“Suddenly Seymour” Moments (Or, On Epiphanies)

Before the start of fifth-grade, I was afraid.  Granted, I never wanted summer vacation to end, but that year, I was filled with an unusual dread.  My teacher that year would be Mr. Bansbach.  He’d been teaching the fifth grade since the time of Confucius, or so it seemed to my ten-year-old sensibilities.  He was old-school, even when old-school was still in vogue–this was the 1980s.  He was tough.  He was no-nonsense.  But, more than anything, he was strict.

 

Not that I was a troublemaker.  Shy to the core, I said little at school and was a good student.  But I still worried.  Stories about Mr. Bansbach circulated through the school.  He was as feared as any teacher I ever had.  I dreaded that first day.

When it arrived, Mr. Bansbach introduced himself and, standing at the front of the class in his suit and tie, his thick glasses reflecting the fluorescent overhead lights, his thinning, dyed-black hair combed back on his head, he called us “preteens.”  “You’re not ‘kids,'” he said.  “A ‘kid’ is a baby goat.  You are preadolescents, you are growing up, and you will take responsibility in my class.”  Great, i thought.  The rumors were true.  This guy was going to be a nightmare.

 

One day, about a week into the new school year, I finished an in-class assignment early.  Not sure what to do, I just sat there, hands folded, waiting for the other students to finish.

Mr. Bansbach was not impressed.

“Class,” he said.  “I want to direct your attention to this young man.” He pointed at me.  “He finished his assignment early.”  That was good, wasn’t it?  I was on the ball!  Evidently not.  “Don’t do what he just did.  Ever.  When he finished, he sat there, blankly, wasting time.  Next time, young man”–he stared right at me–“take out a book and read.  Make use of your time.  Understand?”

 

I did.

And I didn’t like Mr. Bansbach.

A few weeks later, before class, Mr. Bansbach pulled me aside in the hallway, just outside his classroom.  I stiffened.  What had I done now?  Finished my homework too early the night before?  Did he have some way to monitor me at home?

“That was an impressive victory last night,” he said.  “Maybe your Steelers will win a fifth Super Bowl this season.”

And he patted me on the shoulder and winked.  Then he went into the classroom and I followed.

What had just happened?  And how did he know I was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan?  And why did he care?  Was he a sports fan, too?

 

He was.  Throughout that fall, he would talk to me about the Steelers games.  Win or lose, he always took a few minutes early in the week to go over their previous game with me.  I didn’t say much.  I was still nervous around him.  But it impressed me that he was so in tune with his students.

As the year rolled on, I genuinely learned to like Mr. Bansbach.  And he seemed to like me.  He congratulated me on several homework assignments, when I went above and beyond the parameters of the assignment.  The following year, when I entered sixth grade and had a new teacher, Mr. Bansbach would still seek me out in the hallways on Monday mornings and talk about the most recent Steelers game.

And while I learned to like him more and more as my fifth-grade year progressed, it was that first kind gesture, that initial time he talked to me about my favorite football team, that stuck with me.  I can still remember it–the way he stood there, outside his classroom, waiting for me.  His way of letting me know we were okay.  That I was okay.

 

You might call it a moment of epiphany, a realization, that the rumors were false, and that Mr. Bansbach was different from his reputation.  Oh, he was strict.  You definitely did not want to slack off in his class.  That part was true.  But no one ever said he was nice, that he cared.  That he would take the time to learn about his students and show them he was on their side.  I had to learn that for myself.

There are moments like that throughout literature and film–moments of awakening, when a character learns something about him- or herself, or someone else.  Indeed, The Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel are chock-full of such moments–Joe Marma learning that he doesn’t even like football, a sport he pursues with reckless abandon, but only plays it to best his brother; Mitchell Brant finding out that his long-distance (a multiverse away!) relationship with Heather doesn’t mean what he’s thought the past five years; or Marc Kuslanski coming to grips with his guilt over the accident he feels responsible for with his little brother.  The characters realize these things in a moment of revelation, a tipping point in the symphony of their lives.  Epiphanies are real.  But they are also hard to pull off in literature or on film.

 

You want to say so much without, well, saying so much.  You want the scene to speak for itself.  You want the reader or the viewer to feel it right along with the character.

Like the performance of “Suddenly Seymour” in the 1986 remake of the musical Little Shop of Horrors.  Throughout the film, Seymour (Rick Moranis) and Audrey (Ellen Greene) work together at a florist shop.  Seymour is shy and awkward, but clearly carries a torch for his coworker.  She, however, is in a relationship with someone she, herself, describes as a “semi-sadist” (an outrageous dentist played by Steve Martin).  Audrey thinks lowly of herself, and she gets involved with abusive men like the dentist.  Throughout the movie, she speaks in a squeaky, mousy voice, almost as if she doesn’t even feel she is worthy to say anything.

 

But then this scene happens.  Seymour encourages her, praises her, and expresses his true feelings for her.  He stands, and sings “Suddenly Seymour.”

Audrey is touched, listening to him.  Then she joins in the song.  At first, her singing voice matches her speaking voice–timid, lacking in confidence, unsure.  But then, when she hits her own “Suddenly Seymour” note, there is a transformation, an awakening.  An epiphany.  Audrey finds her voice, literally, and she belts out the rest of the song in an astonishingly strong, beautiful, and full-throated rendition.  Before our eyes, without any speeches, without any blaring announcement, she and Seymour have changed.  They have awakened.  It is a cinematic performance for the ages.

 

And that’s how epiphanies work–in life, and in story.  They hit you with the force of a tidal wave, but, counterintuitively, they also do so quickly, quietly, in a moment, without any narrator making a bold, big proclamation.  There is no need to tell or exclaim or pontificate.  There is only a moment, the moment, when everything becomes clear.

Even just a moment in a song, or a moment when your fifth-grade teacher shows you–rather than tells you–that he’s had your back all along.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

An Unscary Halloween

I freely admit, over the years, I have often gone with the flow on Halloween, watching scary movies, creepy episodes of The Twilight Zone, reveling in ghost stories and monster yarns.  This year, though, I will go against the grain.  Maybe it’s the state of the world, the precarious position of our institutions and structures, the downright disturbing events that we’ve all had to deal with on a national and global level.  Whatever the reason, I am going to go with lighter fare this All Hallows Eve.

 

After all, there will be more than enough people watching horror movies.  Who needs Michael Myers when you can have Ralph Kramden?  Who needs Jason Voorhees when you can tune in to Forrest Gump?  And who needs Rick Grimes when you can watch Cary Grant or Johnny Carson?

 

I remember one Halloween when I was a teenager, I invited some neighborhood friends over (some of whom were inspirations for the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers), and we had a horror marathon, watching Psycho, Halloween. and Dawn of the Dead back-to-back-to-back.  It was well past midnight when we were through.  No one wanted to leave that night–the wind was blowing, the temperature dropping, and we all knew the ghosts and goblins of the season were lurking out there in the dark.  So they stayed and slept over.  The next morning, with the clear, crisp light of day bringing in the month of November, we all felt better.  The sun was up, you could see up and down the neighborhood streets–the spooky atmosphere of the previous night had passed, evaporating like smoke on the wind.

 

This year, though, I am vowing not to have to recover from anything.  Why scare myself with ghosts or killer dolls or axe murderers?  Why not break the ghoulish tradition and play for laughs instead?

 

I don’t mean to discourage you from filling up on frightful movies this Halloween.  If that’s your preference, drink deeply!  Enjoy.  Tune in to a Vincent Price masterpiece or a Hitchcock thriller, or a classic horror film from yesteryear.  Turn off the lights and dare yourself to watch in the dark.

 

But not me. Not this year. This year, I’ll watch an episode of Cheers, the “old” Cheers with Shelley Long as the costar–when the show was at its best.  I’ll watch The Honeymooners–maybe the episode where Ralph is being investigated by the IRS, and employs Norton to help him figure out what he might have done wrong with his income taxes.  And then?  Maybe an old Happy Days or an Everybody Hates Chris episode.  Maybe an old Cary Grant classic where Cary climbs buildings, dodges crop dusters, or saves the world–all without breaking a sweat.  In short, I will keep it light, corny, and optimistic.

 

Because, when you come right down to it, the world can use a little optimism right now . . . even on Halloween!

Enjoy the holiday!  And enjoy the coming of November.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

In Praise of Clark Kent

Among the pantheon of comic book superheroes, Superman is the greatest and the first.  Indeed, prior to Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster’s super creation in the spring of 1938 (in Action Comics number 1, DC Comics), comic books were decidedly ordinary with characters like private detective Slam Bradley and Scribbly the boy cartoonist.  Nothing wrong with old Scribbly!  But those early titles lacked the pizzazz and punch of the hero age.

 

Superman changed all that.  The world had never seen anything like him, and his popularity took off like a runaway locomotive.  The character’s popularity quickly led to the emergence of a star-studded lineup of other DC universe heroes:  Batman, the Flash, and Wonder Woman, among them.  Not to mention a collection of villains such as Lex Luthor, The Prankster, and Mr. Mxyzptlk.  The Man of Steel’s superhuman power and abilities, coupled with his otherworldly adventures, mesmerized readers every month, providing needed entertainment and relief as the 1930s bled into the war-ravaged 1940s.

 

But what truly made Superman so memorable?  What enabled him to transcend time and place?  How did he remain so popular decade after decade, despite changing styles, new generations, new worldviews?  I would argue that his alter ego, Clark Kent, had a lot to do with it.

 

Clark is the complete opposite of Superman.  Where Superman is brave, bold, daring, strong, Clark presents himself as hesitant, soft-spoken, bookish, and gentle.  Obviously, he does this as a guise, to conceal his identity as Superman.  (Incidentally, I have always thought it hilarious that Clark’s only “disguise,” when out of costume, is a pair of thick glasses.  As if observers wouldn’t be able to discern that Clark and Superman are one and the same merely on account of a pair of spectacles.  But, this, too, is part of Clark’s enduring charm.)

 

Clark, of course, is a reporter for the newspaper the Daily Planet, where he consistently acquires the best stories and photos–obviously because he is Superman and therefore is right in the middle of the action.  But no one ever figures this out.  Clark has his super intelligence, of course, and he is always one step ahead of those who would discover his legendary secret.

 

Clark Kent is a study in quiet, in calm introspection, in everyday blandness, in hominess.  He is the antithesis of the action hero.  He is milk and cookies at 8:00 p.m. while settling in to watch PBS.  He is a quiet evening in front of the fire reading Dickens or Austen or Montgomery or Hardy.  He is a weekend at home, writing in his journal, making a homemade meal, sipping hot chocolate, tending to his garden, walking to the mailbox, and heading to bed early.  He represents our home self, our quiet self, relaxed, in contemplation, at rest, still, taking a step back and allowing the world and its noise to slip on by.

 

And we need that.  Action stories need pauses.  Novels need moments of introspection, where characters reflect and where we get to know them better, settling in beside them as they sit back, recline, and let their guard down.  If Superman were only, well, Superman, all action and fighting and saving the world, it would be too nonstop, too frenetic, too loud.

We need Clark Kent to hit the pause button, ground us, make us smile, and charm us with his quiet, steady presence.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’ll always be a Superman fan.  The Man of Steel’s adventures never disappoint.

 

But if it weren’t for Clark Kent coming onto the scene from time to time, those adventures would surely be less enjoyable.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

She Called Me “Decade” (Or, Ten Years! Thank You for Still Being Here!)

When I turned ten years old, back in the 1980s, my older brother’s girlfriend at the time called me “Decade” to commemorate the milestone.  Little did I dream at that time that, many years hence, there would be an internet and a blogging universe and a way to publish posts for anyone, anywhere in the world, to see in real time.  I also never would have dreamed that I’d be doing such a thing for, well, a decade.

 

Indeed.  When I began The Eye-Dancers blog, I did so without much of a plan–except I knew I had just finished a novel of the same name and wanted to “get the word out” to would-be readers.  I had never blogged before, had no idea what I was doing, but decided to take the plunge.  At the time, I figured I’d write a few promotional posts–maybe for a few weeks or months–and that would pretty much be it.

 

That was in the summer of 2012.

And now, here we are, ten years older.  In the summer of 2022.  Never at the outset of this blog did I think I’d still be here a decade on.  I suppose something I wasn’t counting on when I began this cyber-adventure was the friendships and online connections I would make.  I didn’t realize how special and loyal and stellar the WordPress community was, and is.  But I found out in a hurry.

 

This blog turns ten years old this summer, and you all are the reason I am still here.  I don’t post as often as I used to–not even close.  A quick check of the archives would tell the tale.  Back in 2013, at the height of this blog’s output, I would publish multiple posts per week.  As time went on, that dipped to two per week, then one per week, then one every two weeks, and now it is one per month.  But I’m still here, still enjoying this wonderful online literary adventure, and still trying my best to come up with posts that are interesting and, hopefully, sometimes encouraging.

 

I cannot thank each and every one of you enough for welcoming an online neophyte a decade ago and, through your ongoing support, keeping me writing and blogging all these years.  Whether or not I am working on a novel or short stories–whether I am in a literary whirlwind of ideas or a dry, barren desert without a story to be seen or discovered for miles, one constant has been posting on this blog.  And you are the reason for that.

 

So, again, my deepest appreciation to all of you.  If you’ll keep reading, I will certainly keep posting.

 

Thanks so much for reading these past ten years!  And now, on to the next ten . . .

–Mike

 

The Adventure of the Beagle and the Pilfered French Bread

It’s funny, the things we remember.  There are the big things, of course–weddings, funerals, graduations, disappointments, loves, rejections, triumphs.  But there are little things, too, small details that live on in our consciousness like echoes reverberating through the decades.  Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why we remember the things we do.  At some level, some things–even what, on the surface, appear to be minor things–affect us in such a way that our minds hold onto them, tightly, as if grasping a precious jewel.

 

And these memories are not buried, hidden beneath the surface, like trinkets in a dusty attic chest.  They whisper into our ears, make subtle suggestions when we least expect it, and, for those who create stories, they sometimes weave their way into our narratives–not always exactly as they happened, but close enough to inspire a scene or a chapter.

 

One such memory for me involves our dog when I was eight years old and a loaf of French bread.  I don’t believe it’s ever worked its way into one of my stories–but it likely will.  And it is the focus of this post.

 

First, allow me to back up.  For years, going back to before I was born, my mother always named the family dog “Poopsie.”  Don’t ask me why–I don’t know.  And I never asked.  But “Poopsie” was a given in our family.  If we got a dog, male or female–didn’t matter–we didn’t have to wonder what the dog’s name would be.  The first two Poopsies were before my time. But when I was eight years old, we adopted a beagle and named her Poopsie III.

 

Now, Poopsie III was athletic!  And naughty!  She spent much of her time in our backyard, which was fenced.  We figured this would keep her safe and prevent her from running away and exploring the neighborhood.  We were wrong.  Almost every day, it seemed, Poopsie would hop the fence, spend a couple of hours doing we could only guess what–and then come racing back down the street, usually cresting the big hill in the distance and sprinting down its slope, eventually reaching our driveway and hopping the fence again to head to the rear corner of the yard, where her doghouse was situated.  She sometimes dug under the fence, too, and crawled underneath–just to mix things up.  A lot of times, we’d keep her on a leash so she couldn’t get out of the yard.  But Poopsie was a dog built for running.  So my mother was adamant that she shouldn’t always be constricted to a ten-foot-by-ten-foot circle of yard.  That didn’t stop my mother from scolding Poopsie, though, every time she came back home from one of her adventures through the neighborhood.

One such adventure stands out above all the rest.  It was a pleasant summer afternoon back in the 1980s, and, looking out the back window, I stated, “Poopsie’s gone.”  Indeed.  Her doghouse was abandoned, and she was nowhere to be seen.  Evidently, she had hopped the fence and was out in the neighborhood, somewhere, doing something.

 

About an hour later, we learned what she’d been up to.  My parents, my siblings, and I were all out front–I’m not sure what we were doing.  Maybe peering down the street, wondering when Poopsie would be back.

And then, sure enough, there she was, cresting the hilltop up the road.  She then raced down the hill, heading straight for us.  But . . . was there something in her mouth?  There was!  Though she was still too far away to discern exactly what it was.

Seconds later, as she raced closer, closer, we all saw it.  A large, long, full loaf of French bread.  She carried it dead-center, the loaf sticking out half a foot on each side of her mouth.  And as she neared us, running the whole way, she was undoubtedly smiling.

 

“What did you do?” my mother yelled at her.  And then, as she often did when Poopsie came back from a neighborhood run, she pointed to the backyard and commanded that she “get in [her] house.”  Poopsie didn’t hesitate.  She raced to the backyard fence, and like Superdog, bolted over it in a single bound.

 

We were all shocked.  How had she gotten hold of an entire loaf of French bread?  There were no grocery stores in the direction from which she’d come–not close enough, anyway.  But there was a small, family-owned bakery up that way.  Had she entered the bakery and pilfered a loaf of their bread?  Or had she taken the bread out of the hand of a pedestrian walking home from the bakery?  We never found out.  Certainly no one was chasing Poopsie, attempting to reclaim the bread.  It was a mystery.

 

We all had a good laugh about it, right there in the front yard.  My mother, even while yelling at Poopsie, was laughing.  We decided to go inside and see what the dog was up to.  Looking out the back window, we saw Poopsie trying to enter her doghouse, but she couldn’t.  She still carried her loaf of bread in her mouth, and as she tried to enter through the small opening in front, the bread would ram up against the front of her doghouse, pinning her in place.

Eventually, she dropped the treasured bread directly in front of her doghouse and then went inside.  But she’d left the bread close enough to the open doorway where she could lean out and take large, gluttonous bites of it.  In just a couple of minutes, she ate the entire loaf.  She had a good nap after that.

 

And still to this day, all these years later, I can recall the smile on her face as she ran down the street, bread in mouth.  It will stay with me as long as I live, the memory like an old friend ready and waiting to cheer me up whenever needed.

“Thanks for the memories, Poopsie.  You will not be forgotten.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

 

The Sibling’s the Thing (Or, Broken Bones and Unpaid Bets)

In The Eye-Dancers novels, siblings play a sizable role–and a dominant one in Joe Marma‘s case.  This naturally evolved during the writing of the stories, but also it is a reflection of the siblings in my own life.  As the youngest of four children, I know firsthand what it’s like to share a household with multiple siblings growing up.

 

In my case, I am more than seven years younger than my next-oldest sibling, so there is an age gap–nothing that matters now that we’re adults, but back when I was a little kid, my siblings were already in high school.  They seemed like full-fledged grown-ups to me.  And sometimes, they were tasked with watching me–especially when we visited the neighbors’ pool across the street.

My family used to have a pool when I was too little to swim.  But by the time I could actually use a pool, it was long gone.  And so we’d use the pool in the backyard of the neighbors’ house–kitty-corner and across the street. (In fact, these neighbors were the same family the Marmas were inspired by in The Eye-Dancers!)

 

I remember especially the summer I was eight years old, I would go over to their pool every day.  Joe and his brother did not use the pool much, and so it was usually just me–and sometimes my brothers.  My mother would often be there, too, to supervise.

But one time she tasked my brother Dave to watch me.  He was outside the pool.  I was the only one in the water.  “Don’t throw anything into the pool!” my mother had warned us before we crossed the street and I jumped into the pool.  She knew I liked to play “diving catches” in the pool, where someone would throw a ball several feet away from me and I would dive to try to catch it before it hit the surface of the water.  As luck would have it, that day, there was a volleyball in the neighbors’ backyard, not ten feet from the pool.  How could we resist?

 

“Dive!” Dave said, and whipped the ball just out of reach.  I dived, reached for the volleyball.

Crack!  My left pinky snapped back, the force of the ball rivaling a Nolan Ryan fastball.

Houston Astros Nolan Ryan pitching

 

“Ow!”  I grabbed my finger, the pain immediate and sharp.  The game ended as fast as it had begun.

I wound up with a broken pinky for the summer.  My mother was not pleased.

Another time, later that same summer, once my pinky had healed enough for the cast to be removed, my other older brother, John, made a wager with me.  He was in the pool with me. He knew I liked to submerge and swim underwater from one end of the pool to the other multiple times, seeing how many laps I could complete before needing to come up for air.

“I bet you ten bucks you can’t make it across the pool underwater six times,” he challenged.  My record was four.  Six was a stretch.  But I accepted the challenge.

“Ten bucks?”

 

“Ten bucks,” he reiterated.  In the 1980s, to an eight-year-old, ten dollars was a fortune!  I was all in.

“You’re gonna owe me,” I said, and dove under.  I made the first two laps easily.  The third was a little harder–I was starting to feel the lack of oxygen.  The fourth lap–my old record–was harder still.  Then the fifth–I was venturing into uncharted waters, never having stayed under this long before.  But I made it, tapping the far end of the pool.

Can I make this last lap? I wondered.  I seriously considered coming up for air, losing the bet.  But I wouldn’t give my brother the satisfaction.  I kicked off the side, determined to complete the final lap.

My lungs felt like they would rupture; I was getting woozy.  But I made it, tapping the side of the opposite end and surfacing.  I gulped in the air, letting it slide down into my lungs like a healing balm.  I couldn’t talk for several seconds, gasping, regaining my wind.

 

Finally, I said, “I want my ten bucks!”

My brother swam up to me.  “I can’t believe you did it!” he said.  “I didn’t think you had a chance.”

“Fork it over,” I said.  “When we get home.”

“What?  The ten bucks?”  He smiled.  I didn’t like the looks of that smile.  “Here.  Ten bucks.”

And he proceeded to hit me on my upper arm.  Ten times.

“There!” he said.  “There’s your ten bucks!”

I laid into him, told him it wasn’t fair.  But all he did was laugh.

Now, decades later, I look back at both of these scenarios and smile. I sure wasn’t smiling when they happened!  But now they are treasured memories.  It is memories such as these–little things, anecdotes, small events really, but monumental in their own way–that inspire me to write.  To capture something of the spirit of youth, of my past, of life in a previous century.

 

I am grateful and blessed for the memories.

And yes.  My brother still owes me ten bucks.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

People You Know, Characters You Create

Have you ever wanted to write–or actually written–a piece of fiction that featured characters based on actual people you know?  Now, granted–even when we create our characters “out of thin air,” there are elements of people we know in them.  Or, sometimes, a composite of several people’s characteristics rolled into one.  This may be on a subconscious level–you’re not necessarily trying to base your characters on anyone.  But it’s inevitable that traits from some people you know (or you. yourself, as the author) will find their way into some of your characters.

However, that’s not what we’re talking about here.  What we’re talking about is . . . you know Jane from across the hall in your apartment complex, and you want to create a character “based” on her.  Or perhaps someone from school–a bully, your best friend, a teacher, a nerd–whoever it is.  You want to feature them in your next novel (with a different name, of course).  Can you literally have at it, and re-create the real-life person in your fictional story?  Or do you need to add several layers of a literary buffer, effectively “disguising” them, perhaps even from themselves should they read your work?

 

The interesting thing about that is–whatever your intention, it likely doesn’t matter because as you write, as you go forward with your literary endeavor, creative elements will take over.

As I’ve posted about in the past, the main characters in The Eye-Dancers were based on friends I had growing up.  Specifically, Mitchell Brant was inspired by Matt B.; Ryan Swinton by Rick S.; Joe Marma by, well, Joe M.; and Marc Kuslanski by MattK.  The supporting character of Matt “Grronk” Giselmo was also inspired by a Matt–Matt G.  A lot of Matts!  As for last names, of course I changed them, though I matched the first letter of the fictional characters’ last names with their real-life inspirations.

 

And, honestly, when I set out to write the novel, my intent was to keep the characters relatively close to my real-life friends.  I wasn’t aiming to incorporate much “separation” at all.  Sure, I’d change details and respect their privacy.  Of course.  But as for their personalities, quirks, inside jokes, nicknames, and even physical tendencies, I was drawing form the real thing.

But then, as I continued to move forward with the story, a funny thing happened.  I began seeing the protagonists solely as who they were, and wasn’t even thinking of the real-life Matts or Rick or Joe.  Ryan Swinton was only Ryan Swinton.  Marc Kuslanski was only Marc Kuslanski.  At a certain point during the writing process, it was as if the characters weren’t inspired by anyone.  They had matured, grown, morphed, and become exclusively who they were.  Obviously, even with this development, the characters retained elements of their real-life inspirations.  How could they not?  That’s how they were “born.”  But they had fully and completely become their own entities.  As I wrote their scenes, I no longer even glimpsed the actual people they were based on.  I saw only the protagonists themselves.

 

It was a revelatory experience, one I honestly did not expect.  At the outset, I was “seeing” them so much as offshoots of the people I knew; I assumed it would remain that way throughout the process.  But as so often happens with creative endeavors, the process, the experience, the flow, the wonder takes on a life of its own and leads you where it will.  The writing is in charge.  Not the author.

So, if you are in a similar circumstance–about to begin a novel or a fictionalized work of some sort and are basing your characters on people you know (or knew), and you’re wondering how “close” to cut it . . . you probably have nothing to worry about.

Because as you begin, as you wade through the literary waters, as the bones of the story fill out with muscle and sinew and soul and emotion . . . the characters will become who they decide to become, and the initial inspirations will fade into the background.

So write.  Let your characters lead on.  It promises to be a journey as exciting as it is unpredictable.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

An Easy Memory in Stressful Times (Or, a Long-Ago Conversation about Nothing . . . and Everything)

It’s no secret that the main characters of The Eye-Dancers are based on some of my neighborhood friends growing up in the 1980s in a suburb of Rochester, New York.  From the novel, Mitchell, Joe, Ryan, and Marc are inspired by flesh-and-blood comrades from my youth.  The real-life versions were Matt B, Joe, Rick, and Matt K.  (Yes, two Matts, and three if you include the person who inspired the supporting character of Grronk.)  Back then, more than anything, we were summer friends–out-of-school-on-vacation friends who would hang out in those days before the internet and smartphones and enjoy all manner of adventures . . . and conversations.

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

 

And I have to say, in the turbulent and tempest-tossed years of the 2020s, as we toil through a pandemic, remembering those long-ago days of childhood is an elixir for the soul.  Writing The Eye-Dancers was a labor of love, drawing on the old memories . . . but the memories persist, endure, and still provide comfort and diversion.

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Scene: The house where I grew up, standing on the driveway, bouncing the basketball, summer evening, sometime in the late 1980s.

Yes, bouncing the basketball.  (And taking a few shots at the hoop that was attached just above the gutter over the garage.  In my memory, I never missed.)  Rick was my neighbor, and Joe lived across the street.  More often than not, on summer evenings, if I wanted to “call” them, I’d simply head outside and start shooting baskets.  They’d hear the dribble-dribble-dribble of the ball, and, almost without fail, there would come the slam-click of their screen door snapping shut behind them as they darted outside.  They’d walk over to me, shoot a few baskets themselves.

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Sometimes, one of them would go back in their house to call Matt, or Matt, or Matt (remember, no smartphones).  And sometimes they’d come, and sometimes they wouldn’t.  (All three Matts lived on different streets, but all within a mile of the house I grew up in.)  Either way, we’d spend the evening shooting at the hoop and talking.  About nothing at all.  About life itself.

“You think anything’s up there?” Joe might say, pointing at the heavens as late afternoon slowly bled into evening, the sky darkening, random stars appearing, as if by magic, glittering like celestial diamonds.  “I mean, you know, for real?”

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And I’d nod.  “Absolutely.  The odds that there isn’t anyone else out there” (and I’d point to the sky myself) “are astronomically remote.”  Then I’d smile.  “‘Astronomically.’  See what I did there?”  They’d roll their eyes.  “There’s almost no chance we’re alone in the universe.”

Rick nodded again.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Wonder what they’re like?’

Joe shrugged.  “Prob’ly not so different from us.”  In the gloaming, he shot at the basket.  Missed.  Swore.  “I mean, people are people, right?  Everywhere.”

“Who says they’re people, though?” I’d counter, and shoot at the hoop myself.  Nothing but net.  “Maybe they’re scorpions or one-celled organisms, or giants with twenty-seven heads and brains the size of peas.”

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“Brains the size of peas,” Rick said.  “Like my brother.”  His brother was Bill, “Tyler” in The Eye-Dancers, four years Rick’s junior.  Bill would sometimes emerge from their house, too.  But not tonight.

“Is Matt coming?” I asked.

“Which one?” Joe said.

“Any of them.”

“Maybe Grronk,” Joe said.  “But you know Grronk.  Maybe, maybe not.”

Rick shot at the hoop.  Missed.  Swore.  “You guys hungry?”

“I’m always hungry,” Joe said, taking another shot.  He missed.  Swore.

“What?  You want to order a pizza?” I said.  They shrugged.  Maybe later.

 

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“Damn.  Can’t believe school starts in three weeks already,” Joe said.

I took a shot.  Swish.

“We gotta have fun till then,” Rick said.  “Why is it that summer seems to go by in a week, and the school year seems to take ten years?”

“Yeah,” Joe said.  “That’s true.  I wonder what I’m gonna do.”

“What do you mean?”

He shrugged.  “I don’t know.  When I grow up.  I don’t think about it much.  But sometimes . . . it’s like . . . what will I do?”

Rick and I shrugged back.  Why talk about adulthood and earning a living now?  It was summer.  We were young.  Now wasn’t the time.  Or . . . maybe it was.  Nothing lasts forever.

“I don’t know what I’ll be,” Rick said.  “Just so long as I make money, I guess.”

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We agreed with that.  But even back then, I knew I wanted to write.  To have an audience.  To reach people.  Inspire them, even.  So I said it.

Neither Joe nor Rick replied, but they seemed to understand.  The silence was comfortable, warm, like a snug glove you put on your hand in winter.

Joe took a shot.  Swish!  He cheered.

We moved on to discussing superheroes.  Who was better?  Batman or Superman? (Superman.)  Spider-Man or Wolverine? (Give me Spidey any day of the week.)  We argued, laughed, took a few more shots.  We didn’t order pizza, and Grronk never showed.  We talked about subjects so ridiculous, any outside observer would surely laugh and shake their head.

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But we didn’t stop talking until close to midnight.  And even then, we just hung out for a few more minutes, looking up again, the stars having multiplied.

I remember feeling very young and very strong and very free, with a future as limitless as the night sky above.

And today, especially today, during this challenging year of 2021, those old conversations and feelings and vistas are needed. They represent the musings and beliefs of a child–long ago.  From a different time, a different century.

I’ll always remember them.  And hopefully have the wisdom to keep them alive.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Walk Down Memory Lane (Or, Where the Inspiration Comes From)

Recently, I took a short trip “back home” to visit my family in Rochester, New York, where I was born and spent the first two-and-a-half decades of my life.  Only . . . “Rochester” is too general.  I stayed at the old house, the house where my father still lives, where I grew up, where I spent a childhood and adolescence living and learning, and dreaming.

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Mostly dreaming.  I was an introvert growing up (and still am), and I spent a good portion of my time “elsewhere” in my mind.  I’d go out into the backyard and hit the Wiffle ball, pretending to be participating in the World Series.  I’d create lineups, do play-by-play, and even keep statistics.  Or I’d head out to the driveway and shoot baskets.  My parents had a hoop attached just above the garage.  The gutter that lined the garage bore the brunt of numerous misfired shots–by me, my friends, my brothers–you name it.  Even today, though the hoop is long gone, that gutter still wears its decades-old battle scars.  Other times, I’d go down into the basement and spend hours writing in the cool, dimly lit space, escaping the heat and humidity of summer days.  The common theme was–a lot of solitary activities, sequestering myself away from others, content to create an alternate universe, as it were, one as boundless as my imagination, with no limits and no restrictions.

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That’s not to say I was always alone!  I often got together with my neighborhood friends, some of whom were the real-life inspirations behind the protagonists in The Eye-Dancers.  We’d do all manner of things throughout the year, but especially during summer.  We’d even have sleepovers, in my basement, that same space in which I spent so much time on my own.  I’d tell them of the ghosts and vampires that lurked in the shadows, under the stairs, in the crawlspace.  I was so convincing, I avoided going down there alone after sundown!  My solo basement adventures were exclusive to times when the sun was up and streaming through the cellar windows.  To be down there at night, I needed the company of my friends.

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In the main, however, I was a loner.  Though often by myself, I never felt “lonely.”  There was always so much going on in my imagination, so many story plots being concocted, so many “out-there” scenarios playing across the movie screen of my overactive and fanciful mind.  And these flights of fancy did not occur only within the confines of the house.  No, indeed.

I would take walks through the neighborhood, sometimes for hours.  I’d go far afield at times, several miles out, walking, observing, saying hi to the cats and dogs that sometimes would follow me for a block or two.  I’d look at the houses, the architecture, especially examining the older abodes.  Two stories, with rotting shingles, mature oak trees and maple trees, and surely full of memories and experiences lurking within their walls, these houses never failed to capture my attention.  Sometimes I’d stand there on the sidewalk, just looking at the house, a corner of the yard, a specific tree or bush.  More likely than not, people inside probably watched me and wondered what the odd boy on the sidewalk was doing, and what he was staring at.  No one ever came out to interrogate, though.

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Numerous story ideas were born on those walks.  Potentialities, possibilities, hauntings, evil, goodness, all manner of things would percolate in my mind, to the point where, often, when I arrived back home, I would whip out my old-school pencil and paper and jot down notes, or even dive right in to the story proper.

When I visited the old house, the old neighborhood, earlier this month, I took a long walk.  It was along the same route as some of my childhood walks.  Some things had changed.  Some of the houses–especially the ancient, haunted ones (or at least what I always told myself were haunted)–were gone, replaced by newer, more sterile homes.  Much of the neighborhood remained unchanged, however, and as I walked through the interlocking streets, it felt as though I were walking through time, my steps commingling with those of my younger self.  Memories swirled, regrets.  Joys.  And when I returned to the house, I whipped out a pencil and some old-school notebook paper, and jotted down a few new story ideas.

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Works every time.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Dalkowski vs. Koufax (Or, the Importance of Sharpening Your Tools)

There is likely something you take to–something that, for as long as you can remember, has always come naturally to you.  As a child, when others around you struggled, you enjoyed doing it; it flowed like water down a mountain slope, easy, fast, and free.  The something in question can be anything: tennis, a foreign language, algebra, memorization, dancing, singing, juggling, writing.   But whatever it is, you always knew you had a natural bent toward it, a tilt, as if the skill in question were a star and you were a planet kept in orbit through its gravitational pull.

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For Steve Dalkowski and Sandy Koufax, the talent in question was throwing a baseball.  Indeed, it’s possible that someone could be a bodybuilder, the world’s strongest human, and still not be able to throw a ball inordinately hard.  And then you get someone like Dalkowksi, an unremarkable five foot eleven and 175 pounds but who could, reportedly, throw a baseball as fast as 110 miles per hour.  Koufax wasn’t quite as fast, but he was a contemporary of Dalkowski’s, and he threw plenty hard enough.

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Both men were lefthanders, and, at least early in their careers, despite their obvious inborn natural gifts, they were not overly successful.  Dalkowski, in fact, never was.  He never made it to the Major Leagues.  Blessed with that golden arm though he was (every batter who faced him maintained no one ever threw harder), he was fragile mentally, heaping enormous pressure onto himself before he took the mound.  He also, how shall we say, enjoyed a good time and did not train with the vigor he might have.  During his minor-league heyday, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dalkowski would essentially strike out, or walk, every batter he faced.  In 1960, for instance, he both walked and struck out 262 batters in a single season.  Statistics that would be unthinkable for anyone else.

Dalkowski never made it out of the minor leagues.  He toiled away for nine seasons before flaming out, a footnote in baseball history despite being the fastest pitcher who ever lived.  He had all the natural talent in the world.  But talent, alone, wasn’t enough.

Meanwhile, Sandy Koufax began his career in much the same manner.  Admittedly, Koufax was never as wild as Dalkowski–no one was.  And he did make it to the Major Leagues at a young age and stuck around.  But for the first handful of years of his career, Koufax was a mediocre pitcher–full of potential but not coming close to realizing it.  Like Dalkowski, Koufax was a lefthanded flamethrower, but he was also blessed with an off-the-table curveball that, coupled with his fastball, made batters look silly.  He had one major problem, though–he did not have pinpoint control.  He would walk too many hitters and didn’t hit his spots consistently in the strike zone.  As a result, for the first five years of his big-league career (1955-1960), Koufax was a forgettable player–just “a guy” as they say.

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But he worked at it.  He was determined to get it right, smooth out his form, take away the hitches in his delivery, and overcome his control issues.  The hard work really started to pay off in 1961, when he won eighteen games and posted a 3.52 ERA.  Not earth-shattering numbers, but he was on the right track.  Then 1962 came along, and the countless hours he’d put in, perfecting his craft, would manifest in the best five-year stretch of any pitcher in baseball history.  From 1962 until his forced early retirement in 1966 (Koufax had suffered massive arm injuries during his career), the lefthander was virtually untouchable, posting ERAs as low as 1.93 and 1.85, winning twenty-five or more games in three of those magical seasons, and striking out 382 overmatched hitters in 1965.  “Trying to hit Sandy Koufax,” Pittsburgh Pirates great Willie Stargell once said at the peak of Koufax’s career, “is like trying to drink coffee with a fork.”

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Two pitchers–both blessed with almost freakish talent–but only one of them “made it.”  The difference?  One honed his craft, worked endless hours, refused to accept mediocrity, and never relied on just his talent alone.  If you are a writer, for example, maybe you have an innate sense of pacing, of language, of turning a phrase just so.  Maybe people have said things to you like, “Wow.  You are such a poet!  The way you put words together.  You make them sing.”

 

All may be true.  But if you don’t take that gift and work with it, if you don’t master grammar and punctuation; if you don’t study story structure and learn how to “kill your darlings”: if you don’t strive to prune and pare down and remove pesky adjectives and adverbs and redundancies from the text, you will be the equivalent of the 100-mph pitcher who couldn’t throw strikes.  Your talent will shine through, but it will be buried underneath too-wordy and sloppy prose.  It will not be maximized, and your potential will not be reached.

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So, whether you write or sing or play basketball, or pitch a baseball–put in the hours necessary to master your skill.  Sweat the small stuff.

It can make all the difference.

Just ask Steve Dalkowski and Sandy Koufax–and the batters they faced.

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Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

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