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.

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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.

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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

Joy in the Journey (Or, Stopping in Dot-on-the-Map Towns Along the Way)

Tomorrow, I’ll be heading “back home” to Rochester, NY, to visit family and old friends–some of whom served as the inspiration for the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel. It’s a visit I always look forward to.  It’s good to see the old house where I was raised, to walk through the same rooms and hallways I did when I was growing up.  It’s good to sit and chat and reminisce; to enjoy the company of people I’ve known and loved for my entire life; and to play Trivial Pursuit, my favorite board game, and a tradition every time I return home.

 

So when I arise bright and early tomorrow morning and hop in the car, I will look forward to arriving in Rochester later in the day.  But that’s not the only thing.  Because, as much as I want to get there, I also enjoy the getting there.

 

Indeed, there is an appreciation for the drive from my current home in the hills of east-central Vermont to my childhood home not far from the water’s edge of Lake Ontario.  The drive itself comprises approximately 350 miles, one way–and takes just shy of seven hours.  There are different routes I can take, especially once I cross the state line into New York.  I can get on 87 South and whip down to Albany, and from there speed west on I-90 straight into Rochester.  That’s the fastest way–all highway driving.  It is also the route I will not take.

 

Sure, I’ll merge onto I-90 eventually, but not at Albany.  No.  Rather than zipping down to the state capital, I will instead travel first on Route 4 and then Route 29, traveling through small towns like Whitehall, Hudson Falls, Fonda, and Herkimer–off-the-beaten-path places with weather-beaten houses and 19th-century storefronts and village greens, straddling the verdant valley of the Mohawk River or the easy, gentle path of the Erie Canal.  The kinds of towns most motorists sail right through without a thought, eager to arrive somewhere else, somewhere bigger or glitzier and more represented in travel brochures.

 

But me?  I like to linger.  Not too long.  I want to visit my family, after all, and there are still miles to go before I get there.  But for a little while.  I’ll pull into an empty lot or park along the shoulder of the road and take a ten-minute walk–perhaps down the Capra-esque Main Street or along the quiet sidewalk of a side street, appreciating the architecture of the century-old homes, breathing in the spring air, contemplating the aroma of flowers and newly sprung leaves.  Or I’ll enter an establishment, a local shop as far removed from a chain store as possible.  Maybe it’s a general store or an antique shop, or a restaurant with the town’s name emblazoned somewhere on the awning above the door.  Even when I don’t get out of the car, I make sure to slow down, observe the surroundings, take note of the pedestrians and the signs and the banners flapping in the breeze.

 

I’m not sure why I’m drawn to these old, old little towns in eastern upstate New York.  Maybe because there is a sad charm to them, a dignified sense of age and experience that, while not showy or ornate, commands a species of respect.  Or maybe it’s just realizing that these towns, these way stations in the rural heart of the Empire State, are rich with history, with experiences.  With ghosts.  How many stories are contained within the town limits?  What might the buildings and houses, some of them crumbling, in states of disrepair, say if they could speak?  Or . . . maybe they can speak.  Maybe you just need to stop for a moment, look beyond the peeling paint and the broken shingles, and listen.

 

This isn’t so different from a literary journey, either.  How many times have we undertaken a novel or a memoir, or anything that requires us to write hundreds of pages, and bemoaned the pages yet left unwritten, the scenes yet left unrealized.  “Only on page 57?” one might complain.  “How am I going to finish?  How can I get to the end?”  It’s human nature, I suppose.  We want to complete what we start.  We want to beat our competitors.  We want to get there.

 

As such, the words “The End” are two of the most fulfilling for any author.  But . . . are they not also bittersweet?  Because while you may have become tired of the never-ending work-in-progress, and longed for the beginning of a new project, a new novel, you have also spent hour upon hour, day upon day, week upon week, with your characters.  And now–you are done.  Finished.  What once seemed a burden (“What will I do in the next chapter?  How will Jennifer deal with that?  Does George call her out in chapter 30 or not?”) now seems like a friend who’s left you, who’s gone across the globe, or the universe, to a faraway and inaccessible land.

 

In driving the seven hours to the old family home, or in writing a novel that carries on for months or even years, there will always be an ambition, a quest, a need to finish, to accomplish, to arrive.  But while in the midst of it all, it’s a good idea to take a breath, forget about where you’re going, and instead experience where you are.

There is a joy in the journey.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Photograph

Here is my kindergarten photo . . .

 

It was taken decades ago–in a September that occurred long before the advent of the digital and smartphone era.  Certainly long enough ago that I cannot remember who took the picture, or what time of day it was, or even how I was feeling when the photographer asked me to smile.  In terms of pure, conscious memory, it’s as if the photo was never taken at all.  There is nothing I can latch on to, no anchor to grab hold of, no guiding light to serve as a beacon from across the chasm of years.

 

But then I step back, think about it some more, and I realize–that’s not entirely accurate.  While it’s true the day the picture was taken is an empty space upon the radar screen of my memory, there are things about the picture that are clear in my mind–bits and pieces that come into focus as if a pair of binoculars are scanning into the past, zeroing in on the visible landmarks of yesteryear.  My mother, for instance.  When she first saw the picture, she said it looked as though I’d just swallowed a mouthful of sour grapes and attempted to smile through the bitter aftertaste.  (It’s never been natural for me to smile for pictures, even from way back when.)  I guess she liked the picture well enough, though, because she had it enlarged and hung on the wall in the back hallway.  All through my teenage years, I gazed daily, though not necessarily fondly, at my kindergarten self. Even back then, though, much closer in proximity to the origin of the photo in question, I couldn’t have told you anything about the day I posed in front of a school camera when I was five years old.

 

Which begs the question.  What happens to our experiences when we forget them?  If you can’t remember what you did on, say, February 1, 1997, is the day essentially nonexistent, for all practical purposes?  If a day from your past is erased from your conscious mind, did that day truly and actually transpire, or was it somehow removed, like a vanishing rabbit in a magic trick?  The thing is–the majority of our days are like this, are they not?  Take today, for instance.  What are you doing?  Sipping coffee at a corner cafe?  Taking a stroll through the woods?  Driving home from work?  Stressing over your tax returns, wondering if you fudged too much, or too little?  Now, fast-forward a year.  Two years.  Three.  What will you remember of this moment?  Anything?  A small speck of the whole, perhaps?  Or will it be gone, like a breath, an exhalation, here one moment, dispersed into the ether the next.

 

In The Singularity Wheel (as in The Eye-Dancers), the protagonists experience this at an extreme level.  They are voyaging across dimensions, after all.  And so, when they return to our reality, our earth, the particulars from the alternate world they had journeyed to fog over and blur almost immediately.

 

Near the end of The Singularity Wheel, Marc Kuslanski reflects on this.  While in the alternate world of Colbyville–not to mention the netherworld connecting dimensions–he had been forced to confront his deepest and fiercest inner demons.  But would he remember, even as the details of that alternate world faded?

The text reads . . .

“He wondered if everything would be lost, if in a month’s time, it would be as though they had never journeyed anywhere, their minds swept clean of it all.  But he didn’t believe that.  Because they had done substantial things, too, momentous things that mattered and defined–and these would remain, however faint, like whispers from another time and place.

“Even if they forgot, they would remember.”

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And so now I return, full circle, back to my kindergarten photo.  I look at it closely, trying to remember.  Maybe if I stare at my eyes from decades ago, little-boy eyes gazing out across the years, I can recall something, anything.  But I cannot . . .

So how do I hold onto it, then?  How do any of us?  On a certain level, it’s disconcerting, disturbing even, that so much of our lives, so many moments and feelings and words, become lost, victims of time and the limitations of the human brain.

 

But then I check myself.  Because . . . isn’t one of the themes of The Eye Dancers the idea, the truth, that our minds are in fact limitless?  That they can travel faster than the speed of light and bridge incomprehensible distances?  I cannot in good faith maintain the position that our memories–even when “forgotten”–are lost forever in some dark, deep Letheian well.  So I ask . . . what did Marc mean when he said, “Even if they forgot, they would remember”?  What did I mean as the author?

 

It seems to me that, even if our conscious minds forget so many events from our past, our inner selves, our subconscious, if you will, does not.  Like buried treasure (or ruins, I suppose, depending on the incident), the comings and goings of our days are stored away, as in a vault, behind a wall that separates the outer world of sensory and mental now-ness from the deeper world of soul and heart and intuition.  Maybe that morning from the fall of 2008 is gone from your surface memory.  Maybe you can’t recall even a single detail from the day.  But then you have a dream, experience a feeling of deja vu or an “aha” moment with a WIP you are struggling with.  Maybe you paint a picture that, somehow, has materialized in your mind, as if by sorcery.  Maybe one of your characters in a story you are writing says something that rings a bell, a familiar echo from somewhere, someplace, some time.  Maybe a poem emerges, unasked for, unplanned.  And when any of these creative rushes happen, these gifts from the artistic gods, who’s to say they do not stem from that morning in 2008, or from some other memory your subconscious self has grasped onto for you to incorporate in the here and now even as your conscious memory has nothing to refer back to?  The creative process is mysterious and inscrutable.  It has always been this way, and always will be.

 

But call me a believer.  A believer that nothing is wasted.  That all of our experiences remain within us, somewhere.

And that, even when we forget, we remember.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Mud Season (Or, “Signs of a Literary Spring”)

Vermont is a land of seasons–hard seasons.  There is nothing subtle about them, from the rich green landscape of summer, to the reds and golds and oranges of autumn, to the icy, interminable wasteland of winter, and the riot of color that signals the rebirth of spring.  People in New England often say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait around five minutes.  It’ll change.”  Except . . . that’s not necessarily true, especially this time of the year.

 

March is, arguably, Vermont’s least attractive month.  Winter hangs on, stubborn, digging its frostbitten fingers into the earth.  Snowstorms still arise.  Freezing rain and melting snow that re-freezes overnight create conditions more suitable to ice skates than shoes or tires.  Trees remain bare, their trunks gray and brown against the rust and heaviness of the low-hanging clouds.  And as the month pushes on, the days inching inexorably forward toward a longed-for if mercurial April, there is enough snowmelt that the grass finally emerges after being buried and hidden since November.  But it’s not a green, healthful-looking grass.  No.  It’s yellow and flattened, bereft of vibrancy.  It will be weeks before it begins to turn.

 

Perhaps more than anything, though, March in Vermont is famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for its mud.  Rural Vermont is replete with dirt roads that wind along and through the hills and valleys of the state’s rugged terrain.  I myself live on a dirt road, and when Mud Season–as they refer to it here–arrives, well, let’s just say you need a good pair of boots and a tolerance for swerving while driving along the rutted, grooved surface of the road.  Some tire grooves are a foot deep or more–and many drivers have become stuck over the years during Vermont’s season of mud.

 

This all grates on the residents.  Cabin fever sets in.  After all, come March, Vermonters have endured nonstop Arctic conditions for months.  We long to see the tangible manifestations of spring.  The calendar, late in the month, tells us it’s spring–but it doesn’t look like it, and it sure doesn’t feel like it.  I always think about Groundhog Day, February 2nd.  If old Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, we’ll still be cursed with six more weeks of winter, they say.  That’s supposed to be the bad news.  But, in Vermont, if, on February 2nd, you were told there would be just six weeks left of winter, you’d celebrate.  Six weeks?  Is that all?

 

And yet . . . and yet . . . for all of its bleakness and unwillingness to yield, a Vermont March offers hope.  There are shy, subtle hints that Old Man Winter is retreating, or, at least, about to retreat.  On the surface, these hints can be easily missed if one focuses exclusively on the sub-freezing temperatures, the snow, the ice underfoot.  But they are there.  Like the daylight–which increases.  The four-o’clock evenings of November and December have melted away to longer afternoons and later sunsets.  (Not taking into account Daylight Savings Time, which, of course, creates its own species of havoc!)  There are also the blackbirds and the grackles, who arrive by the middle of the month, returning from their winter migration.  And . . . what’s that?  A sneeze?  Runny eyes?  A scratchy throat?  It’s not a cold.  It’s the first manifestation of seasonal allergies, the pollen that is my lifelong scourge stirring somewhere, unseen, in the shadows.  No life, no renewal is evident.  All looks as stripped and cold as ever.  But something is happening.  A latent life-force is awakening.

 

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It can be like that with creativity, too.  Much like the seasons of our natural world, there are seasons in our creative life, as well.  Sometimes we’re swept away in the lava flow of words, ideas, images, inspirations, epiphanies.  Other times, however (and far too frequently), we lie fallow and windswept, our stories, our paintings, our songs snowed under, cut off from the light.  It’s as if we’re lost in a maze, with no idea how to find our way out.  In the distance, around the corner, through the mountain pass, there is an other side abundant with flowing waterfalls and fields of flowers, basking in the midday sunshine.  We long to get back to that place, where the art seemingly creates itself.  And when we’re not there, we wonder if we’ll ever return.

 

The winter wilderness, when ideas seem perpetually blocked, can cause a sense of panic.  Will I ever get a good, workable idea again?  Has the well run dry?  Is that it?  Am I done as an artist?  Have I written my last story? Believe me, I have been there.  (I was there in the months after finishing The Singularity Wheel.)  And I’ve learned that, sometimes, when we’re particularly fortunate, we emerge from our unwanted creative sabbaticals with a flourish.  A new story comes, like a gift from the muse, and you feel as if you must write it immediately.  A picture forms in your mind, as if by magic–and you know you have a tour de force in the making.  Such unasked-for inspirations are the ultimate highs.

 

But other times, and probably far more often, the rebirth of your creative self is gentler, quieter, less flamboyant.  It doesn’t soar from 23 degrees to 84 degrees Fahrenheit in a single bound.  It takes time.  Maybe a new idea comes, but it needs work still.  The foundation is there.  Now you need to build up, create rooms for the characters in which to live and breathe, and dream. But you’re moving.  You are escaping the dark heart of literary winter.  You have discovered the way out of the maze.  Now, you just have to get there.

 

One step at a time.

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It’s cold today–temperatures not even reaching 20 degrees.  But the sun is shining high in the sky, and the rays are soothing.  And above me, ahead of me . . . what’s that?

The distinct, watery sound of a red-winged blackbird.  The first time I’ve heard a blackbird this calendar year.

 

I look at him, perched on the bare limb of a sugar maple.  He returns my gaze, a knowing sparkle in his eye.

He understands.  Despite the frigid conditions today, he realizes.  And he’s returned.  He’s flown hundreds and hundreds of miles for this.

Spring is almost here.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Shelter

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

At this point, Rod Serling provides the opening narration.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Dr. Stockton tells them they can use his basement.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Everyone smiles and laughs.  Couple hug each other.

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Pass the Capricorn (Or, Recognizing the Blessings Even in the Loss)

This year, Christmas just isn’t the same for me.  All my life, especially growing up, Christmas represented the most treasured, the most special time of the year.  And now, looking back, it’s clear what the glue was that held it all together, the one indispensable person who made the holidays something the entire family could enjoy and look forward to.  (Not that it wasn’t clear before, but sometimes loss hones the focus, makes you see things with a crystalline clarity made pointed and sharp from the stiletto blade of absence.)

 

My mother loved Christmas.  She started preparing for it weeks in advance.  The first Sunday in December, in that long-ago world of the 20th century, she would round up the family, and we’d head over to Wambach Farms (a family-owned Rochester, NY-area market that, after serving the community for generations, sadly, closed its doors earlier this year) to buy our Christmas tree–and choosing just the right tree was no small task!  We’d examine them all, until we found the one we all agreed on; then my father would load it into the trunk and tie it down, and we’d head back home and decorate for hours.

 

Mom also spread Christmas cheer to non-family members.  She baked cookies for scores of friends and neighbors, invited people to the house all through December, and invented participatory games each year the visitors could enjoy.

 

For the past two decades, I’ve lived in Vermont–having moved away from my hometown at the dawn of the 2000s.  But Christmas was no less special, even then.  Until this year.

Last winter, my mother passed away from lung cancer.  It was sudden, unexpected, undiagnosed until the very end.  And now, at Christmastime, I find it’s hard to want to celebrate.  For me, and what this time of year has always meant to me, the essence, the guts, have been ripped out.  There is a part of me that wants to fast-forward a fortnight, bypass the holidays, and emerge on the other side of 2019.

But then I pause, catch myself. And think of my mother’s all-time favorite Christmas movie . . .

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

When It’s A Wonderful Life debuted in movie theaters in 1946, it wasn’t the box-office hit its producers and director, Frank Capra, hoped for.  It seemingly had everything going for it–a rousing, feel-good message on the heels of a nightmarish, horrific world war, a first-rate cast and crew, and the return of popular actor James Stewart to the Silver Screen after five years away, during which time he’d served with distinction in the war.  But, despite being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (losing out to The Best Years of Our Lives), the movie fell flat with audiences that year.  It was only decades later, when television audiences were re-introduced to it every holiday season, that its star rose.

 

Even for all that, there are, and always have been, critics of It’s A Wonderful Life specifically and Frank Capra more generally.  His films are too mawkish, the naysayers argue.  They view life through rose-colored glasses.  Long before It’s A Wonderful Life graced the Silver Screen, Capra had made his mark with pictures such as It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, among many others.  His detractors coined the term “Capricorn” in response to his movies, brushing them off as “sentimental hogwash,” as old Mr. Potter himself grouses in It’s A Wonderful Life.

 

Capra responded with his motion pictures and successful career as a film director, and with quotes like this one: “My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.”

And of course no Capra movie, perhaps no movie, period, embodies this sentiment more than It’s A Wonderful Life.  Most are familiar with the story of George Bailey, the character played by Stewart, an “everyman” who falls on hard times and sees his fortunes dwindle to the point where he is facing jail time for a mistake his uncle has made with their family-owned bank’s finances.  George, upon learning and coming to grips with his dire situation, returns home on Christmas Eve after a fruitless day searching for the lost money.  Frustrated, fed up with his life, he rails, throws a tantrum, berates the kids and the “drafty old house” they live in.  “It’s like living in a refrigerator,” he yells.  And when he reaches for the cap on the newel post of the staircase banister, about to head upstairs, it comes off, loose–as it has always done.  But this time, this time . . . He motions to throw it, but, pulling himself back together–at least for the moment–he puts it back in place.

 

Later, he leaves, heads to a bridge in a blizzard, and considers jumping off, into the cold water, ready to end it all.  Just as he is about to take the plunge, Clarence, his guardian angel, who has been observing the entire sad tableau, dives in first.  He knows George will be compelled to jump in after him and rescue him to safety, which is exactly what happens.  It is at this point that the true magic of this Capra classic reaches its apogee.  Clarence ultimately shows George what the world would be like if he’d never been born, how much worse off people would be, how things George has always taken for granted would be wiped away, gone, as if stricken by a sorcerer’s spell.  This causes George to realize he’s really lived “a wonderful life,” and he begs Clarence to take him back, to allow him to return to his old life with all the problems and trials and jams.

 

When George does return, he’s a new man, grateful for the very things he had been cursing before the experience with Clarence began.  He runs home, hugs his wife and children, even kisses the loose newel cap when it comes off the post again.  And then, of course, we learn that George won’t be going to jail, after all.  His wife has set in motion a miracle.  The town, his town, is coming to the rescue.  And as his brother, Harry, proclaims, amidst the gathering throng of family and friends, George is “the richest man in town.”

 

Corny?  You bet.  Sentimental?  Gushing!  But it’s pure cinematic gold.  And every time I watch it, I feel better for the experience.

 

This year, more so than ever.  Because, for all its contrivances and old-fashioned saccharine qualities, It’s A Wonderful Life emphasizes the good things in life, and reminds us that, even amidst pain and loss and hard times, we have things to be thankful for.  Yes, it’s true.  For me, Christmas will never be the same.  There is an absence there that can never be filled again. But watching George Bailey kissing his broken staircase and laughing over his bloodied lip helps me to see that if I feel loss this Christmas season, it means there is something in my life, in my past, that is special enough and pure enough and loving enough to elicit this feeling in the first place.  It’s something to embrace, not flee from.  To appreciate and value.  And remember.

 

So, during this holiday season, I don’t care what the critics say.

Pass me the Capricorn.

 

Thanks so much for reading, and I hope you all have a blessed and joyous holiday.

 

–Mike

“My God Is Better Than Your God!” (Or, Applying the Lessons Learned from a 20th-Century First-Grade Bickering Match to the World of 2018)

For the most part, Anita and I got along.  She lived just up the road from me, and we went to the same school.  In first grade, we were paired as deskmates in Mrs. Northrup’s class.  Mrs. Northrup was known to be an old-school, no-nonsense teacher, so on the first day of class, Anita and I resolved to work together and try to get through the grind with honors.

It went well for about a month.  Then, on a sparkling October morning, Mrs. Northrup came to class bearing gifts, and doling out treats.  Cookies!  Home-baked!  She told us she was pleased so far with the progress of the class, and this was a small way of showing her appreciation–though she did issue a warning, along with the sweets: “I expect each of you to keep up the good work,” she said, her thick-rimmed glasses low on her nose as she looked out over the room.  “Let’s not get sloppy and forget why we’re here—to learn.”  Anita looked at me and smiled, then rolled her eyes. Just give me my cookie, her eye roll said, loud and clear.

 

I wasn’t going to poke holes in that logic.  It sounded good to me.  And I indeed wolfed down three cookies, in rapid succession.  I ate so fast, I’d made something of a mess, so I licked the tip of my index finger and used it to pick up the rogue crumbs that had scattered over my half of the desk; then I licked the crumbs clear off my finger.  All done.

 

That’s when I realized Anita was staring at me.

“What?” I said.

“That’s not right,” she said.  She looked genuinely upset.  Meanwhile, all around us, our classmates chewed and laughed and talked, while Mrs. Northrup kept glancing at the clock high on the wall at the back of the room.  I kept expecting her to break in and say, “Cookies down, books open!”  But so far, she just stood there, waiting.  She didn’t eat any of the cookies herself.

 

Truth be told, I almost wished she would announce the cookie party was over.  That way, maybe, we could get back to work and Anita would stop glaring at me.

“What is it?” I asked her again.  “What isn’t right?”

“Your fingers,” she said, her voice dripping with disgust.  “You licked them!”

“So?”

“So,” she said, as if addressing a one-year-old, “you aren’t supposed to lick your fingers.  That’s what napkins are for.”  Here, she held up her napkin.  Indeed, I had one, too.  Mrs. Northrup had made sure each student had one.  “It’s just wrong using your fingers like that.  It’s a sin.”

 

A sin?  I knew Anita belonged to a different religion–Jehovah’s Witness.  She was the only Jehovah’s Witness in the class—and she never participated in holiday celebrations or birthdays.  I remembered feeling bad for her the previous year, during kindergarten, off by herself while the rest of us played and ate and had fun.  But I’d never talked to her about it.  Until now.

 

“Yes,” she said.  “It’s a sin to be sloppy and disgusting.  And that’s what you just were!  Is that what they teach you in your church?”

My church growing up was Catholic.  But I didn’t spend much time thinking about it, and surely never thought twice about licking my fingers!

 

“I always knew it,” she said.  “My God is better than your God.”

“What?” I said.  And then I told her she was wrong.  My God was better than hers; she had it backward.

We went at it for a couple of minutes, neither of us yielding or giving an inch.  We raised our voices.  Anita stuck her tongue out.  So did I.

Suddenly, there was the sound of someone clearing her throat. Mrs. Northrup.  She was standing beside our desk, a scowl on her face.

“If the two of you feel the need to yell and act like toddlers, I think you can do that just as well in the hall.”  And with that, she kicked us out of the classroom.

“Regular class resumes in five minutes,” she told us.  “You work out your differences in the hall, and then I’ll collect you when it’s time.  And when I do, you better behave.  Do you both understand?”

We did.  Mrs. Northrup was not to be trifled with.

Mrs. Northrup’s classroom was at the end of the hall, and there was a bay window there, below which sat an old radiator, a clunky monstrosity—presently not running—that appeared as though it had been installed decades prior.  But it was positioned directly under the bay window at the end of the hall—an inviting perch.  Anita and I hopped up, sat on the sill above it, the sunshine streaming through the window warming our backs.

 

We just sat there, swinging our feet.  Ahead of us, the hallway was empty, just a dull-gray floor lined with closed classroom doors.  Even the janitor, old Mr. Roberts, was nowhere to be seen.

 

I felt bad.  I think Anita did, too.  I felt stupid.  What a stupid fight!  And then I just said something—I can’t remember what, and we talked.  About small things, little things . . . and yet everything.  The animosity that had existed between us mere minutes ago was gone, evaporated like morning dew in the rising warmth.  And when Mrs. Northrup emerged from our classroom five minutes later, punctual as always, Anita and I quietly followed her in and went to our desk.

 

Throughout the rest of the day, and the weeks and months beyond, Anita and I had no more run-ins, no more shouting matches.  We never openly apologized to each other.  We didn’t have to.

But the next time we had cookies, I was sure to use my napkin.

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

In some ways, that experience I shared with Anita so many Octobers ago, before the advent of smartphones or digital tablets or Netflix, seems inconsequential—just a couple of little kids fighting about something neither of them understood.  But then, as I reexamine it, turn it over in my mind, suddenly there is a larger theme afoot.

 

When she brought up “her God,” and I rebutted with “my God,” the two of us were instantly polarized.  There was no middle ground to be found in those tense moments when we bickered, cookies on our breath.  She was in her corner.  I was in mine.  And we were determined to prove who was right and who was wrong.  This polarization, this us-against-them mind-set, also summarizes much of what we’re seeing in the world today.  Certainly, in the United States, fellow Americans are at each other’s throats.  Sure, there has always been division and discord, animosity and open, outright hostility.  This is not new.  But the extent of the division, the vitriol, the tribalism that has emerged and thrived in recent years is as widespread as it is alarming.

 

Who’s right, and who’s wrong?  I have strong views on the matter, and surely, so do you.  But a big part of the problem is the growing, yawning gap between us.  All you have to do to see the ugliness, the hate, the anger is log onto Twitter or Facebook, or watch a Senate hearing, or listen to a rally.  Longtime journalist and Watergate veteran Carl Bernstein has described what is presently going on in America as a “cold civil war,” and I believe he is right.

 

But how do we remedy this?  Is there a way to repair the damage, to bridge the gap, and to bring back a means for intelligent, respectful civil discourse? Perhaps a place to start is to realize we have much in common, whether we want to admit it or not, and to endeavor to see our “opponents” not so much as enemies as fellow human beings.  This is where first-graders seem to have more understanding than adults.  Yes, Anita and I, all those years ago, engaged in a childish, fact-free argument.  Again, tune in to the cable news or social media, and you will find we adults are often no better or wiser, and often far worse.  But what Anita and I were able to do was transcend the moment.  When we were ushered into the hall, we didn’t continue to debate.  We didn’t try to one-up each other.  We just sat there and talked; we remembered our friendship, the things that we shared as opposed to the things that divided us, and we moved on.  Perhaps it was easier because we were children.  Perhaps when you’re five or six years old, the essentials in life, the things that matter, are not always so hidden or locked away behind bars of prejudices or hatreds or grudges or polemical ideologies.

 

Perhaps the kids—both the kids of today, as well as the kids we ourselves used to be—have a lot they can teach us.

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

Anita and I continued on in school together straight through graduation.  She was my deskmate again, seven grades later, in our junior-high Earth Science class the day The Challenger space shuttle exploded.  And a few years ago, we met at a high school reunion.  It was the first time we’d caught up with each other since our senior year.  But the words flowed easily, as we talked and laughed and reminisced.

Not once did we discuss whose God was better than whose.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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