“He’s in the Closet!” (Or, What Not to Say When the Tension Is High)

Back in the 1980s, when I was in junior high, I asked my older brother John if he could sneak me in to the old Waring Theater in Rochester, NY.  Why would I need to go to the theater on the sly?  The Waring was replaying the classic horror film Halloween that week, nearly ten years removed from the movie’s debut.  Since I was just a toddler when Halloween was originally released, I hadn’t yet seen it–and I dearly wanted to.  I enjoyed feeling scared at the movies, and who was scarier than Michael Myers?  I had to see this movie.  And John was my ticket in.

 

I was still a few years shy of seventeen at the time, and so, by law, the only way I’d be permitted into the theater to watch Halloween–and R-rated movie–would be if my parents accompanied me and stayed with me throughout the duration of the film.  I didn’t want that!  So I went to John for help.  He was friends with the guy at the ticket booth, and he assured me he could get me in.

 

He did.  It was easy.  The guy–a recent college grad, just like my brother, just shrugged when John asked for the tickets.  “Sure, why not,” he said, barely acknowledging my existence, then asked my brother what he was doing next Friday night.  Maybe they could get together.  And that was that.  I was on my way in, ready for a good scream-fest.  But it wouldn’t be just John and me.  A couple of his friends came with us, and if they felt uneasy or burdened by sitting beside a minor at an R-rated movie, they didn’t show it.  They made me feel like one of the guys.  It was a good start to what I hoped would be a memorable evening.

 

When the movie started, the audience quieted.  I figured most people in the audience had seen the movie before.  It was a replay, after all.  It was my first time, though, and I wasn’t disappointed.  I’d seen other horror movies, of course, but this one was different.  It made me fidget in my seat as no other movie ever had.  Where was Michael Myers?  You could never tell from one scene to the next.  He would jump out, unexpected, sudden, and the audience would gasp.  I realized, maybe many in the audience hadn’t seen the movie.  Or, if they had, they had forgotten just enough to be scared again.

 

A few times during the first hour of the film, my brother, seated beside me, asked me how I was doing.  I both appreciated and felt annoyed at the questions.  It was nice he cared.  But what was I–a baby?  I was fine!  Scared but fine.  On my other side, though, Mark, one of my brother’s friends who accompanied us to the theater, continually looked away during frightening scenes.

“Just thought I lost a contact,” he said when he caught me eyeing him at one juncture.  “But I didn’t.  Just had a speck in my eye.”

Mmm-hmm.  I guess he hadn’t seen the movie before either.  Who knew?

About an hour and fifteen minutes in, the tension on-screen reached a fever pitch.  The movie’s star, Jamie Lee Curtis, in the role of Laurie Strode, suspicious over the mysterious events of the evening, decides to cross the street and search her neighbor’s house, where some of her friends are staying.  Unbeknownst to her, these same friends have just been murdered by the film’s villain, Michael Myers.  And all we, in the audience of the old Waring Theater, knew was that Myers was hiding somewhere in that house.

 

“Don’t do it!” someone several rows behind us shouted.  “Don’t go in that house!”

But Laurie, on-screen, does not heed the moviegoer’s warning.  She enters the house, unaware that the killer is in there, somewhere, waiting.

She soon discovers her butchered friends, and panic rises.  She knows a maniac is at large.  She knows she is in danger, and she, and everyone in the theater, is on high alert.

 

As I watched the scene unfold on the big screen, I’m not sure I breathed.  What would happen next?  Would Laurie survive?  She was the protagonist, the hero!  She had to survive.  Right?  I wasn’t so sure.  Neither, evidently, was anyone else in the audience.  No one spoke.  The tension was thick enough to bite into and chew.

And that’s when, as the scene tested the limits of my fright-stamina, it all suddenly came crashing to a halt.

Let me back up.  Neither my brother, his friends, nor I knew that another of my brother’s friends, Ricky, was in the audience that night.  Ricky had graduated high school with my brother half a decade earlier, and he was known for his carousing, wild antics and no-holds-barred personality.  He once told me, on a visit to our house, that he spent more time in the principal’s office than the classroom.  He was the class clown, the prankster, the guy who was fun to hang around, but at a safe distance.

 

And that night, though none of us knew it, he was seated about a dozen rows in front of us.  As we watched the climactic scene play out on the screen, as the suspense rose still higher, Ricky decided that now was the time to make his presence known.

He stood up, turned around, faced the audience, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted, “He’s in the closet!”  Immediately, groans emanated from the throng of moviegoers.  Popcorn flew, hurled in Ricky’s direction.  He quickly sat back down as the popcorn continued to pelt him.  And sure enough, seconds later, there was Michael Myers emerging from the closet . . .

 

This memory, as with so many others, is crystal clear in places and blurry in others.  While I can see that popcorn flying through the air, striking Ricky in the face, the hair, the shoulders as if it were yesterday, while I can hear his “in the closet” shout like a firecracker in my head, even today, I cannot remember the drive to and from the theater, the trips to the concession booth, or what we did before and after the movie.  I can’t even remember seeing Ricky after the movie.  Likely he bolted as fast as he could to avoid the wrath of the crowd.  But the night lives on, the experience endures, and fragments of it swirl around like pieces of confetti through the chasm of thirty years.

 

As a writer, I sometimes think back to that night, and remind myself not to inject any “in the closet” moments into my stories.  After all, if something is meant to surprise, it should surprise.  There’s a fine line between telegraphing and foreshadowing.

 

I’d prefer the popcorn doesn’t fly in my direction.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Gift

The season is upon us.  It has arrived, and regardless of your faith, your beliefs, your worldview, there is no escaping the yuletide.  It is all around us, enveloping the streets and stores and online digital marketplaces like an omnipresent universal force, inexorable and all-consuming.  For many, Christmastime is stressful, tragic, depressing.  For others, it is joyful, energizing, the apogee of the calendar year.  And, perhaps for most of us, it is somewhere in between–a little of this, a little of that–some years tilting more toward the negative, other years more toward the positive.

 

For me, as I wrote last year, this time of the year will forevermore be bittersweet, and it will never, can never, be the same.  However, there are things I can do, memories I can cherish, perspectives I can take that contribute to making the yuletide a special season still and after all.  Be it watching a classic movie, or enjoying the company of family and lifelong friends, or remembering things, little things, that stay with me through the years, there is no shortage of material to work with.

 

This post is about a memory.

And a gift.

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

I’ve written many times on here about my love of comic books, how I was introduced to them at a young age, and formed a lifelong friendship with these pictorial tales of wonder.  I’ve also written about some of the various comics shops in Rochester, NY, in the 1980s, where I grew up.  And the one that stands out from the pack is, without question, Empire Comics.

 

Empire Comics was already a Rochester niche phenom by the mid-1980s, when I started going.  It didn’t take me long to see why.  Back then, in the ancient days before the internet, it was the comic book shop where collectors went if they wanted to buy “back issues”–those gems from yesteryear that seemed always to accrue in value exponentially each year.  If you weren’t wealthy, you had to pick your spots, and, for me, often, that meant selecting back issues that were ragged.  Maybe a water stain, a spine roll, a missing staple–maybe all three.  The fact was, the mint-condition issues were usually priced too high, so I needed to dig down, beneath the surface, and appreciate the singular aesthetic nuances of issues with plenty of wear and tear.

 

By the winter of 1987, Jim, the proprietor of Empire Comics, knew this about me.  I’d been a regular visitor and shopper to his store on the city’s south side for two and a half years by that point.  He also knew that, within a week of Christmas, the previous two years, I came into his shop with my mother to select a special “Christmas back issue”–the sort of issue I usually wouldn’t be able to afford the other eleven months out of the year.  (Okay, so my mother’s the one who actually paid for it, if you want to get technical!)  How do I know Jim knew about this developing Christmastime tradition within my family?  Because of what happened in late December 1987 . . .

 

We arrived midmorning, four days before Christmas.  It was a Monday; I remember that.  It was sunny, a rarity in western New York in December, the cloudiest month of the year.  Entering the shop, the bell Jim had placed atop the door tinkled, a welcoming sound I always looked forward to.  The store was free of other customers–validating my mother’s prediction.  “Monday morning, no one’ll be there,” she said.  She was right.  She often was.

As we stepped inside, Jim shouted my mother’s name–“Linda!”–as was his custom.  Though I was the collector, it was my mother he usually talked to.  I was busy flipping through the merchandise, and my mother, outgoing to her core, did not choose to simply stand there while I browsed.  So she and Jim had become friends.

This time, though, after calling her name, Jim beckoned for me to join him by the register.  It sat atop a glass display case housing Empire Comics’ most prized back issues–rare jewels from the 1940s and 1950s, so far removed from my price range, they might as well have been for sale on Mars.  That didn’t stop me from peering inside, though.  Looking through the glass was like looking into a realm of pure possibility.  It always made me think of the Gold Rushers from the middle of the 19th century.  Buried treasure.  Items so rare as to be precious.

 

Someday, I’d think, in awe.  Someday . . .

But that day, that sunny December day, like a sleight-of-hand magician, Jim pulled out a comic from underneath the register and set it atop the display case.  It was a worn copy of Fantastic Four number 20, originally published in November 1963 and featuring the first appearance of the supervillain The Molecule Man.  It was my ambition to own every back issue of the FF, as fans called them.  I was getting closer and closer by the month, but number 20 was one that had alluded me.  Jim knew that, too.

 

“Take it,” he said.

“Huh?”  It was the only thing I could think of.

“It’s yours, free of charge.  A gift.”  He spread his arms and smiled.  A few feet away, I saw my mother giving him the side eye.  Sure, he was a nice guy and sure, he’d become something of a friend.  But who ever heard of a shopkeeper giving away his merchandise?  While the issue before me was beat up–heavily creased with a slight mouse chew ripped out of the top right corner–it still likely garnered a $15 or $20 price tag (far higher today; if you’re looking for a strong “stock,” you can’t go wrong with old comics!).

“I got a bunch of ’em in the shop right now, and I know it’s one you need,” he said.  “So, take it.  On me.”

We talked for a while, my mother joining in.  It didn’t take long to see Jim was serious.  He was giving me a $20 comic book.

What was I to do?  Refuse the gift?

I took it.  I still have it to this day.

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

When I think of all this now, it strikes me as remarkably old-fashioned.  So 20th-century.  Almost like something you’d discover in a time capsule.  The fact it feels that way at all, however, is a warning, a signpost up ahead, if you will, telling us as a society to take a breath and slow down for a moment.

 

We live in an age that is so far removed from 1987 technologically, the distance ought to be measured in eons, not decades.  In the ’80s, we had landlines, the postal service, VHS tapes (video stores!).  Newspapers and the nightly news were still the media most people used to digest their information.  Even fax machines did not become widely used until late in the decade.  If you went to an office, you did your work on a typewriter, and a personal computer was a Commodore 64.  And smartphones?  Social media?  WordPress?  All the accoutrements that so monopolize daily life on the precipice of 2020?  These existed only in the pages of science fiction.  To a 21st-century native, the 1980s and the Mesozoic era are, no doubt, for all intents and purposes, synonymous.

 

Today we can buy literally anything we want, no matter how obscure, on a device we carry with us wherever we go.  We can look up information anytime, anywhere.  We can watch movies while we walk, find Babe Ruth’s 1929 batting average in ten seconds flat, interact digitally with people all over the world, any time of day or night.  In a way, we can do anything.

 

And yet . . . for all the value in finding that deeply discounted item on Amazon, or that comic book on eBay, there is something to be said for the human connection, for a store owner to know his customers well enough to plan ahead, prepare a holiday surprise for a middle-school kid who frequented his shop, month after month, year after year–and to be able to do it not because a software application told him to, but because he remembered, personally, all on his own, due to a genuine and real rapport that had been earned and nurtured through person-to-person interaction.

Honestly?  I don’t even remember what I purchased that day at Empire Comics.  Whatever it was has been blurred, swept away in the mists of thirty-two years.  All I remember is the gift.

“Merry Christmas,” Jim hollered as my mother and I exited the shop.

And a joyful and blessed holiday to all of you, in 2019.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

In the Midst of the Action, a Quiet Remembrance (Or, Hanging Out in the Comic Book Shop)

In recent years, the world has been introduced to the Marvel universe through a series of Hollywood blockbusters, complete with endless action, A-list actors, and hi-tech special effects.  The result has been a surge in superhero popularity.  As a lifelong comic book aficionado and collector of the vintage comics from yesteryear, I view all of this as a positive development.  That said, I am not a huge fan of these movies.  I’ve seen a couple of them, thought they were okay, but I am far from a devoted watcher.

 

In a way, this seems counterintuitive.  Why wouldn’t I, of all people, who spent a good chunk of my childhood lost in the pages of The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and The X-Men, be the first in line to see the debut of a new superhero movie based on the comics I love?  Of course, it’s not that I dislike these modern-day box-office smashes.  It’s more . . . I can take them or leave them.  They’re okay.  Not bad.  If I had the choice to watch a recent Marvel movie or an episode of the original Twilight Zone or a rerun of Cheers or The Honeymooners, it wouldn’t be a close call.  I’d go for Serling and the sitcoms!

 

One reason for this, I suppose, is the fact that I am a comic book purist.  (Is there such a thing?)  I have a deep fondness for the comics themselves, the original stories, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and the talented staff at the old Marvel offices back in the 1960s.  So when I see the movie adaptations, which, while endeavoring to be as faithful as possible to these adventures from yesteryear, nevertheless take dozens of liberties with the characters and plotlines, I become, how shall we say, a bit unnerved.  I equate it to watching the film adaptation of a beloved novel.  It’s never the same, and you recognize the cinematic shortcomings and limitations within the first few minutes of the movie.

 

But it’s more than that.

The movies are loud.  In-your-face.  As they should be.  I’m not criticizing them for that.  They are, after all, action-packed blockbusters replete with the best special effects our technology offers.  But, for me, the comic books I remember, the comic books I still own in boxes and protective Mylar sleeves, are steeped in quiet.  Some of my favorite childhood memories revolve around the comics shop.  When I was a kid, before I was old enough to drive, and before the advent of the mobile digital age revolutionized our culture, my mother would usually take me to the local comic stores.  We didn’t have a comic book shop in our neighborhood.  We needed to travel to the other side of town–generally once or twice a month.  There were a couple of different comic stores we went to.  One was owned by someone I always thought of as The Lion Man.  But the store I went to the most was Empire Comics, located on Rochester, NY’s south side, across the street from Mt. Hope Cemetery, which at nearly 200 acres, is a destination unto itself, and just a few blocks removed from Highland Park, a verdant oasis amidst the urban hustle and bustle, and home every year to the Lilac Festival.

 

Sometimes I’d go there just with my mother.  Other times, some of my friends would tag along and we might make a day of it–starting out at the comic shop, then maybe taking a hike through the park or the cemetery (which is like a park), all topped off with lunch and ice cream at one of the many local restaurants.  Whoever was with me, though, I always savored my time in the shop.  Empire Comics was long and rectangular.  The owner, Jim, had his best, most valuable comics locked away in a glass display case by the register at the front of the store.  Beyond that, there were rows and rows of back issues, lining the shop, sorted in alphabetical order and arranged by issue number.  The layout and floor plan of the fictional Eastside Comics in The Singularity Wheel, where Mitchell works, is based on the interior of the old Empire Comics. (Empire Comics closed its doors about ten years ago.)

 

My mother, indifferent to the world of comic books, nevertheless made the most of these sojourns.  She’d talk to Jim and his staff–she was much, much more outgoing than I am.  It got to the point where, when my mother and I walked into the shop, Jim would yell her name, akin to the famous “Norm!” greeting from Cheers.  He wouldn’t shout “Michael!”  No–it was always, “Linda!”  I didn’t mind.  I just wanted to look at the comics.  And buy a few, too.  As my mother chatted away with Jim and the other workers, I lost myself in the comic book bins, browsing through hundreds of back issues.  I’d wander to the back of the shop, take in the sights–for me, it was heaven.  I felt as though I were in a magical cocoon.  It was quiet.  Oftentimes, my mother and I were the only customers in the shop.   I’d get lost in the musty smell of decades-old comic books, and I’d dread the moment when my mother would call over to me and tell me we had to go.

 

And so when I watch one of the new Marvel movies, they just seem too aloof somehow, too loud.  As the cliche goes, and as I’ve said aloud to more than one Marvel movie, “It’s not you, it’s me.”  Because, for me, those old comic books, those long-ago visits to Jim’s shop, are sacred.  Personal.  They are embedded, tucked away in a corner of my heart, entrenched in a permanent wrinkle of my soul.  In some ways, The Eye-Dancers saga is an extension of this, a literary shout-out to my childhood, the comic books I shared it with, and the remembrances that remain, steadfast and solid, like a faithful and devoted friend.

 

Will I watch another Marvel movie, despite my lukewarm, even critical, view of them?  Sure.  Any movie that features The Avengers can’t be all bad.  But while I do, you can bet I’ll be thinking of Jim and my mother and the sounds and silences of the old comic book shop on the corner of Langslow and Mt. Hope on the south side of Rochester.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Photograph

Here is my kindergarten photo . . .

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The text reads . . .

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

“Even if they forgot, they would remember.”

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

And that, even when we forget, we remember.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Of Childhood Memories, Cars Full of Twix Bars, and an E-Book Sale!

Sometimes, memories and dreams mix and intermingle to the point where it’s difficult to discern one from the other.  There are times when I have to pause, take stock, and think:  “Did I really do that years ago?  Or did I just dream it?”  And, perhaps even more disconcerting:  “Is there truly a distinction?”  Who’s to say our dreams aren’t “real”?  Who’s to say they don’t represent an existence as actual as the one we live when we’re up and around?  This, of course, is a question central to The Eye-Dancers as well as its sequel, The Singularity Wheel, and one I am sure I’ll return to in future writing endeavors.

 

But, for the purposes of this discussion, I can say–right now, I am thinking of something from my past that combines both memories and dreams.  My own memory, but someone else’s dream.  Confusing?  Let’s proceed!

Sean was a childhood friend of mine from the neighborhood I grew up in.  He lived a street over from me and up the hill.  His family moved away after he and I turned thirteen, and I never saw him much after that.  But for a few years, on the threshold of adolescence, he and I hung around together a lot–he’d stop by after school or for an entire day during the summer.  In winter, we’d watch TV, play video games or board games, or just talk about stuff.  In more pleasant weather, we’d play catch, take walks through the neighborhood, or go hiking in the woods and pretend to be explorers blazing the trails of a remote and hitherto unknown jungle.  We’d listen to the bird calls and rustlings in the woodland shrubbery and imagine we were hearing flesh-ripping velociraptors who might emerge at any moment from the shadows and attack.  We needed to be on guard.

 

Our flights of fancy weren’t restricted to our jaunts through the woods, however.  We would also share with each other the highlights of some of our wildest, most reality-busting dreams.  I certainly told him about the nightmare I had as a six-year-old, wherein I jumped into a pool that, in turn, metamorphosed into a sinister ocean populated by child-eating monsters.  And one day–one summer’s day in the middle of a hot July in the 1980s, he told me about a dream he’d had.

 

“So, you know, I had a dream about food,” he said.  We were sitting at the old red picnic table in the backyard.  Some of the paint had peeled off, revealing the weather-beaten grain of the wood underneath.

“Food?” I said.  Didn’t exactly sound riveting.

“Yeah.  Candy.”  Sean loved candy.  “And not just any candy.  But my favorite candy.”

That one was easy.  “Twix bars?”  I said.  Almost every time I saw him, he had a Twix bar or two in his pocket.

 

He smiled.  “A carful of ’em!”  I raised an eyebrow, and he went on.  “I dreamt that I had a wish,” he said, shifting on the firm bench attached to the table.  The clothes my mother hung on the clothesline swayed and danced in the humid summer breeze.  “I could get as much of anything I wanted for just one dollar, and it would all fill the inside of a car.”

“Who granted the wish?” I wanted to know.  “A magician?  A genie?  A warlock?”

 

He shrugged.  “I don’t even know.  It was like, I just knew I had the wish already granted, and I could just ask for anything.  So, I went inside this car, put a buck on the floor–you know, for the payment–sat in the back seat, and . . .”

And . . . the car filled up with Twix bars?”

He smiled again, this time a prize-winner.  It was so broad, I thought his face might split in two.  “I was swimming in ’em!” he said.  “I was pinned down in the seat, Twix bars covering me all up, almost up to the roof.”

 

“Sounds kinda scary,” I said.  “I mean . . . could you move or get out if you wanted to?”

“Why would I?” he said.  “I was in heaven!  Besides.  I could just eat my way out.”

I let that sink in.  It was a curious visual.  “And all for a dollar,” I said.

“Best buck I ever spent,” he said.  “For real, or in a dream.”

I just nodded.  Who was I to argue?

 

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

All this week, the Kindle version of The Singularity Wheel is on sale for just 99 cents–or, one cent less than my friend’s all-you-can-eat Twix dream from decades ago.  The base price of The Singularity Wheel e-book is $2.99, so this is a good-sized discount.  For anyone who may be thinking of downloading a copy onto their Kindle or Kindle App, now would be the ideal time!

Okay, so that was a pretty blatant sales pitch, I admit.  But I hope you’ll consider it and give The Singularity Wheel a look–even if it won’t be accompanied by a thousand magical candy bars.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

“What?” I said.

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

 

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

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

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

“So?”

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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

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

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

Different?  Unusual?  Countercultural?  Weird?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Just ask Tony.

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

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

 

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

He was confident.

He was different.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Except Tony.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Previous Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: