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

A Holiday Classic, and a Reminder to Imagine

We all have certain favorites that we like to turn to this time of year–go-to movies or television episodes or songs that beckon like a lighthouse in the dark.  And certainly, in my adopted state of Vermont, “dark” is an apt description.  The winter solstice occurs during the heart of the holiday season.  Sunset is early.  Sunrise is late.  In between, there are frigid, snow-filled days, gloomy with gray clouds that hover low over the frozen land like unwashed, soiled laundry.

 

It’s no wonder, then, that many people look for a tonic, some reliable holiday classic that never fails to elicit a feeling of warmth and thankfulness, of appreciation and goodwill.  For me, movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Trading Places serve to brighten my December, offering annual strolls down memory lane, retaining their luster and their shine.

 

The list of holiday classics is long, though.  I never have the chance to watch as many movies or select TV shows as I’d like to in any given holiday season.  But this month, I thought of one movie in particular that I hadn’t viewed in years, and I made a firm decision to remedy that oversight.  So, just last night, after a day in which nine inches of fresh snow had fallen on the Green Mountain State, I popped in the DVD, settled in with some popcorn and hot chocolate, and enjoyed . . .

 

Surely, Miracle on 34th Street is a Christmas classic.  Filmed in 1947, it as endearing now as the day it debuted in theaters seven decades ago.  And though I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen it, many of the scenes instantly came back to me as I watched, like being reacquainted with an old friend, too long absent but the memory of whom burns bright and vibrant in the soul.

 

The plot of Miracle on 34th Street is simple–corny, even.  And yet–there is a magic to this movie, and when the final credits roll at the end, you feel better for having watched it.  While Miracle on 34th Street is undoubtedly a Christmas movie, and deals with the theme in specific point of view–the true gift of this film runs deeper.  The crux of the plot centers around a lawyer’s attempt to “prove” that Santa Claus exists.  And in true vintage Hollywood fashion, he accomplishes this, and then goes one further by “proving” that an eccentric old man, who calls himself Kris Kringle and who plays a department store Santa at Macy’s in New York City, is, in fact, the genuine article.

 

For me, though, the heart of Miracle on 34th Street has very little to do with Santa, or even the holiday itself.  It has to do with faith. with the limitless power of thought, the vistas of our imagination, the lifelong struggle, and opportunity–even as we grow older and assume the responsibilities of adulthood–to retain at least some spark, some essence of our youth.

 

At one juncture in the movie, old Kris Kringle has a talk with Susan, a serious, thoroughly sensible little girl.  Susan tells Kris that she doesn’t like it when her friends and classmates play pretend games.  Such things are “silly,” she says–echoing her practical and everything-is-factual-and-tangible-minded mother.  Susan thinks to pretend is to depart from the real world, and is therefore a waste of time.

 

Kris flips the argument on its head, turning the perceived flaw into a strength.

In order to pretend, he tells the girl, you have to have the ability to imagine.

“Imagination is a place all by itself,” Kris explains.  “A separate country.  Now, you’ve heard of the French nation, the British nation.  Well this . . . is the imagi-nation.”  He promises her it’s a wonderful place.  “How would you like to have a ship all to yourself,” he asks, “that makes daily trips to China?  And Australia?  How would you like to be the Statue of Liberty in the morning, and then, in the afternoon, fly south with a flock of geese?”

 

Susan nods, moonstruck.  The old man is unlocking something heretofore buried inside of her, something real and essential, and needing to come out.

 

We all need the occasional flight of fancy.  We all need the ability to take a step back, temporarily forget about the bills, the doctor appointment, the in-box, the stack of papers on the desk, the planning for the party next week.  Granted, planning for the party next week is important.  And those bills won’t pay for themselves.  But it’s all too easy to get stuck on a treadmill, or caught on a straight and narrow path, hemmed in by featureless gray walls.

 

The Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street, in crisp black-and-white, the department store Santa Claus from the 1940s, the physical, earthy, jocular fellow, is a relic, the sights and sounds around him a living, moving time capsule.  But he has much to say to us even now, on the cusp of 2018.

 

The imagi-nation is a magical place, not just during the holidays, but the whole year through.

I’ll be sure to see you there.

 

Have a wonderful and blessed holiday, and thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (in St. Louis or Anywhere)!

There are magical moments in movies, in stories, in life–they become frozen in time, as it were, there to be captured, and recaptured, like old friends always ready to greet us with a hug and a smile.

frozenintime

 

There are, for example, signature moments I can recall from my past–memories, highlights, experiences that remain vivid and true, though decades may have elapsed. All I have to do is close my eyes, remember, and I am transported back, across a chasm of time and distance, as if by magic.

timetravel

 

Favorite scenes in books, movies, television shows offer a comforting helping hand, as well, only in this case, you don’t need to remember anything.  You can reread a favorite passage, rewatch a favorite scene–experiencing anew the special bond these creations share with you.

specialbonds

 

For me, one such movie is Meet Me in St. Louis, which hit the theaters in 1944 and starred Judy Garland, just five years removed from her signature role of Dorothy Gale, in The Wizard of Oz.  In Meet Me in St. Louis, a period piece, Garland portrays Esther Smith, against the backdrop of the 1904 World’s Fair.  Though much of the movie takes place in warmer months, I will always view Meet Me in St. Louis as a Christmas classic.

meetmeinstlouisposter

 

I’ve always enjoyed old movies.  Even as a kid, I’d happily tune in to old black-and-white classics, films from yesteryear, featuring larger-than-life icons like Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Katharine Hepburn.  So it was no surprise, one snowy December night, when I was fourteen years old, that I was watching Siskel and Ebert.  I used to watch their show every week back in the day, enjoying their analysis, their banter, their arguments.  But on this night, on the eve of the yuletide, they closed their program by showing a clip from Meet Me in St. Louis.

siskelandebert

 

“Here’s Judy Garland singing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,'” Gene Siskel announced–and instantly I entered into a story, a set of characters, a movie I had never seen or experienced.  But none of that mattered, because when I watched that clip–Garland’s character singing one of my favorite holiday songs to Margaret O’Brien, who plays her little sister in the film–it made no difference that I didn’t know the context of the scene or how it interacted with the overall flow of the film.

garlandsings

 

All that mattered was a magical performance, a holiday classic, a song and a scene that transcended its WWII-era audience and, somehow, managed to speak to me, a teenager in western New York State, born decades after the movie was filmed.

speaktomedecadeslater

 

And today, more than seventy years after Judy Garland sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on the Silver Screen, may the song’s spirit and sentiment reach everyone this holiday season.

“Let your heart be light,” and may your “troubles . . . be out of sight . . . as in olden days, happy golden days of yore; faithful friends who are dear to us gather near to us once more.”

Wishing all of you a happy and joyous holiday, and a blessed and merry New Year.

endofpost

 

See you all in 2016!

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

Hail and (Never) Farewell

Have you ever wondered, “What if?”  What if you could fly–not with the aid of an eighty-ton aerodynamic metal ship, but simply with the rising and falling of your arms?  What if you could travel to Mars, or Jupiter, or Venus, and, once there, discover that other forms of life, non-earthly forms of life, exist elsewhere in our solar system?  What if you could go backward in time, millions and millions of years, to a green, jungled past inhabited by monstrous flying reptiles and larger-than-life thunder lizards that we of today can scarcely imagine?

trex

 

Have you ever asked?

Of course you have.  We all have.  “What if?” it can be argued, is the great creative expression, the launch pad to unforgettable stories and adventures.

One of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, frequently asked, “What if?”  And, in fact, he asked the very questions presented above.

bradbury

 

The stories that resulted, masterpieces such as “Here There Be Tygers,” “The Long Rain,” and “A Sound of Thunder,” among many others, are gems of the highest order.

asoundofthunder

 

But there was another “What if?” question the prolific author asked . . . What if you never had to grow old?  What if you could stay forever twelve, forever young, regardless of the date printed on your birth certificate?

The resulting story, “Hail and Farewell,” is not as well known perhaps as some of Bradbury’s more recognizable tales.  But that takes nothing away from the story’s impact, power, and poignancy.

hailandfarewell

 

“Hail and Farewell” is about a twelve-year-old boy named Willie.  When we first meet Willie, and indeed, when anybody first meets Willie, he seems like any other twelve-year-old.  He looks twelve; he’s not inordinately big for his age–in fact, he is quite small.  If you were to walk by Willie on a street corner, you probably wouldn’t look twice–just an ordinary boy, perhaps returning home from school or strolling to a Saturday matinee or walking over to a friend’s.

matinee

 

But Willie is not your average, normal twelve-year-old boy–not by a long shot.  Willie is not, in actuality, twelve at all.  He is forty-three.  That’s what his records show, those are the facts.  But Willie discovered, long ago, that, in terms of outward appearance, he is forever twelve.  He cannot grow old.  He’ll never wrinkle, lose his hair, acquire the maladies and infirmities of old age.  A blessing of the highest order?  Perhaps.  But Willie also has a price to pay . . . a repeating cycle with no end.

He can never settle in, never remain.  He is a drifter, moving from town to town, school to school, state to state.  He learns of couples with no children, patiently, thoroughly researching his opportunities, trying to discover the people in whose lives he can inject some love and laughter, if only for a little while.  And then–Willie just appears.  He knocks on a door, rings a bell, and when the door opens, he introduces himself, and, if the stars are aligned, he will have found a new home, a new temporary set of parents.  He will stay with them, love them, bond with them.  But then he will need to leave.  After all, how can a boy remain twelve forever?  Classmates will mature, graduate, go on to college and careers.  Parents will gray and grow old, all while Willie stays a boy, always on the threshold of adolescence, but never quite reaching it.  So he can stay for two years, maybe three, and then he is gone . . .

travelingbag

 

Bradbury’s story essentially asks the question, “Would it be a blessing to remain forever young?  Or a curse?  Or maybe a little of both?”

Those are questions each reader must answer for him- or herself.

nostalgia

 

But there is another way each of us can remain forever twelve.  In our own way, we all have a little bit of Willie in us . . .

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

In The Eye-Dancers, main characters Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski are all twelve years old.  They are all also inspired by friends I knew growing up; and so, as I wrote the novel, I was, in many ways, twelve years old again.  I spent the better part of three years continually entering the minds and consciousness of my pre-teen characters, seeing the world through their eyes, hearing it, feeling it, experiencing it as a twelve-year-old might.  (Some might argue I operate that way anyway, all the time, as my default mode!  But that is a post for another day.)

ff23

 

It is also my hope that readers of The Eye-Dancers are able to share in that experience, too, hopping on, as it were, a literary time machine traveling back, back . . . to younger days–days that seem, sometimes, almost forgotten, like yellowed pages in a time-worn scroll.  But then, when you rediscover them, when the aroma and memories and sights and sounds and experiences flood back in, you realize–they were there the whole while, stacked in a neat pile just outside the door.

The door just needed to be opened.

opendoor

 

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

“But of course he was going away,” Bradbury writes in “Hail and Farewell,” as Willie must leave another couple, and begin anew. . . . “His suitcase was packed, his shoes were shined, his hair was brushed, he had expressly washed behind his ears, and it remained only for him to go down the stairs, out the front door, and up the street to the small-town station where the train would make a stop for him alone.  Then Fox Hill, Illinois, would be left far off in his past.  And he would go on, perhaps to Iowa, perhaps to Kansas, perhaps even to California; a small boy twelve years old with a birth certificate in his valise to show he had been born forty-three years ago. . . .

“In his bureau mirror he saw a face made of June dandelions and July apples and warm summer-morning  milk.  There, as always, was his look of the angel and the innocent, which might never, in the years of his life, change.”

dandelions

 

We are all like Willie, I think, each in our own way.  But where Willie lives in a perpetual state of comings and goings, hellos and good-byes, bonding and heartbreak, we need not have to experience his gift in such a transitory manner.

As writers, readers, dreamers, we can all say “Hail,” without the need of ever having to say, “Farewell.”

stars

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

It’s Magic!

“Pick a card, any card,” he said, and winked.

pickacardanycard

 

I went for the top card on the deck, but pulled my hand back.  That would be too easy.

“Crafty,” he said, smiling.  I shrugged.  I was twelve years old, and this was the first time I’d ever met him.  “Cousin Ed,” we called him.  He was actually my grandmother’s cousin–I wasn’t even sure what that made him to me.  I just knew he was fun, lived in Boston and spoke with an accent so thick you could hear the chowder coating each syllable, and loved to perform card tricks.

chowder

 

“C’mon, Mike,” my oldest brother said.  The entire family was gathered around the table.  It was a warm, humid evening in late July, the windows opened, the metallic hum of the cicadas and the steady, thrumming chorus of the crickets filtering in.  “Will you pick a card already?  Geez!  This isn’t exactly rocket science here.”

cricket

 

Cousin Ed laughed out loud at this and tapped on the deck.  “Listen to your brother,” he said.

I picked a card near the bottom of the deck.

“Okay, now show everyone here your card,” Ed said, “except for me, of course.”  My mother and father, brothers and sister moved in close as I showed them the card.  It was the seven of diamonds.  It’s funny–the things you remember through the years.  I have forgotten so many things–countless details that have evaporated from my conscious memory like smoke on an autumn wind.  But I remember the seven of diamonds . . .

sevendiamonds

 

Ed held out the deck, cutting it in two and shielding his eyes for effect.  “Kindly put the card back,” he said.

I did, and faster than the eye could follow, he slapped the deck back together and began to shuffle.  He shuffled like no one I had ever seen, his hands a blur, his fingers maneuvering, redirecting, reconfiguring.  We all knew we were in the presence of a master of his craft.  He made the hyper-speed shuffling look easy.

shuffling

 

This went on for over a minute.  And then, finally, Cousin Ed placed the deck, facedown, on the table and tapped the top card.

“Turn the top card over if you would, my good man,” he said.  But it wasn’t the card I had chosen.  “Darn!”  Ed said.  “Guess I must’ve tapped the deck too hard.”  “Hard” came out “hahd,” the “r” silent, the chowder sticking to the word, rich and thick like paste.

bostonaccent

 

He tapped the deck again, then turned it over, revealing the bottom card.  “Now I know that must your card,” he said.

I shook my head, and my sister snickered behind me.

“Hmm.”  Ed rubbed his chin, then fanned the deck, face-up, along the surface of the table.  He rubbed his chin harder, thinking, frowning, and then reached for the seven of diamonds.  He said nothing as he held up the card; he just smiled.  The smile said it all.

“How . . . ?” my brother said.

Ed bowed, smiled wider.  “It’s magic,” he said.

magictrick

 

Later, I had a moment with Cousin Ed alone.  I asked him, point blank–how had he done it?

He told me it was all in the sleight of hand, the art of shuffling, the showmanship and banter, and, most important of all, making the audience’s eyes follow where he wanted them to go.  “It’s not much of a trick, once you know the secret,” he admitted.  “That’s how tricks are.  It’s the not knowing that makes them magic.”

sleightofhand

 

I didn’t want to hear that, and again urged him to show me how he’d done it.

“Aw, why not?” he said.  “Not sure when I’ll be out here visiting again.  But I’m tellin’ ya, you’re gonna be disappointed . . .”

And when he was through, when the dense morning fog had rolled out to sea, replaced by the clear, bright light of day, I realized he’d been right.

The trick had lost its luster.

The magic was gone.

fog

 

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

There are many details authors must account for in a single novel.  Events that occur in chapter two reverberate throughout the story and affect the goings-on in chapter twenty-six.  Characters grow and evolve.  Twists and turns arise, unexpectedly, sprinkled in as if by mischievous literary elves intent on leaving their pixie footprint on every page.

elves

 

And sometimes, especially in science fiction and fantasy–but by no means limited to speculative fiction–the unexplainable happens.  Time warps occur.  A series of deja vu moments takes place for the protagonist that somehow seem connected–but to what?  And when?  And where?  Or, as the case may be, mysterious little “ghost girls” with swirling blue eyes haunt the dreams of seventh-grade boys and open portals to other, distant dimensions.

alternatedimensions

 

Much to Marc Kuslanski‘s chagrin, the endless blue void in The Eye-Dancers; the strange psychic connection the boys share with Monica Tisdale, the “ghost girl”; and the extent and methods of her paranormal abilities are never explained.  They are hinted at, lived through, coped with . . . but never explained.

I debated this as I wrote the novel.  Should a coherent, logical (or perhaps even pseudo-logical) bow tie of an explanation be given?  Should the unexplainable, in fact, be explained? What would be gained if it were?  What would be lost?

There was a moment during the writing process when I thought back to old Cousin Ed and his card trick, the way I had felt, like a pin-pricked balloon, when he shared the secret with me.  And I knew the approach I needed to take.

pinprickedballoon

 

Granted, Marc, always the scientist at heart, tries to explain everything that happens, using quantum theory as the bedrock of his analysis.  But the novel never fully confirms, or refutes, his conclusions.  Perhaps some of them are correct.  And perhaps others are 100% wrong.

It is left for the reader to decide.

unansweredquestions

 

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

After Cousin Ed returned to Boston, I was determined to learn how to shuffle like a pro so I could perform his card trick when school opened in the fall.  I spent hours that summer practicing, and on the first day back to class, I made sure to bring a deck of cards with me.

At lunch, with several students watching, I whipped out the deck, asked for someone to pick a card.  Any card.

pickacardanycardend

 

When it was over, I had achieved the desired end result.  I wasn’t nearly as skilled as Ed, but the performance was good enough to mystify and confound.  My friends asked, “Hey, how’d you do that?”

I shrugged, smiled.

“It’s magic,” I said.

And no matter how many times they asked, I never did reveal the secret.

magic!

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The First Time, Every Time

Do you remember the first time?  I bet you do.

Maybe it was the first time you sketched a picture, and the pencil seemed to have a will, a life, of its own as the lines multiplied, took shape, forming a likeness of something you never realized you could duplicate.

sketch

 

Maybe it was the first time you blended ingredients, without a recipe, experimenting, modifying, taste-testing, never having done anything quite like this before, but knowing, somehow, that the result would turn out delicious in the end.

cooking

 

Maybe it was the first time you aimed a camera, wanting desperately to capture the sunset or the butterfly resting, briefly, on the rough bark of your fencepost, or the city skyline on a clear, crisp autumn afternoon.  You snapped the photo, enjoying the moment, a hunger to reconstruct a sliver of reality at just the right angle, in just the right lighting.

camera

 

I happen to be a writer, and I remember my first time, too . . .

I was in the second grade.  It was fall in upstate New York, the trees showing off with their reds and golds and burnt pumpkin oranges.  “Like a bowl of fruit loops,” my grandfather liked to say.

fallcolor

 

And the teacher, a young woman named Mrs. Mueller, tasked us with an assignment.

“I want you to write about something,” she said, and I can still recall the enthusiasm in her voice.  “About anything you want.  It can be about your bicycle or your cat or your mom or your sister.  Anything!  The only requirement is that it needs to be at least a full page in length.”  At this news. a collective gasp rose from the throng of second-graders.  A whole page?  To the seven-year-olds in the room that October day, Mrs. Mueller might as well have asked us to write an epic poem on par with Paradise Lost.

paradiselost

 

But for some reason, the assignment didn’t intimidate me.  Perhaps I was spurred on by the dreamy fall landscape, the woods and fields caramelized after the long, hot summer.  But that night, in my room, I sat on my bed, using one of my father’s old hard-back books as a support for the sheets of loose paper I had ripped out of my notebook, and wrote my first short story.  The thing was?  It did not end up a single page in length.  When I finished, I had written a four-page story.

I called it “The Magic Key,” about a boy and his friend who discover, well, a magic key in an abandoned house on the edge of town.  The house, reputed to be haunted, is full of cobwebs and creaky, ancient doors that groan when opened.  The boys venture into the house on a dare, and when they find and take the key, they soon realize it can unlock portals to places they never knew existed–places where caterpillars talked and beagles soared on dark brown wings, and where, if you wanted something badly enough, if you wished with all your might, you would receive whatever you asked for.

magickey

 

Today, looking back at “The Magic Key,” I realize the story is laughable.  Events just happen, one after the other, as the plot careens wildly out of control.  Events and developments that would normally require entire chapters occur in a single paragraph.  But none of that mattered then, nor does it now.  “The Magic Key” will always hold a special place for me.  When I read it, I remember myself at seven years old having a ball, creating something out of nothing, letting the story tell itself.  I remember the high I felt as the ideas poured in so fast and so loud, my pencil could scarcely keep up.  I remember feeling like I could burst, the thoughts and feelings and words needing to come out, onto the page.  They were no good if they remained locked inside, faces without names, skeletons without muscle and tissue and skin.  And when I was finished, when I triumphantly scribbled, “The End,” in bold strokes on the bottom of page 4, I felt on top of the world.  On top of the universe.  There was a sense of accomplishment, of expressing myself in a form that just felt right.  From that day on, I was hooked.  I wanted to be a writer.

writer

 

I’m pretty sure Mrs. Mueller was surprised when I placed “The Magic Key” on her desk.  “Four pages!” she exclaimed, and I admit, I beamed with pride when she smiled.  The next week, when she returned our stories, she had given me an A, and a smiley face on the top of the first page.  She wrote a little note, saying the story showed imagination and that she enjoyed it.  At the time, seven years old and still in the afterglow of my first creative writing project, I just smiled again, digesting her words easily, lightly, like cotton candy at the fair.  But as I grew older, as I reached my teen years and beyond, I would sometimes wonder what Mrs. Mueller really had thought.  After all, she’d expected to read a short essay on my dog or my grandfather or what I had done the previous summer.  She had most assuredly not expected “The Magic Key.”

I remember one night, when I was in college, I dug out that old story and read it.  I winced.  It was awful.  Mrs. Mueller’s complimentary remarks now seemed a taunt, a mock, a cruel joke.  But then I read the story again, and this time I smiled, laughed even.  And I traveled back in my mind, to that day, years earlier, when the words came, unasked for, and the story wrote itself in a barrage of sentences and ideas that gushed out of me like a geyser.  I remembered how, as I wrote that old story, I wasn’t concerned with how good it was, or how it would be received, or how it might be critiqued.  I just created it.  Better yet, I let the story create itself, and I got out of the way.

creativity

 

It was a reminder of sorts, knee-deep as I was in critical essays on Dickens and Shakespeare and Hemingway, analyzing literature from the inside out, studying symbolism and point of view and theme and character.  Somehow, it seemed, the fun had been taken out of writing.

shakespeare

 

It’s still something I struggle with from time to time.  There are days when I try to write, and nothing comes because I’m being too analytical, too worried about the merits of what I’m creating instead of simply creating.

“Don’t think,” Ray Bradbury once said.  “Thinking is the enemy of creativity.  It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy.  You can’t try to do things.  You simply must do things.”

In The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant certainly knows all about being self-conscious. Insecure, too often worrying that he doesn’t measure up, he invents stories about himself, trying to appear as “more” than he really is.  When he meets Heather, a girl who becomes his friend in the variant town of Colbyville, she tells him he should just be himself, that he doesn’t need to pretend.  He’s good enough the way he is.  He wants to believe this.  He tries to grasp on to it.  He longs to believe in the dream, in the possibility–that he can, ultimately, be anything he wants to be.

At the end of chapter 20, the text reads:

“He looked up, at the infinite black canvas of the sky, at the stars, which shimmered like precious jewels.  She had said that maybe our dreams lived up there, among those stars.  All we needed to do was believe.  And remember.

And reach.”

That’s the kind of feeling I had, all those years ago, when I wrote my first story in the second grade.  That’s the kind of feeling I believe we all share when we allow ourselves the freedom to do what we love without worrying about the end results.  Yes.  There is a time and a place to look at your results.  There is a time when the red editing pen must come out and the cold, analytical process of revision must trump the hot, volcanic flurry of creation.

editing

 

But when I approach the blank page, when I am about to begin a new story or a new scene or a new chapter, I try to remember that assignment from the second grade.

We all have, I think, our own personal “magic key,” if you will–something we can look back on and remind us where we started, what we love, and why we do what we do.

Or, put another way and again quoting Ray Bradbury, “The stars are yours, if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.”

stars

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Time Machine

Tomorrow I will be traveling in a time machine.  No, not the kind you might find in an episode of The Twilight Zone or in the pages of Ray Bradbury or H.G. Wells–but a time machine, nonetheless . . .

timemachine

 

For many years now, I have taken the drive from Vermont, where I currently live, “back home” to Rochester, New York, for Labor Day weekend.  It’s always nice to visit family and old friends.  My parents still live in the same house where I grew up.  Sometimes, at night, when they’re asleep, I will walk through the old house, head down into the basement, where I spent a lot of time when I was a kid, keeping cool on hot summer afternoons.  Mostly, though, I’ll pause, listen, listen–until I hear them.  The echoes of the past.  Memories upon memories built within those walls, living things, so near it often feels I could reach out and grab a whisper of 1985, inhale it, and be a boy again.

echoes

 

After I arrive and get settled in tomorrow, some old, old friends will stop by, and we’ll re-create various elements of our childhood.  You probably don’t know these friends of mine “for real,” but you may know them in another way.  You see, the main characters of The Eye-Dancers were modeled after several of the friends I’ll be visiting with.  The characters in the book, of course, took on a life of their own–it’s not a one-for-one match.  But the friends I grew up with definitely were the primary inspirations for the protagonists in the novel.   “Joe” will be there tomorrow, “Mitchell” and “Ryan,” too–even supporting characters like “Tyler” (“Ryan’s” brother in the novel) and “Grronk.”  Our friendship goes way back, to the days before the Internet and email and cell phones.

cellphones

 

The Eye-Dancers is, in many ways, a tribute to our childhood, the adventures we shared, the conversations we would have, the things we would wonder about.  Some of our old “in” jokes made their way into the novel.  Some pet phrases and favorite expressions did, as well.  More than anything, I hope, the spirit and curiosity of childhood, the quest to know and learn and discover, made their way into the book, too.

There will be a special quality to our get-together on Friday.  There always is, every year we meet like this.  We reenact some of the old childhood games.  We talk about the past.  We act like kids, even if for only one night out of the year.  For a moment, on an end-of-summer evening, as the days grow shorter and the first subtle hints of autumn manifest themselves in ways so quiet, so soft-spoken, you will miss them if you’re not looking, we are twelve years old again, running, and playing, and laughing like we used to.  The kind of experience that inspires novels, indeed . . .

latesummer

 

It strikes me as fitting that this nostalgic weekend falls at the end of August.  Summer’s end in the Northeastern United States has always been one of my favorite times of the year.  The oppressive heat and humidity that sometimes weighs down June and July days is, for the most part, gone now, blown to lands far to the south.  The angle of the sun is noticeably lower, as darkness falls an hour earlier than it did during the height of summer.  Long shadows filter through the trees, lingering, not in any hurry to leave.

longshadows

 

There is an easy comfort in the air, the sunshine languorous, the breeze a soft kiss upon your cheeks.  It feels as though Time itself, tired of being perpetually on the go, has decided to take a moment to relax on the back porch, sipping a glass of cold lemonade, and just rest for a while.

backporch

 

Sunflowers dance and bob in the wind.

sunflowers

 

Fields of goldenrod carpet the land.

goldenrod

 

Farewell-summers and marigolds and rows upon rows of corn stalks, six feet tall, whisper a fond good-bye to the heat and a subdued hello to the chill of the coming fall.  It is a quiet time, a time for memories and stories and old friends reliving the days of their youth.  For me, it is an especially creative season.  When I began writing The Eye-Dancers, it was evening on a late-summer day, with the light fading, the shadows slowly spreading across the lawn.  A plump woodchuck waddled through the yard.  A hummingbird filled up on sugar-water at our feeder, preparing for the long migration south in just a week or two.

hummingbird

 

Looking at it all, I felt ready.  I knew I had a story to tell.  I knew I needed to share it.

So, to my friends, my lifelong friends, who I grew up with and  will see tomorrow–thanks, guys.  If it weren’t for you, The Eye-Dancers wouldn’t exist.  And for one weekend each year, you remind me why I wrote the novel . . .

  • The universe is full of questions we often do not even ask, let alone answer.
  • Friendship, especially a friendship forged in childhood, is a special and life-affirming gift.
  • An open mind is a mind able to learn and discover and ask the question, “Why?” and then be receptive to the answer.
  • And if we want it to, if we cultivate it, nurture it, and never stop believing, the magic we knew and wished upon when we were kids still exists, even into adulthood.

magic

 

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

And to all of you in the wonderful WordPress community, I thank you so much for reading!

–Mike

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