilty pleasure”?  Perhaps a silly movie or absurd TV show that you love?  Does a certain sitcom make you laugh, even as you realize how ridiculous it is?  What do you enjoy that is fluff, light on substance but high on laughs?  There must be something.

Sugar Free Marshmallow Fluff - Step Away From The Carbs

 

Seek it out.  Take an evening and stream some episodes or, to go old school, break out a DVD and pop it in.  But give yourself permission to enjoy something frivolous.  Are you a Seinfeld fan?  The GolbergsModern Family?  What about The Big Bang Theory?  Or maybe it’s a movie.  Maybe it’s an old movie–perhaps a golden oldie like Caddyshack or Trading Places or The Seven-Year Itch.  Maybe it’s all of them and more.

Episode 44: THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH with Grae Drake — CLARKE WOLFE

 

For me, when I’m in need of something to make me laugh and forget about the strains and the struggles for a while, I turn to Cheers, The Honeymooners, and–though not exactly a comedy, and certainly not altogether lighthearted–Forrest Gump.  Or maybe I’ll seek out a classic 1970s sitcom like Sanford and Son or Happy Days.  Or something really old like The Philadelphia Story, or, my all-time favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life.  Again, not all of these are pure fluff.  The point is, they take me away on a pleasant journey.  They allow me to disengage for a time.  They make me laugh.  They sometimes make me cry (but in a good way; the climax of It’s a Wonderful Life gets me every time).  They enable me to step away from the insanity and the craziness and the deadlines and the worries and the anxieties and the strife, and they provide a moment of respite, a safe space, an oasis overflowing with elixirs for the soul.

The Odd Places It's A Wonderful Life Has Turned Up | Den of Geek

 

Your places of fun-filled and lighthearted refuge may be different from mine.  But you have them.  You have your go-to sources for comfort.  We all do.  So, on this Halloween weekend, I hope you have the chance to dip your toe in, if only for a while, to settle in and relax and laugh.  Laugh at something silly.  Laugh at some corny, dated sitcom produced in the years before you were born or a contemporary comedy that never fails to amuse.

Stressors are all around us.  And real problems need to be tackled and overcome.  But we can all benefit from taking a brief detour in a friendly neighborhood bar where “everybody knows your name” or a lively and song-filled jaunt down the Yellow Brick Road.  I know I can.

There's no place like home: The Wizard of Oz, 80 years on

 

And, maybe, just maybe, this weekend I will.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“Okay,” Mom said.  “Let’s go.”

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

To believe.

To survey that hill in the distance.

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

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

That Old Black-and-White Movie Magic

“The best thing about the future,” Abraham Lincoln once said, “is that it comes one day at a time.”

We can all relate to those words, especially these days.  A worldwide pandemic has a way of making us pause and focus on our perspective, values, beliefs.  It’s been a remarkable and horrifying few weeks.  The world has changed overnight, it seems.  And all we can do is our part to get through this once-in-a-lifetime crisis, to help in any way we can, and to be smart and responsible.

 

Some, of course, the frontline emergency nurses and doctors, are at the center of this war on humanity.  They are fighting the battles raging in hospitals and ERs.  They are the soldiers fighting for each of us.  For most of us, however, we are either hunkering down at home all the time or only going out to work at our job and perhaps shop for necessities every now and then, only to return home as efficiently and quickly as possible.  Either way, a lot of people are spending a lot more time in their abodes.

 

For me, personally, this “social distancing,” as it’s called, isn’t that difficult to get through.  I’m a natural introvert.  Nevertheless, the degree of hunkering down at home is a challenge even for a lifelong loner like me.  I spend most of my days working from home, editing and proofreading manuscripts for book publishers and individual authors.  But at night, or when I just need a break, I am seeking an escape, a place to turn to, a temporary refuge from the world and the work.

 

Sometimes I read–either books or my vintage comic books, which, with their musty, magic smell and corny, dated story lines, have been my loyal companions since junior high.  Other times, I’ll pop in a DVD (I am old school that way) of a favorite sitcom or a Ken Burns documentary or an episode of The Twilight Zone.  But more and more these days, I am watching old movies.

 

I love old movies, and by old, I mean old.  Black-and-white Cary Grant, James Stewart, Fay Wary, Katherine Hepburn old.  I have a number of DVDs acquired through the years; for ages now, a lot of them have sat in piles, tucked away, gathering dust.  Now I am watching them.  They provide a comfort, I suppose, a lightening, before sleeping at night during such dark and uncertain times.  They are my own personal island, a tropical beach of the soul where I can walk along the water’s edge, sand in my toes, getting lost for an hour or two.

 

There is much to choose from.  Hitchcock classics like Rope, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief.  Sappy Christmas movies that I love–It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Meet Me in St. Louis.  Film noir classics with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Veronica Lake, John Garfield, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, and Robert Mitchum.  And the dramas like Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Lost Weekend, just to name a few.  The classic romances–Casablanca, The Philadelphia Story, Rebecca, and so many more.  A virtual treasure trove.

 

 

Admittedly, sometimes I’ll go for something more “modern” like Forrest Gump or Field of Dreams or Back to the Future.  But, by and large, when I fish for a movie to go with the overly salted popcorn, it’ll be a vintage film from the 1940s or 1950s, and then I will allow myself, temporarily, to take a detour from reality with Clark Gable or Ingrid Bergman or Burt Lancaster.  I know I need to come back to the real world soon enough, so while I’m gone, I make sure to enjoy the journey.

 

 

 

I hope each of you is finding a way to cope and push through this insecure and troubled time as well.  Whatever your pleasure, whatever your method of dealing and persevering and finding some solace, somehow, please be careful, take care, and stay safe.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

The Gift

The season is upon us.  It has arrived, and regardless of your faith, your beliefs, your worldview, there is no escaping the yuletide.  It is all around us, enveloping the streets and stores and online digital marketplaces like an omnipresent universal force, inexorable and all-consuming.  For many, Christmastime is stressful, tragic, depressing.  For others, it is joyful, energizing, the apogee of the calendar year.  And, perhaps for most of us, it is somewhere in between–a little of this, a little of that–some years tilting more toward the negative, other years more toward the positive.

 

For me, as I wrote last year, this time of the year will forevermore be bittersweet, and it will never, can never, be the same.  However, there are things I can do, memories I can cherish, perspectives I can take that contribute to making the yuletide a special season still and after all.  Be it watching a classic movie, or enjoying the company of family and lifelong friends, or remembering things, little things, that stay with me through the years, there is no shortage of material to work with.

 

This post is about a memory.

And a gift.

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I’ve written many times on here about my love of comic books, how I was introduced to them at a young age, and formed a lifelong friendship with these pictorial tales of wonder.  I’ve also written about some of the various comics shops in Rochester, NY, in the 1980s, where I grew up.  And the one that stands out from the pack is, without question, Empire Comics.

 

Empire Comics was already a Rochester niche phenom by the mid-1980s, when I started going.  It didn’t take me long to see why.  Back then, in the ancient days before the internet, it was the comic book shop where collectors went if they wanted to buy “back issues”–those gems from yesteryear that seemed always to accrue in value exponentially each year.  If you weren’t wealthy, you had to pick your spots, and, for me, often, that meant selecting back issues that were ragged.  Maybe a water stain, a spine roll, a missing staple–maybe all three.  The fact was, the mint-condition issues were usually priced too high, so I needed to dig down, beneath the surface, and appreciate the singular aesthetic nuances of issues with plenty of wear and tear.

 

By the winter of 1987, Jim, the proprietor of Empire Comics, knew this about me.  I’d been a regular visitor and shopper to his store on the city’s south side for two and a half years by that point.  He also knew that, within a week of Christmas, the previous two years, I came into his shop with my mother to select a special “Christmas back issue”–the sort of issue I usually wouldn’t be able to afford the other eleven months out of the year.  (Okay, so my mother’s the one who actually paid for it, if you want to get technical!)  How do I know Jim knew about this developing Christmastime tradition within my family?  Because of what happened in late December 1987 . . .

 

We arrived midmorning, four days before Christmas.  It was a Monday; I remember that.  It was sunny, a rarity in western New York in December, the cloudiest month of the year.  Entering the shop, the bell Jim had placed atop the door tinkled, a welcoming sound I always looked forward to.  The store was free of other customers–validating my mother’s prediction.  “Monday morning, no one’ll be there,” she said.  She was right.  She often was.

As we stepped inside, Jim shouted my mother’s name–“Linda!”–as was his custom.  Though I was the collector, it was my mother he usually talked to.  I was busy flipping through the merchandise, and my mother, outgoing to her core, did not choose to simply stand there while I browsed.  So she and Jim had become friends.

This time, though, after calling her name, Jim beckoned for me to join him by the register.  It sat atop a glass display case housing Empire Comics’ most prized back issues–rare jewels from the 1940s and 1950s, so far removed from my price range, they might as well have been for sale on Mars.  That didn’t stop me from peering inside, though.  Looking through the glass was like looking into a realm of pure possibility.  It always made me think of the Gold Rushers from the middle of the 19th century.  Buried treasure.  Items so rare as to be precious.

 

Someday, I’d think, in awe.  Someday . . .

But that day, that sunny December day, like a sleight-of-hand magician, Jim pulled out a comic from underneath the register and set it atop the display case.  It was a worn copy of Fantastic Four number 20, originally published in November 1963 and featuring the first appearance of the supervillain The Molecule Man.  It was my ambition to own every back issue of the FF, as fans called them.  I was getting closer and closer by the month, but number 20 was one that had alluded me.  Jim knew that, too.

 

“Take it,” he said.

“Huh?”  It was the only thing I could think of.

“It’s yours, free of charge.  A gift.”  He spread his arms and smiled.  A few feet away, I saw my mother giving him the side eye.  Sure, he was a nice guy and sure, he’d become something of a friend.  But who ever heard of a shopkeeper giving away his merchandise?  While the issue before me was beat up–heavily creased with a slight mouse chew ripped out of the top right corner–it still likely garnered a $15 or $20 price tag (far higher today; if you’re looking for a strong “stock,” you can’t go wrong with old comics!).

“I got a bunch of ’em in the shop right now, and I know it’s one you need,” he said.  “So, take it.  On me.”

We talked for a while, my mother joining in.  It didn’t take long to see Jim was serious.  He was giving me a $20 comic book.

What was I to do?  Refuse the gift?

I took it.  I still have it to this day.

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

When I think of all this now, it strikes me as remarkably old-fashioned.  So 20th-century.  Almost like something you’d discover in a time capsule.  The fact it feels that way at all, however, is a warning, a signpost up ahead, if you will, telling us as a society to take a breath and slow down for a moment.

 

We live in an age that is so far removed from 1987 technologically, the distance ought to be measured in eons, not decades.  In the ’80s, we had landlines, the postal service, VHS tapes (video stores!).  Newspapers and the nightly news were still the media most people used to digest their information.  Even fax machines did not become widely used until late in the decade.  If you went to an office, you did your work on a typewriter, and a personal computer was a Commodore 64.  And smartphones?  Social media?  WordPress?  All the accoutrements that so monopolize daily life on the precipice of 2020?  These existed only in the pages of science fiction.  To a 21st-century native, the 1980s and the Mesozoic era are, no doubt, for all intents and purposes, synonymous.

 

Today we can buy literally anything we want, no matter how obscure, on a device we carry with us wherever we go.  We can look up information anytime, anywhere.  We can watch movies while we walk, find Babe Ruth’s 1929 batting average in ten seconds flat, interact digitally with people all over the world, any time of day or night.  In a way, we can do anything.

 

And yet . . . for all the value in finding that deeply discounted item on Amazon, or that comic book on eBay, there is something to be said for the human connection, for a store owner to know his customers well enough to plan ahead, prepare a holiday surprise for a middle-school kid who frequented his shop, month after month, year after year–and to be able to do it not because a software application told him to, but because he remembered, personally, all on his own, due to a genuine and real rapport that had been earned and nurtured through person-to-person interaction.

Honestly?  I don’t even remember what I purchased that day at Empire Comics.  Whatever it was has been blurred, swept away in the mists of thirty-two years.  All I remember is the gift.

“Merry Christmas,” Jim hollered as my mother and I exited the shop.

And a joyful and blessed holiday to all of you, in 2019.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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 Window to Nowhere

I am drawn to basements.  Dark places–cool, quiet, and, if you listen, alive with the whispers of long-ago events, memories, soft but enduring echoes.  On the surface, perhaps, this may seem odd.  Drawn to basements?  Why on earth . . .?

 

The answer is simple.  When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time in the basement.  I’ve written about some of my experiences in previous posts.  I often went down there alone–though only in the daytime, never at night!  It was a love-fear relationship.  As long as the sunlight streamed in through the small rectangular windows on either end of the cellar, I was okay.  I’d play pool (with myself), fiddle around with my older brother’s weights, write stories, imagine them.  But at night, when unverified sounds rose up from back corners, when I imagined unseen eyes watching me from the shadows, I steered clear.

 

Except when my friends were over (the same friends who inspired the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel).  There is strength, and bravery, in numbers.  They’d come over, and, oftentimes, we’d head into the basement.  We entertained ourselves in various and sundry ways–ping-pong, pool, board games, and just hanging out and telling stories, talking about nothing, and everything.  And, just as the boys do in the novels, we’d have sleepovers–in the basement.  As long as we were all down there, I was okay.  The settling noises of the house could more easily be attributed to things of this world as opposed to apparitions who were in the mood for a good haunting.  At least–that’s what I tried to tell myself.

 

I wasn’t above scaring them, of course.  I’d make up stuff about ghosts and goblins, ghouls who lingered in the dark.  They laughed–but they were nervous, too.  I could see it in their eyes.  Especially when I talked about The Window to Nowhere.

To back up, the basement in my parents’ home was partitioned into two halves–the “front” half, facing the street, was semi-finished, and that’s where the games, weights, pool table, and ping-pong table were.  It was a pleasant enough space with a bright ceiling light and food shelves; there was even a freezer, tucked tight against the wall.  A perfect spot for adventurous boys to congregate at night and let their imaginations run wild.  But the other half?  The back half?  That was a different piece of real estate altogether.

 

The back half of the basement was unfinished, with a cracked, cold concrete floor, an ancient, paint-splattered workbench, an old basin that looked like a relic from the 19th century (despite the fact that the house was built in the 1950s!), and the furnace, which hummed and thrummed like a beast alive on cold winter nights.  Beyond all that, though, the back half of the basement was dark.  The only light came from a naked ceiling bulb with an attached pull-chain.  And there was a “closet” of sorts, under the stairs, where long-forgotten items were stashed and where, I was certain, gremlins laid their heads to sleep each night.

 

Also, and most importantly, the back half of the basement was home to The Window to Nowhere–a dark, small, rectangular window that looked into the bowels of the crawlspace under the dining room.  When my parents purchased the house, back in the mid-1960s, years before I was born, there was no dining room.  My father added it on later.  When he did, he created the crawlspace underneath.  The Window to Nowhere, therefore, led somewhere . . . but it didn’t.  Not really.

 

When I looked through it, all I could see was total darkness.  Day or night, winter or summer, there was nothing to observe beyond the glass.  It was, to the eye of a growing child with overactive flights of fancy, a looking-glass to nothing, a gateway to zero, a Window to Nowhere.  I’d show it to my friends, tell them of the monsters who lived beyond the window, in the dark.  I’d tell them if they ever crawled in there (they wouldn’t, of course), they’d disappear from the earth, swallowed by the depths of no-space and no-time.  Could a human being exist in Nowhere?  None of them dared to find out.

 

The truth is, though, and always has been, that The Window to Nowhere represented its polar opposite.  For . . . wasn’t it, in actuality, a Window to Everywhere, and Every-When?  In the absence of anything but darkness through its glass, it opened the possibility to everything.  I imagined it leading to the center of a black hole, where all matter, all space, and all time was sucked into a vortex that predated the known universe.  I created, in my mind’s eye, negative-energy creatures, fanged monsters, vampires of the unknown, all of which resided in that crawlspace that defied and transcended the three-dimensional world I otherwise saw and experienced around me.  Without a doubt, the seeds of the void in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel were sown from that window, in that basement.  My love of speculative storytelling, my penchant to ask “what if,” and my lifelong tendency to get lost in my imagination surely stem, at least in part, from The Window to Nowhere and the mysteries it evoked.

I think most writers have their own, personal Window to Nowhere.  Maybe it’s an old attic, or a tucked-away room in your grandmother’s house.  Maybe it’s a remote wooded glen or an empty mall just before closing.  The possibilities and variances are as endless as the imagination, as limitless as thought itself.

Today, when I go back home and visit the old house, the house where I grew up, put down roots in this world, the house where I scribbled my first short story and first novel, and the house that will always be a part of who I am and what I write, I make it a point to go downstairs and take a good, long look at The Window to Nowhere.

But only in the daytime.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Persian Flaw

It’s happened to all of us . . . likely more than once.  You’ve finished a piece of writing.  It can be a novel, a poem, a short story, an essay, a blog post.  Anything.  The point is–you wrote it, and it’s done.

Or is it?

If you publish it, it’s already “out there,” of course.  You can’t “undo” the act of initial publication.  But you can delete a blog post, remove an indie book from Amazon, or, if you haven’t published the work in question, you can hold on to it and allow it to collect virtual dust hidden securely in your computer’s hard drive.  (Then again, if a publisher distributes your work, or a magazine prints it, you’re stuck.  It will remain in public view.)

 

But isn’t that the point?  What published author wants to retract their work?  After toiling so hard on your story, it would seem self-defeating to withhold it, or, once published, to remove it.  And yet, we’ve all been there, haven’t we?  We thought we were finished with the blasted thing, but now, upon rereading it, and re-rereading it, and re-re-rereading it, we discover mistakes we overlooked before, errors the size and scope of Everest we were blind to just days or weeks ago, whenever we declared the work “complete.”

 

“How can I have missed that?” we might say.  “I can’t believe I thought this was ready for prime time!  What was I thinking?”  The mistake in question may be a grammatical one; it may be a collection of typos.  Or, perhaps more serious, we might encounter issues with our characters or plot structure or overall wording and pace.  Whatever it is we find, and grimace about now, is something new, something we simply didn’t notice before.  Maybe a negative review caused us to look at the story in a new light.  Maybe the fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of others have since looked at it since publication has made us hyper-vigilant in our post-publication literary detective work.  What are all those readers seeing?

 

And so we read it over again, and again, and again, hoping for perfection.  Hoping we find no blemish, no miscue, expecting every sentence to be Shakespearian, every plot twist Dickensian, every line of dialogue a melody from a literary symphony.

 

It grates us, therefore, when we encounter imperfection.  What’s that on page 98?  Why did I begin chapter 8 there?  I should’ve done it this way instead.  Why did I let that scene drag out so long?  And on and on it can go.

If we let it.

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

Centuries ago, the Persians were renowned for their peerless craftsmanship when it came to making rugs.  Persian rugs would take years to complete, and the final product would tell an indelible tale.  Each rug was a work of art, one of a kind, perfect.  Well . . . not entirely.  The Persians had a practice whereby they would introduce a flaw into the rug.  It was subtle, and perhaps indecipherable to the untrained or the indifferent eye.  But it was there.

 

Why, though?  Why deliberately make a mistake, as it were, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential?  Isn’t it better to quest for the perfect rug, or the perfect work of art?

The Persians believed only the divine could attain perfection and that humans, no matter how valiantly we try or how stubbornly we toil, cannot achieve it.  By weaving a flaw into their rugs, they were visually and symbolically yielding to this truth.  To attempt to craft a “perfect” rug would be an act of arrogance and foolishness, destined to fail.

 

There are no perfect carpets.  There are no perfect novels.  There are no perfect people.

Everything, and everyone, comes with a Persian Flaw.

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

One of the primary themes in both The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel is an acceptance of one’s idiosyncrasies and flaws.  Mitchell, Joe, Marc, and Ryan each have traits about themselves they dislike.  Even the “ghost girl,” Monica Tisdale, must face her shortcomings and learn to embrace herself for who she really is.

 

After all, what makes for a well-rounded and memorable literary character?  Is a great character perfect, always having the right answer, the best solution, the magic words for every situation that arises?  Perhaps, if you’re talking about Ward Cleaver or Cary Grant (and Grant was a “character” as much as any he played on-screen).  But “perfect” characters like this, while charming and enjoyable to watch when the mood strikes, come across as artificial, Hollywood constructs that represent ideals, not real life.

 

Why should our writing be different?  Why should we stress over stories already finished, already published?  Hemingway once said, “There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Frank Herbert said, “There is no real ending.  It’s just the place where you stop the story.”  (I’m sure he could have said the same about the start, as well!)

None of this means we shouldn’t strive to produce our best work.  By all means, edit your story as long as it takes for you to say, “That’s it.  That’s all I can do.  It’s the best I have.”

And then, as much as possible, accept that final determination.  “It’s the best I have,” not, “It’s the best I have until I get a bad review,” or, “It’s the best I have until I read it again next month and discover that error on page 18.”  Because the fact is, if you go in and fix that error on page 18, a month after that you might find another error on page 27 or 88 or 222.  It can turn into an endless loop of reading and rereading and editing and re-editing.

 

The Persians understood this.  We writers understand this when we create our flawed and human characters.  We understand it when we read other people’s work.  We can appreciate their work for its artistic merit and technique, despite whatever “mistakes” may be present.  We can see the beauty in it.  The truth in it.

Now, if we can only learn to view our own work through that same lens.

It doesn’t have to be perfect to be great.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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