Thankful (for the Memories, and the Inspiration)

Late November, the northeastern United States, the hill country of east-central Vermont.  No snow whitens the landscape yet this year, as the fields and meadows remain a stripped, subdued green dotted with dead, scattered leaves.  Cows and sheep enjoy the cool, bug-less weather.  There is a stillness, a quietness in the air.  It is a season of thanksgiving, even amid the calamitous year of 2020.

Post-Thanksgiving R&R AND Putney Craft Tour! Nov 27-29 | Vermont Gay Male  Rock River B&B Resort near Brattleboro

 

And for me, today, this year–and always–one thing I am eternally thankful for is my childhood.  I was lucky.  I was raised in a stable and loving family.  My father still lives in the same house where I grew up.  I never had to move as a kid.  And, with that stability, I acquired neighborhood friends who stood the test of time, season after season, year after year.  Fixtures of my youth.

Indeed, as I’ve mentioned previously over the years on this blog, the protagonists from The Eye-Dancers were inspired by the friends I grew up with, the kids from the old neighborhood.  And I think, even back then, in those long-ago summers of the 1980s, navigating a childhood without the Internet, without smartphones and tablets and smart speakers and Wi-Fi, I knew that what we shared was something special.  Something enduring.  To this day, when I hit a dry patch in my creativity, I pause, think back, and remember.  Because I know that the essence of creativity–my creativity, anyway–streams forth from those adventures decades ago–the inquisitiveness of childhood, the explorations, the stories, the inventions.  The wonder.

1980s retrospective - National Library of Scotland

 

I am thankful for that.

Rick and his brother, Bill (Ryan and Tyler from The Eye-Dancers), lived next door, and Joe (well, Joe, from The Eye-Dancers) lived kitty-corner across the street.  Grronk (well, Grronk from The Eye-Dancers), Matt K. (Marc from The Eye-Dancers), and Matt B. (Mitchell from The Eye-Dancers) lived a few streets away.  If I felt bored or had nothing to do on a weekend or a summer day, I’d head outside, grab the basketball, and start shooting at the hoop my parents had in place above the garage.  And–like clockwork–snap!  Screen door opening and shutting.  Rick next door, coming over, responding to the bouncing basketball.  And, moments later: slam!  Joe’s screen door across the way banging shut, as he waddled over. And we’d shoot at the hoop.  Talk.  And plan something for when Matt, Matt, and Grronk would come.

93,032 Basketball Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock

 

There were sleepovers, too.  We’d head down into the basement, where we’d play games I had invented.  Sometimes I’d read aloud from stories I’d written, and it would be well past midnight before we turned in in our sleeping bags.  The basement was old, creepy, with mysterious noises and strange clicking and hissing sounds that would come unbidden, in the dark.  As we drifted off to sleep, I’d be sure to tell them of the ghosts, the goblins, and the vampires that hid, silently, underneath the stairs.  Invariably, a flashlight would flick on, cutting through the gloom.

A guide to ghosts by Jonathan Stroud | Children's books | The Guardian

 

Mostly, though, I just remember the camaraderie.  The walks we’d take.  On some of those summer sleepovers, we’d take a walk around the neighborhood, after midnight.  Was it safe?  We thought so.  Safe enough, anyway.  Besides, there was strength in numbers, and there were half a dozen of us.  As we walked, we’d look at the houses.  Most were dark.  A few still had lights on.  We’d guess who lived there (if we walked far enough afield and no longer knew), what they might be doing on the other side of the walls and windows.  We’d look up at the sky, and if the stars were out, we’d talk about space travel, time travel, and how the light from those stars took millions and millions of years to reach us, and how, seeing them now, we were, in effect, gazing into the past.

What's Your North Star? A Short Guide In Defining Your Purpose | The  Minimalist Vegan

 

“Is it possible that some of those stars aren’t even there anymore?” Matt B.  (Mitchell) would ask.

“What kinda stupid question is that?” Joe shot back.  “‘Course they’re there!”

“Well, I don’t know,” Matt K. (Marc) would chime in.  “Theoretically, they could be gone.  The light we’re seeing is from millions of years ago.  We have no way of knowing what’s happened in the intervening years.”  (Hey, Marc Kuslanski didn’t materialize out of thin air!  Matt K. was a grade-A inspiration for the character.)

We’d keep walking, talking, wondering, arguing.  We felt very young, and very strong.  Full of potential, the years ahead of us yawning wide, decade upon decade.

ᐈ Vortex stock pictures, Royalty Free vortex images | download on  Depositphotos®

 

That’s what I remember the most.  The feeling of possibilities.  Ambitions.  Dreams.  The sense that we had all the time in the world, and nothing was going to stop us.  The full-throated expression of creativity and what-ifs.  Daring to imagine.  To wonder.  To consider.  Nothing was off-limits.

Which brings me back to today, 2020, decades removed from those days of my childhood.  Back then, the year 2020 would have seemed like a century away, some distant, inconceivable future on the other side of tomorrow.  Yet here I am.  Here we are.

The City of the Future: Closer than We Imagined? | IndustryWeek

 

But those memories live on.  And the energy and enthusiasm of those long-ago days, and the friends with whom I shared them–spur me to press on, to continue dreaming and writing and creating.  To continue looking up at the night sky and asking questions.

And to never, ever forget.

What's the matter with the Universe? Scientists have the answer | Deccan  Herald

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Name’s the Thing (Or, “Call Me Galen!”)

By all accounts, I have a simple first name.  “Mike” is as run-of-the-mill as it gets.  Throughout my life, whenever I’ve been in a group of people and someone says, “Mike!  Hey, Mike!” several heads turn toward the voice.  It’s a common moniker.

Mike | All names have meanings................

 

In my case, though, there are backstories, and stories behind the backstories.

When I was a toddler, I decided early on that I loathed the name “Michael.”  “I don’t like the ‘cole’ at the end,” I said.  “Everyone call me ‘Mike.'”  And, basically, they did.  In fact, this is a preference I still hold to this day.  I still prefer “Mike” to “Michael”–though I do not loathe my “proper” name anymore.  It’s okay!  I don’t hate the “cole” anymore.  But “Mike” is still the name of choice.

Coal | Facts, Uses, & Types | Britannica

 

The thing is, shortly after I declared that childhood proclamation, I swerved headlong into a new name.  When I was four years old, I fell in love with Planet of the Apes.  And I mean, head  over heels!  I watched the movie dozens of times, collected the action figures, played made-up games with all the characters.  One time, my cousin Symone–born in the same year I was–came over to play.  She wanted to play with my Planet of the Apes action figures.  “Okay,” I told her.  “Just don’t play with Galen!  You can touch anyone else, but not Galen.”  I can’t remember why I didn’t play with her.  I just let her play with my action figures, and did my own thing.

Ape Soldier (Planet of the Apes 1968) | Deadliest Fiction Wiki | Fandom

 

To back up, as much as I loved Planet of the Apes, I loved the character Galen more.  I wanted to be Galen.  In fact, in my mind, I was Galen!

“Call me Galen,” I announced one morning to my mother.  She may have thought I was joking.  I was not.  “I won’t answer to ‘Mike’ anymore.  My name is Galen!”

Galen (APJ) | Planet of the Apes Wiki | Fandom

 

I also announced this to my sister and two brothers, my father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, everyone.  I was Galen!  Not Mike.  Who was he?  He didn’t exist anymore.

So, when Symone did exactly what I told her not to do, I lost it.  The first thing she did was reach for Galen.

Instantly, I snatched the figure away from her.  But that wasn’t all I did.  I got up, ran out of my room, Galen in hand, and yelled to my mother, “She touched Galen!  She touched Galen!”  I felt compelled to make the case against her, as if arguing before a grand jury.  This was an infraction of the highest order.

Virtual Grand Juries? | New Jersey Law Journal

 

Symone came running out, too, trying to take Galen back.  “It’s not fair!” she said.  “It isn’t fair!”  (Keep in mind, we were both four!)

I honestly cannot remember how it all turned out that day.  But even now, all these years later, the family gets a good laugh out of it.

But that was just the start.

I didn’t limit my new name of choice to my family.  Far from it.  My mother had recently signed me up for a book club at the local library.  Two dozen or so toddlers would sit in a circle in the library once a week, and the librarian would read to us, the parents watching, nearby.  Each child in the group had a name tag they needed to wear.  I insisted the librarian write my name in as “Galen.”  I’m sure my mother had to explain why, but in the end, “Galen” it was.

Library / Library Policies

 

It was summer.  There were two months before I would begin kindergarten.  My mother, surely, was anxiously eyeing the calendar, hoping against hope that my Galen obsession would clear, like the summer heat and humidity, at the start of the school year right after Labor Day.

But right then, in mid-July, it was going as strong as ever.

My parents took the entire family to the Adirondack Mountains, a three-hour drive through upstate New York, before arriving at our destination of Whiteface Mountain.  It was a rare mini-vacation for us back then.  And I was in full Galen mode.  Both of my older brothers mocked me on the drive up, taking liberties with my adopted name.  Bring it on!  I was Galen.  I didn’t care what they said.

Exploring Whiteface Mountain - The Whiteface Lodge

 

At one point during the trip, after we’d arrived, I was frolicking in a playground, my mother right there, monitoring.  Several other children were there, swinging, sliding, running around in circles like puppies chasing their tails.  I was having a blast.  But then my mother called out, telling me it was time to go.

“Michael, we have to go,” she said above the din of children’s voices and the sounds of our play.

I ignored her, kept right on playing.

“Mike!” she said, knowing that was the name I preferred.  I didn’t acknowledge her.  She knew what my name was.

There was a pause.  Then:  “Galen!”

I came running!  All I asked was to be called by my new name!  There were other parents there, too, no doubt glancing askew at the child with the odd name.

But from there, the Galen fascination did in fact wane, I moved on to other things, and, indeed, by the start of school that fall, I was “Mike” again.

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

In the years since, I have never populated a story I’ve written with a character named Galen.  But I always think about what to call my characters.  They are not named without consideration and consequence.  It’s an odd feature of being an author–we create people, living, breathing human beings on the page–and we must name them.

What Are the Different Parts of a Book?

 

For The Eye Dancers, the protagonists were inspired by real-life friends of my childhood.  Each character’s initials mirror those of my actual friends, so Mitchell Brant is inspired by the real-life “MB,” Ryan Swinton by “RS,” Marc Kuslanski by “MK,” and so on.  Beyond that, why Mitchell Brant?  Why Marc Kuslanski?  Why Joe Marma?  Like Galen when I was four, something popped.  The neurons fired.  The names felt right.  It’s the kind of thing where . . . you know it when you see it (or hear it).  It’s more an art than a science.

Amazon.com: The Eye-Dancers (9780692262788): Fedison, Michael S., Gaston, Matt: Books

 

So much of writing, creating, exploring, imagining, is.

The main thing is–when you write for your characters, when you craft their dialogue, personas, loves, hates, dreams, fears, hopes, and aspirations . . . invest in them.

Maybe even as much as I did when I was four with my favorite character from Planet of the Apes.

AusReprints - Planet of the Apes (Marvel, 1974 series) #5

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Curious Case of the Beagle and the Purloined Loaf of French Bread (Or, You’ll Never See Unless You Look Up)

She’d been gone the entire morning, and I was worried.

“Mom, we should go looking . . . in the car.”  I’d already walked the neighborhood, without any luck. I didn’t see our dog anywhere.  And, at eight years old, I couldn’t very well drive myself.  I needed someone else to step up.

“I’m sure Poopsie will be back soon,” Mom said.  “You know how she is.”

To step back, yes, you read that right.  Our dog was named Poopsie.  Well, Poopsie III, if you want to be precise. Don’t blame me.  It was a family tradition.  Every dog we ever had, my mother named Poopsie.  She wouldn’t have it any other way.  We had four in all, and number four would end up being my best friend throughout my teen years and beyond.

 

But Poopsie III was a good friend, too.  She was a beagle, who spent most of her time in the fenced-in backyard.  My father built her a doghouse, and she would hole away in there for hours on end, only to reemerge ready for food and play.

 

Play, indeed.  Poopsie III was a high-energy dog, often running around in circles chasing her own tail, hunting birds, and playing fetch with the stamina of superdog.

And, oh, yeah.  She liked to run away.

We tried to prevent it, but it was a losing proposition.  We didn’t want to keep her on a leash 24/7–she was too rambunctious and full of energy.  And we hoped the fence would keep her safe and secure in the yard.  It didn’t.  Not only did Poopsie III have the stamina of superdog; she had the leaping ability of superdog, too.  She jumped the fence with ease.  (She also dug underneath it, burrowing down and crossing into the neighbor’s yard via her hastily constructed subterranean path  The neighbor had a poodle, Satch, and when Satch was in his own backyard, Poopsie would invariably tunnel under the fence to go play with him.)  Of course, I recommended that we just let her in the house and have her live with us inside.  My mother objected (though Poopsie IV, a cocker spaniel, would indeed be an indoor dog).  What could I do?  I didn’t have the necessary clout as an eight-year-old.

 

And on that day, that overcast, muggy August morning, Poopsie was missing.  When I checked the clock that hung above the sink, the hands told me it was nearing noon.  And Poopsie had been gone since before eight–four hours ago!  She’d never been gone this long.

“Mom!” I protested, unwilling to let this go.  But my mother stood firm.  She gave me a two o’clock deadline.  If Poopsie didn’t show up by then, we’d head out in the car and search for her.

Those two hours crawled by like a tortoise lugging a piano.  Finally, though, 2:00 p.m. arrived–and still no Poopsie.

“Okay,” Mom said.  “Let’s go.”

 

We headed out to the driveway.  But rather than entering the car directly, we decided to walk into the street and peer into the distance–just in case.  By this time, there was a break in the cloud cover, and a warm summer sun shone upon the neighborhood.  I shielded my eyes with my right hand and peered up the road.  A few seconds went by, and nothing–only a few neighbors milling about in their front yards. The street was empty–not even a car. But then, I saw movement–a shape emerging atop the hill that lay beyond the stop sign at the nearest intersection . . . could it be?  I took a few steps forward.  I sensed Mom did the same, though I didn’t know for certain as my focus was 100 percent on the tableau playing out before me.

 

As the shape in the distance grew nearer, sprinting down the hill, closer, closer, running faster, I knew.  Poopsie!  There was no doubt.  But where had she gone?  Why had she been missing for so long?  And . . . what did she have in her mouth?

Indeed, as she bolted through the intersection, now on flat ground, and approached us, we could make out what she had: a long, full loaf of French bread.  She hadn’t taken a bite out of it–and it had to be two feet long.  She gripped on tight, careful not to drop her catch.  When she finally reached us, my mother and I burst out laughing.  How could we not?

 

“Poopsie!” Mom shouted.  “Where did you get that?”

There was a bakery way up and over the hill, two miles up the road on a different street–Ricardo’s.  We went there sometimes to acquire fresh bread and other delectables.  Had Poopsie gone inside the bakery?  Or had she hid in the shadows nearby and waited for an innocent customer to emerge with a loaf of French bread?  I tried to picture the theft.  How had she managed it?  And why wasn’t anyone chasing her?

 

Before Poopsie could settle in and partake of her ill-gotten bread, my mother yelled at her for running away and for stealing the loaf.  Instantly, Poopsie–still with a vice-grip on her prize–darted toward the backyard and hopped the fence.  We went back in the house, looked through the window, and there she was . . . trying to enter her doghouse with the loaf of bread.  But the bread was too wide and kept barring entry.  She’d plow ahead, but the bread would catch on the wood of her house, rebuffing her time and again.  Finally, Poopsie solved the riddle, dropping the load and nuzzling it into her doghouse with her nose.  When she vanished inside her abode, we knew she’d be there for a while.  We just hoped she wouldn’t get an upset stomach!

 

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

Have you ever felt desperate for an idea?  Have you ever experienced writer’s block?  Do partial ideas come your way, tantalizing in their promise, but frustrating in their incompleteness and the many gaps that still need to be filled?  The muse isn’t always in a giving mood.  Sometimes, we just need to wait.  Because I know that, at least for me, ideas cannot be forced.  Creativity cannot be coerced.  I can think about a skeletal idea, I can attempt to build muscle and sinew and attach them to the bones, but, in the end, the full flower of the idea, the complete telling of the story, will come when it comes.

 

And this happens a lot.  More times than I can count, I get fragments, partial inspirations, intriguing scenarios and what-ifs.  But until those scenarios can be expanded, until characters and subplots and layers upon layers of story can be added to the initial idea, until a palette of colors can be applied to the sketch, I am stuck, in an embryonic state of the process, waiting on a capricious and too often shy muse to come to call.

 

And there are times when it all feels so hopeless, when the lack of workable ideas rises up like a taunt, when it’s easy to wonder if the literary well has gone dry and the pump forever malfunctioned.  But in those moments, after searching and cajoling and overthinking and obsessing, when characters and dialogue are silent as the grave, be sure to look up.

To believe.

To survey that hill in the distance.

Because maybe, just maybe, the answer, like a jubilant, rediscovered dog with a purloined bakery prize, will come dashing toward you with the answers you need.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Better Angels of Our Nature (Or, Rediscovering the Wonder)

When I was growing up, in the halcyon days of the 1980s, I used to invent things . . . and they ran the gamut. I scribbled my first stories with a yellow #2 pencil.  Most were short–eight pages max–and all involved some aspect of fantasy or science fiction.  I then began writing plays–epic adventures featuring my real-life friends, journeying to other worlds, other times, other places. We’d have sleepovers and I’d read them the entire play!  Hard to believe, looking back on this, that they stayed awake through the whole thing.  It would take hours.

 

I also invented games.  Active games that incorporated running and jumping and searching. Takeoffs of existing sports, too.  One game was a combination of soccer and basketball, where, outside ten feet of the hoop, soccer rules reigned, but within ten feet of the basket, the rulebook switched over completely to basketball.  We called it “Manny Ball”–christened for a neighbor who had been a professional soccer player in his youth and who would sometimes come over and watch us play.

 

But there were sit-down games, too.  I collaborated with my friends (the same ones who inspired the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers) as we created our own board game–an adventure epic with ourselves as characters in the game, along with other people we knew and some select professional athletes and celebrities.  We played that a few times.

 

And spoken-aloud stories!  Lots of those.  We’d stand on the driveway in July, the sun setting to the west, and we’d start talking about nothing, and everything, and I’d just make things up, invent narratives, what-ifs, scenarios, and we’d go from there.  I told them about the “window to nowhere” in the basement, the “dirt hole to the center of the earth” in the backyard, the swing set (also in the backyard) that, if you were able to get high enough, pump hard enough, you’d be able to see into a shadowy other-dimension, similar to the “Upside Down” in Stranger Things. Maybe the Duffer brothers telepathically listened into our conversations, via time and space travel . . .

 

All in all, I admit.  It’s fair to say that a good portion of my childhood was spent on fantasy, on invention, on transporting my mind to . . . elsewhere.  Did I do that more than the average kid?  Almost for sure. I’d head into the backyard, play wiffle ball with myself, going through the lineups of a fictional World Series matchup, creating my own teams, broadcasting the play-by-play as I went, televising to an audience of one–me.  I was on a cloud somewhere, in my own universe. Letting my mind wander where it will.

 

All children do that to a degree, of course.  That’s an aspect of childhood that inspired The Eye-Dancers–the unfettered ability to imagine, to allow the “unbelievable” to permeate the consciousness, to accept without question that supernatural forces exist in the universe (well, unless you’re Marc Kuslanski). On the surface, this quality, these whims and megrims of children, don’t appear to be overly important or eventful.  Kids are kids, after all.  They invent things.  And then they grow up and deal with reality.  Isn’t that the way of the world?  But maybe we have it backward.  Maybe it is we, the adults, who can learn from the ghosts and fancies of our long-ago past.  Maybe we had it right back then.  Maybe there is wisdom in the games and inventions of our youth.

 

It’s not as if “reality” is going so well.  The year 2020 is rapidly deteriorating into one of the worst in recent memory–and perhaps non-recent memory.  A worldwide pandemic.  Employment numbers that compare to those of the Great Depression.  Intolerance festering and spreading.  Governments laced with corruption and grift.  We have to deal with it all.  We can’t pretend it away.  But then again . . . in the face of it, in the dark bowels of the muck and mire, a little pretending, a little escapism never hurt anyone.  In fact, escaping when you can might just well be the tonic you need to remain sane and productive as we trudge forward as a society and a world.

 

And here, I believe, creativity is a godsend.  For, as authors, we can make our own worlds, our own characters, even, as in the case of The Eye-Dancers, our own universes.  We can leap across the chasm of the solar system in a single bound.  We can imagine a parallel world into existence, and make it come alive on the page (or the screen, as the case may be).  We can imbue our protagonists with a sense of wonder, and send them on a mind-altering journey across the void.  We can imagine.  We can rise above.  We can believe in the unbelievable, the grand, the mysterious, the magical.

 

In short, we can tap into the sense of discovery and boundlessness we had once, long ago, a spirit of imagination and possibilities that we too often lose upon the mantle of adulthood.  So yes.  Some might say writing a novel, creating a fictional universe, is frivolous.  But you know what?  If allowing our minds to soar above the clouds, to picture the what-ifs of a new and better way, to imagine worlds and places and times where things could be different, to pursue the unvarnished creativity of our truest self is frivolous–then I would counter that we should all be frivolous in our own way.  For you, it might be through painting.  Or singing.  Or cooking.  Or inventing a new form of mathematics.  Or dancing.  Or playing softball.  It doesn’t matter what the outlet is.  It just matters that there is one.

 

Because, when it’s all said and done, imagination and creativity are aspects of our humanity that allow us to strive to become more human, more understanding, and more compassionate.

Or, as Lincoln said long ago, at another time in our history fraught with peril and uncertainty, they pave the way for us to live our lives according to “the better angels of our nature.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“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

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