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

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 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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

He did just the opposite.

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

From chapter 1 of The Singularity Wheel:

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

But it’s not impossible.

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

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

Perhaps we all can.

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

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Quality of Mercy

Ryan Swinton knows how it feels to be an outsider.  In The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, set to be released later this summer, Ryan is in a major slump.  Now seventeen years old, on the cusp of his senior year in high school, he struggles to find his place in the world.  To his eyes, it seems that all of his classmates know what they want to do with their lives.  Even his kid brother, Tyler, has plans to become a marine biologist one day.  But what about Ryan?  What will he do?

 

From chapter 3 of The Singularity Wheel:

“He [Ryan] walked into the living room.  A fifty-gallon saltwater aquarium, with bright orange-and-white clown fish and yellow tangs and angel fish, lit up for the night with a florescent bulb, served as a reminder that Tyler was focused, determined, sure of what he wanted and how to get there.  Even the fish appeared to know just where to swim, as if they had each staked a claim to designated areas within the aquarium.  Everyone and everything always seemed to have a plan, a clue, a path to follow.  Why was it so different for him?”

 

In short, Ryan Swinton all too often feels like an outcast, a reject.  An other.

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

In the third-season Twilight Zone episode “A Quality of Mercy,” a young lieutenant fresh on the scene of battle understands well what it’s like to view someone else as “the other.”

 

Rod Serling introduces the episode this way in a voice-over:

“It’s August 1945, the last grimy pages of a dirty, torn book of war. The place is the Philippine Islands. The men are what’s left of a platoon of American infantry, whose dulled and tired eyes set deep in dulled and tired faces can now look toward a miracle, that moment when the nightmare appears to be coming to an end. But they’ve got one more battle to fight, and in a moment we’ll observe that battle. August 1945, Philippine Islands. But in reality it’s high noon in the Twilight Zone.”

 

The American platoon in question, a ragtag group of perhaps twenty men, have taken the high ground overlooking a cave.  Holed up in that cave, a small group of Japanese soldiers, many of them sick and wounded, resist surrender.  The American force shells the cave incessantly, hoping, thus far in vain, that the sheer bombardment will force the Japanese soldiers to quit.

 

This is the situation Lieutenant Katell inherits.  He arrives on the scene, a fresh-faced commanding officer, full of vim and vigor.  When he is briefed by Sergeant Causarano, a battle-hardened veteran, Lieutenant Katell exclaims that since the artillery didn’t smoke the Japanese soldiers from their cave, “It looks like we’ll have to do a little mopping up ourselves.  Move in frontally.  Go right in there and wipe ’em out.”

 

The sergeant and some of the soldiers push back.  What the lieutenant is proposing would guarantee casualties, on both sides.  There is little justification to assault the cave in a frontal attack.  Causarano asks the lieutenant how long he’s been out there, on the battlefield.

“What’s that got to do with it?” Katell responds, defensively.

“You talk like it’s a football game, Lieutenant,” Causarano says.  “And this is no football game. . . . You have to remember . . . you haven’t been shot at yet.  And you haven’t shot anybody, either.”

Lieutenant Katell acknowledges his relative inexperience, but promises, “When it comes to killing Japanese, I think you’ll find me a pretty efficient officer.”

 

Later, the men smear mud on their faces for camouflage.  They are grim.  There isn’t much talking. The decision has been made–they are gearing up to assault the cave.

As they prepare, Lieutenant Katell notices Sergeant Causarano giving him a look.

“I’m not your cup of tea, am I, Sergeant?” Katell asks.

“You got a little too much vinegar for me, Lieutenant,” Causarano says, and makes a plea to bypass the cave.  The men trapped in there are “sick and half-starved.”  Why go through with this?

“Because they’re Japs!” the lieutenant snarls, as if that explains everything.

“They’re men,” the sergeant counters.

 

Lieutenant Katell cannot hide his disdain.  “If I had to size you up,” he says, “I’d say you’ve either got battle fatigue or you’re chicken.”

Causarano admits he may be a little of both. The war has gone on too long.  Too much has been lost. Enough is enough.

Katell blasts him again, calling him a “lousy soldier,” and reminding him that “when you fight a war, you fight a war!  And you kill until you’re ordered to stop killing!”

 

The sergeant can only shake his head.  “What’s your pleasure, Lieutenant?” he says.  “How many men have to die before you’re satisfied?”

To which Katell answers, “Offhand, I’d say all of ’em!  No matter who they are or where they are, if they’re the enemy, they get it!  First day of the war or last day of the war, they get it!”

Here, flustered, the lieutenant drops his binoculars.  And everything changes . . .

 

A Japanese soldier picks up the binoculars, hands them to the lieutenant, addressing him as “Lieutenant Yamuri.”

 

The lieutenant, shaken and confused, runs off, only to be shot at by enemy gunfire.  But when he looks at the enemy soldiers, he sees they are American soldiers.

When he returns to where his men are, he asks, “Who are you?  Where are we?  When?”

To his astonishment, he is told it is May 1942–over three years earlier.  Even more perplexing, the lieutenant slowly understands he is now–somehow–a Japanese officer.  “What’s going on?  What’s happened to me?” he wants to know.

 

The captain arrives.  He is a serious, scowling-faced man, and he is not pleased with the lieutenant’s antics and confusion.  He tells him so.  Lieutenant Yamuri, nee Katell, tries to pull himself together, tells the captain he is okay now, that he was just “feverish for a moment.”

The captain then reports that the artillery fire has failed to do its job.  The Americans trapped in the cave before them have not been destroyed, and have not surrendered.  They will undertake a full frontal assault, and Lieutenant Yamuri will lead the charge.

But the lieutenant is shaken.  It has dawned on him that he is now living the same situation, except in reverse.  No longer is he an American officer commanding a platoon to ambush a cave full of beaten, injured Japanese soldiers.  Now he is a Japanese officer being commanded to lead an assault on a cave full of beaten, wounded American soldiers.

He objects to the mission.  The Americans holed up in that cave are wounded, sick.  Couldn’t they simply bypass the cave?  Why attack it?

 

The captain is not sympathetic.  “They are Americans!” he says.  “They are the enemy!  We have to destroy them.”  He goes on to explain the well-being of enemy soldiers should concern the lieutenant no more than an anthill he might step on during the attack.

“But they are men!” Lieutenant Yamuri says.

The captain slaps him, leaves him there.  They will attack without him.

 

“May I ask the captain,” Yamuri says, “how many must die before he is satisfied?”

The captain’s words are hauntingly familiar:  “I would say all of them!  No matter who they are or where they are, if they’re the enemy, they die!  First day of the war or last day of the war, they die!”

 

Stunned, the lieutenant glances at his binoculars, and in that instant, he is returned to 1945.  He is the American Lieutenant Katell again, in the moments just before he and his men are to ambush the Japanese cave.

But he is no longer the angry, gung-ho man of action.  His face is ashen.

Suddenly, there is cheering among the soldiers in the camp.  Army headquarters has called.  The war is over.  The platoon has been ordered to retreat.  The impending battle has been averted.

Sergeant Causarano, seeing the lieutenant standing there, shell-shocked, mistakes his reaction to be one of disappointment.

“I wouldn’t fret,” Causarano says.  “There’ll be other caves, other wars, other human beings you can knock off.”

To which Lieutenant Katell, changed, solemn, remarks, “I hope not.  God help us, I hope not.”

 

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

The fracturing of society, the clear lines of demarcation many people draw between themselves and others is by no means a thing of the past, relegated to television shows in grainy black and white, originally aired six decades ago.  Our time has been witness to a disheartening and increasing extremism, a polarization of politics, where nationalism, xenophobia, and an “us-versus-them” worldview are on full display.

 

Ryan Swinton does not like being viewed as an “other.”  He doesn’t like being left out, abandoned, misunderstood.  Shamed.  None of us do.

As he so often did, Rod Serling offered a fitting takeaway.  In the closing voice-over to “A Quality of Mercy,” Serling says:

“‘The quality of mercy is not strained.  It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.’  Shakespeare.  The Merchant of Venice.  But applicable to any moment in time, to any group of soldiery, to any nation on the face of the earth–or, as in this case, to the Twilight Zone.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A New Year, A New Resolve

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been the sort of person who makes New Year’s resolutions.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s because, growing up, in that faraway land of the twentieth century, I witnessed so many people I knew break their resolutions by the second week of January.  The whole thing just seemed silly to me.

newyearresolutions

 

I remember, as a kid, too, questioning the wisdom of the calendar.  There was one particularly snowy and blustery New Year’s Day, in Rochester, New York, when I was ten years old.  I asked my older brother, eighteen at the time, why we began a new year in the dead of winter, when the world outside was a monochrome of whites and grays, a black-and-white landscape devoid of color, absent of growth.  Shouldn’t the new year begin in the spring, when the grass turns green and the flowers bloom?

spring

 

He just looked at me, frowned, and shrugged.  It was the kind of shrug that said, “What in the world are you talking about?  Get real.” And then he proceeded to tell me his New Year’s resolution . . .

This year, though, as I continue working on the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, as I push ahead with various and sundry projects, I have decided to make a few resolutions of my own.

1.  I resolve to stop checking my Amazon sales ranking every day.  It’s a self-defeating habit for the most part, and besides, can anyone out there explain the mathematics behind the ranking?  It fluctuates wildly from day to day, sale to sale.  I am sure there are good, solid theories and algorithms behind it, but from this author’s perspective, it’s a roller-coaster ride.  (Now, if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I need to check my Amazon sales ranking . . .)

amazonsalesrank

 

2.  I resolve to never split another infinitive–to never do that, ever again.

splitinfinitve

 

3.  I resolve to avoid all cliches in my writing.  At the end of the day, it’s originality that counts.  And you do the best you can, and let the chips fall where they may.  It is what it is.

avoidclichesshirt

 

4.  I resolve to stop making any more New Year’s resolutions . . . evidently, they just don’t work for me.

Well–perhaps that’s not entirely true.  There may be a couple of resolutions that I can feel strongly about, that I can get behind and use as motivation as the new year dawns.

The first is–I am resolving, here and now, to do everything I can to finish the first draft of the sequel to The Eye-Dancers before the end of this calendar year.  The sequel (still untitled!) is approximately half-finished.  Much has been accomplished, but much still needs to get done.  This past year was inordinately chaotic for me, on several fronts, which, admittedly, slowed down the writing process.  But in 2015, no excuses.  I aim to complete the sequel this year and, of course, discover an appropriate title!

titles

 

But there is another resolution I want to make, and would like to appeal to everyone to join in.

The world we live in moves fast.  We are bombarded with news, headlines, videos, texts, emails, shopping lists, equipment to fix, doctors to visit, bills to pay, money to earn, responsibilities to meet.  Sometimes, it seems, we’re twisting and turning, in the eye of the storm, the wind and the rain battering, swirling, unceasing.

eyeofstorm

 

In the midst of all of this, it’s easy to drift, stumble, wander along an unknown woodland path at dusk and find that, by nightfall, we’re lost, unable to find our way back home.

lost

 

And so, in 2015, at some point, hopefully far more than just once, I resolve to take a deep breath, turn everything off, and just be still.

I resolve to look up at the night sky when it’s clear–perhaps in the luxurious warmth of midsummer, amidst the hoot owls and rodents and crickets playing their fiddles from somewhere hidden, unseen in the dark; perhaps in the soft, white silence of February, my breath visible like smoke upon the air–and count the stars, ponder them, admire them, and wonder at the possibilities.

starsinsky

 

I resolve to make time, somehow, some way, to allow that wonder to manifest itself in me.

Will you join me?

Read your favorite novel at a slow, leisurely pace.  Watch a Frank Capra classic with the smartphone turned off.  Sing a song off-key with no one watching, or with everyone watching.  Flip through an old comic book you used to enjoy when you were a kid.  Learn a new craft or hobby, not because you “should,” but because you want to.  Draw a picture.  Finish that book you’re working on (note to self!).  Write a poem.  Smile at a corny joke, or tell one.  Curl up on the sofa and watch reruns of your favorite sitcom.

sa150

honeymooners

 

Do something fun.

Do something you love.

somethingyoulove

 

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

I wish you all a wonderful, blessed, and creative 2015.  Let’s make it our best year yet.

2015

 

Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

Quiet Moments, Green Meadows

“Everything in life is writable about,” Sylvia Plath once said, “if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise.”

plath

 

Everything?

Sure, large events are worth writing about, both joyous as well as painful–perhaps a wedding, a graduation, a medal of honor; a death, an accident, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity lost.

graduation

 

Who among us hasn’t experienced life-changing moments, moments we want to record on paper or in song, on canvas or in film?  This is at the heart of what it means to create art . . . to take an experience, highly personal and unique to you, and then share it with the world, making it, as if by magic, accessible to everyone, a universal tribute to the human condition.

art

 

But what about the small moments, the quiet times, the everyday jobs?  What about that time you shared a lighthearted conversation with a friend, or had lunch with a coworker?  What about the special meal you prepared last Thursday or the audiobook you’re listening to as you commute to your job each morning?

smallmoments

 

Are these things writable too?

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

Every year, on a weekend in May, I take the seven-hour drive from the hills of east-central Vermont, where I live, to Rochester, New York, where I grew up.  This year, that weekend has arrived.  I’ll be heading out first thing tomorrow morning.

rochesterbetter

 

I always enjoy the drive.  May in the northeastern U.S. is a special time, a time made for driving across the countryside.  Lilacs bloom, showering the land with a riot of color–deep pink, lily white, warm purple.  Tall grasses, lush-green, sway in the breeze.  And the trees, bare and gray for so many months, are now bedecked with the leafy accoutrements of spring.

lilacs

 

The towns, too, are alive, as if awakening from a winter-long slumber.  Before merging onto the New York State Thruway, I travel through places with names like Hudson Falls, Schuylerville, Fort Ann, and Fonda.  Small towns, old towns, with local diners and rambling farmhouses and village squares that, very easily, I can imagine as cinematic set pieces for a Frank Capra classic.  It’s all very nostalgic, and it creates in me a stirring, a yearning, an appreciation.

hudsonfalls

 

Driving through the towns, I see children playing catch, a lemonade stand on the corner, a couple walking their dog.  And I realize–it’s good to be alive on this spring day, in the 21st century.  It’s good to be going home.

lemonadestand

 

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

I lived countless “little” moments in the house where I grew up, the house where my parents still live.  There were so many, in fact, they tend to merge in my mind, one upon another upon another, like an old home movie playing at triple speed.  But I remember.

homemovies

 

I will always remember  . . .

. . . all the times I played with my brother.  We’d re-create baseball and football seasons with our favorite game, Strat-O-Matic.  Or we’d go into the backyard, and he would play quarterback and I would run routes, pretending I was playing in front of a hundred thousand fans on a Sunday afternoon.  I was just a kid, of course, nine years old, eleven, twelve, and at the time I may not have appreciated the attention my brother gave me as much as I should have.  But I’d like to think that, deep down, I did.  He is nine years older than me.  He was a junior in high school, a senior, then a college student, and still he found the time, and the desire, to be there for me.

strato

 

Is that worth writing about?

Or what about my mother?  Some of my earliest memories are of her reading picture books to me.  I was three years old, and she play-acted the scenes and made the stories come alive, no doubt planting a seed, creating in me a love of reading and writing that would stay with me always.

beanstalk

 

Is that worth writing about?

Or what about my friends, who lived in the old neighborhood?  The same friends who inspired Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski in The Eye-Dancers, not to mention various supporting characters who pop up throughout the course of the novel.  I remember the games we invented, the trouble we got into, the things we would talk about on those clear summer nights when the stars, twinkling like precious diamonds, spread across the great dome of the sky.  We’d wonder–is there life up there, somewhere?  Are we really alone in the universe?  We didn’t think so.  Not then, and not now.

nightsky

 

Is that worth writing about?

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

These quiet moments, these small moments, these green May meadows of the soul–soft with morning dew, carpeted with dandelions and velvety to the touch–are the sorts of places that encourage us to stop and linger for a while, to ponder where we’ve come from, and where we’re going.

dandelionmeadow

 

To reflect on the ever-expanding, layered embroidery of our lives, the day-to-day happenings that comprise the bulk of who we are and what we do.  And what and who we love.

And that’s something worth writing about.

memoriesmoments

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Precious Jewels Hidden in Tattered Pages

I remember it well.  It was one of those lazy midsummer days in western New York State, the air thick with humidity, the droning, mechanical call of the cicadas giving voice to the trees.

cicadas

 

My parents were entertaining an old family friend, who lived out of state.  He hadn’t visited in several years, and now, upon his arrival, I wanted to impress him–with my growing comic book collection.  I was seventeen years old, a month away from my senior year in high school, and I was eager to show this well-traveled gentleman, who lived in a fancy home out West, that I was no slouch myself.

senioryear

 

He slapped me on the back, told me he remembered me as a little kid with a bowl-shaped haircut, four feet tall–where had that kid gone?  I told him I collected old comic books, had been for years now.  Would he care to see the cream of my collection?

me

 

“Comic books?” he said.  “They’re worth something, eh?”

Were they ever!  I showed him the latest edition of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, published annually each April with updated market values for every American comic book that has ever graced the newsstand.  And I pointed out some of the issues I owned, purchased months or years ago, but which, over time, had appreciated, their price tag growing like green plants in a well-tended garden.

overstreet1

 

“Kind of like buying blue chip stock, I see,” he said, as I showed him my most prized issues, vintage copies of The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, along with select issues of Superman, Batman, and other heroes from yesteryear.

avengers57

 

ff48

 

After a few minutes, I could no longer resist.

superman

 

“You know what these are all worth, put together?”

He didn’t hesitate.  “Absolutely.  They’re worth whatever someone will pay you for them.”

I exhaled, feeling like a pin-pricked balloon, all my pride and anticipation and excitement bleeding out of me, drip by drip.  Whatever someone will pay for them?  But . . . what if I didn’t want to sell them?  Did that negate their worth altogether?  And besides, I didn’t like viewing my comic books as commodities in such a bald, in-your-face manner.  Sure, I bought the Overstreet Guide every spring when it came out.  And sure again, I enjoyed seeing issues I already owned rising in value.  But that wasn’t why I owned them, or why I’d bought them.

Was it?

balloon

 

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

In The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant shares my love of old comics, particularly The Fantastic Four.  They hold for him, as they always have for me, an undeniable magic.  And yet, he, too, feels the need to put a monetary value on them–and a fictional one at that.  As he is prone to do, Mitchell exaggerates their worth, claiming, to anyone who will listen, that his collection would go for thirty thousand dollars if he wanted to sell it.  He knows this is a gross misrepresentation of the truth, but he just can’t seem to help himself.

comiccollection

 

I would like to believe, however, that when he is alone, thinking about it in more depth, he will realize he is not only lying to his friends.

He’s also lying to himself–for reasons that go far beyond the actual market value of his collection.

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

When the out-of-state family friend left the next day, returning to the house he had built, the life he had fashioned, I still felt bad.  And I felt worse when I checked the values of my best issues yet again in the price guide.  What was I doing?  Had my perspective really shifted so far from center?  I needed a new outlook, or, to be more accurate, an old outlook–the same one I once had, when I was nine years old buying my first comics off the drug-store  rack that squeaked when I spun it, round and round, watching the covers flash before my eyes like action scenes from the greatest movie I ever saw.  I needed something to remind me why I had started collecting old comic books in the first place.

spinningrack

 

So I sat down on my bedroom floor, cross-legged, and pulled out my priciest issues–not as a collector, or an investor, or even a hobbyist.  But as a reader.  As a lover of the ride they took me on.  As a seventeen-year-old, standing on the rocky, high precipice of academic choices, college majors, and career decisions but wanting, desperately, to cling to an aspect of my childhood that seemed to be receding, day by day, further into the shadowlands of an irretrievable past.

cliff

 

I read issue after issue that day, copies printed years before I was born, stories that transported me to other worlds, distant galaxies, negatively charged universes, where the very atoms of matter itself were in complete opposition to our own.  I read about super villains who wanted to rule the world and who spouted off the corniest dialogue I had ever heard, and yet I loved every word.  I read about characters I had grown up with, who I knew so well it seemed they were real, and might at any moment jump out of the illustrated panels and join me in my room.

negativezone

 

And when I put those comics away, I felt better than I had in days . . .

I won’t lie.  I still purchased the Overstreet Price Guide in subsequent springs, still checked the market value of my comics from year to year.  But I also read through the entire Price Guide, enjoying the pictures of countless old comic book covers and reading the informative articles on the hobby.  It was now a supplement, a part of a whole.  It no longer defined the whole.

Because the truth of the matter was, those old comic books, many with brittle covers and spine rolls, water stains and clipped-out advertisements, housed jewels of the rarest sort within their tattered and yellowed pages.

sparklingjewels

 

Later that same summer, talking with a friend of mine, my comic book collection came up.

Inevitably, perhaps, the question arose:  “So, what’s your collection worth?”

I looked at him, smiled.

“Priceless,” I said.

sunsetpriceless

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Short Story — “Jump”

The Eye-Dancers is, at its heart, a coming-of-age story for the main characters–Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Marc Kuslanski, and Ryan Swinton.  Journeying through a strange and distant world, each boy must confront, and overcome, the self-doubts that have always held him back.

In the short story “Jump,” which I wrote approximately one year before beginning The Eye-Dancers, the protagonist must face a similar nagging self-doubt.  A strange, unforeseen warning in a supermarket threatens to trip up the plans he’s made after wrestling with his fears and insecurities.  Can he learn from the failures of his past and slay the demons that, far too often, have held him back from pursuing his dreams?

I hope you enjoy “Jump.”

supermarket

 

washedaway

 

jump

 

stream

 

“Jump,”

Copyright 2014 by Michael S. Fedison

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

The young man with the long black hair stared at Joe.

“You know,” he said, his head tilting to the side, as if he were pondering the mystery of the universe, “you better stay home tomorrow.”

Joe blinked, tried to reorient himself.  What was going on?  He’d been browsing the boxed desserts in the baking aisle, thinking of a sweet treat he’d enjoy making that evening.  A few customers walked by, nothing out of the ordinary.  But then this kid—he couldn’t have been more than twenty—had strolled up to him.  He didn’t have a shopping cart, and apparently wasn’t here to buy anything.

Joe stood behind his grocery cart, instinctively using it as a buffer.  He eyed the products he’d placed in the cart already—too many carbs and sweets, as always—and he felt a mark of shame rise to his cheeks.  The kid before him was fit and trim.  He probably thought Joe, who was thirty-five pounds overweight and gaining, was a heart attack waiting to happen.  Still, that didn’t explain why he’d approached him.

“What are you talking about?” Joe asked.  He pushed his cart further down the aisle, hoping the kid might take the hint and leave him alone.

No such luck.

“Look,” the young man said, brushing greasy bangs from his eyes, “just stay home tomorrow, all right?  It’s weird.  I mean, I get these feelings, man, you know?  And when I just spotted you now, I got a feeling.  Real strong and clear.”

Oh boy.  He was dealing with a nutcase here.  Either that or someone with a perverse sense of humor who had too much time on his hands.  He wheeled his cart into the next aisle.  Chips and soda.  Great.  As if he needed more junk food in his cupboards.  A middle-aged blonde woman sped by, smelling of Chanel no. 5.

“A feeling?” he said.  Dumb.  Real dumb.  Why engage in conversation with this kid?

“Yeah,” the kid said.  “Like, I mean . . . I don’t know, you know?  Sometimes my feelings aren’t so specific.  But this one was powerful, man.  Like a punch to the gut.  It’s like this.  If you leave your house tomorrow, I mean, like, if you even just like step outside, something’ll happen to you.  Something bad.”

He stopped, his hands tightly gripping onto the cart handle.  Was this more than just a coincidence?  Did this kid know Janine?  Had he caught word of what Joe intended to do?  But that was impossible.  He hadn’t told a soul about his plans.

Still, this was too weird.  He didn’t need this.  He was nervous enough about tomorrow already.

He got moving again, ignoring the kid.

“Hey!  Don’t you get it?  I’m trying to help you.  I’m not getting anything out of telling you this, you know.  It’s just, like, I’m trying to warn you, y’know?  Just being a good Samaritan, that’s all.”

A young couple stopped their cart a couple of feet away.  The man reached for a bag of pretzels, while the woman wrinkled her nose but said nothing.

“If you want to be a good Samaritan, why don’t you just go on your way?” Joe said.  He didn’t want to come off as rude, but enough was enough.

The kid shrugged.  “Okay.  Just remember what I said.  About tomorrow.  By Sunday, you should be good to go.  But tomorrow, man, lock your doors and stay inside.”

With that, he walked away.

The woman who had wrinkled her nose at the pretzels eyed his retreating figure, then looked at Joe.

He almost blurted out, “I don’t know him, don’t look at me!”  But he just glanced away and pushed his cart down the aisle.

Joe sat on his couch, looking out the window as darkness fell over the neighborhood.  He’d just finished supper, and he had gone all out, just as he’d planned.  Lasagna with a zesty marinara sauce and fresh-baked Italian bread, followed by a lemon pound cake for dessert.  He felt like he’d gained five pounds since morning.  The food did nothing to still his nerves, though.

He wished Janine were here.  He could always talk to her, tell her feelings he could never share with anyone else.  But she was visiting a sick girlfriend tonight, on the other side of town.  Besides . . . she wouldn’t be the one to confide in about this, anyway.  He was planning to surprise her, after all.  Tomorrow.  He sighed, and slunk back into the couch.

The TV was on—a meaningless late-season baseball game, with half the players from both sides having recently been called up from Triple-A.  He was hoping for a diversion, he supposed.  Something to take his mind off tomorrow, off the troublemaker at the grocery store.  But nothing worked.

“You’re such an idiot,” he said aloud, just as the twenty-two-year-old first baseman on the television grounded into an inning-ending double play.  “Get over it.  That punk doesn’t know you, doesn’t know Janine.  It was just a fluke, that’s all.  A coincidence.”

Maybe it was, but it nagged him.  Why did this have to happen now?  Of all the tomorrows in his life, why was he cautioned about this one?  The one where he planned on making the boldest, most challenging decision of his life.  Was the young man, with his uncanny warning, trying to tell him not to go through with it?  Not to take the chance?

“That’s stupid,” he said, just as the last commercial ended and the ballgame started up again.  He had wrestled with this decision for months, painstakingly going through the pros and cons, trying to overcome his fears.  He had finally built up the courage.  How could he let a stranger’s sick sense of humor or pathological need to create a stir get to him like this?

“I guess maybe they were right,” he said.  “Those kids.  Maybe I’m just chicken.  Always hesitating.  Always reluctant to take the . . . ”

 

“ . . . jump!  Let’s jump it!”

They were standing at the edge of a gash in the dirt road.  It was about three-and-a-half-feet wide.  The only way to cross was to jump.  To the left, a steep, wooded hillside blocked the way.  It would have been nearly impossible to navigate.  To the right, the remains of the road abruptly fell away to a rushing stream, which thrashed its way through boulders, pieces of twisted metal, and fallen tree limbs.

“Wow,” Joe said, more to himself than the others.  “Look at this.”

The two boys with him shrugged.

“You should’ve seen it last year, just after it happened,” the taller boy, Bobby Hartstock, said.  “They cleaned it up since then.  This is nothing anymore.”

Joe swallowed, listening to the stream speed along on its course.  It was water, the destructive power of water, that had turned this section of road into the impassable mess he saw now.  He hadn’t been here when it happened, last fall.  His parents had just moved to the area a few weeks ago.  But he’d heard the stories.  About the storm, the flood, and the road that got washed away.  Still, hearing about it and seeing it were two different things.

What they were standing on, in fact, could hardly be classified as a road.  The entire right side was gone.  This stretch of the road was now a narrow footpath.  Bobby and the other kid, Peter Collins, stood next to each other, in front, and Joe stood close behind them.  There wasn’t enough room for the three boys to stand together, side by side.  If one of them took just a couple of steps to the right, he would fall off the edge.  Where the road had been, only a ragged, steeply sloping ravine remained.  Rusty outflow pipes jutted out like sawed-off knives.  The guardrail, which had once hugged the right side of the road, protecting motorists from the thirty-foot plunge to the fast-flowing, rock-filled stream below, was suspended in midair, hanging there like a dying snake.  It was hard for Joe to believe that a real road had been here, just a year ago.  It hardly seemed imaginable.  The only saving grace was that no homes had been hit.  This stretch of road wound through uninhabited forests and meadows.  Joe’s new neighbors had told his mom that it had been used as a shortcut before the storm.  Residents doubted that the road would ever be repaired.  Too much money involved, and not enough justification to fix it.

“So, you wanna see more?” Bobby asked.  He had turned around to look at Joe.  He and Peter Collins lived a few houses down from him.  They had seen him walking alone one evening, and joined him.  School had just started, too.  And they were his first friends since moving here.  He was thankful for that.  He didn’t make friends easily, and starting ninth grade in a new town was challenging enough, without the additional pressure of finding people to hang around with.

“I don’t know,” Joe said.  “How can we?”

Peter rolled his eyes.  “You just gotta jump, that’s all!”  He motioned to the gash in the road, the one that blocked their forward progress.  It lay there like an open wound.  The drop was fifteen, maybe twenty feet.  There were small stones mixed with broad-shouldered boulders at the bottom, before they fell away to the right, toward the slope that led to the stream.

“What’s up ahead?” Joe wanted to know.

Bobby smiled.  “It’s even better up ahead!  The road goes up higher, and the drop to the stream is awesome up there!  C’mon.  Let’s go.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Bobby leaped across the gash.  Joe closed his eyes, afraid that he might trip or stumble on a small rock, and then fall, headfirst into the hole.  But when he dared to look again, all he saw was Bobby standing on the other side, waving for Peter and Joe to follow.  Peter did.  He made it seem easy, just like jumping over a kid’s dirt hole in the backyard or playing a game of hopscotch in the neighborhood.

Joe walked to the lip of the hole.  He knew it was his turn.

Bobby cleared his throat.  “Well?”

He looked up, as if trying to garner the courage.  A crow flew overhead, cawing loudly, its voice echoing down like an accusation.  Joe wished he could sprout wings and follow that crow, over the hillside, clear across to the other side of the valley.

He noticed all the loose rocks, the strewn pebbles and fallen leaves.  So many things that might cause him to trip and fall, just as he readied himself to jump.  He didn’t want to fall down that hole.  If he landed on those boulders, they would—

“C’mon, are you coming or not?” Peter said.  “We don’t got all day, Joe.”

“Um.”  He knew he couldn’t jump.  And he hated himself for it.

“Whatsamatter?  You chicken?”  It was Bobby.  “A little girl could jump that hole, Joe.  Don’t be a wuss.”

He started to sweat, then.  He could feel his shirt sticking to his skin, despite the late September chill.  He was stuck.  Found out.  There was no place to run.

“Geez, I thought you were different,” Peter said.

Bobby shook his head, and the boys turned to walk away, further up the road.  They turned a corner, and were gone.  They hadn’t even looked back at him.

“Wait,” he croaked, to the air, to the hardy insects of early fall, the ceaselessly rushing stream below.  “Wait.”

But all he did was stand there, stranded, unable to follow, unable to . . .

“ . . . jump.  Sometimes, you just have to step out in faith and take a chance, you know, Joe?”

He knew, and he knew she was right.  Janine usually was.  But how could he make such a commitment?  How could he know it would all work out?

They were sitting on her sofa, in the apartment she had rented uptown.  It was February, and snow was falling like fluffy popcorn from chalkboard-gray clouds.  He had known Janine for over two years now.  They met at work.  He had been new to the city, didn’t know anyone.  She bumped into him, literally, in the narrow hallway that spanned the front of the building.  He blushed, stuttered, but, miraculously, she had invited him to join her for lunch.  He did.  Then he fell in love with her.

But what she was asking of him now . . .

“Look, I know your mom and dad split up.”  They had.  His first year of college, his mom had called him in his dorm room, crying.  Dad had walked out on her.  After twenty-five years, he just walked away without an explanation.  Joe always thought they were happy together.  If his parents couldn’t make it, who could?  “But you’re not you’re father, Joe.  We’re not them.  Or any other couple who’s broken it off.  We’re us.  Can’t you see that?”

“Yes.”  The sofa cushions felt soft on his back, too soft, as though they were trying to suck him in, trap him.  He leaned forward.

“Joe, you know I love you.”

He looked at her.  The beautiful blue eyes, close to tears.  The long brown hair.  It amazed him all the time that she could love him.  But she did.  He never doubted that.

“And you love me, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.  But I . . . I need a little more time.  I’m just not sure if I can . . .”

She got up then, looked out the window into the white heart of the snow.  She stayed like that for minutes.  It felt to Joe like hours.  Finally, she turned around.

“I don’t want to be with anyone else, Joe, you know that.  But I can’t be expected to wait forever.  I’m not trying to rush you.  I’ll give you more time, if you think you need it.  But . . . I won’t wait forever.  You know I want to have a family.  You know. . . .”

He nodded.  He wanted to say something, to comfort her, encourage her with his words.  But he didn’t.  He couldn’t.

All he could do was get up, walk to her, and take her into his arms.  Neither of them said another word, while, outside, silently, ceaselessly, the snow continued to fall.

That had been eight months ago.  Janine hadn’t brought the topic up again, but he knew she was thinking about it.  There was an expectation about her, a hope, an unspoken pressure she was exerting.

He flicked off the baseball game—it wasn’t helping him to get his mind off himself.  It was just background noise, making it hard to think.

This wasn’t just about Janine, or that old wrecked road twenty years ago.  All his life he had taken the path of least resistance.  Even with his profession.  He was an accountant.  That’s how he lived his life, too.  Always calculating, weighing the debits and credits, wanting things to be sure and safe before daring to step forward.

There was the baseball team in high school.  He wanted to try out for the squad.  He’d practiced his pitching with his dad every day that spring.  But when the time came to sign up, he skulked away.  He didn’t want to fail.  Didn’t want to make a fool of himself in front of the other players.  Besides, maybe he wasn’t even any good.

In college, his English professor had encouraged him to enter his essay on the poetry of John Donne into the Mills Award Contest, which awarded a prize of one hundred dollars to the student who turned in the best written document of the academic year.  But Joe never submitted his essay.

There were the girls he liked in school, but never asked out.  The friends he would have liked to make, but whom he never approached.  The words he had always left unspoken for the people who mattered to him.  The opportunities, the chances that had always been there for him, but which he had never taken.

He was tired of it all.  Last night, as he lay there in bed, staring up at the ceiling, he had made up his mind.

He would go to the jewelry shop, buy an engagement ring.  And then he would go to Janine, look her in the eyes, drop down to one knee, and ask her to marry him.  He loved her.  And he wasn’t going to throw it all away because he was afraid.  He was going to take the jump.  Tomorrow.

But then the kid at the grocery store had to come and throw a wrench into things.  Was there something to his warning?  What did he know?  Was Joe making a mistake?  Should he reconsider?

“Oh, just shut up!” he yelled.  But the thoughts would not stop.  They came at warp speed.  Don’t leave the house tomorrow!  Don’t buy the ring.  What if she says no?  What if she marries you, but then leaves you for another guy?  You’re so boring, she probably will.  What if she jilts you at the altar?  It’s happened before.  Lots of times.

In self-defense, he turned on the baseball game again, just in time to see a pop fly to right field end the inning.  Restless, he strolled into the kitchen, poured himself a cup of coffee, took a sip.  He knew that sleep was far off.  Might as well give himself a jolt of caffeine.

He didn’t even attempt to go to bed.  He just half-sat, half-laid down on the couch.  At some point, deep in the bowels of the night, he nodded off.  When his eyes reopened a short while later, he saw that dawn had arrived.  Tomorrow had come.  His moment of decision was at hand.

He opened the front door.  Sunlight smote him in the face, and he closed his eyes.  In his mind he could hear the kid from the store:  “If you leave your house tomorrow . . . something’ll happen to you.  Something bad.”

Since waking up, he had wrestled further with his decision, hemmed and hawed.  In the end, though, he knew he had to go through with it.  He wasn’t sure if the kid’s warning was Fate’s way of attempting to hold him back, scare him off.  But it didn’t matter.  Not anymore.  He was through running away.

The threshold was right in front of him.  He knew that as soon as he stepped over it, there would be no return.  This was a one-way trip.

He was surprised at the unease he felt.  He thought, once he had made his mind up, the doubts would pass away.  But they hadn’t.

He looked past the threshold, and there, right in front of him, was the old destroyed road, with the three-and-a-half-foot-wide gash.  The gash came right up to the threshold.  The only way outside would be to jump over it.

He blinked several times, trying to rid himself of the illusion.  But it wouldn’t go away.  Just the opposite, in fact.  Each time he looked, the details of the road became clearer, clearer.  The fallen leaves, the pebbles and stones waiting to trip him up, the guardrail off to the side, floating in midair like some broken metallic arm.  He could even hear the rushing stream below.

Resigned, he understood.  There could be no avoiding it.  It had to be this way.

He took a deep breath.  Stepped on to the threshold.  Looked into the hole, at the boulders and sharp, jagged rocks waiting to cripple him if he should stumble and fall.

For a brief moment, he thought of turning away, retreating into the safe refuge of his home, and closing the door.  But he didn’t.

“Here goes nothing,” he said.

He jumped.

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

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Sense of Wonder

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite pastimes was playing Trivial Pursuit.  One Saturday night each month, my parents invited our neighbors to come over and play.  We would usually play two games, eat impossible amounts of food, laugh a lot, and compete.  Though the games were fun, each team wanted to win.

trivialpursuit

 

Some of the questions were easy, others remarkably obscure.  I tried to remember as much of the trivia as I could from game to game–I have always had a knack for holding on to useless information!

Many of the questions were run-of-the-mill.  Who won the Cy Young Award for the National League in 1984? (Rick Sutcliffe.)  Who was the 23rd president of the United States? (Benjamin Harrison.)  Who won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1956? (Ingrid Bergman.)

ingridbergman

 

But others were mind-bending.  I recall one such question that asked what object weighed approximately 6.5 sextillion tons.  (The earth.)  What was the heaviest known substance in the universe, so heavy, in fact, that a teaspoon-full would weigh more than every person on the globe put together? ( A neutron star.)  Where did the lowest-ever recorded temperature on earth, -128.6 degrees Fahrenheit, occur in 1983?  (Vostok Station, Antarctica.)

antartica

 

Somewhere along the line, though, something struck me.  Here we were, playing a game, testing our knowledge on everything from baseball to cooking, from television history to astronomy and the mysteries of the universe.  And I realized–I was much more concerned with getting the questions answered correctly than I was absorbing the information and thinking about it.  Some of the facts I learned playing Trivial Pursuit were astonishing.  Didn’t they merit at least some pondering and reflection?

catthinking

 

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

In The Eye-Dancers, when we first meet Marc Kuslanski, he is a know-it-all, the class science wiz, the one Mitchell Brant, Ryan Swinton, and Joe Marma turn to when they are haunted by the “ghost girl” in their dreams.  Marc likes to figure things out.  He reduces complex puzzles to their simplest form, and logically and meticulously solves them.  His view of the universe has no room in it for the unexplained.

equations

 

In chapter 6 of the novel, the narrative describes Marc’s views . . .

“Few things irritated him more than mindless adherence to false beliefs, or unsubstantiated assertions of ‘magic’ or ‘miracles.’  Or ghosts.  There was no magic.  There were no miracles, and there were certainly no spirits who stalked you in dreams.  There was only truth, and fact.  Everything had a valid, natural explanation, a reason grounded within the existing laws of the universe.  Today’s mysteries were nothing more than tomorrow’s ongoing catalog of scientific advancement and discovery.”

scientificdiscovery

 

Over the course of The Eye-Dancers, Marc’s perspective will be tested, challenged, and, ultimately, ambushed.

Maybe we are not as rigid with our views as Marc Kuslanski is with his, but certainly we live in an age of scientific marvels, technology that, a generation ago, would have been relegated to the world of science fiction.  No matter how hard we try to guard against it, sometimes the sense of wonder escapes us.

technology

 

A century ago, very few people would have conceived of commercial jet aircraft that can transport you around the world in the span of hours.  If they had observed such a machine, they would have gaped, wonder-struck, perhaps terrified.  Today, we are so accustomed to jets, we may yawn as they fly overhead.

We are saturated with technological marvels, advancements that have shaped and altered society.  Just twenty years ago, the idea of a smartphone, and all the accoutrements that go along with it, would have seemed a fiction, something to be found in the pages of a novel or in the mind of a movie producer or screenwriter.

smartphones

 

Even in this age of computer chips and digital communication and information overload, however, there are still many phenomena that boggle the senses and stretch the limits of the mind.

For instance . . . nearly everyone has stepped outside on a crisp, clear night and looked up at the stars.  They dot the sky, one by one; there are so many it becomes dizzying to count them all.  And yet . . . what we see is only the slightest fraction of the whole, a microscopic drop, a solitary snowflake in a winter storm.

starsinsky

 

There are more estimated stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all of the earth’s beaches put together.  And when you look up at those stars, when you make an errant wish, a resolution, a promise to the vastness that surrounds you, you are observing, in effect, the equivalent of a mere handful of sand.

grainsofsand

 

At times, the stars appear so close, close enough to reach up and touch.  But their distance is nearly impossible to fathom.  They are so far away, in fact, that the light you are seeing, striking your eye from the depths of space, may have taken millions of years to reach you.  You are, in effect, looking into the distant past. . . .

lookinpast

 

Or consider the sun.  We see it every day (well, not quite in Vermont in winter!).  It is constant, our own personal star, the one thing we can count on through all the changes and winding pathways of life.  It is so there, so present–it’s easy to forget the power and energy it emits.

thesun

 

Imagine for a moment that a pinhead-sized piece of the sun were to be brought down to the surface of the earth.  A speck, a mote of sun-dust.  Yet powerful enough to kill you if you were to approach to within even ninety miles.

pinhead

 

I fear that, at the beginning of The Eye-Dancers, Marc Kuslanski would have simply shrugged at these facts.  He is so concerned with the inner workings of the wonders of the universe, the reasons behind them, the ratios and equations that prove or disprove them, he cannot appreciate the wonders themselves.

logic

 

I would like to think that, by novel’s end, he would be more ready to pause and look and ponder.  And more ready to admit that not everything can be explained by a mathematical formula or a cold, logical theory.  Some things, by their very nature, must remain a mystery, beyond the purview of a textbook definition.

mystery

 

Some things must be experienced, not explained.  Marveled at, not dissected.

Loved, and not taken apart and analyzed.

Several decades ago, astronomer Carl Sagan may have said it best . . .

“Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star.  All of the rocky or metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star.

“We are made of star stuff.”

starstuff

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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