From Smartphones to Biscuit Pants and Three Finger Brown

When Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski are transported to a parallel universe in The Eye-Dancers, they soon discover that the world in which they find themselves is devoid of computers, cell phones, and digital technology of any kind.  This was not an accident or the result of some spur-of-the-moment detail that manifested itself in the flow of a first draft.  It was something I had deliberately chosen to do.

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At first, in the earliest conception of the story, I toyed with the idea of making the lack of digital technology a key element in the plot, perhaps elevating its importance right up there with swirling, hypnotic blue eyes and dreams and nightmares that seem to come to life.  But I eventually pocketed that notion, and the lack of PCs and cell phones became a smaller piece of the puzzle–still there, still relevant, but not paramount.  Through it all, though, I never once considered removing this detail from the novel.

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The variant town of Colbyville, and the world that surrounds it, was always destined to be a place where smartphones do not exist and cannot function.

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I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as anti-technology.  Far from it.  After all, how could I possibly rail against 21st-century digital innovation when I have published an e-book, readable on a handheld device, and have blogged for four years within the wonderful WordPress community, enjoying every minute of it?  No.  I am not opposed to the electronic wonders of our age.

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But I do fondly recall an earlier period–not so long ago on the one hand, millennia ago on the other.  I grew up in the 1980s, where at-home digital innovation consisted of the Commodore 64 my parents bought for us in 1984, complete with its DOS screens, ’80s-style video games, and pre-Windows platform.  At the time, of course, the old Commodore seemed a marvel, a technological triumph that represented the blossoming and realization of the robotic age.  Today, it is a relic, an artifact, an odd, cumbersome thing more an amusement than a tool of technology.  A twelve-year-old coming face-to-face with this ancient archaeopteryx of the computer world would likely stare at it in disbelief, wondering how such an antique ever worked at all.

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It’s not so much that I want us to return to the days of the Commodore 64 (though it’s hard to top such video-game classics as Jumpman, Donkey Kong, and Zork!), eschewing all the digital advancements of the past thirty years.  But sometimes I wonder.  Is there a price we’re paying in our Wi-Fi society, waist-deep as we are in hyper-convenience, where vast pieces of information or merchandise or virtually anything under the sun (and some things beyond) are available at the merest click?  In a world of endless apps, ubiquitous social media, prolific texting, and data overload–is there something missing?

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It is, ultimately, a matter of perspective and opinion, of course.  But as I ponder it, I can’t seem to get away from the specter of Three Finger.

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

On a spring day in 1888, a young boy lost parts of two fingers in a farming accident.  As it turned out, though, the boy used the accident as a springboard to greatness.  He took up the game of baseball, learned to pitch, and for over a decade in the early years of the 20th century, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown baffled opposing hitters.  With two of his fingers on his pitching hand shortened and mangled due to his old accident, Brown was able to put mind-boggling spin on the ball, becoming one of the greatest pitchers of his era.  And the nickname “Three Finger” was a natural.  It stuck with Brown for the duration of his career, and beyond, following him right into Cooperstown, NY, and the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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Indeed, there was a time when virtually ever ballplayer had a nickname–almost a personal brand, something acquired at a young age, never to be relinquished.  Some of the nicknames were original, some were inspired by admiration for the player’s skills, some were downright silly, but almost all were fun.  Here are a few:

Frankie Frisch–The Fordham Flash.

Willie Mays–The Say Hey Kid.

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Charlie Gehringer–The Mechanical Man.

Burleigh Grimes–Ol’ Stubblebeard.

Gabby Hartnett–Old Tomato Face.

Ernie Banks–Mr. Sunshine.

Joe Jackson–Shoeless Joe.

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Bris Lord–The Human Eyeball.

Chuck Klein–The Hoosier Hammerer.

Henry Aaron–Hammerin’ Hank.

Mickey Mantle–The Commerce Comet.

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Al Simmons–Bucketfoot Al.

Luke Appling–Old Aches and Pains.

And these represent just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.  There were hundreds of others, from Arkys to Rubes to Dazzys.  There were even Dizzys!

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And of course Lou Gehrig’s famous nickname–The Iron Horse–was earned due to his remarkable streak of playing in 2,130 consecutive games, over a span of fifteen seasons.  But he was also known as Buster and Biscuit Pants.

In 2016, there are certainly still some amusing baseball nicknames, but they are much fewer and farther between than they used to be.  There just aren’t any Sparkys or Scooters or Slugs anymore.  In their place, we have analytics and digital trends and statistics galore.  If you want to know a player’s batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, or ERA, all you have to do is pull out your mobile device, click on a link or two, and voila.  There you have it.  Some of my friends have apps installed so when their favorite team scores a run, their phone dings to let them know.  We have so much data and knowledge at our fingertips in any given moment, it would surely make “The Georgia Peach’s” head spin.

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And again, this is a great thing.  I am not knocking it.  But then I wonder–would there even be a place for a Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown in our world today?  Or would such a moniker be deemed inappropriate somehow?  Maybe he’d just be called Mordy for short, and leave it at that.  Even if he did play, and thrive, and win, would the majority of fans be enthralled solely by his virtually unhittable pitches, or would his exploits too often be relegated to the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately real-time scoring apps of fantasy baseball leagues?

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I’m not saying there isn’t a place for WHIPs or DIPs or dERAs or any of the other sabermetric markers that are all the rage today in baseball.  We live in a world of constantly evolving digital technology, where last week’s app is suddenly outdated and last year’s Windows update is a dried-out and decaying fossil.  Technological advancement is an ever-changing phenomenon.

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But through it all, I hope we can sometimes take a step back, take a deep breath, and reflect.  Even in this age of smartphones and Twitter, and soon-t0-be driverless cars, there is always a place for Biscuit Pants.

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Thanks so much for reading!

Mike

The Challenge of Writing . . . When There Are No Words

It was one of those landmark days, the kind of day where people later ask, “Where were you when that happened?”  The kind of day that leaves its mark, whether you want it to or not, intractable, like a brand on your soul.

It was Tuesday, January 28, 1986, two days after I had celebrated my birthday.  I was in junior high that year, and my love for all things astronomy had me fired up and eager for the events that were to take place on that cold, blustery winter morning.

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It was big news and a highly anticipated moment–the launching of the space shuttle Challenger, complete with its seven-person crew, including the first teacher ever to venture into space, Christa McAuliffe.  But it was a school day, after all, and at the time of the launch, I was in Earth Science class, taking a quiz.  The teacher, a bald, bespectacled man in his midfifties who gave us quizzes twice a week, without fail or exception, had the radio turned on, with live coverage of the launch.  It was hard to concentrate on the quiz.

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At 11:38 a.m., EST, liftoff!  The voices on the radio buzzed with excitement.  I remember putting down my pencil, looking out the window, imagining . . .

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But not for long.  I didn’t want to flunk the quiz, so I proceeded to the next question.  I read it once, twice, finding it hard to focus on the words.  As I finally honed in on the answer, the voices on the radio began to shout.  At first, I tried to ignore them.  I figured they must have been excited, that’s all.  But the shouting didn’t stop; it intensified.  Something clearly wasn’t right.

That’s when the words, tinny, with a hint of static, filtered through the classroom.  “The space shuttle Challenger has exploded!”

What?  I was sure I was misunderstanding, my hearing compromised by the distance and volume–the radio was a good thirty feet away from me, and not turned up very loud.  But then I looked at my desk mate, Anita.  She and I had known each other since we were toddlers.  We’d gone to kindergarten together, lived a half mile apart, on the same suburban street.  The expression on her face told me immediately that I had not misheard.

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Pandemonium on the radio.  Our teacher turned the volume up, and I thought of the absurdity of trying to take a quiz at a moment like this.  The flight had lasted all of 73 seconds before disaster struck.  The commentators were all shouting, exclaiming, already speculating what might have gone wrong.  In the desk in front of me, Joe and Tony, two good friends, looked back at Anita and me, open-mouthed, wide-eyed.

There were no words.  What could anyone say?  We just sat there, staring into the empty space of the room, at the radio, as if we might be able to will the reporters to say something different, or perhaps turn back time to just before the launch, and warn the crew not to fly.

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There are no words.  I said it again and again in my mind.

There are no words.

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

That night, at home, I watched clip after clip of the nightmare.  It stung and horrified on an almost personal level, as I had entertained the idea of becoming an astronaut when I grew up.  I loved adventure, the planets, the endless blackness of outer space, the promise and mystery of a universe waiting to be discovered.

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I didn’t want to continue watching the shuttle explode, over and over, but I couldn’t seem to help it.  I stared at the television screen deep into the night, hoping for the impossible.

Finally I went to bed.  But I couldn’t sleep.  I thought of the crew–how long were they even aware that there was a problem on the Challenger?  Did they have ten seconds’ warning?  Five?  Two?  Or were they caught completely by surprise?  And the families, the loved ones . . .

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There are no words.

But then I thought about that.  Was that really true?  The destruction of the space shuttle Challenger was a catastrophe, something that would never be forgotten, but life was full of moments, both good and bad, that so often seemed beyond the purview of language.  Even little things, precious things, were hard to put into words:  a first kiss, moving away from home for the first time, falling in love, saying good-bye.  And didn’t everyone experience their own personal canyons and tragedies?  The death of a loved one, the betrayal of a close friend, the loss of a lifelong dream, blown apart like shrapnel on the wind.

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How could any of these experiences be captured, truly, in words?

Life, I thought, as I lay there, awake, unable to close my eyes.  How can anyone really write about life, the things that matter?  The things that resonate?

Even then, as a junior high student, I knew that, for me, writing was akin to breathing.  I couldn’t imagine a life without it.  But most of my stories as a kid were adventures, space explorations, without much depth or emotion.  I sensed I was arriving at a crossroads.  The way I felt lying there, the thoughts swirling in my head, the ideas and motivations abounding, I wanted so much to be able to convey it all in a story, through the power of the written word.

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Words often seemed so lacking, so trite.  How could raw emotion, the depths of the heart, be expressed through them?  Could they?  Or was the whole thing futile?

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That night, I resolved to try, to learn, to find a way.  And if I didn’t, or couldn’t, I would keep trying, and never give up.  I wanted to do more than just send readers on grand explorations to other planets or faraway eras.  I wanted to be able to move them, to have them see themselves on the page, to laugh and cry and engage with the characters.

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I thought of other stories I had read, where this wonderful thing, this literary sleight of hand, as it were, had happened, where I magically was able to relate to some black-and-white construct on the printed page, the bones and cartilage fleshed out with muscle and skin and heart, imagined and created by a writer decades, or even centuries, ago.

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My hopes and goals as a writer have not changed since that long, sleepless night thirty years ago.  Perhaps all writers, all artists, feel this way.  We want to create something meaningful, something that reaches others and moves them, makes them laugh at the triumphs and cry at the losses, makes them pull for our characters and root for them as if they were old friends.

We want to be able to fill in the gaps, to convey on the page the pain and suffering, the gladness and joy, the broken dreams and irretrievable, lost hopes of childhood, the promise of a better tomorrow in spite of it all.

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We want to write, and communicate, and share, and express . . . when there are no words.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Brave New World

At one point in The Eye-Dancers, while marooned in the variant town of Colbyville, Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton. and Marc Kuslanski talk to a girl and her brother.  During the conversation, Joe pulls out his cell phone, even though he already knows it won’t work.  There is no cell phone network in Colbyville.

Intrigued by the device, having never before seen one, the girl asks him what it is and what it does.  This is when Mitchell, ever the storyteller, intervenes.  He says that Marc, the science wiz, is in the process of inventing something called the cell phone.  Marc throws Mitchell a “why are you getting me into this” look, but ultimately he plays along, explaining the concepts of cellular technology to the girl and her brother.

Certainly the tremendous proliferation of e-books and Nooks and Kindles is not merely the rambling bluster of a seventh-grade know-it-all.  (No offense, Marc!)  This is a very real phenomenon.  And it’s been around for a few years now.  Even two years ago, a headline in the Daily Mail exclaimed, “Is it the end for the paperback?”  With apologies to Aldous Huxley, it is a brave new world.

One of the remarkable features of e-books is–they can be read on nearly anything.  Of course, e-readers like the Nook and Kindle are ubiquitous these days . . .

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. . . but the fact is, you do not need an e-reader to read e-books.

One thing I have learned since publishing The Eye-Dancers is that there is still a misconception among many people that, if you don’t own a Kindle or a Nook, you can’t read an e-book.  I’ve run into this with family, friends, and just in general.  A lot of people aren’t aware of the Nook App and Kindle App.  These programs allow you to download the Apps onto your smartphone, tablet, PC, iPad, or pretty much any device you have.  And, best of all, they’re free.  That’s always a good thing.

So, if you have yet to join the e-book revolution because you don’t own an electronic reader, there is no need to wait any longer.  Simply download the free Nook App or Kindle App onto whatever device is most convenient for you, and you’ll be ready to purchase as many e-books as you want.

It’s an exciting time for independent authors around the world.  Even just a decade ago, there were not many avenues available for effective distribution of self-published books.  But today, the old cliche is literally true–the sky is the limit.

It is indeed a brave new world.

Thanks for reading!

–Mike

How to Tell If You’re Addicted to Your Cell Phone

When Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski find themselves in the variant town of Colbyville, they quickly realize that their cell phones don’t function.  Colbyville, after all, has no cell network in place.  While there, the boys’ cell phones are useless.  This of course raises a question.  If you were stranded somewhere, perhaps some town in the middle of nowhere, or, perhaps, in some parallel world where the concept of cellular technology did not yet exist–how would you cope with the loss of your cell phone’s usefulness?  Would you be able to pocket it and not mind a bit?  Or would you struggle through a period of withdrawal?

All things considered, the boys in The Eye-Dancers handle the situation pretty well.  They miss being able to use their mobile phones, but they don’t dwell on it.  Of course, given the situation they’re in, literally life-or-death, they do have more pressing things to worry about!

But just the other day, when I took my car in to the shop to have it serviced and then took the shuttle ride back to work, I couldn’t help but notice my driver’s dependence on his cell phone.  He was a bald guy in his mid-thirties who sported a goatee and a backwards-wearing baseball cap.  He’d just moved up from Florida (he shared this with another passenger in the shuttle).  “You have it twisted in reverse,” the other passenger said.  “Most people in New England go to Florida in winter.  Not the other way around.”

“Yeah,” the driver said.  “If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that the last couple of weeks, I’d be rich.”  Moments later, he dropped the other passenger off, and then asked me where I work.  I told him, and he drove away.  It would be about a ten-minute drive to my office.

As we drove, I noticed he had his cell phone on his lap.  Every few seconds it would chirp, and he’d pick it up to read the new text.  One time, he moaned, threw his cap off, scratched his head.  Then he called someone and had a brief conversation.  A moment later, the phone chirped again.  He picked it up, while driving, read the text, keyed in a quick response.

“Where do you work again?” he asked two stop lights later.  I told him again, just as his phone chirped.  On and on it went, the entire drive.  When he dropped me off, he said he’d have the shop give me a call when my car was ready and he’d pick me up.

When he did, the same scenario played itself out.  Cell phone on his thigh, as he continually checked it.  I had to think to myself:  He wouldn’t last five minutes in Colbyville!

Easy for me to say, of course.  I use my cell phone sparingly–never having gotten in the habit of it.  Besides, it’s an archaic Tracfone, a relic.  When I show it to people, they usually laugh out loud and say, “Hey, I had one of those once.  About ten years ago!”

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Clearly, there isn’t much chance of me being addicted to this particular device!  It’s definitely not a smart phone.  It’s quite dumb.

So . . . how can you tell if you’re addicted to your mobile phone?  Well, if like my shuttle-driving friend, you keep it on your lap as you drive passengers to and from the auto shop, you’re probably hooked.

And you probably wouldn’t like it in Colbyville very much.

Thanks for reading!

–Mike

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