The Value of Ten “Bucks” (Or, The Belated Announcement of a Book Release)

When I was nine years old, back on a summer day in the now all-too-vintage 1980s, I made a bet with my older brother John.

We were in the swimming pool, in our neighbors’ backyard across the street.  Lucky for us, growing up, our neighbors had an open-door (or, perhaps in this case I should say, open-water) policy with their pool.  I used to swim in their pool almost every day that summer.  But this day, something different happened.

 

“I’ll bet you ten bucks you can’t swim six laps underwater without coming up for air,” my brother crowed.  He was nine years my senior, and had just graduated from high school.  He was riding high that summer.

 

“You’re on,” I said.  I doubted I could do it.  The most number of laps I had ever swum underwater was four–six would push my lungs to the breaking point.  But ten dollars was a lot of money to a nine-year-old, especially back then.  I was all-in.

 

“This’ll be fun to watch,” John said, and waded over to the side of the pool.

“Ten bucks?” I called over to him, just to be sure.

“There’s no way you can do six laps, Mike,” he said.  “But yeah, if you shock me, the offer stands.  Ten bucks.”

That was good enough for me.  I didn’t hesitate.  I dove under and completed the first lap.

The next couple of laps were easy–I was feeling strong and still had plenty of air in reserve.  But by the time I completed the fourth lap–my old limit–I was starting to suffer.  My lungs were growing hotter, my arms and legs were getting tired.  But I pushed on, kicking harder.

 

I completed the fifth lap.  One more to go.  I nearly gave up then and there.  My chest was on fire.  I worried I might black out.  It was agony to attempt that final lap.

But I did, and when I tapped the opposite side of the pool to finish the sixth lap, I rose to the surface, gasping for air.  Oxygen had never tasted so sweet.

 

“Wow,” I heard my brother say.  I was vaguely aware of him approaching me, swimming toward me from the other side.  “I can’t believe you did it.”

I wasn’t able to respond for several seconds.  I continued to take deep breaths, savoring the air.  Finally, when my lungs had sufficiently recovered, I said, “What about those ten bucks?”  As I had propelled myself through the water on that final lap, it was the promise of the ten dollars that made it seem worthwhile.  That and seeing my brother admit defeat.

 

“Oh, sure,” John said.  “That was the deal, right?  Ten bucks.” And he proceeded to punch me, lightly, on my arm–ten times.  “There you go,” he said.  “There’s your ten bucks!”

With that, he got out of the pool, dried himself off with a towel, and bent over laughing.

 

I never did see that ten dollars.

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

Looking back, benefited by the cooling perspective of time, I remember the incident fondly.  It’s a memory of childhood I’ll always carry with me–and to this day, I remind my brother of his antics on that long-ago afternoon.  All in good fun, of course.

But as the editing process for The Singularity Wheel–the sequel to The Eye-Dancers–has dragged on through various and sundry delays these past few months, I have thought often of that phantom ten dollars.   I’ve pushed the release date of The Singularity Wheel back half a dozen times, to the point where it almost began to seem like it would never be released, that it was a ghost-book, a figment, as immaterial as pollen on the wind or the light, feathery strands of gossamer in the dark heart of a primeval forest.  How many times would I say the release was imminent, only to see it pushed back?  Was my word no better than my brother’s that day, decades ago, in the neighbors’ pool?

 

Now, however, I can at last report that the manuscript is finished, the edits done.  After a seemingly endless catalogue of revisions, of much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair and debates with characters, the story is truly over and done.  Even now, I have a hard time admitting that.  After all, no story is without flaw.  Even Anna Karenina and The Grapes of Wrath have warts.  Nothing created, nothing put to the page is without blemish.  There is always something, some word, some turn of phrase, some snippet of dialogue that can be made better.  Saying, “I’m done,” is one of the most difficult aspects of the creative process.  But here, today, I can finally say it.

 

The Singularity Wheel is far from perfect.  No doubt it is chock-full of issues and shortcomings.  But it’s the best I can do.  After four and a half years of working on it, there are no stones left to be turned, no closets remaining to open.  For better or worse, this represents my full and utmost effort.

 

So it is with great relief that I say, The Singularity Wheel will be released, on Amazon, within the next fortnight.  The files are being readied for publication, the last steps in the process are being completed.  My birthday is January 26.  The goal is to release the book prior to that date.

 

And this time, once and for all, that represents ten bucks you can most assuredly take to the bank.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Putting the Face to the Name, or the Cover to the Book

When I first got out of college, I found a part-time job as a legislative aide for the City of Rochester, New York.  It wasn’t exactly the field of my choice, but it did involve some writing, and it served as worthwhile experience.  I was thankful to have the job.

 

I didn’t stay there long–only seven months.  But while my tenure as a legislative aide was brief, it was not without a healthy helping of intrigue, office politics, and political pugilism, as I served as the buffer (i.e., punching bag!) between the councilwoman (who was rarely in her office) and her constituents.  Indeed, one of my job responsibilities was to man the councilwoman’s phone, talking one-on-one with the residents of her district.  Some of the calls were low-key; but many were heated, with angry residents giving me an earful about perceived slights and local policies they disagreed with.  Each new day was an adventure.

 

There was one person who stood out from the pack, though.  His name was Terry, and he called several times per week, sometimes several times per day.  He had a laundry list of complaints, and he wasn’t shy about expressing them to me, usually with a raised voice.  One issue in particular that irked him was a pothole on his street.  “It’s huge!” he’d yell at me.  “You gotta fix it!  It’s gonna wreck my struts.  I ain’t rich, you know.  Tell ‘er that!”  (He always referred to the councilwoman as “she” or “her,” or some variant thereof–never by name.)

 

I listened to him as long as I could, letting Terry vent his frustrations.  Sometimes, though, he would start attacking me, personally.  “Do something about it!” he’d say.  “Don’t just sit there in that cushy office of yours.  Lift a finger for the people in your district for a change!”  I reminded him that I wasn’t on the city council.  I was only an office worker.  I couldn’t make or change policy, couldn’t direct the road crews to alter their service schedules.

 

One day, it was too much.  Terry berated me with four-letter words and insults directed at family members of mine he didn’t know and had never met.  “Sorry,” I told him.  “This isn’t going anywhere.”  I wanted to say so much more, but had no choice but to bite my tongue.  One thing I could do, however, was hang up the phone–which I did.

 

He called back immediately, yelled at me some more.  I hung up again.  He called back.  Yelled.  I hung up.  Finally, the phone stopped ringing. I tossed a crumpled piece of paper into the wastebasket, counted to ten.  Terry had a way of pushing my buttons.

 

I had long since created a mental picture of him.  I’d never seen Terry, but, based on his voice and his very direct and colorful vocabulary, I imagined him to be stocky, burly, with short, sandy hair, a thick, retro’80s-style mustache, and a perpetual scowl on his face.  If I wanted to, I would have been able to sketch a picture of him–he was that clearly defined in my mind’s eye.

 

Consider my surprise, then, when, later that same day, a tall, rail-thin bald guy showed up at the councilwoman’s office.  Of course, the councilwoman wasn’t there.  I was.

“Can I help you?” I said.

And the guy introduced himself as Terry.  I did a double-take.  He couldn’t have looked more unlike the Terry I had imagined.  Stocky?  The man standing before me now was easily six foot four if he was an inch.  Burly?  He had the girth and width of a rail spike.  Sandy hair?  Try no hair.  Mustache?  His face was clean-shaven, not a whisker in sight.  And a scowl?  He was actually smiling!

 

He extended a hand.  Discombobulated, I took it.

“I just wanted to apologize,” he said, looking at his shoes.  “Was in the area just now, and wanted to stop.  I know I got a little carried away on the phone today.  I know you can’t do nothin’ about nothin’.  It’s not your job.  So I just . . .”

I shrugged.  It was hard to find the words.  Finally, I told him not to worry about it.

“I ain’t sayin’ I won’t call again,” he said.  “You’ll hear from me until she does something.”

He smiled again, and this time I returned it.  “It’s good to put a face to the name of my highest-volume caller,” I said.  And it was.

 

Terry called the next day, complaining about the pothole.

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

Books can share certain characteristics with constituents.  They don’t scream at you, the way Terry sometimes laid into me, but they might make you want to scream.  They have value, share opinions and knowledge, and express a point of view.  What’s more, they are incomplete without a face, or a cover.

The Singularity Wheel–the sequel to The Eye-Dancers–is nearing its release date.  It’s still on target for publication at the very end of the year or within the first few days of 2018.  And now, as the day of publication approaches, the cover is complete.

My longtime friend Matt Gaston, who also created the cover for The Eye-Dancers, has worked his magic again on the cover for The Singularity Wheel.  And here it is.

 

Thanks, Matt, for all your help–with both novels.

I think even Terry would approve.

And thanks so much to everyone for reading!

–Mike

Haunted Houses, Coming Full Circle, and the Echoes of Ghost Wolves

Up the road from where I live, there is an old, abandoned house.  It sits back from the road, with overgrown shrubs obscuring the windows, a sagging front porch, a rusty metal roof, and an unlocked bulkhead that leads to what surely is an unfinished basement with a dirt floor and perhaps a tight crawlspace.  I know the bulkhead is unlocked because I tried it once.  It squeaked open without resistance, revealing a descent into darkness.  It was a descent I did not take.

 

The house, you see, is haunted.

Or, at least, some of the locals say it is.  And I don’t doubt them. It’s flanked by mature woodlands that encroach closer and closer with each passing year.  There are no nearby neighbors.  Rarely have I heard the birds sing when I visit the property, as if even they, on an instinctual level, detect a sense of malice and ill will about the place.  Yet, for all that, I feel drawn to the house.  I never go more than a month or two without stopping and looking and wondering.

 

And remembering . . .

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

“Hey, let’s go inside!”

My friend Matt uttered these words, but I doubted he wanted to act out on them.  He and I had taken a stroll through the neighborhood.  We didn’t really have a destination or a plan–we were eleven years old.  Who needed plans?  But as if guided by an invisible magnet that zeroed in on preteen boys, we found ourselves in front of the Ivy House.

 

The Ivy House was so named because rows of leafy, green ivy climbed up its clapboard siding like a pack of pythons seeking an unseen but sought-after prey.  It sat at the end of the street, with several tall maples providing shade and making the yard perpetually dark and cool.  It was also empty.  It had been unoccupied as long as I had been alive, and years before, to boot.

 

More riveting still, it was rumored to be cursed.  Stories varied depending on who you talked to.  My brother had told me a murder had occurred at the Ivy House in the 1920s, and the victim’s ghost wandered the rooms and halls, seeking vengeance on anyone she came across.  Matt’s brother had told him an old man once lived there, friendless and ornery.  He ate raw squirrels and racoon hearts, and fed the leftovers to a pet wolf.  This seemed far-fetched, even to my eleven-year-old, imagination-always-on-overdrive brain.  But Matt vouched for its veracity.  “It’s the truth,” he said, solemn as a tax return.  “A wolf.  People used to hear it howl at night.”

 

I nodded.  I still wasn’t sure I believed him.  But I wanted to.

As we stood there, the wind picked up, and I pulled my jacket in tighter.  It was early November, barely above freezing, winter’s approach unmistakable in the air.  Dried, fallen leaves swirled along the street, crackling.

 

“So, you really want to go inside?” I said then.  A woman walking her dog strolled past, giving us a sideways glance, surely wondering what we were doing loitering in front of the Ivy House.

 

Matt hesitated.  Shrugged.

“Chicken,” I said.  The house brooded in front of us, hidden behind the ivy.

You’re the chicken,” he shot back.  I bet you wouldn’t go in there.”

He had a point.  I couldn’t really refute his logic.  But if we both went, together . . .

We didn’t.  We never did.

The Ivy House was torn down a decade later.  A new, cookie-cutter ranch home now sits in its place, the maple trees in the front yard gone, the ivy a memory, a ghost from childhood, an echo whispering across the years.

 

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

It’s late October 2017.  On my way to work, early, the sun still a rumor, the sky dark and speckled with stars, I pull over in front of the abandoned house and get out of the car.  I am ahead of schedule on this day.  I have the time.

 

I walk through the front yard, up to the door.  Haunted, is it?  And I remember the Ivy House, the way it seemed animate to me in my boyhood, a living, sentient thing with a heartbeat and a soul.  This house is no different.  Perhaps all houses are alive.  Especially the old ones.

 

As I stand there, a hoot owl calls out, and I hear a rustling in the woods off to the right.  A fisher cat on the prowl?  A rodent rummaging for food?  Pennywise the Dancing Clown, come to Vermont from Derry, Maine?  But nothing emerges, and everything goes silent once again.

 

And I ponder–about life, about time, about the way things often come full circle.  Take Mitchell Brant, for instance.  Nine years ago, I began writing The Eye-Dancers, and the book began with Mitchell.  Now, on the verge of finishing the final edits, of dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s for The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, I am ending where I began–with Mitchell Brant.  The story ends with him.  He was there at the start.  He is there at the end.  He’s been with me, in spirit, on the written page, vying for my attention and understanding, for nearly a decade.

 

I tip an invisible cap to Mitchell.  To childhood.  To legends and ghosts.  To haunted houses.  To the unlimited vistas of the imagination.  To explorations of the mind and the universe.

 

To the creative life.

And somewhere, in the distance, despite the geographical impossibility of it, I am sure I can hear the howling of a wolf.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

A Walk Across Upstate New York (Or, The Rewards of a Step-by-Step Process)

I’d been looking forward to it for weeks.  We had been talking about it since the early spring, and now, at the height of summer in western New York, the time had come.

It was 1995, I was still in college, and the prospect of a new century, a new millennium, was still five years into the future.  Cell phones were still mostly a novelty, and the Internet was a newborn, slowly gaining traction, just beyond the outskirts of the mainstream.  No matter.  As summer approached that year, I was excited, eager to partake of the adventure.

 

It wasn’t hard to plan.  School was out, we had cleared our schedules.  We had a full week to do it.  I had hoped to corral the entire gang–Rick and Joe and Matt and Andy, the neighborhood friends I had known for years–and also the people who inspired the protagonists in both The Eye-Dancers and its soon-to-be-released sequel, The Singularity Wheel.  But some of the guys backed out, citing potential dangers, scheduling conflicts, previous commitments.  That was okay.  We still had three of us going.

 

So it was that on the warm, humid morning of July 10, 1995, precisely twenty-two years ago today, my neighbor Rick (on the right), my cousin “Moose” (left), and I (center) set out on our mini-journey.

 

We would spend the next week walking across a portion of upstate New York.  I had long romanticized about walking across America.  This bite-sized facsimile would have to do.  We’d trek west from Rochester, traveling through remote, rural towns, experiencing the pastoral heart of the Empire State on foot.  And while our experience would only last a few short days, I knew, even before we started, that I would never forget.

 

The first day was the hardest.  We weren’t used to walking so many miles.  Our feet ached, we drank copious amounts of water, and we rested every few miles.  But we had a blast.  Walking mostly on the shoulder of the road, we traveled along both main thoroughfares and sparsely used back roads.  With our packs and gear, it was obvious to passing motorists what we were up to.  Some cars honked at us.  A group of college students sped past at one point, calling us “nerdballs.”  That made our day.  A middle-aged man in a straw hat, doing yard work at the base of his lawn, stopped us and offered us water.  We politely declined, letting him know were well stocked.  He asked us where we were going.  I’d like to say we were honest–just a weeklong walking trip across western New York.  Alas, we embellished the details–substantially.  Something about Colorado to Cape Cod, and back again.  What’s worse, the guy believed us.

 

“I wonder if we should have told him the truth,” I said, a mile up the road.

“Well, we’re walking across most of the country in spirit,” Rick said.  “So, I mean, it’s kinda, sorta the truth, right?”  That was good enough for us.  I have no good excuse to offer now.  What can I say?  It was a heady moment.  We were young.

That first night, we stayed at the farmhouse of a family friend just outside the small college town of Brockport.  Well, we didn’t spend the night in the house.  We slept out in the yard, in sleeping bags, under a sky dotted with stars.  We were tired–we had walked twenty miles that day, and had run through the wheat field out back behind the farmhouse that evening.  It took us a while to get to sleep, though.  We lay down, listened to the cries of hoot owls, the rustlings in the plants and shrubs that flanked the yard, the whispers of the night breeze as it shared its sacred, eternal wisdom.

 

We talked.  We joked.  We savored.

And the next morning, bright and early, we set out west again.  The walking was already growing easier, our bodies acclimating to the journey, adjusting to the rhythm.  It rained, briefly, and then the sun came out, a hot, large July sun that tested our stamina.  More cars beeped at us.  More insults were hurled.  More strangers stopped us, took a moment to chat.  For every derogatory remark we received along the way, we got ten more that were kind.

 

We walked through tiny, speck-on-the-map towns, with names like Clarendon and Holley and Albion, dotted with old capes and town squares and corner stores.  Interspersed between the towns, acres and acres of cornfields and dairy farms spread across the land like a luxurious green carpet.  We slept in cheap motels and ate convenience store pizza.  And then, on the fourth morning, we turned around, headed east, back to Rochester.

 

Suddenly, it seemed, the miles grew longer, the movements more laborious.  We had lost some of the spring in our step.  It was easy to understand why.  While we had journeyed west, away from Rochester, we were exploring new ground, in full discovery mode.  Sure, we’d seen many of these same towns before, but it’s far different zipping by in a car than it is taking the time to really look and listen and experience while walking.  Not to mention, a few of the smallest towns were in fact new to us.  We had never visited them prior to the walk.

 

Now, though, we were going back, covering much of the same ground we had just days earlier.  We took a few different roads, tried to change it up a bit.  But the truth was undeniable.  The return trip back was a known quantity.  We were heading back to the point of origin, no longer breaking new ground, no longer heading away, deeper into the unexplored.  The sun felt hotter, the humidity more taxing, the water supply less plentiful.  Even the pizza lost some of its zing.

 

As I reflect back on the experience now, two decades later, I realize the entire episode was not unlike writing a novel.  The walk away from Rochester was akin to the twists and turns and highs of creating the first draft.  You know where you’re going in a broad, general sense, yet the specifics of how to get there are shrouded in mystery and intrigue.  There is always a bend up the road, and until you take it, you can’t be sure what lies beyond. The euphoria of discovery is in the air as you boldly journey into the unknown.

 

Likewise, the return trip back to Rochester, plodding through familiar territory, was like the editing process, hashing over material already on the page, pruning, crafting, reshaping.  There is nothing new here.  The story has already been written.  This is the time to sharpen the focus, tighten the prose, and make sure the plot developments and characters and events link seamlessly together from front to back.  If Character X does this in chapter two, the reverberations must be felt in chapter twenty-seven.  The editing process can be tedious and slow–but it is a crucial aspect to completing a finished project.

 

And that’s where I am currently, in the process of finishing The Singularity Wheel.  I’m walking back to Rochester, as it were, through towns and streets and along back roads I have traveled along before. And yes, it can feel like walking uphill sometimes.  But I have to hope that the extra time and effort will help to shape the final product into something worthwhile.

 

One thing I do know for sure.  When we did get back home to Rochester that hot July of 1995, we felt as though we had accomplished something.  Sure, it would have been easier to hitch a ride back, shorten the journey.  But it wouldn’t have been the same, wouldn’t have meant as much.

 

That first evening back, the sofa had never felt so good.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Our Stars, Our Memories (Or, a YA Reminder)

“So, why do you write YA fiction?” is a question I get often.  “What is it about YA that inspires you to write in that genre?”

I suppose the question is natural enough.  After all, The Eye-Dancers is a YA sci-fi/fantasy novel, and its sequel, The Singularity Wheel, due out late this summer, is as well.  But the truth is, I’m not a YA writer–at least, not exclusively.  Prior to The Eye-Dancers, in fact, I had rarely ventured into the YA waters.  For years, I wrote short stories–dozens of them.  And nearly all of them are mainstream/literary.

 

Even at that time, though, there was an occasional appeal to write about younger protagonists.  One story in particular, called “Marbles,” about a teenage boy who has a moment of epiphany causing him to realize and fully embrace that he’s no longer a child, and that he must look forward and prepare for his life as an adult, stayed with me.  It wasn’t long after writing “Marbles” that I began working on The Eye-Dancers.

 

It’s odd on the surface.  I am a long way from being a teenager myself.  The days of junior high and high school, for me, reside in a previous century, back when smartphones were unheard of and the personal computer was only just becoming mainstream.  When I was in junior high, Larry Bird was the three-time reigning NBA MVP, postage stamps cost 25 cents, and Tiffany was topping the pop charts with “Could’ve Been.”

 

It was a long time ago.

And yet . . . are we ever truly beyond our formative years?  Do we ever “outgrow” our first date, our first rejection, our first triumph?  Experiences from our past do not disappear like smoke upon an autumn breeze.  They linger.  Sometimes they hide in the shadows, buried beneath the layers of intervening years.  Other times they rise to the fore, reminders of an experience decades gone, remarkably vivid, as sharp and vibrant in our mind’s eye as the day they happened.

 

But still.  Why revisit the old haunts of adolescence on purpose?  Why write an entire novel (or two!) about teenage protagonists up to their chins in angst and insecurities?  Why walk the perilous path down memory lane that retouches old wounds and scabs?  It’s something many writers, as well as readers, do.  In fact, a 2012 survey concluded that 55 percent of YA readers are adults.  Again, the question of why resurfaces.

 

I can’t speak for others, only myself, and for me, writing The Eye-Dancers–and now, finishing up The Singularity Wheel–has been a labor of love.  The characters of Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Marc Kuslanski, and Ryan Swinton were all inspired by neighborhood friends from my childhood, and then merged together with sprinklings from my own life.  When, for instance, I describe Mitchell’s enjoyment of his favorite comic book in chapter 1 of The Singularity Wheel, I am, in essence, remembering my own discovery of that same issue when I was a teenager . . .

 

“He refocused on Fantastic Four number 51.  It was a remarkable issue—the first appearance of The Negative Zone, an alternate universe composed of negative, rather than positive, matter.  In the story, Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, has just made the discovery and resolves to explore this new and dangerous place.  He journeys through the void, bridges the gap between dimensions.

“Just like I did once, he thought.  Like we all did.  Five years ago.”

Of course, I’ve never traveled across time and space, as Mitchell has, but the appreciation he and I share for old comic books is real–and a reminder for me of what it was like when I was Mitchell’s age.

 

Not all of my adolescent memories are positive. Some of my most humiliating experiences happened in school.  Like so many others, I was at times the butt of jokes, the object of derision.  In high school, I struggled with acne and was overweight.  Believe me, I was made aware of both on a weekly, and sometimes daily, basis.

 

But I was lucky.  Even on the worst days, I understood that.  I had a strong, stable family life–my parents never moved.  Many of our neighbors remained the same through the years.  Friendships in the old neighborhood ran deep.  The real-life inspirations for Mitchell, Joe, Marc, and Ryan would all get together with me–especially in summer.  We’d hang out on the driveway, shooting baskets; we’d invent games and spend entire afternoons arguing about the ever-evolving rules, having a blast the whole time; when we grew a little older, became teenagers, we’d talk about the things adolescent boys talk about, and we’d compete in sports and play strategic board games that lasted for hours.

 

Through it all, there was a camaraderie that was resilient, strong, enduring.  We still keep in touch today–not that often, not like we used to.  But whenever we get together, special things happen.  The years peel away, and the memories merge with the present day, creating a synchronicity in the space-time continuum that can only be described as magic.  And I am taken back to a simpler time, a time when forty was still decades hence, when, despite setbacks and doubts and insecurities, opportunities still seemed endless and all things were possible.

 

Maybe that’s why we write, and read, YA fiction, even as we get older.  Maybe as we take on the burdens and responsibilities of adulthood, as we perhaps feel trapped in a career we don’t love, a situation we can’t extricate ourselves from, a diagnosis we can’t pretend away, we need a reminder.  We need to remember what it was like when we were young.

 

As I look back through the lens of memory, I remember those summer evenings, lingering in the driveway, leaning against the car, talking with my friends as we swatted at the mosquitoes in seek of our blood and watched the fireflies dance and glow in the dark.  We’d talk about nothing, and everything.  We weren’t in a hurry.  Just being there was enough.

 

And we’d look up at the night sky, feel a sense of awe, and wonder.  I hope that sense of awe, that desire to probe and question and discover, that willingness to wonder and to believe in the so-called “impossible,” remains always.  I hope it never grows old.

 

“The stars are yours,” Ray Bradbury once wrote, “if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Bedrock Beneath My Feet

When I sat down to begin writing The Eye-Dancers, I’m not sure I realized straightaway that it would ultimately be a novel about home.

index

 

Indeed, if asked at the time, I probably would have said it was more about alienation, finding yourself, discovery, overcoming obstacles.  And make no mistake–alienation is a key theme in the story.  The four main characters–Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–are in junior high, and for various reasons, each one often feels like a social outcast–not fitting in to that group, not comfortable in this group, not popular with the girls, never quite sure what to do or what to say when the cool kids are around.  Add to this the interdimensional journey they are forced to take, waking up in another world, another universe, and that sense of alienation is increased a thousandfold.

interdimensionalienate

 

But beyond this and at its core, deep within the soul of the novel, The Eye-Dancers is really a story about home–embracing it, remembering it, trying hard to return to it when everything seems hopeless and lost.  Keeping the faith that, with apologies to Thomas Wolfe, we can, in fact, go home again.

youcantgohomeagain

 

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

It’s nothing special, really, or remarkably distinct to the objective eye.  It’s just a simple ranch home–one of many–on a suburban street, three miles east of Rochester, New York.

rochester

 

It’s also the house where I was born, and where I grew up.

My parents were not the original homeowners, but they didn’t miss by much.  The house was built in the mid-1950s, during the construction boom of the post-World War II era, neighborhood streets filling in what had been, for generations, the farmlands and vineyards on the east side of the city.

farmlandandvineyards

 

When my mother and father moved in, it was 1965.  The original owner wanted to sell, to move away–no one knows or remembers why anymore, if they ever did.  My parents had been married five years, already had three children.  They weren’t planning on having a fourth, but I would come along, unexpected, unplanned, years later.

unplanned

 

The remarkable thing is–my mother and father still live in the old ranch house, on the same street, in the same neighborhood.  Many neighbors have come and gone–though a few, who go back to the time when my parents moved in five decades ago, have remained as well.  The house has undergone makeovers and paint jobs, additions and updates over the years–but it’s still the same house, overflowing with memories, echoes I can’t help but hear anytime I go back for a visit.

makeoversandpaintjobs

 

I am one of the lucky ones.  I know that.  While other children are uprooted, forced to move to a different state, different country, different hemisphere, forced to attend new schools and make new friends, my childhood was spent in one place, built on a sturdy and solid foundation.  It’s hard to imagine the old house belonging to anyone other than my parents.  That’s the way it has been since I’ve been in this world.  It seems almost an affront to picture it otherwise.  But one day, inevitably, it will happen.  I can visualize it even now:  Me returning to the old neighborhood, needing to see but not wanting to.  Stopping.  Pulling up the driveway.  Knocking at the door.

stonefoundation

 

“Hello?” someone would answer, peeking out at me, as if I were the intruder and not they, as if this house, with all the memories and love and traditions and childhood dreams and longings were somehow more theirs than mine.

“Sorry to bother you,” I’d say.  But what I’d want to say is, “Do you still have the old stone fireplace in the backyard?  You haven’t gotten rid of it, have you?  It was there when my parents moved in, so many years ago.  Or the scribbling down on the basement wall?  I scribbled those words there when I was ten–tucked away in a corner where no one could see them but me–unless they knew where to look.  And what about the first room down the hallway, on the left?  That was my bedroom, you know, back when I was a little kid . . .”

I came along in the 1970s, nearly a decade younger than my two brothers, eleven years younger than my sister.  I grew up in the ’80s, a Generation Xer, an interesting time to come of age.  The generation I was part of growing up, it seems to me, served as a bridge between the baby boomers who preceded us and the Millennials who would arrive on the scene later.  In the ’80s, things were becoming high-tech, with home computers and car phones and increasingly mind-blowing special effects when you plunked down your dollars and went to the movies.  But at the same time, vestiges of the past were all around.  The postal service was still how you contacted people when you wanted to write.  There was no email, no Internet, and certainly no smartphones or Eye-Dancers blogs!  It was a period of transition, of one generation waving to the previous one in its rearview mirror while at the same time paving the way for the super-tech, digitalized world to come.

aliens1986

 

And I spent it all at the house where I grew up, sitting on the land of old, forgotten vineyards and fields on Rochester’s east side, the ghost of them, the hushed, lingering whispers manifested by the grapevines we had in our backyard–later ripped up and pulled out in favor of a deck.

When the ’90s came along, and then the 21st century, I moved on, as we all must, and relocated to a neighboring state, a six-hour drive away.  But the home of my childhood is still there, my parents are still there, and every time I visit, I make sure to linger in a quiet moment, to listen, and remember.

sixhourdrive

 

The Eye-Dancers came about from a dream I had when I was in high school.  The novel wouldn’t be written for many years, but the dream–that stayed with me and served as the impetus for everything that transpired in the story.

ghostgirl

 

It was the same dream Mitchell Brant experiences at the start of the book–waking up in the middle of the night, looking out into the street, seeing a ghost girl standing there . . . And when I wrote the scene, it was my old street I visualized–the street light shining through the airy, ethereal form of the girl the same one that still  stands just beyond the mailbox that I’d dash to on long-ago summer days when I saw the mail truck pull up and I was expecting something special to arrive.  The memories from childhood run deep, and, inevitably, bits and pieces flutter into the stories I write like magic confetti, sprinkling my present-day with vestiges from the past.

confetti

 

It’s funny how it is.  To strangers driving by, the old ranch would just be another house, nearly indistinguishable from a million others.  They may not even see it, nondescript as it is, blending in with the neighborhood, just a cog in the wheel, just one small part of the whole.  It brings to mind one of Kevin Arnold’s voice-over narrations in The Wonder Years, one of my all-time favorite shows . . .

thewonderyears

 

“Growing up happens in a heartbeat.  One day you’re in diapers, the next day you’re gone.  But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul.  I remember a place, a town, a house like other houses, a yard like a lot of other yards, on a street like a lot of other streets.  And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back . . . with wonder.”

wonder

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The True Fortune in “The Fortune Cookie”

Recently, I came across some of my old stories, written when I was still in middle school and high school–not, as today, via a keyboard and word processing program, but with a yellow mechanical pencil, the lead on the pages now faded by the onslaught of years.  I’m not sure why I was rummaging about.  It was one of those quiet, gray, nondescript January days in New England, when the world seems to be slumbering, taking a long nap before reemerging, green, and flowery, in the spring.

vermontslumbering

 

I suppose it was just something to do.  I went through long-neglected boxes and plastic tubs, uncovering memorabilia, books I hadn’t flipped through in years, old school assignments, and, yes . . . old stories.  Looking at the sheets of paper, realizing my handwriting had improved not at all since high school, I sat down beside a window and began to read.

boxesinatticbeginning

 

The stories are decades old.  Honestly, I had forgotten some of them even existed, but now, with the pages in my hands, the words before my eyes, they came back to me.  Yes.  “The Penny.”  I hadn’t thought of that one in years!  A cliched clunker with a predictable climax–though when I originally wrote it, surely I’d thought it was a nail-biter.  “The Wager,” “The Martian Library,” “The Right One,” “Pea Soup on a Foggy Day” (don’t ask!).  I read them all.  I couldn’t put them down.  It was easy to cringe at the over-the-top writing, the lack of believable characters, the flawed motives, the well-worn plot devices.  Had I really liked these stories when I’d written them?  But then I began to view them with a more forgiving eye.  I’d just been starting out, after all.  They were my first forays into a craft that takes a lifetime to hone, and even then, there is always room for improvement.

peasoupfog

 

But there was more there than just words to read and critique.  There were memories, old feelings that came back to the surface after being submerged for decades, hopes and dreams and ways of looking at the world when I was twelve and fourteen and seventeen.

That’s when I pulled out “The Fortune Cookie.”  I remembered that one well.  I had written it as a senior in high school, and back then thought of it as my best work, easily my most accomplished story at the time.  I remember that summer, shortly after graduation, submitting it to a handful of magazines, hopeful, confident that one of them would accept it.  They didn’t.  It wasn’t the first time I’d received rejection slips–but it did hit me harder that summer.  Why didn’t they like the story?  Could I have been so wrong in my assessment of it?  Wasn’t it any good?

fortunecookie

 

Rereading it now, through the cold, hard light of two decades’ worth of perspective and experience, I am able to admit–it’s not a publishable story.  It’s not entirely flawed.  There are some good scenes, some taut dialogue, and the conclusion, unlike the other stories I had written as a teenager, actually does pack a punch.  But it’s still the work of a beginning writer, barely finding his voice, still with so much to learn.  Even today, as I write this post, there is a part of me that is tempted to revise the story, edit it, prune it, sharpen it, make it better.  But I don’t.  And I won’t.

beginnerwriting

 

“The Fortune Cookie,” for all its flaws, is irreplaceable–a piece front and center in my own personal literary time capsule.  It belongs to a different era, just before the dawn of the Internet and email, and years before smartphones and social media.  It was written, in that faded mechanical-pencil lead, by a teenage version of myself, approaching the story from a different angle, with a different skill set and a different point of view, than the way I’d approach it today.  As frustrating as it might be to read it now, with all of its warts and fallacies and portions of illogic, “The Fortune Cookie” will remain as it is, in its original format.

timecapsule

 

I’ve never been one to keep a journal.  I’m not sure why.  I tried a couple of times, but quickly grew bored with it.  I suppose I’ve always needed the added layer of taking my personal experiences and using them in stories that I make up, worlds that emerge from somewhere deep within my subconscious, perhaps mirroring our own, perhaps quite different.  For whatever reason, I’ve always felt a need to create something new, as opposed to reporting on and writing about true events.  But in doing so, I have often felt the lack of a journal as a loss.  There is no record of how I felt on September 6, 1992 or June 29, 2001, or October 5, 1987.  It’s hard not to lament sometimes and wish I had such things recorded, in a weathered and bound notebook that I could access anytime I wanted, that provided a peek, however brief, however terse, into the shadows of my past.

writingjournal

 

That’s when I stop myself, and come to understand the true value in the poorly written stories from my youth.  When I read “The Fortune Cookie” today, there are certain passages that take me back, completely, to my senior year in high school, to the day when I hunched over the same wrinkled pages I hold now.  I can remember the feelings that raced through me as I wrote the last scene, the way the pencil couldn’t move fast enough, unable to keep pace with the speed and direction of my thoughts.  I can remember sitting down to write the first word, feeling inspired, fired up, and realizing, then as now, that there is no high so dizzying as a new idea that needs to be let loose onto the page.  I can even remember the feelings I had as I wrote specific sentences, the onrush of adrenaline, the urging to press on.

dizzyingflyinghigh

 

And so, in many ways, “The Fortune Cookie,” and stories like it, are my journals–and will continue to be.  I can imagine a time, thirty years hence, looking back at this very post and thinking, “Remember when?”  Or rereading portions of The Eye-Dancers and recalling exactly the way I felt as I wrote the scene.  It doesn’t end.  It doesn’t have to be confined to a different decade or a previous century.  It will go on as long as words are written, thoughts shared, and hearts and souls expressed onto the printed page.

sharingyourheartend

 

Do you have any old stories lying around, collecting dust, hidden in a dark corner of the attic or a forgotten folder on your hard drive?  When you come across them, your own “Fortune Cookies,” as it were–perhaps cringing at the words, perhaps smiling, perhaps a little of both–I hope you decide to keep them.

I know I will.

nostalgiaend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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