When writers run out of ideas, they can always harvest their old ones. This is what is known in the biz as “returning to the well.” It’s why Kevin Smith is currently working on “Clerks III” and why I’m going to run three excerpts from my book Lists, Life, and Other Unimportant Details for the next few weeks. To be honest, I’m a little (okay a lot) disappointed in the number of people (or lack thereof) who took advantage of my offer to sign up for new blog updates to receive this book for free. Perhaps people are reasoning, “How good can a book be if it’s free?” Well, cards on the table, it’s definitely not as good as Danger Peak. I even say, er, write as much in the Introduction/Warning. (Incidentally, if you’re wondering why it’s titled “Introduction/Warning,” you’ll have to sign up for blog updates to find out!) But instead of defending my little-loved book, I decided to let you guys judge the quality of said book yourselves, so without further ado, here is an excerpt from the first section of the book, Lists. I decided to choose something that was at least tangentially related to Danger Peak, since the movie “Stand By Me” was an obvious influence.
In fact, one of the reasons why I wrote Danger Peak was because I wanted a “Stand By Me” for the ‘80s. You might be thinking, “‘Stand By Me’ is from the ‘80s,” but while the movie was produced and released in the ‘80s, it takes place in the late ‘50s; I wanted a coming-of-age story of friendship that took place in the “Greed-is-good” decade of my childhood. Enjoy! (or don’t!)
Me and Gordie Down by the Schoolyard: My Parallel With “Stand By Me”
Though it was released in 1986, “Stand By Me” is still one of my favorite movies of all time. In fact, it’s in my Top 10, though I hadn’t seen the entire movie until the early 2000s, 15 years after its debut. (Until then, I only saw bits and pieces on T.V.) I wish I had seen it earlier, because I would’ve been able to fully appreciate this classic more and realize how much I had in common with the main character, Gordie Lachance, played by Wil Wheaton (he of T.V.’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fame, a show I never really paid much attention to, like all the other “Star Trek”s).
Along with Ralphie from “A Christmas Story,” Wil’s character was one of the first to feature a future version of himself narrating his past events, courtesy the always welcome Richard Dreyfuss, a device that was later stolen by “The Wonder Years” and (somewhat less effectively) “How I Met Your Mother.” (If Ted’s younger self is already grown up on the show, why does his older self sound like Bob Saget?)
Roger Ebert once noted that if you watch enough movies, you’ll eventually see a character who’s exactly like you—or at least some former version of yourself. For him, that movie was Joe Dante’s “Matinee.” He also identified with a main character who was in his childhood, this one a scrappy kid who collected sci-fi comics and went to the Saturday double-feature every weekend.
For me, Gordie from “Stand By Me” is almost a carbon copy of how I was and what I was going through during that same era of being 12 years old. (You’d just have to add a few—or a few dozen—pounds to Wheaton’s scrawny frame since I more closely resembled Jerry O’Connell’s plump Vern Tessio.) Here are the reasons why (in no order):
1. Goes on Adventure With Best Friends
Gordie has three best friends in the movie, and I had two. I’m still friends with one of them today (he was the Best Man at my wedding and is a Facebook friend), while I lost touch with the other, similar to how Gordie loses touch with his friends later in life. (Old Spoiler Alert!) I only managed to find my second friend’s siblings on Facebook, and he probably has no idea about any of this.
Gordie goes on a crazy adventure with his buds in the movie, and while my excursions with my own friends weren’t as fantastical (we mostly played Nintendo, listened to Billy Joel, and shared slices at the local pizzeria), there were times when, if not reality-based, our imaginations led us on our own madcap escapades. We searched for “Bigfoot” in the large expanse of woods just behind our homes, we acted like D.J.s on a fake radio station I created called “W.I.E.R.D. T.V.” (we didn’t realize we spelled “weird” wrong), we played “Batman” in our backyards, and one time, we were ambitious enough to evade our parents and visit the requisite “cool kid,” riding on the back of his moped. (Our folks were furious and even went searching for us, as I recall.)
Our transportation mode of choice was of course the bicycle. We rode our bikes all over town like a tiny, extremely nonthreatening “Hell’s Angels.” The bikes certainly came in handy for my Newsday paper route. (Remember when the newspaper was delivered by a boy and his bike? Come to think of it, remember newspapers?) Back then, going from one part of your town to the opposite end was like backpacking cross country or taking a Caribbean cruise. You never realize how small your town is until you actually leave it, and that’s exactly what Gordie says at the end of the movie: “We’d only been gone 2 days, but somehow, the town seemed different, smaller.”
Like Gordie, I was a victim of bullying, mostly during junior high and high school. I suppose we were all bullied at some point in our lives, but I was called every name in the “Bullying for Beginners” book, including names that didn’t even make sense, like the oxymoron “stupid nerd.” The less said about this, the better.
Like Gordie, I wanted to be a writer when I was a kid, and, as evidence of this book (over 100 entries and counting!), I’m still writing today. Gordie isn’t an athletic kid, so he writes short stories to entertain himself and his friends, which was exactly my favorite childhood pastime. I wrote dozens of “mini-books,” as I called them and used to even sit outside the porch of my friend’s house and read them to him, as Gordie does in the campfire scene in “Stand By Me.” My stories weren’t as gross as his, and none of them were over 50 pages, but, if nothing else, they were good for a laugh. As one of my friends used to say, “Where do you come up with this stuff?” (He might not have used the word “stuff.”)
4. Older Brother Dies
We learn in the movie that Gordie’s older brother died in a car accident, and while it wasn’t a car that took his life, my older (and only) brother Steven also died, coincidentally the same year “Stand By Me” hit theaters. Throughout the film, Gordie flashes back to the good times he had with his brother, which were undoubtedly tainted by the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. I had great times with Steven, but there were plenty of times he also teased me good naturedly, as all older brothers must do. I suppose it’s a rite of passage.
Like Gordie, I was also meant to step into my older brother’s bigger shoes. During a visit to a deli in the movie, the store clerk waxes nostalgic about how great Gordie’s brother was at playing football. He then asks Gordie if he also plays. He replies, “No.”
“What do you do?” the clerk asks condescendingly.
During one scene, which I’m still not sure whether it’s a dream sequence or a flashback (or both), Gordie’s father places his hand on his shoulder at his brother’s funeral and solemnly tells him, “It should’ve been you, Gordie.”
While my parents were never that cruel, my Dad expected me to be the next Steven. One time at dinner, he complained to my Mom, “He’s nothing like Steven!” as if it was my job to replace him. I quickly countered, “That’s because I’m not Steven; I’m Michael.” Fortunately, my Mom had my back on that one.
The whole brother subplot is one of the main emotional currents that drives the story. It’s what motivates Gordie to connect with his friends, as my loss is certainly something that’s always in the back of my mind, driving me to reach out to others.
5. Skips AP Classes
Gordie was accepted into the Honors Program in junior high, but he doesn’t want to go; he’d rather be with his friends. I was also enlisted in AP classes when I entered junior high in Seventh Grade, but I chose the “lower track,” Regents, for the same reason. Well, that, and I was also lazy. I wanted to enjoy my childhood, not spend it cooped up in my bedroom for months trying to finish War and Peace. As it turns out, I spent the rest of my childhood cooped up in my bedroom anyway but for completely different reasons.
Also, it didn’t help that I was different from the other kids in my classes and expected to perform more, and I remember one time when my English teacher even called me out, saying, “Someone in this class shouldn’t be here! He should be in Honors, but he’s too lazy!” while staring at me the entire time. It didn’t take long for the kids to figure out who she was talking about. Yes, I wasn’t immune to bullying from teachers either. (See number 2.)
When I was in a band, I wrote a song dedicated to this movie, appropriately titled “Stand By You” (the video for it is now embedded at the bottom of my Bio page), but when I presented it to them, along with my guitarist who helped write the music, a few didn’t get it. They took issue with the line, “You don’t get to be 12 too long.” I was trying to explain how I, just like Richard Dreyfuss in the movie, am obsessed with this age; we keep replaying the events over and over in our minds, wishing the time we had was longer, though it was still just one year.
“But you’re 12 the same amount of time as any other age,” they said.
I should’ve just pointed them to this list or, better yet, told them to watch the movie.
P.S.: Danger Peak is now available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble:
P.P.S.: Next week’s blog: An Excerpt from the Life Section