“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

After All These Years (Or, You Can Go Home Again)

This Friday, I’ll be taking a little trip.  I’ll be hopping in the car, driving west through the state of Vermont, then crossing into New York State, where I’ll head south for fifty miles and then travel west, across much of the Empire State, until I reach the Rochester area, where I’ll spend the Labor Day weekend with my family.  It’s a tradition that goes back decades.  Every year, for Labor Day, I head back home, to the town, to the house where I grew up.

 

I’ve lived in Vermont for two decades now, but I grew up in Rochester.  I never moved growing up–my parents bought their house before I was born, and kept it through the decades.  When I go back now, the house feels both different and the same.  My mother is no longer there, passing in 2018, and the absence is palpable when I’m there.  But the memories are alive and close in the old house, swirling around like pixie dust.

 

One thing I enjoy tremendously about the trip back home is, well, the trip.  Late summer is my favorite time of the year in the northeastern US, and the landscape in Vermont and upstate New York is especially beautiful this time of the year.  Summer crops are ripe and lush, the corn taller than me.  Trees are still mostly summer green, though a few hints of fall can be observed, some of the leaves getting a jump-start on the autumn color show to come.  Fields are green and vibrant.  Late-summer flowers dot the roadsides–goldenrod bobbing and dancing in the breeze.  If I stop in a Vermont town early on the drive, I might smell woodsmoke in the distance, lingering in the mountain air, the scent musky and invigorating.

 

Then, into New York State, I drive, listening to an audio recording of The Illustrated Man, Bradbury’s words taking me back, back, the poetry of the phrasing sublime in the late summer sun.  The towns I pass through in eastern upstate New York, in the foothills of the Adirondacks and then, farther west, the green, lush Mohawk Valley, are old, at times run-down, but magical–at least to me.  Storefronts a century and a half old line the main streets.  Stately old mansions, weather-beaten and often in need of repair, stand stoically and proudly along the way, like thoughtful old philosophers pondering the meaning of life, repositories of countless memories in their ancient walls.

 

And as I draw closer to Rochester, the hours melting away as I continue west, as the terrain flattens out into the farm country of western New York, my own memories beckon.  Heading home.  The same house.  Family.  Friends that date back to a different century.  Indeed, a few of the inspirations for The Eye-Dancers will be there, and we’ll get together for a while, and we’ll remember.  We are grown men now, from the perspective of our childhood selves in the 1980s impossibly old, and yet . . . when we get together, it feels like 1988 again.  The vibes are the same.  The laughter is the same.  It is good, even if it’s only for just a single weekend.  Maybe that’s as it should be.  Special things, by their very nature, must remain rare.

 

Of course, when I return to Vermont after the trip, I’ll need to dig back in to work and responsibilities and the rhythms of everyday life.  But for a couple of days this weekend, I’ll be entering the past, as if starring in a Twilight Zone episode.  Revisiting.  Going back.  Remembering.  Reliving.

 

It is good.  I look forward to it.  And maybe, while I’m there, I’ll create a new memory to look back on in future years.  To blend and merge with the old.

Going home again won’t always be possible.  There will come a day when the old house belongs to a different family, when no familiar face is left in the neighborhood I grew up in.  But that day is not yet here.

And for that I am grateful.

 

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

 

 

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

The Swing Set in the Backyard (Or . . . So, You Want to Write a Novel?)

When I was eight years old, my parents bought a swing set for the backyard.  It was red and yellow, with two swings.  My father installed it at the extreme northern end of the yard, a few feet to the left of the brick fireplace he had built upon moving into the house, years before I was born.  I cannot say I remember whether or not I had asked for a swing set or if my parents decided it would be a good idea to get one.  Either way, that summer–the summer I was eight–I spent a lot of time on those swings.

 

Well, I mainly used the swing closer to the fireplace.  If anyone wanted to join me, they needed to use the other swing.  Sometimes, I’d swing for hours.  I used to love swinging on July evenings, the air warm, the yard fragrant with flowers and freshly cut grass, the scent of a late barbecue from next door wafting on the breeze.  I’d plop down on the swing, push my way into a swinging motion, and kick . . . and kick . . . and kick.  Higher.  Always trying to get as high as possible, so I could see.

 

Indeed.  Especially at twilight, when I reached the apex of my swinging journey, I would peer to the north, beyond the backyard, beyond the neighbor’s yard . . . above the rooftops.  And I would glimpse . . .

But then I bottomed out again, beginning another rotation.  When I returned to the top of the arc, though, there it was . . . a netherworld.  A distant, ghostlike village just beyond the horizon.  As dusk descended, the village would, counterintuitively, glow brighter, shining in contrast to the darkening landscape.  If I looked closely enough, I could see spectral shapes moving to and fro.  Every few seconds, as I reached the apex of my swinging arc, I would see them again, a moment or two removed from my last glimpse.  Glimpse after glimpse, for an hour or more each night . . . before it became full-on dark and my mother called me inside.  Snapshots into another world, another dimension.

 

Back then, immersed in the wonder of being eight years old, I believed–fully–that what I was seeing out in the twilit distance was real–an alternate dimension of sorts, with wraiths living their lives and doing whatever it was they did.  I’d think of them during the day, too, or when I was inside, or at night while I slept.  What were they doing when I couldn’t see them?  I began to write down ideas.  Stories.  A love of the creative process was born.

 

That’s probably how it starts for many writers and artists–early on, at some point during childhood, you realize that your mind tends to drift.  That, even more than most kids, you question and conjure and wonder, and ask, “What if?”  You get lost in story and have conversations with yourself when no one’s around . . . or sometimes even when they are.  And as you get a little older and master the language more, the nuances, the flow, the texture and taste of the words . . . you write.  Short stories.  Essays.  Plays. Novels.

 

Novels.  I would have to say the number one question I get from non-writers who are aware that I have written novels is: “Where did you get the idea?”  And that is often followed by: “I could never write a novel.  Way too long!”

Long it is.  And that’s the challenge.  That’s the price that must be paid if you want to turn your aha-light bulb idea into three hundred pages of story and forward motion.  Ideas are a dime a dozen (even good ones).  Be it fiction or nonfiction, writing a book is work.  A lot of work.

 

Do you outline?  If research is needed, how much do you do?  After writing seven chapters–riding the roller coaster of inspiration–what happens when you come to chapter eight and, suddenly, the shine wears off, the plot becomes murky, and you’re not sure which direction to take?  And–if you’re like 99.9 percent of writers in the world, you also have a day job.  You have bills to pay, responsibilities to attend to, tasks to complete, people to care for.  How on earth do you carve out the time to write a novel?  And even if you do, will you have any energy left over after all the responsibilities of the day are done?  Writing takes energy and creativity.  These may be in short supply after a full day.

 

Or maybe you set your alarm for 4:00 a.m. and try to get some writing in before anyone else is up.  But are you?  Or will you feel like a zombie author, staring half-asleep at your screen, unable to process thoughts?  Make no mistake about it–writing a book is difficult.  In many ways, the writing itself is the easiest part.  It’s everything else that can trip us up, even when we enter the project with the best of intentions.

 

And that’s the trick, really.  Does writing a novel take talent?  I suppose.  Some writers have an abundance of talent; others may not have quite as much, but they have enough–they can do it.  If they didn’t have the ability to write a book, they wouldn’t have arrived at this point–planning out a story line, falling in love with an idea so much, they are willing to spend the next year or more bringing it alive on the page.  Anyone who reaches this point in the journey has the ability to write a book.  It is hard–it requires creating something out of nothing and then spending countless hours editing and honing and slicing away at the result–polishing it, killing your darlings, and revising, revising, revising.

 

Which brings us to the key.  The secret ingredient, if you will, of not only starting, but finishing a novel.  Well, perhaps there are two ingredients.  The first is commitment.  Given all of the challenges already touched on here, it can feel impossible–literally–to find the time and energy to complete a novel.  How do you overcome the challenge?  You have to be committed to your work, your idea, and have the perseverance to see it through.  There is no other way.

 

The other ingredient?  Confidence.  Self-belief.  Have you shared your idea with others?  Quite likely, you have received some very encouraging and positive feedback.  “Great idea!  I’ll buy it when it’s available!  Wow!  I wish I’d have thought of that!  Sounds like a best seller!”  But, just as likely, you will have received some lukewarm or even negative feedback, too. “Really?  Sounds contrived to me.  I don’t think your idea is believable.  Who cares?  The market is full of stories like that.  Your novel will get lost in a sea of similar stories.”  Or–“There’s no market for that, though.  No one will buy it.”  The list of would-be criticisms can stretch on, as long as the Sahara Desert.  It is easy to become discouraged, assess the monumental task ahead, and then shrug your shoulders and say, “Maybe they’re right.  Who am I kidding?  Who would want to hear what I have to say?”

 

This is where belief must come in.  There is no one–no one–in the world with your unique perspective.  It is likely true that your story idea is not entirely original (in reality, at this point, there may not be a truly original idea in existence; everything, in one way or another, has already been done).  But it has not been done, and not been told, in your point of view.  Only you can bring your life experiences, your voice, your essence, to the subject.  In short, only you can tell the story you have inside you, the story you feel a need to share with the world.

 

And that matters.  That’s what it’s all about.  Something–some force, some pure and true element of your soul–has instilled in you a need to write a story.  If you don’t write it, it will nag you, always.  So, press on.  Don’t listen to the naysayers (including the ones inside your own head).  Find a way to complete the project, even if it takes years.

Because, when it comes right down to it, we all have that eight-year-old inside of us, full of inspiration and imagination and wonder–with a story to tell.

So tell it.  Share it.  The world will be a better place when you do.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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

“Who’s That Tree?” (A Childhood Holiday Tradition)

Without question, Christmas was the most looked-forward-to day of the year for my family when I was growing up in Rochester, New York, in the 1980s.  I look back at those days now with a sense of nostalgia that would have mystified my child-self.  Back then, the 1980s were the alpha and the omega, the here and the when, the be-all and the end-all.  Little did I realize in that last decade before email and the internet that at some future point, decades hence, popular culture would “look back” at the decade in which I spent my childhood and use it as the backdrop for television shows and movies.  I wouldn’t have thought such a thing possible.  When you’re ten or twelve, you are eternally young, and the world where you grow up is young with you.  It feels like a forever state, a permanent condition of things.  But of course it is not.

 

It is fleeting.

I blinked and the 1990s came and went.  Then the 2000s.  Then the 2010s.  And here we are now, on the precipice of 2022.  So many years.  So many changes.  Yet the memories remain.  The traditions and stories and experiences of childhood linger, like woodsmoke on a winter wind.  Enduring.  Tangy.  And real.

 

And while there were many traditions my family shared when I was a kid, the most festive ones revolved around Christmas.

It started with my mother.  She had the most exuberant Christmas spirit in the neighborhood.  One of (many) holiday traditions she started was shopping for the family Christmas tree the first Sunday every December.  It was the same every year.  She’d round us up early that Sunday morning, and we’d drive the family station wagon the mile and a half through the neighborhood to Wambach Farms, an old country store/farmstand that, during the Christmas season, had an enormous variety of Christmas trees for sale out on the back lot. We’d park the car and head right back to the lot, wasting no time to examine the trees.

 

It was serious business.  We weren’t going to settle for just any tree.  It had to be the perfect one.  Not too tall, not too fat, not too thin.  Just right.  The process generally took twenty minutes to a half hour.  We’d fan out–me, my two brothers, my sister, my parents–and scan the merchandise.  Without fail, within a couple of minutes, someone would yell, “Hey!  Everyone!  Mom!  I found it!  This is our tree!”  And we’d all go over to whoever exclaimed it, and, also without fail, the consensus would be to keep looking.  “Nah, it’s too tall and skinny,” someone would say. “Who’s that tree?”  “It looks like Bigelow (a colleague of my father’s at work).  Or, “No way.  That tree is too short and squat, like Reggie!” (a neighborhood dog).  The hunt for the perfect tree went on.

 

Since we shopped for our tree when the store opened, early Sunday morning, there were usually very few other shoppers around.  It was quiet, still, the frosty December air surrounding us like an icy embrace, breath smoking in front of us.  And the excitement was palpable.  It was an honor to be the one to discover the perfect tree.

 

And eventually, of course, someone did.  It was one of those things, hard to define, difficult to establish a template or a set of exact parameters.  Our trees from year to year did have some similar characteristics, but they were also different, unique, individualized.  You just knew it when you saw it.

 

When we did, we’d check out–old Mr. Wambach making small talk with my parents at the register–and then we’d drive the tree home, my father tying it down in the trunk of the car.  It would take hours to decorate.  We’d spend the rest of Sunday morning on it.  And when it was done, the Christmas season in our house would officially begin.

 

Every year in the 1980s, we repeated this Christmas ritual.  And yes, at the time, it felt eternal.  Every year would be the same.  It would never change.  Ever.  The mind of a child, a kid growing up, lucky to be secure in his family and surroundings, living in the moment of his youth.

The thing is, those days are eternal.  They endure.  In my mind, and in my heart.  They will never grow old.

 

I hope you have memories like that, too, during this holiday season or during another one.  I hope you continue to make such memories.

A blessed and merry holiday season to all.

 

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.

 

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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

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