In the Watches of the Night

19 September 2017*

It’s 3:46 AM, and I can’t sleep. Because I’m thinking about It.

Not the movie—I haven’t seen it yet—but the book; I finished it about twelve hours ago.

I’m not awake because I’m scared, although the fact that I’m sitting here in the dark and can’t see anything beyond the screen of my laptop is a bit unsettling. And I don’t think I’m awake because I’m approaching pre-middle age and am confronted by what Bradbury called “the soul’s midnight.” No, I’m awake now because, as often happens, some random night-noise woke me. But instead of drifting back to sleep like usual, my mind almost instantly lit right back to the same thoughts it was having when I fell asleep a few hours ago.

This has been my summer of It. I started reading it back in late July, and I’ve been living with the Losers almost constantly for two months. I think it’s safe to say that It is one of the best books I’ve ever read—ranking right up there among my favorites—and that there are so many things wrong with it, in both construction and content—and that I might never read it again.

I grew up in It’s shadow. I watched the original mini-series broadcast in 1990—I was just coming up on eight, and I have no idea where my parents were, bless their hearts, but I doubt they were watching with us—and I was appropriately traumatized. Well into my teens, as one example, I was terrified-fading-into-wary of the seldom-used staircase in my great grandpa’s house, as I’d never been quite able to dispel from my head the image of the clown-mummy slowly descending an old Victorian staircase toward the trapped Stan Uris. And grownup Stan the Man’s talking head in the fridge later didn’t do me any favors, either.

Surprisingly, though, novel-It didn’t terrify me. Sure, it’s definitely made the early morning dark a little less comfortable, but over the last several weeks I haven’t found myself singing “La Vie en Rose” in the shower in our quiet apartment as often as I thought I would. What It did do, however, was break my heart, over and over.

I haven’t read a lot of King, so I guess I wasn’t expecting anything in particular. I wasn’t expecting to find so much to love in his prose and in the sometimes idyllic moments he crafts in the middle of this tale about a demonic clown that feeds almost exclusively on children. I definitely wasn’t expecting to fall in love with the Losers, the circle of seven friends around which the story revolves. But I did—collectively and individually, children and grownups alike. For two months I relived my childhood as their childhood. I was bullied, watched monster movies, ran through the barrens, played guns, laughed, cried, threw rocks, grew up, grew young, and fought for my life with them.

I’d like to give concrete examples of each of these experiences, of each how and why the book affected me so profoundly, but I don’t want to give anything too specific away. I know that a book published in 1986 has legally and ethically moved well outside of the Spoiler-free Zone, but I still don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie or already read it but might want to. Still, I think I might be able to share a couple of scenes from one chapter/section without doing too much damage. Bear in mind, though, it’s a big, complex book, and any excerpt I share won’t come close to conveying all of the book’s flavors.

Now, Mike Hanlon. He’s something of a pariah even compared to the other six Losers because he is the only black kid in Derry, Maine, where the book is set. However, in some ways his childhood might have been the happiest, Pennywise the Dancing Clown notwithstanding. Reading the scenes that show Mike’s home and parents, I found myself truly envious of him. I have two amazing parents myself, so I think my envy is more nostalgia and missing my childhood than anything. (pre-p.s. I guess I’ll have to turn on the light to transcribe a couple of them, but I won’t complain much about that right now.) Here’s the first:

     On one occasion Mike had asked his father why, since they harvested rocks every April, there were always more of them the following April.
     They had been standing at the dumping-off place near sunset on the last day of that year’s rock harvest. A beaten dirt track, not quite serious enough to be called a road, led from the bottom of the west field to this gully near the bank of the Kenduskeag. The gully was a jumbled wasteland of rocks that had been dragged off Will’s land through the years.
     Looking down at this badlands, which he had made first alone and then with the help of his son (somewhere under the rocks, he knew, were the rotting remains of the stumps had yanked out one at a time before any of the fields could be tilled), Will had lighted a cigarette and said, “My daddy used to tell me that God loved rocks, houseflies, weeds, and poor people above all the rest of His creations, and that’s why He made so many of them.”
     “But every year it’s like they come back.”
     “Yeah, I think they do,” Will said. “That’s the only way I know how to explain it.”
     A loon cried from the far side of the Kenduskeag in a dusky sunset that had turned the water a deep orange-red. It was a lonely sound, so lonely that it made Mike’s tired arms tighten with gooseflesh.
     “I love you, Daddy,” he said suddenly, feeling his love so strongly that tears stung his eyes.
     “Why, I love you too, Mikey,” his father said, and hugged him tight in his strong arms. Mike felt the rough fabric of his father’s flannel shirt against his cheek. “Now what do you say we go on back? We got just time to get a bath each before the good woman puts supper on the table.”
     “Ayuh,” Mike said.
     “Ayuh yourself,” Will Hanlon said, and they both laughed, feeling tired but feeling good, arms and legs worked but not overworked, their hands rock-roughened but not hurting too bad.

And the second:

     It was not all school and chores, chores and school; Will Hanlon had told his wife more than once that a boy needed time to go fishing, even if it wasn’t fishing he was really doing. When Mike came home from school he first put his books on the TV in the parlor, second made himself some kind of snack (he was particularly partial to peanut-butter-and-onion sandwiches, a taste that made her mother raise her hands in helpless horror), and third studied the note his father had left him, telling Mike where he, Will, was and what Mike’s chores were—certain rows to be weeded or picked, baskets to be carried, produce to be rotated, the barn to be swept, whatever. But on at least one schooldays a week—and sometime two—there would be no note. And on these days Mike would go fishing, even if it wasn’t really fishing he was doing. Those were great days … days when he had no particular place to go and consequently felt no urge to get there in a hurry.
     Once in a while his father left him another sort of note: “No chores,” one might say. “Go over to Old Cape & look at trolley tracks.” Mike would go over to the Old Cape area, find the streets with the tracks still embedded in them, and inspect them closely, marveling to think of things like trains that had run right though the middle of the streets. That night he and his father might talk about them, and his dad would show him pictures from his Derry album of the trolleys actually running: a funny pole went from the roof of the trolley up to an electrical wire, and there were cigarette ads on the side. Another time he had sent Mike to Memorial Park, where the Standpipe was, to look at a birdbath, and once they had gone to the courthouse together to look at a terrible machine that Chief Borton had found in the attic. This gadget was called a tramp-chair. It was cast-iron, and there were manacles built into the arms and legs. Rounded knobs stuck out of back of the seat. It reminded Mike of a photograph he had seen in some book—a photograph of the electric chair at Sing Sing. Chief Borton let Mike sit in the tramp-chair and try on the manacles.
     After the first ominous novelty of wearing the manacles wore off, Mike looked questioningly at his father and Chief Boston, not sure why this was supposed to be such a horrible punishment for the “vags” (Bolton’s word for them) that had drifted into town in the twenties and thirties. The knobs made the chair a little uncomfortable to sit in, sure, and the manacles on your wrists and ankles made it hard to shift to a more comfortable position, but—
     “Well, you’re just a kid,” Chief Borton said, laughing. “What do you weigh? Seventy, eight pounds? Most of the vags Sheriff Sully posted into that chair in the old days would go twice that. They’d feel a bit oncomfortable after two or three, and right bad after four or five. After seven or eight hours they’d staat bellerin, and after sixteen or seventeen they’d staat cryin, mostly. And by the time there twenty-four-hour tour was up, they’d be willin to swear before God and man that the next time they came riding the rods up New England way they’d give Derry a wide berth. So far as I know, most of em did. Twenty-four hours in the tramp-chair was a helluva persuader.”
     Suddenly there seemed to be more knobs in the chair, digging more deeply into his buttocks, spine, the small of this back, even the nape of this neck. “Can I get out now, please?” he said politely, and Chief Borton laughed again. There was a moment, one panicked instant of time, when Mike though the Chief would only dangle the key to the manacles in from of Mike’s yes and say, Sure I’ll let you out … when you’re twenty-four hours is up.
     “Why did you take me there, Daddy?” he asked on the way home.
     “You’ll know when you’re older,” Will had replied.
     “You don’t like Chief Borton, do you?”
     “No,” his father had replied in a voice so curt that Make hadn’t dared ask any more.
     But Mike enjoyed most of the places in Derry his father sent or took him to, and by the time Mike was ten Will had succeeded in conveying his own interest in the layers of Derry’s history to his son. Sometimes, as when he had been trailing his fingers over the slightly pebbled surface of the stand in which the Memorial Park birdbath was set, or when he had squatted down to look more closely at the trolley tracks which grooved Mont Street in the Old Cape, he would be struck by a profound sense of time … time as something real, as something that had unseen weight, the way sunlight was supposed to have weight (some of the kids in school had laughed when Mrs. Greenguss told them that, but Mike had been too stunned by the concept to laugh; his first thought had been, Light has weight? Oh my Lord, that’s terrible!) … time as something that would eventually bury him.

Okay, so those are less like excerpts and more like XXL-cerpts, but I think they’re wonderful examples of King’s style and of what made me love It so much. The whole book is like that—even the scenes that ostensibly have nothing to do with Pennywise and his awful appetite—sometimes-fluid-sometimes-ghoulish prose dancing or skittering over the lines that separate beautiful from ugly, sublime from mundane, joyful from tragic, human from monstrous, and comforting from terrifying. And at around 1,200 pages, it’s an exhausting dervish of a read, one I’m not sure I’ll ever again have the stamina to undertake. But if you’re feeling fearless and youthful and you’ve never read It before—and if you’re not into that whole sleeping-through-the-night thing—I can’t recommend it highly enough.

*I’m publishing this a week after the fact because I’m a chronic tinkerer and almost never post anything the day I actually write it. I need help.

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FROM THE PAN-FRIED FILES OF THE ALPINE NINE

A couple of weeks ago, my family spent a few days vacating at a cabin in Park City, UT. Part of the plan to keep the nine grandkids entertained was a series of superhero-theme activities. Masochist that I am, I volunteered to script out a simple (that was the plan, anyway) narrative to connect the otherwise disparate challenges. And since it exists in the world now, for better or worse, I guess I might as well throw it up here. Wording intentional. So … here y’are:

 


THE MIGHTY PLIGHT OF THE ALPINE NINE

TEAM ROSTER:

Skywriter – flight
Sailor Swift – flight
Phaze with a Z – change matter from one state to another
Movement Man – telekinesis and matter transportation
Magus Magnificus – mystical powers
RacerBlade – super speed
Sonic Boom – super speed
D.Lux – control light
Salivary Grand – hyperactive drooling

TEAM BACKSTORY:

Most cities are defined by their signature hot dogs, that age-old contest of who’s got the best red hots, split-tops, footlongs, or brats. However, a select few places are known far more grandly—not for the processed meats they make, but for the heroes who call them home and keep them safe. After all, what would Metropolis be without Superman? What would Gotham City be without the Batman, or New York without Spider-Man, or Preston without Napoleon Dynamite?

But just as Coney Island dogs will always sizzle supreme in Detroit, so will one heroic group in one hero-packed city always rise heroically above the rest. That city? That mountainous beacon of hope, bastion of justice, and bedrock of world-class outlet shopping? That city … is Park City. And that group of heroes? Towering even higher than the beloved city that has a hundred times over earned its nickname, “the High-elevation Memphis of the West?”

The Alpine Nine.

That’s you. You nine are the finest superhero team the world has ever seen. A collection of beings of such awesome power that not even Chuck Norris was strong enough to earn a spot among you.

There’s Skywriter and Sailor Swift, the team’s high-flying—literally—co-captains; Phaze with a Z, master manipulator of matter; and Movement Man, conveyor of objects, transporter of things, and undefeated dance-off champion of the universe. There’s RacerBlade and Sonic Boom, the double-timing duo of dash; Magus Magnificus, wise defender of the mystic realms and wielder of the Eyetooth of Avocado; D.Lux, the dazzling lady of light; and Salivary Grand, moist boy wonder extraordinaire.

So as you can see, you’ve got some serious skills. And in this, it’s at-least-tied-for-most desperate hour, Park City has once again called upon you to use those skills to put a temporarily permanent end to the parsimonious plans of Park City’s greatest villains—Grandpa Greed and his Sinister Scions.

Will you, the Alpine Nine, answer your city’s call? Or its text? Or email? ‘Cause Park City has done all three, just to make sure you get the message.

PLAN OF ACTION:

Battle 1 – The Great Un-unthawing
(use squirt guns to free action figures from ice blocks)

All right, Alpine Nine, first order of business: Icebox has straight-up frozen a group of Park Citizens with his chill demeanor and Too-cool-for-school Ray. But luckily for them, Phaze with a Z has never met a solid—or a heart—he couldn’t melt.

Battle 2 – Electric Bagaloo
(use balloons charged with static to float plastic bags across the yard)

Grandpa Greed has stolen all of Park City’s grocery bags in an avaricious attempt to keep other shoppers from getting any s’mores supplies. That’s why Magus Magnificus has taught the rest of you his Levitating Lightning spell. It’s time to show Grandpa Greed that when it comes bad deeds, sometimes less is s’more!

Battle 3 – It’s Too Dark in this Park … City
(put a puzzle together in the dark with the help of a narrow-beamed flashlight)

Circuit Breakdancer has cut the power to the city and cut up all the instruction manuals for the back-up generators. Before all the Park Citizens tragically lose an entire night of bingeing their favorite Netflix shows, D.Lux is going to have to shed a little light on the situation.

Battle 4 – ¡Unholy Guacamole!
(chase Tele Knievel and use crepe paper to tie him up)

Quick, team, Tele Knievel is using his psychic powers and death-defying stuntman skills to steal all of El Chubasco’s delicious salsas! It’s time to let RacerBlade and Sonic Boom show you how to get yo’ chase on before Tele Knievel speeds away with his spicy prize!

Battle 5 – [FRISBEEP-BORP-BOOP]
(throw Frisbee shields across the yard while the villains try to knock them down)

ThrowBot 9000 has been programmed to do one thing—make you look weak in front of as many Park Citizens as possible by putting your shield-slinging game to shame! But when it comes to soaring through the air, no one is better prepared than Skywriter and Sailor Swift. So go show this ro-bro you know how to pro throw!

Battle 6 – Green Thumb, Black Heart
(use magnetic sticks to carry Magnetix shapes from one place to another while the villains use their own magnetic sticks to try to steal them)

Bad Seed is trying to plant poison ivy all over the city. It’s not exactly Kryptonite, but it’ll still give anyone who touches it one wicked bad rash—even superheroes. So follow Movement Man’s psychokinetic lead and ditch that itch weed fast!

Battle 7 – The Salivary Grand Finale
(water fight royale)

This is it, heroes. You’ve finally reached the evil—but surprisingly pleasant-smelling—lair of Grandpa Greed and the Sinister Scions. Don’t let that appetizing aroma dull your other senses, though, because it looks like GG is trying to use the wafting scent of cookies to mask the nefarious fact that the air in here is so dry, even your superhuman lips are bound to chap. Guess it’s a good thing you’ve saved your moistest and most mouthwatering weapon for last. So someone grab Salivary Grand’s hand and let’s finish this—Alpine Nine style!!

Barsoom’s Favorite Pastime

Another WIP. I’ve been writing a lot of fiction recently, and poetry is a good palate cleanser—my personal spumoni.

Mare Ludovicopolitanum

There’s sublimity in swinging for the fence,
In ceding your grand intentions—
Or your uncertainty—
To fate,
In a single blaze of swift decision made
In faith,
In vainglory or innocence.

And there’s more than a world
To be gained by trading grass for sky—
Separating,
If only for a moment,
One slight white orb
Fashioned by finite hands,
From this titan-borne globe—
Crafted of Word or chance,
We can’t decide
Or won’t understand.

Yes,
Along those fine-edged heights,
Where scaling means staking life and legacy,
Those who fail may fall—
But always upward,
Denying gravity’s grasp for a second or a sol,
Defying that divine dividing line,
Moving from ephemeral to empyreal and back—
Or blasting instead beyond the zenith,
Away from pull of azure and leaf,
Into everlasting black—
Until perhaps they sail
To plains of red—
At rest and immortal in that place
Where infield clay meets regolith.

Standing at the plate
Is no time to ask or debate or question,
To worry about getting on base or going down looking—
But it’s the moment to wonder,
To look above,
Amazed
At how high the summit
We might climb
By seeing the prize further than the score;
At how much peace
Might be won
By reaching together to touch the face of War;
At how many strike-outs are undone
By one home run.

Something differenter.

A couple and a half years ago, I posted a poem I’d been tinkering with. I saw it again this week as I was going through my notes, and I thought I’d wrench on it some more. The result isn’t profound by any stretch, but I like its music and mystery.

Inheritance

You have me at my word,
vowed the Orphan to the bird.
Or, by Providence I swear,
I will join you in the air,
to beat against the blast
and bereave the ground at last,
and renounce my mortal name
before Earth can lay her claim.

And the envoy’s ebon eyes
belied the brightness of the skies,
though dead winter’s frigid voice
spoke its rime of hopeless choice.
And the Orphan’s mind was cast
to a red morn long since past—
to a mother’s promise made,
and a debt yet left unpaid.

Then, from trying time unbowed,
she turned toward the crowd—
while the raven rose in flight
with his drove of strident night—
and drew countless ages in
through a throat of molten tin.
As the martial mass knelt cowed,
She withdrew Her sallow shroud

and cast Her lace aloud.

Your bliss might be out there if you can just learn to lean into the rot.

Eat Me!

What food expiration dates mean to many people: EXTREME DANGER!! LETHAL if consumed after [insert date].

What food expiration dates mean to me: EXTREMELY DELICIOUS!! if consumed before [insert date]. If consumed after [insert date], DEVOUR IT AS QUICKLY AS YOU CAN BEFORE IT BECOMES MORE EXPIRED! STILL DELICIOUS, THOUGH! NO REGRETS! 100% PURE ADRENALINE!

Full disclosure: I’ve been trying to write this post for about a month but haven’t been able to get anything going. It’s felt too preachy. So from here on, I’m’a trim everything nonessential (-ish) and try to just toss out a few thoughts and a couple of links. Let’s call it … 43% preachy. Which’ll be a more impressive number once you’ve seen the director’s cut.

Now, I haven’t always been the Chew-sader™, and when I have been a snack maverick it’s been because I really love to eat. Sure, my parents taught me to remove moldy crusts to save the innocent bread beneath and all that, but that’s just a convenient way to maximize my gluten consumption. And, yes, I’ve always teared up when Charlie Brown rescues that bedraggled Christmas sapling—I’m not a monster—but I’ve also always scoffed at all the dimpled, pathetic, can’t-throw-an-overhand-pitch rejects I’ve had to rummage through to get to that perfectly appled Gala. Yet over the last couple of years, I think I’ve metamorphosed, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the Fleming Standard Bleu-to-Cheese Ratio.

According to a recent article in National Geographic Magazine, “How ‘Ugly’ Fruits and Vegetables Can Help Solve World Hunger,” about 1/3 of our annual global food production goes to waste. For perspective, that’s 2.9 trillion pounds of food, which is enough to feed more than two billion people, or roughly seventeen adult beagles.

That’s some Norma Desmond–level crazy right there.

(The article gets bonus points for using the word ensorcelled so early in its narrative, by the way.)

Of course, it makes sense that there is some waste in the food chain. A lot of waste even. Nature’s not always efficient. But that’s where we can step in. Because we can do things the rest of nature can’t/refuses to do. We created saltwater taffy that tastes like bacon, and we created Kim Kardashian’s fame … so there really are no logical rules governing our existence. And that being the case, why can’t we get all that wasted food to people who need/want it? Or at least eat our leftover cassoulet?

Developing nations often lack the infrastructure to be able to store or transport much of what is produced. But developed nations are better equipped to ship and store food, though tons of it, literally, still doesn’t make it far from where it’s grown or produced. Much of it’s thrown out by retailers or consumers because it has “expired” or will soon. Or even worse, because it’s unsightly. So basically, the infrastructure is there, but the desire/commitment isn’t. Our food mentality needs some zesting.

I heard this story on NPR several months ago, about a couple of filmmakers who decided to only eat food that had been thrown out. The TL;DR of it is, American dumpsters are a smörgåsbord of hummus, gourmet chocolate, and broken promises. I’m sure FDA quality standards are a big part of the cause of that waste, and those standards probably exist for many reasons—I definitely wouldn’t recommend gorging yourself on tubs of funky hummus—but some food is just dumped for the sake of convenience or cost-effectivenss. None of which will change until we’re willing to be a little inconvenienced now and then; to pay a little more now and then.

So, quoth the Once-ler: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

And that, my good brothers and sisters, is it. Food sermon over.

Turns out GWAR is already taken. … A crushing realization.

I’m a writer who doesn’t write.

At least that’s how I’ve described myself over the last year. It’s … discouraging. But I guess it’s also a half-truth, to be fair. I am a full-time writer, yet few of the words I write are actually mine. I’m almost always speaking for someone else. And it’s not that they don’t have good things to say, or good reasons to say them, it’s just that they have enough sense to have me say things less absurdly, less long-windedly, and with far fewer dragons than I’d otherwise be wont to do.

It’s a matter of motivation, of course. I don’t write more of my own stuff because I choose not to. But after writing all day, it’s hard to go home and muster the will to write for several more hours. Especially when I just want to chill out, max, and relax all cool with my wife.

Any suggestions? I think step one is just writing more nonsense and iceberg-floating it out to sea. Which I intend to do. Until Global Climate Change’s endgame, anyway.

So with that preface, I’ll blog a bit.

I attended a conference with my wife a couple of weeks ago. It was good, and quite informative, but by the last session of the day my mind had started to amble about a bit. So I decided I’d try to salvage the time by doing something productive—brainstorming random and inane band names. Turned out to be an engaging way to spend the hour. Here they are in the order they appear in my notes, if not all in the order in which I wrote them:

Neo-Preen
Chuck LeDoux
The Millennial Falcons
Savings & Loan
Vespa Espionage
The Damn Daniels
Waco Shake-down
Al Kemmy & the Golden Boys
Plato’s Cave-in
Soothsayer
Fabula Rasa
Java Lamp
Lava Lamb
Nine Old Gringos
Written in the Margins
Rocket Scions
Roslindale
Round the Bend
20,000 Leagues
Clive Chowder & the Manhattan Clam Band
The Eight Teen Wheelers
These Blustery Days
Porrest Trump
Contronym
Fire Sale
Magnum π
Secret Sandwich
Life Without Annette
Cro-Magnon
Lost on the Moors
The Rubble Alliance
Save Me, Michaela Quinn!
Cracker Jackalope
The Tao of Now
Desert Paintbrush
Necromanscape
Système Internationale
Anon
Red Rover & the J-yard Dogs
Streets of Cobblestone
Alex P. Keaton
800-Pound Guerrilla
Groucho Mars
Astrophobia
Al Pastor
Ode to Autumn
Curious Aftertaste
The Last Beekeeper
Kublai’s Con Men
Algorhythmic
Treble Yell
Across the Bow
McMurdo Station
Tristesse Oblige
G.I. Jogurt
Half-Truthless
B.L.T.
Jane’s Casual Interest
Hobo Roadmap
Viking Funeral
ECTO-1
Hundred Acre Wood
Toad Switch
Statecraft
Electro Shepherd
Fight of the Month Club
Tío Escondido
Krav Maga
The Savage Beast
Han Shot First
Cacaophony
Bahamatomic
Closed Till Ragnarok
Blackroot
Elora Danan
Ape Ricotta
Interstellar Medium
Jaded Blue Jeans
Digital Natives
Better Left Unsaid
Kyle & Error
Bernoulli
Great Salt Wake
M. Bison
Guided by Fire
Summer Soldiers
Carl Owes Santa Anna
Skip Fayes & the Subli-Mates