The Soft Side of Winter (Or, Sherlock Holmes and a Cup of Tea)

It’s no secret that Vermont can be a harsh place to live during the winter months, and this winter is no exception.  While we have not seen massive amounts of snow to date here in the hills of east-central Vermont (“only” 25 inches so far), the temperatures have been bone-chilling.  Of course, it’s always cold here in the Green Mountain State in January.  Thaw?  What thaw?  The earth is buried under a blanket of snow for months.  But for the past three weeks, multiple days have topped out in the single digits, and a good chunk of nights have dipped well below zero degrees.  And when the wind whips, on top of all that?  It is best to be remain indoors.

 

Given all of this, it is natural to wonder what can possibly be meant by a “soft side.”  A soft side to ten below zero?  But, in fact, there is one.

With such inhospitable conditions outside, and with evening still descending early (though it is slowly starting to get lighter)–this is a season for reflection.  For stillness.  For unwinding. The frenetic warmer months are looked forward to, of course.  Who wants it to be ten below zero for long?  But during this dark, cold season, there is the opportunity for long nights in front of a fire, hot chocolate on the desk beside me, getting lost in story and wonder.

 

And on these cold, cold nights, after finishing the day’s work, the call of an old movie beckons.  Or an old television show.  Or a good book.  Below-zero nights are made for The Honeymooners or It’s a Wonderful Life, or The Wizard of Oz.

 

Or maybe an old Hitchcock thriller, something slow and unrushed, like Rear Window.  Or perhaps Forrest Gump or a long, epic-length documentary.  It doesn’t so much matter what–just that it happens, that there is a chance to escape the blistering pace of the workaday world, at least for a while.  Sherlock Holmes and a cup of tea, enjoying the warmth inside, the quiet of a winter night enveloping the house like a soft, thick glove.

 

And maybe that’s the reminder we all need as we begin another year, a year with challenges and struggles and deadlines and political upheaval and setbacks and frustrations and joys and triumphs.  There is always so much to do.

But sometimes, even in the midst of it all, we just need to be.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Fearsome Five (Or, Five Scary-Movie Classics for Halloween)

We’ve reached that time of the year again–All Hollows Eve–when ghosts and goblins roam the earth.  (Of course, if you’re like me, you’re convinced they roam the earth every day, regardless of what the calendar says.)  Particularly here in the hills of Vermont, it’s a time of thinning trees, plummeting temperatures, and hard nighttime frosts as the days shorten and the wild animals forage for any and all food they can acquire before the onset of the interminable New England winter.

Halloween is also, of course, a day when many people revisit scary movies from their past.  Even folks who may not be horror fans reason that, just this one day out of the year–they ought to tune in to a fright fest.  Longtime readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of the classics–from vintage comic books to old TV shows to old movies.  And so it will likely come as no surprise that five of the scary films I recommend all date from decades ago.

Five Horror Classics for Halloween . . .

House of Wax (1953)

If there is one name that is synonymous with classic horror movies, it is Vincent Price.  From his brooding features to his unmistakable voice, Price was the perfect leading man for scary films.  Nowhere is that more evident than in House of Wax.  Price is at his spooky best in this atmospheric period thriller directed by Andre DeToth, playing a disfigured sculptor who goes to extreme and horrific measures to repopulate his wax museum, which is decimated by fire early in the movie.  The film is a period piece–with the setting turn-of-the-20th-century New York, and the suave and morose Price gives a performance to elicit nightmares.

 

Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock was known as the Master of Suspense, not the Master of Horror, but he took a decided turn with Psycho.  To modern eyes, the violence in this film is nothing extraordinary, but in 1960, it was shocking.  The infamous “shower scene” scared countless millions–my own mother included!  The scene lasts only a minute on film, but it took a week to shoot.  But for me, the genius of Psycho isn’t in the murder of Marion Crane (played by Janet Leigh) but in the psychological makeup of the villain–Norman Bates, played superbly by Anthony Perkins.  While most remember the shower scene, I always loved the scene directly before it–when Bates and Marion have a conversation in the motel parlor.  Norman at first turns on the charm, but eventually a dark and troubled personality emerges, culminating in the line, delivered with chilling effectiveness by Perkins, “We all go a little mad sometimes.  Haven’t you?”  Halloween shivers all around.

 

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Who needs The Walking Dead when you have Dawn of the Dead?  Considered by some horror enthusiasts as the best pure horror film of all time, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, like Psycho, was shocking in its day for the graphic violence it portrayed–again, nothing over the top by 2020s standards (which says something about our societal tastes today, perhaps?) but in 1978, it was a gut punch to moviegoers.  An apocalyptic story line, with zombies taking over the world, Dawn of the Dead grabs you by the throat and never lets go.  The movie is well known for its abandoned shopping mall setting, pitting a small core of survivors against a horde of the undead who populate the mall.  Creepy stuff.

 

Halloween (1978)

It seems fitting that the teenage daughter of Psycho‘s own Janet Leigh would make her film debut in one of the classic horror films of the 1970s.  In Halloween, Jamie Leigh Curtis plays Laurie Strode, a high school student who becomes embroiled in psychotic killer Michael Myers’s rampage.  John Carpenter’s edge-of-your-seat film took audiences by storm in the late 1970s, introducing an entire genre of slasher films that would dominate the next decade (think Friday the 13th).  Halloween, though, is different in that it is light on blood and gore (much of it implied rather than graphically shown) and heavy on suspense and thrills.  The first of its kind, in many ways, the original Halloween holds up remarkably well over forty years after its release.  Watch it alone, with the lights off.

 

The Shining (1980)

Stephen King wrote the novel, of course, and he didn’t like Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation–but, taken on its own, Kubrick’s The Shining is a movie masterpiece.  Moody, atmospheric, and haunting, the movie starts slow, developing the mood and theme and characters, and then, literally, about halfway through, all hell breaks loose.  Jack Nicholson plays the tortured Jack Torrance, and no one plays “tortured” like Nicholson.  The movie is chock-full of creepy, atmospheric, ghostly effects, and Danny, the boy with “the shining,” often steals the show.  Incidentally, The Shining has what I consider to be the most terrifying scene in cinematic history, when Danny, racing down the empty hallways of the haunted Overlook Hotel, is confronted by two murdered ghost girls.  “Come and play with us, Danny,” they tell him.  And he then sees them as they were when they were murdered, hacked to pieces.  For me, this scene is especially haunting because the ghost girls–identical twins–greatly resemble two other girls (also twins) I knew growing up.  Gets me every time.

 

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

And there you have it–a quick trip down horror movie memory lane.  I hope you watch (or rewatch, as the case may be) a few!

Happy Halloween and thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Carpe Diem (Or, Pursue an Idea When It Hits)

There is a scene, early in the 1989 drama Dead Poets Society, where the new English teacher at the Welton Academy prep school, John Keating, has one of his students read aloud from a 17th-century Robert Herrick poem.  The stanza reads:

Gather ye Rose-buds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to day,
To morrow will be dying.

Keating and his class are standing in a hallway, beside the school’s trophy case.  Old team photographs of long-ago academy sports teams are hung inside the case, the students from a different time staring out at the onlookers, their expressions locked in place across the chasm of decades.

 

Keating asks his class what the verse means.  What was Herrick getting at?  “Carpe diem,” he tells them.  “Seize the day.”  But why?  Why “seize the day”?

“Because we are food for worms, lads,” Keating goes on.  “Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room, will, one day, stop breathing.  We’ll die.”

Here, Keating asks the students to step forward to look at the photographs of the old sports teams.

“They’re not that different from you, are they?” Keating says to his class.  “Same haircuts. . . . Invincible, just like you feel.  The world is their oyster.  They believe they are destined for great things, just like many of you do. . . . But you see . . . these boys are now fertilizing daffodils.”

 

Keating then has them lean in close, tells them to listen, listen to the voices, the murmurs of the ghosts before them.  Do they hear it?  Keating whispers in a voice meant to sound like the grave:  “Carpe . . . diem.  Seize the day, boys.  Make your lives extraordinary.”

This scene is memorable for many reasons, not the least of which is the remarkable performance of Robin Williams, who plays Keating.  But what of the message?  What of carpe diem?  Is it wise counsel?

As with anything, if misunderstood or taken to the extreme, it can harm more than help.  After all, I may want to “seize the day” by climbing Mount Everest, even though I have no training and no preparation.  Or I may want to drop everything and experience life to the full by walking across America, leaving all my responsibilities and cares behind me.  That might feel good in the moment, but doubtful it would lead anywhere beneficial.

 

What, then, is carpe diem, and how should we apply it?  How about with writing or creativity?  Is there a literary version of carpe diem?  And if so, what does it look like?

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to anything creative–a story idea, a scene from a novel, an inspiration–I cannot force things.  If I say, “I want to write a short story today,” but have no workable idea to write about, try as I may, I won’t produce anything of value.

On the other hand, my best ideas always come unasked for, unplanned.  I can be doing anything–mowing the lawn, taking a walk, lying in bed–and boom!  It hits.  Where does it come from?  We may never know.  But it comes.  And it comes in its time and its choosing.  What to do then?

 

Carpe diem, of course!  It’s not every day an inspired idea strikes.  Whether it’s a novel idea, a short story, a poem, a song . . . it doesn’t matter.  When that idea strikes, in the white-hot fire of the creative epiphany, that is the time to act.

 

If it’s a poem, write it.  Right then and there, if possible.  Same with a song.  If it’s a short story, maybe jot a few notes if you can’t write it immediately.  Capture the details lest you forget them, and then, at the first opportunity, write the story.  If it’s a novel, again, jot down plot points, character traits, perhaps even make an outline.  However you work, whatever preparations you need to do before undertaking a long-form creative endeavor . . . do what you must.  And then begin writing the actual novel as soon as you can.

Because . . . why wait?  Why wait and allow apathy or indifference to seep into the picture?  Carpe diem.  Seize the literary day!  Take advantage of that gift–that new idea–while it’s fresh and you are fired up.

Write.  Create.  Make your words sing.

And make your (literary) life extraordinary.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Holiday Inspiration (Or, From Seneca Falls to Bedford Falls)

I’ve lived in the remote east-central hills of rural Vermont for quite a while now.  It’s a beautiful land with four distinct seasons, replete with dense woodlands and interspersed with dairy farms and the rare but intrepid vegetable farm, as growers do their best to cultivate crops from the hardscrabble and stony soil.  But for the first half of my life, I grew up and lived in Rochester, New York.  The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel are both set in western New York, in the Rochester area.  It is a region I will always carry with me and write about.  So it was with a sense of pride that I learned, years ago, while I still lived there, that the legendary film director Frank Capra sought inspiration from upstate New York.

Photos From Western NY Amish Country

 

In 1945, as the Second World War came to an end after six interminable and deadly years, Capra was looking for just the right model for his next movie.  The world had been through hell and back, and he wanted to make a film that would uplift, inspire, and celebrate the best in humanity.  He was preparing to make It’s a Wonderful Life–still my all-time favorite movie.  The movie would be based on Philip Van Doren’s story “The Greatest Gift,” and set in the fictional town of Bedford Falls, New York.

It's a Wonderful Life: George and Mary Bailey's House in Bedford Falls | It's a wonderful life, Wonderful life movie, Bedford falls

 

Capra intended to keep the small-town New York State setting, but he didn’t want to create a fictional town without first seeing the real thing with his own eyes.  His search brought him to the town of Seneca Falls, a small, pastoral town about an hour east of Rochester and already famous for its Women’s Rights Convention from the summer of 1848.  While strolling through the town, Capra knew he had his model.  Bedford Falls would be based on Seneca Falls.

Seneca Falls, New York - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia

 

Indeed, many aspects of the fictional town were, in actuality, replicas of the real-life Seneca Falls–from the grassy median along Main Street, to the Victorian architecture, to the distinct upstate New York feel, complete with a row of old shops located in the center of town.  Seneca Falls at the time even had a real-life version of Old Man Potter, the crusty, wealthy villain in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Old Man Potter: The Real Hero of 'It's a Wonderful Life' | Intellectual Takeout

 

And now, during the holiday season, when millions watch It’s a Wonderful Life each year, I am, well, inspired by Capra’s inspiration.  Much as things were in 1945, we, today, are at the end of a deadly and treacherous year.  No doubt, 2020 is one for the ages, and not in a good way.  We can all use some inspiration this yuletide.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be It’s a Wonderful Life (though it will be for me).  It can be anything.  Maybe you have another holiday film favorite, or a particular TV episode that you love this time of year.  Watch it.  Enjoy it.  Laugh and cry along with it.  Or perhaps there’s a favorite book, or a tradition you keep.  Or a song you sing.  Maybe you want to take a long walk along a quiet country road or drive through town, just observing the sights and sounds of late December.  Perhaps the night will be clear, and, bundled up against the cold, you head outside, look up, contemplate the cosmos, the vastness, and count the stars, which glitter like diamonds across the canvas of the sky.

Andromeda Galaxy | Description, Location, Distance, & Facts | Britannica

 

Whatever it is, hopefully we can all find our inspiration at the end of this challenging year.  And then look ahead to what has to be, what must be, a far better year in 2021.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and, like Frank Capra all those decades ago, may we all discover something “wonderful.”

It's A Wonderful Life' Live Stream: How To Watch 'It's A Wonderful Life' For Free | Decider

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

An Ode to Fluff (in a Sober Season)

It is indisputable.  We live in historically stressful times.  While a worldwide pandemic rages on, growing worse by the day, while crises arise in both far-flung places and close to home, and while perhaps the most consequential election in American history approaches, people everywhere feel a sense of anxiety, a tightening of the chest, a species of fear.  When will the pandemic end?  How will we get out of this?  When will we feel safe again?  When can we return to a sense of normalcy?  Stressful times, indeed.

Great whites found to contain very high amounts of mercury and arsenic -  Insider

 

And while it is important to engage, to tackle the issues and problems of our time head-on, to speak out for truth and common sense–there is also something else that is important: our well-being, our state of mind.  Our sanity itself.  One thing is certain–too much stress and anxiety, especially over a protracted period of time, can have a deleterious effect on our health.

So, what to do?  Well, there is much we can do.  Go out for a jog, get the heart pumping.  Write a poem, or a novel.  Or a song.  Read a book.  Do Pilates or Tai chi.  Volunteer in the community.  Mow the lawn.  Meditate.  Take a night and go to bed early–regardless of what you have to do.  But one thing I try to do when the pressures of life seem too great, when the vice pinches tighter, when the clouds darken and multiply in a bruised sky the color of gunmetal is–to seek out something fun.

Dreary and cool day ahead

 

I am a proponent of the serious, the studious, the deep, and multilayered as much as anybody.  But in times like these, when the world is collectively holding its breath, there is also much to be said about lighthearted, airy entertainment.  Do you have a “guilty pleasure”?  Perhaps a silly movie or absurd TV show that you love?  Does a certain sitcom make you laugh, even as you realize how ridiculous it is?  What do you enjoy that is fluff, light on substance but high on laughs?  There must be something.

Sugar Free Marshmallow Fluff - Step Away From The Carbs

 

Seek it out.  Take an evening and stream some episodes or, to go old school, break out a DVD and pop it in.  But give yourself permission to enjoy something frivolous.  Are you a Seinfeld fan?  The GolbergsModern Family?  What about The Big Bang Theory?  Or maybe it’s a movie.  Maybe it’s an old movie–perhaps a golden oldie like Caddyshack or Trading Places or The Seven-Year Itch.  Maybe it’s all of them and more.

Episode 44: THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH with Grae Drake — CLARKE WOLFE

 

For me, when I’m in need of something to make me laugh and forget about the strains and the struggles for a while, I turn to Cheers, The Honeymooners, and–though not exactly a comedy, and certainly not altogether lighthearted–Forrest Gump.  Or maybe I’ll seek out a classic 1970s sitcom like Sanford and Son or Happy Days.  Or something really old like The Philadelphia Story, or, my all-time favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life.  Again, not all of these are pure fluff.  The point is, they take me away on a pleasant journey.  They allow me to disengage for a time.  They make me laugh.  They sometimes make me cry (but in a good way; the climax of It’s a Wonderful Life gets me every time).  They enable me to step away from the insanity and the craziness and the deadlines and the worries and the anxieties and the strife, and they provide a moment of respite, a safe space, an oasis overflowing with elixirs for the soul.

The Odd Places It's A Wonderful Life Has Turned Up | Den of Geek

 

Your places of fun-filled and lighthearted refuge may be different from mine.  But you have them.  You have your go-to sources for comfort.  We all do.  So, on this Halloween weekend, I hope you have the chance to dip your toe in, if only for a while, to settle in and relax and laugh.  Laugh at something silly.  Laugh at some corny, dated sitcom produced in the years before you were born or a contemporary comedy that never fails to amuse.

Stressors are all around us.  And real problems need to be tackled and overcome.  But we can all benefit from taking a brief detour in a friendly neighborhood bar where “everybody knows your name” or a lively and song-filled jaunt down the Yellow Brick Road.  I know I can.

There's no place like home: The Wizard of Oz, 80 years on

 

And, maybe, just maybe, this weekend I will.

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

That Old Black-and-White Movie Magic

“The best thing about the future,” Abraham Lincoln once said, “is that it comes one day at a time.”

We can all relate to those words, especially these days.  A worldwide pandemic has a way of making us pause and focus on our perspective, values, beliefs.  It’s been a remarkable and horrifying few weeks.  The world has changed overnight, it seems.  And all we can do is our part to get through this once-in-a-lifetime crisis, to help in any way we can, and to be smart and responsible.

 

Some, of course, the frontline emergency nurses and doctors, are at the center of this war on humanity.  They are fighting the battles raging in hospitals and ERs.  They are the soldiers fighting for each of us.  For most of us, however, we are either hunkering down at home all the time or only going out to work at our job and perhaps shop for necessities every now and then, only to return home as efficiently and quickly as possible.  Either way, a lot of people are spending a lot more time in their abodes.

 

For me, personally, this “social distancing,” as it’s called, isn’t that difficult to get through.  I’m a natural introvert.  Nevertheless, the degree of hunkering down at home is a challenge even for a lifelong loner like me.  I spend most of my days working from home, editing and proofreading manuscripts for book publishers and individual authors.  But at night, or when I just need a break, I am seeking an escape, a place to turn to, a temporary refuge from the world and the work.

 

Sometimes I read–either books or my vintage comic books, which, with their musty, magic smell and corny, dated story lines, have been my loyal companions since junior high.  Other times, I’ll pop in a DVD (I am old school that way) of a favorite sitcom or a Ken Burns documentary or an episode of The Twilight Zone.  But more and more these days, I am watching old movies.

 

I love old movies, and by old, I mean old.  Black-and-white Cary Grant, James Stewart, Fay Wary, Katherine Hepburn old.  I have a number of DVDs acquired through the years; for ages now, a lot of them have sat in piles, tucked away, gathering dust.  Now I am watching them.  They provide a comfort, I suppose, a lightening, before sleeping at night during such dark and uncertain times.  They are my own personal island, a tropical beach of the soul where I can walk along the water’s edge, sand in my toes, getting lost for an hour or two.

 

There is much to choose from.  Hitchcock classics like Rope, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief.  Sappy Christmas movies that I love–It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, Meet Me in St. Louis.  Film noir classics with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Veronica Lake, John Garfield, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth, and Robert Mitchum.  And the dramas like Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, The Lost Weekend, just to name a few.  The classic romances–Casablanca, The Philadelphia Story, Rebecca, and so many more.  A virtual treasure trove.

 

 

Admittedly, sometimes I’ll go for something more “modern” like Forrest Gump or Field of Dreams or Back to the Future.  But, by and large, when I fish for a movie to go with the overly salted popcorn, it’ll be a vintage film from the 1940s or 1950s, and then I will allow myself, temporarily, to take a detour from reality with Clark Gable or Ingrid Bergman or Burt Lancaster.  I know I need to come back to the real world soon enough, so while I’m gone, I make sure to enjoy the journey.

 

 

 

I hope each of you is finding a way to cope and push through this insecure and troubled time as well.  Whatever your pleasure, whatever your method of dealing and persevering and finding some solace, somehow, please be careful, take care, and stay safe.

 

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

Pass the Capricorn (Or, Recognizing the Blessings Even in the Loss)

This year, Christmas just isn’t the same for me.  All my life, especially growing up, Christmas represented the most treasured, the most special time of the year.  And now, looking back, it’s clear what the glue was that held it all together, the one indispensable person who made the holidays something the entire family could enjoy and look forward to.  (Not that it wasn’t clear before, but sometimes loss hones the focus, makes you see things with a crystalline clarity made pointed and sharp from the stiletto blade of absence.)

 

My mother loved Christmas.  She started preparing for it weeks in advance.  The first Sunday in December, in that long-ago world of the 20th century, she would round up the family, and we’d head over to Wambach Farms (a family-owned Rochester, NY-area market that, after serving the community for generations, sadly, closed its doors earlier this year) to buy our Christmas tree–and choosing just the right tree was no small task!  We’d examine them all, until we found the one we all agreed on; then my father would load it into the trunk and tie it down, and we’d head back home and decorate for hours.

 

Mom also spread Christmas cheer to non-family members.  She baked cookies for scores of friends and neighbors, invited people to the house all through December, and invented participatory games each year the visitors could enjoy.

 

For the past two decades, I’ve lived in Vermont–having moved away from my hometown at the dawn of the 2000s.  But Christmas was no less special, even then.  Until this year.

Last winter, my mother passed away from lung cancer.  It was sudden, unexpected, undiagnosed until the very end.  And now, at Christmastime, I find it’s hard to want to celebrate.  For me, and what this time of year has always meant to me, the essence, the guts, have been ripped out.  There is a part of me that wants to fast-forward a fortnight, bypass the holidays, and emerge on the other side of 2019.

But then I pause, catch myself. And think of my mother’s all-time favorite Christmas movie . . .

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When It’s A Wonderful Life debuted in movie theaters in 1946, it wasn’t the box-office hit its producers and director, Frank Capra, hoped for.  It seemingly had everything going for it–a rousing, feel-good message on the heels of a nightmarish, horrific world war, a first-rate cast and crew, and the return of popular actor James Stewart to the Silver Screen after five years away, during which time he’d served with distinction in the war.  But, despite being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (losing out to The Best Years of Our Lives), the movie fell flat with audiences that year.  It was only decades later, when television audiences were re-introduced to it every holiday season, that its star rose.

 

Even for all that, there are, and always have been, critics of It’s A Wonderful Life specifically and Frank Capra more generally.  His films are too mawkish, the naysayers argue.  They view life through rose-colored glasses.  Long before It’s A Wonderful Life graced the Silver Screen, Capra had made his mark with pictures such as It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, among many others.  His detractors coined the term “Capricorn” in response to his movies, brushing them off as “sentimental hogwash,” as old Mr. Potter himself grouses in It’s A Wonderful Life.

 

Capra responded with his motion pictures and successful career as a film director, and with quotes like this one: “My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.”

And of course no Capra movie, perhaps no movie, period, embodies this sentiment more than It’s A Wonderful Life.  Most are familiar with the story of George Bailey, the character played by Stewart, an “everyman” who falls on hard times and sees his fortunes dwindle to the point where he is facing jail time for a mistake his uncle has made with their family-owned bank’s finances.  George, upon learning and coming to grips with his dire situation, returns home on Christmas Eve after a fruitless day searching for the lost money.  Frustrated, fed up with his life, he rails, throws a tantrum, berates the kids and the “drafty old house” they live in.  “It’s like living in a refrigerator,” he yells.  And when he reaches for the cap on the newel post of the staircase banister, about to head upstairs, it comes off, loose–as it has always done.  But this time, this time . . . He motions to throw it, but, pulling himself back together–at least for the moment–he puts it back in place.

 

Later, he leaves, heads to a bridge in a blizzard, and considers jumping off, into the cold water, ready to end it all.  Just as he is about to take the plunge, Clarence, his guardian angel, who has been observing the entire sad tableau, dives in first.  He knows George will be compelled to jump in after him and rescue him to safety, which is exactly what happens.  It is at this point that the true magic of this Capra classic reaches its apogee.  Clarence ultimately shows George what the world would be like if he’d never been born, how much worse off people would be, how things George has always taken for granted would be wiped away, gone, as if stricken by a sorcerer’s spell.  This causes George to realize he’s really lived “a wonderful life,” and he begs Clarence to take him back, to allow him to return to his old life with all the problems and trials and jams.

 

When George does return, he’s a new man, grateful for the very things he had been cursing before the experience with Clarence began.  He runs home, hugs his wife and children, even kisses the loose newel cap when it comes off the post again.  And then, of course, we learn that George won’t be going to jail, after all.  His wife has set in motion a miracle.  The town, his town, is coming to the rescue.  And as his brother, Harry, proclaims, amidst the gathering throng of family and friends, George is “the richest man in town.”

 

Corny?  You bet.  Sentimental?  Gushing!  But it’s pure cinematic gold.  And every time I watch it, I feel better for the experience.

 

This year, more so than ever.  Because, for all its contrivances and old-fashioned saccharine qualities, It’s A Wonderful Life emphasizes the good things in life, and reminds us that, even amidst pain and loss and hard times, we have things to be thankful for.  Yes, it’s true.  For me, Christmas will never be the same.  There is an absence there that can never be filled again. But watching George Bailey kissing his broken staircase and laughing over his bloodied lip helps me to see that if I feel loss this Christmas season, it means there is something in my life, in my past, that is special enough and pure enough and loving enough to elicit this feeling in the first place.  It’s something to embrace, not flee from.  To appreciate and value.  And remember.

 

So, during this holiday season, I don’t care what the critics say.

Pass me the Capricorn.

 

Thanks so much for reading, and I hope you all have a blessed and joyous holiday.

 

–Mike

“It’s Time to Watch ‘Forrest Gump'” (Or, The Art of Not Forcing the Issue)

We’ve all been there.  You’re working on something–a story, perhaps, or a song, a poem.  A painting.  Something creative, something you believe in and aim to finish.  You’ve managed to juggle your schedule today, delegate chores and to-dos, plan ahead.  It’s the first time all week you have a chance to dig in and proceed with your masterpiece.  You have a glass of water or tea at the ready, maybe even a snack.  You plan on being here for a while.

 

“Let’s go,” you say, psyching yourself up.  “Let’s get this party started.”

And then . . . nothing happens.

The words don’t come.  The characters don’t cooperate.  The brushstrokes feel heavy and blunt, messy, as if you’re trying to paint underwater. The image you’re creating, the story you’re weaving, the art you’re making is stuck, dead on the page.  Your tea gets cold, the snacks sit there, uneaten.  And your cursor blinks at you, in and out, in and out, like a silent, mocking accusation.

 

But you aren’t ready to admit defeat.  You’re not sure when the next block of hours will present itself.  You’ve arranged your entire day around this!  Why are the words playing hard to get?

 

Certainly, I have experienced this phenomenon more times than I care to remember.  While writing The Singularity Wheel, there were days when it felt as though my head was in a blender, the words and phrases and paragraphs jumbled into a miasma of incoherence.  And since time was at a premium, and I was already so far behind my publication schedule for the book, I would resist, push back against the reluctant and ever-capricious muse.

 

The odd thing was–I might be struggling like this after a successful literary sojourn the last time I sat down to write.  In The Singularity Wheel, for example, Chapter 10 went smoothly–I sat down and wrote that chapter in two hours flat, and it required only minimal revisions.  But Chapter 11 was a brier patch, a wasteland of pitfalls and quicksand and hidden, poisonous vipers lying in wait to strike.  The first run-through took multiple sessions, and even then, the chapter later went through various revisions.  I even started thinking of it as “the nightmare chapter,” or, when I was feeling especially dramatic, “the chapter where my novel goes to die.”

 

Out of frustration, when I encounter a rupture in the creative process, a session where I just can’t produce, I too often try to force it.  I’ll write a sentence, then another, and another, and after several minutes, they may bleed to two or three paragraphs.  It is like attempting to find water in an abandoned and dry well.  Every word is an effort, every sentence a marathon.  What’s worse, nothing sounds right.  After a half hour or an hour of this, I will pause and read what I’ve got.  Almost without fail, what I’ve got is junk.

 

But the streak of stubbornness dies hard.  During one particularly unproductive session, I pulled my chair away from the desk, stood up, did a dozen push-ups, two dozen sit-ups, jogged in place, took a walk around the house, upstairs, downstairs, in the basement, and then back again.  I just need to get the old juices flowing, I told myself.  Work out the kinks.  When I returned to the manuscript, however, the kinks were still there, binding me with their inflexible, industrial-strength straps.

 

It’s times like this when I truly appreciate the flip side–those sessions when the words flow like lava, pouring out, my fingers barely able to keep up with my thoughts, swept away in a creative tsunami.  It is a high like no other.  But it cannot be forced.  It comes when it comes, as mercurial as the weather in the hill country of central Vermont.

 

Ultimately, this is a truth we have to accept.  Even the best-laid plans of writers and artists must sometimes be altered to fit the mood of the muse.  We fight against a barren spell.  We might rant and rave and swear, and try to will the words to come.  But that rarely works–at least not for me.

 

Once I know I’ve given it all I have, once I’ve stared at the screen long enough with no results to show for my efforts, however well intentioned; once I’ve taken a long walk along the country road where I live and still cannot produce even a single decent sentence, I grudgingly acknowledge the truth.  Today just isn’t my day.

 

Temporarily defeated (but only temporarily, I remind myself!), I endeavor to get away from the work and the frustration and perhaps watch a favorite movie or TV show.  Who knows?  If I’m lucky, something in whatever I decide to watch may serve as an artistic catalyst of sorts and get me out of my funk.

 

But which movie?  Which TV show?  I sort through my collection of old-school DVDs.  (What, me download?)  I settle on Forrest Gump.

It’s better than banging my head against the creative wall.

We’ll get ’em next time.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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P.S.  Speaking of old school, the paperback copy of The Singularity Wheel is now available on Amazon!

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