Paging Dr. Harold Hill

Atlas Obscura posted this story about a colorful rogue from America’s past, Curtis Howe Springer, who called himself “the last of the old-time medicine men.” Mr. Springer sold dozens of untested concoctions and founded a spa-town called Zzyzx out in the California desert (so named so it would be “the last word” in any directory of health institutions). As the post points out, anyone interested in this man’s history is confronted by a snarl of lies and exaggerations, including his various claims to be a Ph.D. or M.D. or N.D., whichever seemed likely to work at the time. The list of places from which he received his advanced degrees is festooned with non-existent institutions, the most brazenly faked being the school that had re-named itself after him.  It was The American Medical Association that crowned him “King of the Quacks.”

I Knew When She Switched Detergents

The Huffington Post has an article about the moment one knows they are in for a divorce. The article quotes a handful of male readers who shared their observations and presents tweets from readers of all persuasions. Some needed a strong hint (such as seeing the lease for the new house the wife was buying in her own name) while others picked up on subtler cues (such as noticing the husband showering before going out with the guys). There is plenty of story material and character insight in the 81 tweets associated with this story.

Fanning the Flames

I recently learned that Kareem-Abdul Jabar has written a book starring the “lesser sibling” in the Holmes family, Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft. This reminded me of a couple other examples of formal fan fiction, the books As Time Goes By (which tells you what happened before and after the story depicted in the movie Casablanca), Wide Sargasso Sea (A back story for Jane Erye), and Wicked (the story of how the Wicked Witch of the West earned her title). There have been countless Pride and Prejudice riffs, from the silly (Pride and Predjudice and Zombies) to the serious (Death Comes to Pemberley). Meanwhile, there is a virtual universe of Star Wars follow-on books and internet postings that explore the further adventures of the core characters and the lives of the next generation of Solos and Skywalkers (yup, they’re strong in the force and sport names like “Ben”).

Then there is a more disguised type of fan fiction, i.e. Fifty Shades of Grey which famously began life as an ode to Twilight but wandered far afield. I’ve even heard some of Shakespeare’s work described as a sort of fan fiction, demonstrating the bard’s interest in history and old legends as material. From there, one can also consider the Netflix series House of Cards, which boasts Macbeth and Richard III in its pedigree.

A friend who writes fan fiction focused on Stargate Atlantis expressed the concern that this form of writing is not considered very creative. However, Time magazine gave it a good-sized article bursting with if not admiration then broad acknowledgement that fan fiction has become a booming cottage industry. The books listed above (plus many others) show that it also has a solid place in literature.

Living authors who are the objects of fan fiction have disparate opinions on the subject of letting other writers take a swing at their characters. Anne Rice has gone on record as opposing the practice while J.K.Rowling seems to embrace it. George Lucas mostly welcomes it as well.

Having dabbled in my youth at Star Wars fan fiction (re-writing A New Hope from the point of view of Luke’s little-known tomboy cousin sidekick), I can appreciate the inspiration other writers’ work can give one. I’d be hypocritical if I insisted my own work is off limits for the same attention. In truth, I’d be just as fascinated to know what someone else found lurking in the undeveloped details of my writing as I was to find out why Rick was barred from going back to the United States. Fan fiction keeps a well-crafted character or setting alive and breathes more life into it.

If you are still wondering what to write about next, a small exercise in answering the question “What did my favorite obscure character do next?” might take you down a fruitful road less traveled.

POSTSCRIPT: Mr. Jabar wrote a piece for the September 27, 2015, Parade Magazine explaining why he chose Mycroft as a subject. Mycroft, it seems, presents an intriguing contrast to his brother’s emotional distance and Jabar wanted to explore the reasoning approach of a personality more inclined to empathy.

Inspired in the Worst Way

Hearing the solemn bell tolling for the 9/11 commemoration today made me suddenly recall that I wrote an essay about that day once. It was a wrenching experience for those of us old enough to remember it and one that still can get a group conversing. It’s not easy to turn that kind of anguish into art but it does a service to your psyche, to the cause of general knowledge, and, sometimes, to the hearts of others to try.

Here is what I made of that moment in its entirety:

Just a Movie

I never saw the planes crash into the towers until after it happened. I burst into the babysitter’s house and offered my apology for the unusual midday intrusion.

“Just had to come get him,” I said.

She stood with her bare feet spread apart in the middle of her living room, her long blond hair falling down her muscular back, a baby in her arms, entranced by the image on the widescreen television before her. The children normally stayed back in the parlor of the old farmhouse but some had strayed across the kitchen and stood watching as well. My son stood there too, blond curls rioting around his head. He was just a couple weeks from four and only a few days away from the early morning visit to the ER that would thankfully make us forget everything in the wide world for the weekend.

We reached one-third of the way home before the lump in my throat cleared enough for me to ask, “Son, were you scared by what you saw on that television?”

“It was just a movie,” he replied. “How can a movie scare you?”

For a long moment, I was sorely tempted to indulge myself in that logic. It did look just like something a special effects crew dreamed up. Maybe my son would be better off not knowing right now.

“It is real and true. They really did crash into the towers.”

“Oh. It was just an accident then.”

I thought so too at first. The first plane sounded like a colossal glitch. The second one told us there was a lot more than met the eye. We grown-ups tasted a lot of fear that day. Kids, like my son, who might experience outlandish terror at the sight of an open closet door at night, just shrugged. They would grow up with this story (assuming it was just the one feeble stroke of bizarre luck that a low-tech terrorist syndicate could muster). This would be to them as JFK’s death was to me, born a few weeks before it happened and unable to share in the stories people tell of that day.

For those of us who remember it, however, that day would be a touchstone. We would remember certain things about it with biting clarity. I remember the morning sky as the bluest I’d seen since the high desert. I actually thought, “What a great day!” Later, I thought “What a price you pay for such thoughts.” A deeper part of me just responded, “Jinxed you!”

The worst parts are those that cut close to the bone. I remember the sorrowful tone of the meeting moderator as she said, “Meeting adjourned due to national emergency. Make sure that’s in the minutes.” I recall the wild look in our director’s eye as she suddenly rose and reeled away from the table without a word. Later the word was passed that she had friends in the towers. I have a mental picture of my officemate and I desperately trying to get a radio signal in the musty old fortress of a building where we worked and finding the Internet too crammed with traffic to respond. I can easily return to the tension that rose in my veins as one of my workmates darted into the room declaring, “They’re going to bomb every fifteen minutes until they get what they want!” No one knew what that was or who they were. The thought popped into my head that if I could just hug my son and take him home, I would feel okay, no matter what else happened.

“I have to leave,” I said to my supervisor.

“Go if you like. Someone’s gotta stay,” she said, with a resigned sigh.

“This is a federal building, you know. It’s a target.”

“Whatever.”

She had a son too.

Looking out into my woods from my deck that afternoon, I thought it was like the ice storm that ravaged our property when my son was a baby. He would never know the trees that were felled and still lay crumpled on our land. He wouldn’t know the patches of forest across the state that got cleared out, making them tidy and ripe for building. He couldn’t relate to the sounds of the trees exploding under the weight of the ice with a gunshot-like report. I may never tell him how I cried when I poured out the frozen breast milk after the electricity had been gone for a few days. Anything but that! Now he wouldn’t know a world where you couldn’t imagine people crashing planes into busy cities. At least he’ll not remember the crazy, silly things that were done as a result, the peculiar expressions of hate and fear that blossomed in every place they threw things at people who “looked Muslim” or made people take off certain t-shirts.

He will, however, have to live with the security measures that day spawned.

Somebody finally made a movie about that day. The local movie critic remarked that he would never have gone to it if he weren’t paid to and was still tempted to walk out. It was not that it was a bad movie, just that it still hurt to look at it. There may be a day when 9/11 can become “just a movie” but, judging from my own repulsion and the way the mere mention of this day can still throw a conversation right off track, that day is not here.