Tony-Time (Or, The Fine Art of Going Against the Grain . . . Naturally)

Have you ever encountered it?  You know . . . the tilted head, the accusatory look, the reprimand over approaching something in an unorthodox manner.

“You can’t do it like that,” they might say.  Or, “That’s just not the way it’s done.”  Or again, “Are you out of your mind?  Why would you even think of something so . . . so . . .”

Different?  Unusual?  Countercultural?  Weird?

 

Being different, going against the tried-and-true, can be hard to do, in large part because of the reactions of others.  Certainly, in most endeavors, advice tends to be centered around what has worked before, what methods have stood the test of time, what approaches and techniques have been replicated hundreds, thousands, or millions upon millions of times.

 

For writers, these “unwritten rules,” if you will, are numerous.  “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.”  (To which Churchill famously replied, “That is a rule up with which I will not put.”)  “Write about what you know.”  “Be sparing with adjectives, and especially adverbs.”  “Don’t split the infinitive!”  Not to mention following trends and generic marketing advice.  What’s hot?  What’s trending?  What are people reading right now?  I know, in the case of The Eye-Dancers, I was criticized at times for making the protagonists just twelve years old.  “Too young,” a friend of mine said.  “Make them older! And throw in at least one girl!” he added.  “I mean, four boys?  Seriously?”  But, in the end, I just went with the story I had–and it featured four twelve-year-old boys.  I wasn’t going to change that on a whim.

 

Anytime I am asked for advice on writing and publishing, I always say, “Write what you want.  Don’t just follow the patterns and trends.  Start your own trend.  Break new ground.  Write your story.”  But there is a caveat attached.  A writer shouldn’t start his or her own trend just for the sake of being different.  It’s not something that can be force-fed.  After all, if your story does naturally fit into an established niche, a “hot” genre or topic, more power to you.  If that’s the way the story came to you and if it’s the story you feel compelled to tell, and it’s honest, then it deserves to be shared with the world and enjoyed.  Altering a story for the sake of being different is just as disingenuous as altering it for the sake of fitting in.  Neither approach represents your true voice, the idea and perspective that are uniquely your own.

 

Being different, “other than,” cannot be an end unto itself.

Just ask Tony.

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

Tony was one of my best friends throughout junior high and high school.  He was that rare teenager who seemed to have an “in” with both the brainy crowd as well as the jock crowd.  Tony could do it all–a solid, well-rounded student and a muscular athlete who played football and ran track.  But, more than anything, Tony was . . . well, Tony.

 

He had a way about him, a mastery, a comfort in his own skin.  He wasn’t arrogant–he just kind of glided down the halls, eased his way into conversations, and never appeared to shy away from anything.  He wasn’t loud.  He wasn’t obnoxious.

He was confident.

He was different.

But he was different in a manner that suited him.  He didn’t make an effort to go left when everyone else went right.  He just did.

 

I’ll never forget sitting next to him in Lunch one fall day in 1987, an early October afternoon replete with sunshine and the last, lingering warmth of the season.  We were in junior high, and I had brown-bagged my lunch, as I usually did.  Tony got a tray from the cafeteria, as was his wont.  And the topic of the NFL came up–specifically, the players strike that was moving on to its second week.

 

It was a PR disaster for the NFL.  The players didn’t want to play under their current collective bargaining agreement, but the owners were determined to put a product on the field.  The result?  Teams found players “on the street”–guys who had been cut or released, or who were never good enough to try out in the first place.  They recruited accountants and construction workers and teachers–any able-bodied young men–and some not so young–who could contribute in a pinch.

 

The outcome was predictable.  For the three weeks the “replacement players” competed, the quality of the game suffered.  There were shanked extra points, fumbles and bumbles, fluttering passes that missed their target by the proverbial mile.  It was painful to watch.  No one liked it.

 

Except Tony.

“It’s good to see pro players making all these mistakes,” he said during lunch that day, taking a bite into the thin cafeteria hamburger.  “Usually, NFL players are perfect.  They make all the kicks, are good with their assignments.  But these guys.  I mean, it’s like watching a game at the playground.  It’s kind of cool.”

 

I couldn’t believe he preferred replacement players to the real thing.  And yet . . . when Tony said it, it somehow sounded reasonable.  He wasn’t pushing an agenda, saying something for shock value.  It was just the way he felt, his retrograde perspective on the world.

 

It got to the point where I eventually called his views “Tony-Time,” which essentially meant anything that goes in the opposite way you expect it to.  Are you hot?  Tony-Time says you put on an overcoat.  Feeling full?  Eat a pizza!  Are you tired, lacking sleep?  Pull an all-nighter!

 

I still use the term, to this day, even though I haven’t seen Tony since we graduated from high school.  I especially say it about our cat.  He has a habit of doing things you wouldn’t expect.  “Tony-Timer,” I’ll say to him when he refuses the refreshing breeze of an open window in favor of a stuffy corner at the back of the room.  And he’ll look at me, knowing it’s a compliment.

 

And it is.  Because Tony made it seem as easy as breathing, as natural as the sun rising every morning.  Effortlessly opposing the mainstream.  Like the time when our tenth-grade English teacher told us we could write an essay on anything we wanted, and Tony wrote his from the perspective of a piece of paper feeling the pain of a sharp pencil point grinding into its surface.  He read the essay aloud to the class, and I remember thinking, “It actually sounds like the voice of a sheet of paper!”  Or the time when he decided to play quarterback in gym class one period but only allowed himself to throw left-handed, even though he was a righty.  No one thought it odd that he would try that.  It was just Tony, Tony-Timing.

 

And today, all these years later, Tony is still with me.  Not on the phone or in person, or in emails or texts.  But in my mind, my heart, in a spirit that, despite the protests of others or the criticisms of the crowd, urges me to press forward, to swim upstream if the situation or the job, or the story, warrants it.

 

Even if it means enjoying a few missed field goals and botched extra points along the way.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Solving the Unsolvable Problem . . . in Secret

My eighth-grade algebra teacher, Mr. Edwards, a cheerful, enthusiastic guy with a mop of straight sandy-blond hair and a thick beefy mustache, was in his mid-fifties when he taught my class.  And Mr. Edwards loved numbers.  Now, being a math teacher, you would expect that.  But he really loved numbers.  He would spew out facts and figures like a flesh-and-blood computer, and he’d do it with gusto.  You never knew what mathematical morsel he would divulge on any given day.  One such tidbit that stuck with me was that, when you turn on a light, the room temperature increases by one-eighteenth of a degree Celsius.  So, later, whenever I’d turn on a light in summer and my brother or sister would complain about the heat, I’d fire back, “Yeah, but it only upped the temperature by one-eighteenth of a degree Celsius!”  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, indeed.

 

Mr. Edwards would also give us special, multi-layered problems to solve–not necessarily as required homework or on quizzes, but for fun.  Math fun.  He’d go to the blackboard and frantically write out formulas and numerical scenarios for us to iron out in our spare time.  Since these exercises weren’t required, few students made the effort to conquer them.  But some of us did, at least every now and then.  And I’ll never forget the day of the Unsolvable Problem.

 

It was at the end of class on a dreary, cloudy, raw early December afternoon–the kind of early-winter day in western New York State that makes you want to curl up in a ball and nestle beside the furnace, snug as a napping cat.  We’d gone over the lesson for the day, the homework was assigned, the quiz had been lethally administered.  And now, with a few spare minutes remaining in the period, Mr. Edwards smiled and made a grand announcement.

 

“Today,” he said, his smile widening, “we have the longest mathematical problem in junior-high history!”  And he wasn’t exaggerating.  Mr. Edwards proceeded to write a War and Peace-length equation on the blackboard.  And then came the challenge: “Solve this mystery, and you’ll be awarded high praise and class distinction!” he said, the exclamation point audible for all to hear.  “But fair warning.  It’ll take an hour, probably two, to get to the answer.  Anyone brave and motivated enough to solve the unsolvable can raise their hand tomorrow in class and share their genius with the rest of us!”

 

I glanced over at the student on my left, a girl named Tina.  She rolled her eyes.  Yeah, right, she seemed to be saying.  Like I’m gonna waste my time on math when I don’t have to.  And yet, for some reason, I decided I would take up the challenge.  I’m not sure why.  Perhaps I was just a glutton for algebraic punishment.  But that evening after supper, I sat at the table and tackled the problem, step by painstaking step.

I can’t tell you, all these years later, what that algebra problem entailed.  I honestly don’t remember any of the details–just that it was akin to wandering through a maze–only in this case, it wasn’t a maze of walls and tunnels, with a few funhouse mirrors thrown in for good measure; rather it was a maze of numbers and formulae and odd mathematical symbols, of figuring out what to multiply, what to divide, what to add, and what to ignore.  It took me well over two hours.  And when I finished, I felt like a balloon that had been popped with a jagged-edged saw.

 

Just as with the problem itself, I cannot remember my answer–not specifically, anyway.  But what I do remember is that it was large.  Very large–so large, in fact, that I needed to count the digits, one by one, to figure out the value of the number.  Suffice it to say, it was in the hundreds of billions.  I couldn’t believe it.  I had spent all that time, all that effort, only to arrive at such a ridiculous answer?  There was no way I had it right.  I had convinced myself, for some reason, that the answer would be a more manageable number:  6, maybe; or 3; or 45; or zero; or maybe even a negative number to throw us off.  But a number that required half the width of the page to write it out?  Not a chance.

I tried watching TV for a while after I had finished.  But I couldn’t get into it.  After channel-surfing for a few fruitless minutes, I went to bed.  It took a while before I managed to drift off.  I kept replaying the problem, over and over, in my mind’s eye.  I had gone through the equation slowly, methodically, had double-checked my work.  It all felt right.  But my answer was simply too absurd.  I saw mathematical equations, laughing at me with exposed fangs, in my dreams that night.

 

The next day, in algebra class, Mr. Edwards went through the lesson, not even acknowledging the unsolvable problem from yesterday.  Good.  Maybe he forgot. But then, near the end of the period, he closed the textbook with a flourish, smiled at us, and said, “Ah ha!  We’ve arrived at the big moment.  So who’s done it?  Who solved the equation, crossed the Rubicon, won the prize?”  No one ever accused Mr. Edwards of understatement.

 

I remember my heart rate, and how it accelerated then.  This was my chance.  After all the work I had put into the problem, shouldn’t I at least raise my hand and give my answer, just in case I was right?  A boy named Greg volunteered, reaching for the ceiling.  “The answer is zero!” he said when called upon.  Of course, I thought.  I knew it.  And he probably hadn’t even worked on it–he’d just called something out on a whim.

 

Mr. Edwards, however, shook his head.  “I’m sorry, Greg,” he said, maintaining his smile.  “That’s not the correct answer.  Anyone else?”

Sandy, a studious girl who always brought three thick spiral notebooks to class (these were the late 1980s, after all, long before the advent of smartphones and tablets), dared to raise her hand.

 

“Yes!” Mr. Edwards beamed.  “Sandy!  Share with us!”  But she, too, gave the wrong answer.

Hmm, I thought.  Maybe I was right.  Maybe I should . . .

But I didn’t.  Even as Mr. Edwards asked again if anyone else wanted to take a stab, I held back, afraid of being laughed at.  I mean, yeah, Greg had gotten it wrong, but no one laughed at his answer of zero.  And Sandy, too, had given a reasonable number as her answer–I can’t remember what it was, only that it consisted of far fewer than 18 digits!  I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  My arm felt weighted down with dumbbells.  I would just let Mr. Edwards provide the class with the right answer, and that would be the end of it.

 

“Well, okay,” Mr. Edwards said, though he didn’t seem disappointed.  He maintained his smile.  “The answer is . . .”  And he wrote it on the blackboard.  The first few digits matched mine.  No, I told myself.  Then the next cluster of digits matched.  No way.  And then the next, until, finally, the correct answer was there, displayed for all to see.  And it was the same result I had arrived at the evening before, at the dining room table.  I had been right.

Wait a minute, I wanted to shout.  I got it!  I got it.  I worked on it for two hours, and . . . I had it nailed.  But of course I didn’t say anything.  Who would believe me now?  I felt sick.  It was a small thing, really, an inconsequential blip on the journey through junior high.  Who really cared?  And yet . . . it was a significant thing, too.  Something I regretted.  Even today, I can recall how I felt, sitting there, wishing, angry at myself for backing down.  I had it.  I had it!  Don’t you all see?  But no–they didn’t see.

 

They didn’t see at all.

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

We’ve all been there, at one time or another.  Ryan Swinton and Mitchell Brant experience similar hesitations in The Singularity Wheel.  Can they trust the outcome of what they desire to do?  Can they believe in themselves enough to do what must be done?  It’s a struggle, and it doesn’t end with the completion of junior high.  It follows us into adulthood like an inescapable shadow, a personal black hole that threatens to suck us in and snuff out our potential like a parasite.

 

Have you written a song, crafted a story, a poem, an essay?  A blog post?  But you’re not sure if it’s “good enough” or “right enough” or “brilliant enough”?  Is there a job opportunity you’ve worked years to apply for, but now, as you stand at the doorstep, you doubt your talent and abilities?  Do you have something to say or do or inspire or create, but you’re not sure if you should bring it forth into the light of day?

 

I am confident Mitchell and Ryan, and old Mr. Edwards, would join with me and encourage you to do it.  Write that poem.  Paint that picture.  Ask that question.  Make that speech.  Risk that rejection.  Sing that song.  Finish that story.

And then share it with the world.

No equations, once solved, should remain hidden in the dark.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Musty Magic (Or . . .The Counterintuitive but Wondrous Nature of Collecting )

So . . . what do you do?  Where do you go?  How do you deal?

For me, when life gets too hectic; when the creative process is blocked with thick, rough-hewn logs; when the rage tweets emanating from Washington become more numerous and unhinged by the day, even the hour; and when the world just seems like too much to take, I have several “safe places” where I turn.  Places that calm me, allow me to escape the madness, if only for a little while, to get grounded again, to become reacquainted with the magic and the wonder.

 

Old movies provide comfort–I have always enjoyed films that predate my birth.  I often say, “If the film is black and white, I’ll probably like it.”  Walks in the woods or along winding country roads provide the opportunity to de-stress and re-center myself.  Vermont, my adopted state, is replete with quiet, pastoral hideaways, and for that I am thankful.  Books–fiction and nonfiction alike–have been my friends for as long as I can remember.  Stepping away from the cacophony to enter a well-plotted novel or an engaging biography or historical tome is, and always will be, bliss.  And sports and the long-standing family and friends fantasy football league I have been the commissioner of since the 1990s have always offered a fun diversion.

 

But if there is one thing that never fails, one thing I can count on just as surely as the sun rising at the break of day, it is comic books.  I fell in love with them when I was a little kid, and it’s been a lifelong love affair ever since.

 

I remember where it all began, too.  In my older brother Dave’s room, back when I was six years old.  Dave was a collector of sorts–he’d amassed a collection of several hundred issues by then–primarily The Amazing Spider-Man, Conan the Barbarian, and The Defenders.  He kept his comics in protective Mylar sleeves, and the most valuable ones also had a firm, thin cardboard backing to keep them from being bent or folded.  I enjoyed leafing through his issues, admiring the covers, sniffing their distinct comic book scent.

 

Indeed.  That has always had a lot to do with it for me.  The smell.  That old comics smell.  In The Singularity Wheel, Mitchell Brant is sure “that if you could store magic in a bottle, it would smell just the same.”  He won’t be getting any arguments from me.  And when I began collecting seriously myself, around the time I entered junior high, there was nothing that thrilled my senses more than visiting the local comics shop.  The musty scent was all around me, engulfing me like a fantastical cloud, full of wonders and adventures and history.

 

I spent all of my teenage years saving up what money I had to buy collectible comic books.  People would ask me, “Why not just buy the reprints?”  Why plunk down so much extra for an often ragged, beat-up original from 1955 or 1960 instead of buying a fresh, new replica for a fraction of the cost?  It was–and still is–a difficult question to answer.  It goes against everything practical, economical, utilitarian.  Whether you buy an original or a reprint, the story’s the same.  So why do it?

Countering with the old-comics smell isn’t sufficient.  While it’s true that newer comics don’t have that musty magic about them, it’s not enough.  There is more to it than that.  A lot more.

An original comic book from the 1950s predates my existence by two decades.  For me, that increases the charm exponentially.  There is something almost mystical about opening an issue from 1955 or 1956–or 1946, for that matter–and knowing that I am holding in my hands a treasure trove of memories.  If only the comic could talk, I think!  But it can.  If you listen, it can.

 

The artwork, the story, the dialogue–primarily aimed at children and teenagers of the day–feels dated, quaint.  It’s a window into a time sixty years in the rearview mirror, when adventures and imaginative tales were presented in a far different manner.  Reading such stories, I am transported back to a decade when my parents themselves were just teenagers.  I am, quite literally, stepping into a time machine, the years peeling away, reversing, autumn to summer to spring, fifty times over, crashing through the speed of light.

 

But even so, the skeptic says–can’t you still experience all that with a reprint?  Just read the stories . . . And that’s true, I suppose.  A reprint can offer a peek through the partially opened door, a glance through the window.  But it’s not the same.

A reprint is new, contemporary, a facsimile of something that came before.  (Though, it must be said, comic books have been around so long now, some reprints are, themselves, decades and decades old.) The original, the vintage comic book from 1945 or 1957 or 1962, was picked up, leafed through, handled (often roughly) by kids back then, when the story was conceived, when the writers and artists who created it were thinking of the children and teenagers of that day.  Every time I flip through an old comic, I think of the sandy-haired boy at the corner drugstore, sixty years ago, who may have grabbed the same issue from the spinning, squeaky comics rack in the corner, drawn by the cover and the promise of adventure within.  Did he have a dime to give to the store proprietor, enough to buy the comic and take it home?  Did his sister or his younger brother steal it from him later when he wasn’t looking?  And did he wrestle it back?  Is that where the spine roll came from?  The small rip in the upper right corner?  The creases that line the cover like wrinkles, forged by the passage of time?

 

There are two stories to enjoy in vintage comic books.  The one the creators cooked up, the twists and turns of the plot, the nuances and renderings of the art.  This is the same story available in reprints.  But the second story–the story only the original can share–this is the story of the physical comic book itself.  It’s the wear and tear, the yellowing of the pages, the mouse-chewed corner on page 6, interfering with a thought balloon.  It’s the ads for X-ray-vision glasses and sea monkeys, magic wands and moon monsters.  It’s the interweaving of past and present, of memories and moments, and of childhood dreams that have spanned the long years, bridging one century to the next.

 

You can’t get that kind of story in a reprint.  And you can’t put a price tag on it.

And, after all, there’s nothing quite like a tank full of sea monkeys.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Eternal in the Transitory (Or, The Power of a Moment)

I am a dreamer.  I always have been.  There’s no other way to say it.

Indeed, there have been times in my life when I’ve been accused of being distant, with a faraway look in my eyes exploring the unseen and ephemeral worlds and galaxies that stretch beyond the purview of the here and now.  As someone once told me, “Even when you’re here, you’re not always here.”

 

From the time I could walk and talk, question and imagine, my mind has been prone to wander.  When I was a child, I’d visualize batting cleanup for the New York Mets, in the bottom of the ninth, the World Series on the line.  I’d create an entire scenario, announcing the action from a phantom broadcast booth, crafting a plot full of twists and intrigue, complete with regular-season backstory and statistical analysis.  Or I’d invent new games with my friends, the same friends who provided the inspiration for the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel.  The games could be anything, and played anywhere, from the dark corners of the basement to the dining room table to the neighborhood street out front.

 

More than anything, though, I’d think of stories.  I wrote my first story in the second grade, and once I started, I was hooked.  Through the years, I have written dozens upon dozens of short stories, a couple of novels, hundreds of blog posts, and pretty much whatever strikes my fancy at any moment.  Writing to me is akin to breathing.  I wouldn’t survive without it.

 

The thing is, when I dust off the cobwebs of my earliest stories (the ones I still have, anyway), there are paragraphs, scenes, large chunks of pages that I can’t even remember writing.  Reading through these works from yesteryear provides a primary-source window into my preteen or teenage self, a glimpse into what I was thinking and how I was interpreting the world.  The stories, penciled on paper that has yellowed and faded with the passage of time, preserve a part of me that, absent the written testimony, might have been irretrievably lost.

 

But then, life itself is like that, isn’t it?  We get up in the morning, still half-asleep, and, on auto control, we stagger through the routines that keep us going and prepare us for the day ahead.  Sure, at some point, we wake up and can function at a higher level.  But even then, how much of what we do is mechanical, prescribed, almost as if we were a software program patterned in a particular way to perform a certain and specific set of duties?

 

What did you have for breakfast on April 6, 2006?  What time did you go to bed on October 25, 2015?  Who did you meet, hang out with, talk to, on March 2, 1997?  Did you watch TV on August 7, 2017?  If so, what did you watch?  What did you do in school on November 10 during your junior year?  These questions, and countless more, are all but unanswerable, the contents lost amid the swirling miasma of our collective memories.  When you consider it, you begin to realize that, unless you are eidetic,  perhaps as much as 99 percent of our life is forgotten, stored away in a file, deep within the crevices and folds of our brain, accessible, perhaps, but only in our dreams or a state of subconsciousness that liberates us from the shackles of our peripatetic and ever-racing world.

 

Perhaps that is as it should be.  Though I have always wished for a way to press a mental button, as it were, and access any tidbit of information, no matter how trivial, from my past (because, yeah, now that we’re asking, what did I have for breakfast on April 6, 2006?!), I realize that having so many conscious memories floating around simultaneously would be akin to circuit overload.  We’d have so much data, so many moving images competing for supremacy, we’d feel as though we were in a perpetual wrestling match with individual and specific recollections from our past.  While not nearly as overwhelming as the predicament in which Monica Tisdale finds herself in The Singularity Wheel, where she has accessed her memories and experiences from a billion billion universes, the effect might nonetheless feel similar.

 

From chapter fifteen of The Singularity Wheel:

“She felt like crying again.  The memories he spoke of were stacked, multi-faceted.  She had shared these things with her dad in a limitless number of worlds.  They mixed together, like particles in a celestial blender.  In gaining access to everywhere, all of her, in all places, she had lost her essence.  While she could now sip from every cup throughout all creation, she could not drink deeply from any single one.  Everything was a fragment, a fleeting glimpse, here and gone in a moment.”

 

And so, as a mental safety valve, as a firewall against oversaturation, our brain grasps onto the meaningful things, the memories that matter, the events that shape us and form us and leave their mark, like a calligraphy of the soul.  Sometimes, these events are ordinary on the surface, just little things, a subtle gesture, a kind word, a remark from a teacher we never forget.  Moments.  Fleeting, but essential, so essential, in fact, that our mind, our heart, our core, recognizes them for what they are and sticks a flag in them, a reference point that can always be accessed down through the years.  “Remember this?” the flag will say.  “Remember how you felt when that happened?”

 

Not all the markers are positive, of course.  Sometimes, we wish we could forget, but we hold on.  But many of them are positive, and they beckon to us like stands of nourishment and refreshment scattered along the winding, broken, uneven road of life.  And while I will always find it frustrating that I forget so much, that so many moments are erased into the fog of oblivion, I have learned to appreciate the things I do remember.  Moments with my mother that will endure for the rest of my life, despite her passing this winter.  Moments with family and friends, childhood memories that persist, to this day as fresh and vibrant as when they occurred.

 

I’ve written about some of those memories in this blog.  I will write about others in future posts.  Still others have been “fictionalized” in The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel.  I suppose I’ll keep writing about them for as long as I’m here.

Because any moment, no matter how brief or “small,” and no matter how long ago it may have happened, can be eternal.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Value of a Dime

In both The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel, Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski can’t help but notice how inexpensive things are in the variant town of Colbyville.  In The Singularity Wheel, in fact, Ryan manages to secure a room in an inn for just $5 a night.  Prices like that make the boys think of period-piece movies, Beaver Cleaver, black-and-white still lifes from a bygone era, speckled with cobwebs.

 

Indeed, I once worked with a woman who, every year, upon receiving her annual “cost-of’-living” raise, would grouse, “Well, three percent of nothing is still nothing!”  Many of the other employees would nod their heads in agreement.  We all notice the increase in prices ($4.49 for that box of cereal?  $10 for a standard book of twenty stamps?) and are caught in the current of escalation as it continues along on its slow, steady, and inexorable march.

 

It has gotten to the point where there are plenty of people, reasonable people at that, who argue that coins should go the way of the dodo.  “Who needs ’em anymore?” a friend of mine said just the other day.  “All they do is clutter up my jacket pocket.”  And I had to admit, he had a point.  But I’m also glad we still have our coins, our one-cent, and five-cent pieces.

 

Our dimes.

In the economic milieu of the 21st century, a single dime cannot purchase much of anything.  But it wasn’t always that way.  Take comic books . . .

Nowadays, to buy a single issue, you need to plunk down $4.  But jump in an imaginary time machine, become ten years old again, and pretend it’s 1950.  At that time, a ten-year-old (let’s call him Kyle as a point of reference) might ask his dad for a dime, just one dime (“I’ll mow the lawn later, Dad, promise!”), and then head over to the corner store, where dozens of comics would be tantalizingly arrayed on a spinning rack.  He’d browse over the issues, the rack squeaking as he turned it, hunting for just the right one, and, maybe, just maybe, he’d pick out a gem like Strange Adventures number 2.

 

This particular issue hit the newsstands in the fall of 1950, and for just ten cents, Kyle was rewarded with a glorious, end-of-the-world-style cover, four feature stories, fifty-two action-packed pages, not to mention tempting advertisements, a short picture-less sci-fi tale, and various illustrated informational blurbs scattered about the issue, one of which was called “A World of Thinking Machines.”  This prescient piece laid out the groundwork for AI and advanced robots.  In fact, thinking machines were not just figments of imaginative sci-fi enthusiasts.  At the time of the issue’s publication, sixty-eight years ago, the article proclaimed the existence of a “metal monster with sinews of electrical wire that can solve the most intricate mathematical equation in minutes . . . [and which can] ‘think’ more perfectly than a dozen human mathematicians!”  The next step, according to the piece, “will be the robot–a tireless, mechanical servant that will perform man’s duties in factory or office or on farm with the utmost efficiency.  The metal workers will usher in the dawn of leisure”–which, the article concludes, will ultimately spread to the home itself, allowing for the “bliss of domestic luxury.”

 

That was a lot of material for a humble dime’s investment.  It brings to mind, in the cold, hard light of 2018, how far we have come, how much inflation has affected our world.  This isn’t a diatribe against inflation–I’m no economist.  Just a statement of fact.  It elicits a certain nostalgia.  I was born long after the phenomenon of ten-cent comic books.  But there is a part of me, perhaps a substantial part, that hungers for a simpler time, a simpler age, when coins were cause for a child’s excitement and enthusiasm.

 

What is the value of a dime today?  What does a single, solitary ten-cent piece, in and of itself, have to offer?  Anything except the ability to break change? In a purely practical, utilitarian sense, perhaps not.  But consider the dime from a different angle.  Look at it with a new perspective.

For starters, the physical characteristics.  I have before me a dime with the year 1993 imprinted on its copper and nickel surface.  The left-facing profile of FDR stares at something we cannot see, his stoic expression etched for the ages.  On the flip side, there is a lit torch flanked by an olive branch on one side and an oak branch on the other, symbolizing liberty, peace, and strength.  The dime in my possession still maintains some of its original luster, even twenty-five years on, though smudges also exist, the result of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fingerprints coming into contact with the surface–some rubbing, some squeezing, some flitting across it for the briefest of moments, but leaving their mark just the same.

 

And those prints, those hands that touched this lightweight alloy of metals, have a story to tell.  This dime could write a novel or a memoir if someone might just give voice to it.  Was it stashed at the back of a dresser drawer, out of sight, for months or years on end?  How many times did it get rolled and deposited into a bank?  How many cashiers handed it out when making change, and when they did, were they focused on this dime, the customer, the next person in line . . . or were their minds drifting, wondering what they might do when their shift ended, if Jeff or Suzie would agree to hang out later, what they would eat for supper, or where they’d go on their next day off?

 

Did the dime ever lie in the belly of a child’s piggy bank, the ten-cent portion of a financial dream?  Did someone perhaps drop it on a sidewalk or a parking lot unknowingly, or, if knowingly, without care?  And did someone else later pick it up, pocket it, and add it to their jar of coins under the kitchen sink?  How many cities has this dime journeyed through?  Has it been to the West Coast and back?  Was it in someone’s pocket as they toured Manhattan?  Has it tasted the sting of dust on a country road in late summer, the sun shining, hot, the hands that fiddled with it salty and moist with sweat?

 

It’s true.  A dime can no longer purchase fifty-two-page comic books that can mesmerize a child–or an adult–over the course of a lazy, leisurely afternoon.  But the other things it can do, the narratives it can weave, and the lessons it can teach if we’re willing to look and listen and wonder and imagine are worth far more than a mere ten cents.

 

And all this time later, I’d like to think that Kyle, our fictional friend from yesteryear and now on the doorstep of becoming an octogenarian, would see it that way, too.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Perception or Reality? (Or, “What’s That Behind Your Ear?”)

When I was growing up, in the now-vintage years of the 1980s, there was a family friend who stopped by from time to time.  His name was Bill.  And Bill was a lot of fun.

 

He’d hang out on the driveway and shoot baskets with me and my brothers, at the old hoop we used to have perched atop the garage.  He’d tell stories of his life in the military, the places he’d seen, the memories he’d accrued over the years.  He’d tell jokes, one after another, with a repertoire so vast he could have had a career as a stand-up comic.

 

But for me, back then, what I liked most about Bill was the magic.

“Pick a card, any card,” he’d say, and I would.  I’d fake taking one, then pluck out another, hoping to derail him.  I never did.  Bill was always letter perfect with his tricks.  And they weren’t limited to cards.

 

He would make items disappear, then reappear, cut things in half and then somehow present them, in the next moment, as whole.  And he’d invariably pull something out from behind my ear–usually a quarter or a silver dollar.  Sometimes, he’d even let me keep it.

 

“Your ear’s a real moneymaker,” he’d say.  Little did I know at the time, but Bill’s showmanship and style would, decades later, manifest themselves in The Singularity Wheel.  No doubt, his tricks and performances from my youth played a sizeable role in shaping Ryan Swinton‘s passion for legerdemain in the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.

 

Of course, I often asked Bill the secret behind the wonder, the key that would unlock the mysteries of his many and varied tricks.  But he never revealed a single one.

 

“A magician never shares how he does what he does,” he told me one rainy night in those long-ago days before Google and YouTube made discovery so much easier.  “If he did, he wouldn’t be a magician.”

 

But then he leaned in closer, and, in a soft, conspiratorial whisper, said, “I can tell you one thing, though.  Magic isn’t what it seems.”  I waited for him to continue.  With a performer’s appreciation for drama, he waited a beat.  Then he said, “It’s all about what I want you to see.”

I asked him what he meant.

 

“In a way, life and magic are one and the same,” he said.  “It’s not so much about what happens, or what you see.  It’s really about what you think happens and what you think you see.  That’s really what a magician specializes in.  Nothing more.”

He didn’t elaborate beyond that.  He wanted me to chew on his words, let them marinate and take root.  And they did.

 

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

“There is no truth.  There is only perception,” Flaubert said.  On a cloudy day, you may see only the gray and the gloom.  Someone else may perceive the blue beyond the gray, the sunshine that exists above the clouds, waiting to break through.  I may rail against the catalogue of snowstorms that have beleaguered Vermont this month, impatiently longing for the arrival of the ever-capricious and timid New England spring.  You may counter that the snow is beautiful, a natural wonder, and that I should enjoy it while it lasts before it yields to April’s warmth and sunshine.

 

Note, I am not talking about facts.  Facts are facts, or at least they should be.  That concept has been sorely tested since November 2016.  But a tenacious protection of inviolate laws of the universe must be preserved.  No.  This isn’t about facts.  It’s about the interpretation of those facts, the way we perceive and filter reality, the very world around us.  How we respond to love and life and loss.

 

Where some may perceive a setback, others may see an opportunity to learn and to grow.  Where, on the surface, there may be death, perhaps, more profoundly, there is renewal and deliverance.

 

Yeats wrote, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”  Indeed.  Is it possible that miracles abound, only we do not see them?  Do not notice them?  Do we think we’re free when we’re trapped, and trapped when we’re free?

 

In the final stanza of his poem “To Althea, From Prison,” 17th-century British poet Richard Lovelace expressed it this way:

“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 sore above,
Enjoy such Liberty.”

I’m sure my old friend Bill would agree.

Thanks so much for reading!
–Mike

“The Trade-Ins” (On Love)

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

 

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

 

Love is like that.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

And then they walk off . . . together.

 

Rod Serling’s closing narration sums it up tenderly:

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Love endures.

 

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

 

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

–Mike

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