Recent Work By Steven Bryan Bieler

In the late 1990s, my Dad, who had just turned 70, was being interviewed by a very young nurse. She read in his record that he was a veteran. She asked which war he had served in: “Desert Storm?” No, Dad said. Guess again. “Vietnam?” No. “Well, then, which one?” Dad told her that he had served in the Civil War. “I’ve never met a Civil War veteran!” she exclaimed. Later, my Mom heard this nurse telling her colleagues, “Did you know that Mr. Bieler was in the Civil War?”

When we were Cub Scouts, we spent months collecting spare change to buy the battleship Massachusetts from the Navy. On the bright August day when the old ship was towed up Mount Hope Bay to its new home in Fall River, my family was one of the thousands aboard the cabin cruisers, trawlers, sloops, catboats, frigates, and tugs that participated in the all-day cavalcade. At one point we came fairly close amidships to the battleship. All I could see was a gray wall of steel rising from the waves and disappearing into the clouds. This memory flashed through my mind a couple of weeks ago when a gray Dodge Ram 2500 towing a trailer swerved into my lane without warning and I drove straight into its passenger door.

When we were very young, my father taught us that you could skip any rock you could pick up, if it had one flat surface. He backed up his belief by hefting a chunk of concrete and hurling it sidearm at the river. He got two skips out of the chunk before it plowed into the water, dragging a column of air down with it. The water rushed back in with an echo-y kerplunk like the sinking of the battleship Bismarck. My father was very strong, and he could make a rock fly, skipping it dozens of times. If anyone could sink the Bismarck with a chunk of concrete, it was Dad.

I have a drawer in my desk which for years I have thought of as Jack’s. I tuck into this drawer all of the things I’m planning to mail to him: old postcards, articles to make him laugh, stickers, photos I’ve torn from Birder’s World, address labels, and of course Jack’s cards and letters to which I have yet to reply. I’ve had a drawer like this in one desk or another for thirty years.

I’m digging in my archives. The computer’s early promise of freeing us from paper was not only wrong, what was right was the reverse. I have more paper than ever, and most of it is the same size, the same readable white, the same slick, lifeless feel. Hefting paper-wrapped bags of paper, ripping them open like cartridges of gunpowder, and fitting blocks of cloned blank sheets into the trays of copiers and printers is a normal part of my day.

There have been many crucial years in the forward lurch of humanity but today I’d like to tell you about one of the biggest: 1971. For those of you who might argue for a showier year with zeroes in it or repeating decimals let me remind you that in 1971 Led Zeppelin released “Stairway to Heaven.”

My birthday is a good time to inventory my accumulated wisdom. Sadly, there ain’t much. The longer I live, the less I know. But what I do know will fit quite comfortably here.

I will spare you the obvious. If you haven’t figured out by now that you should be good to other people, I can’t help you. I will omit those issues that divide us, such as whose politics rocks harder and which religion has the most vengeful god. And I won’t go anywhere near the stockpile of trivia that chokes my brain, things that would only appeal to specialists, like batting averages, chess openings, and how to put a positive spin on disco.

What’s left? The Magnificent 7: Seven items that I hope will have some practical use for someone other than me. Keep in mind that everything I’m about to say flows from the perspective of a heterosexual, Jewish, innately lazy married male with no children and you should be fine.

Ready? Here we go!

Item 1: Get a dog. No matter how you feel about life on any given day, if you own a dog you will have to feed the dog. You’ll have to walk the dog. You’ll have to adopt a schedule that benefits the dog. When you’re standing in the rain and the cold searching your pockets for a plastic bag, you won’t be mired in existential dread, you’ll be thinking about how good it’ll be to get back inside where it’s warm and dry. A dog will teach you to savor the little things that make this life so sweet.

Don’t like dogs? Get a cat. A cat has a very different lesson to teach, and that lesson is: You are not important.

Item 2: Volunteer. When you’re younger it’s difficult to find the time and the motivation to volunteer. It gets easier as you get older. This is why retired people often claim they’re so busy, they don’t know how they ever found the time to work. Finding the volunteer activity that suits you best could be a lengthy process, but I’ve found a way to speed it up. Volunteer for three to six things over the next year or two. At the end of that time you’ll know which one you want to pursue. Do that one and drop the rest.

Remember the secret to volunteering: It’s not true that we get more from volunteering than what we put in. Sometimes we feel we’re getting very little back. Sometimes we feel empty. Sometimes we feel aggravated. No matter what you feel, volunteering always does someone some good. That’s why you should do it. Don’t feel appreciated after a particularly tough effort? Remember what the cat taught you.

Item 3: Wide world of men. Women: Stop complaining that men are simple. Granted, my gender is not as complicated as yours. But if men were as complicated as women, there’d be no human race. And stop reading Cosmo. They say they can explain men, but they’re lying.

Item 4: Women 101. Men: Listen up, simpletons. Stop wondering what women want and ask them. The answer will change from year to year, month to month, and possibly day to day. Keep asking. You’re not bothering them; they’ll enjoy the attention. Remember the secret to successful asking: It’s called listening!

Item 5: What to do after you say “I do.” On the day I got married, we had two friends in attendance who’d been married for 23 years. We thought they were an old married couple. Today, they’ve been married 46 years and we’ve been married 23. What makes a marriage work? All I can tell you is that you should never spend a dollar on a book, a class, a seminar, or on anyone who promises you the answer, because there is none. What works for me isn’t going to work for you. It might not even work for me next year. I suggest you take the money you were going to spend on the book, class, etc. and take your partner to dinner or dancing or to the beach. That I know will work.

Item 6: How to go to bed. Every day, do one thing you give a damn about. It may take you an hour, it make take you a few minutes. Do it. When you shut your eyes at night, the next-to-the-last thing you think of should be that thing you did. The last thing should be expressing your thanks to whatever or whomever you thank when the lights go out. Accomplishment and gratitude are two of the three most important ingredients for a good night’s sleep. (The third is exiling the person who snores.)

Item 7: Your 3am panic attack. What do you do when you can’t sleep, you can’t stop thinking about what you haven’t done or may never do or the people you’ve lost, the walls are closing in and you can’t breathe? Get out of bed. Move. Do not activate anything with a screen. Wash the dishes. Play the piano. Brush your teeth. Go for a walk. You can walk in your neighborhood at 3am. Statistically, it’s the safest time of the day to walk.

Don’t want to walk alone? Item 1: Get a dog!

My wife once called me at work and said, “Your dad sent you another box.” Bring it inside, I said, I’ll deal with it when I get home. “I can’t lift it,” she told me.

When I got home I found that my elderly, ever-helpful father had shipped me his lifetime collection of force multipliers. I was looking at a box of hammers, and yes, I did feel like a punch line. But I also felt that I was now prepared to drive, join, strip, disassemble, or pulverize any object that displeased me. Of course you can take this preparedness thing too far. My wife needed a hammer to install stakes in her garden. As she reached for the tools hanging on the back wall of our garage I heard myself say, “Use the 30-year-old hammer, not the 70-year-old hammer.”

A well-made tool is a joy forever, but Thor, the story of the hammer-flinging Norse God of Thunder, will not match that record. Director Kenneth Branagh once stood for something and I believe that something was Shakespeare. This, however, is not Othello:

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are half-brothers. One is blond and one is not, so right away you know there’s trouble coming. Thor, heir to the throne of Asgard, approaches life with the swagger and smirk of James T. Kirk and the confidence only a great hair stylist can give you. Loki, unemployed and unemployable, produces bad ideas the way my dog sheds fur – continuously, and without thinking. The plot lurches into first gear once he convinces his idiot brother to invade a kingdom of angry men dressed in Lands’ End swim suits.

I guess we’ve all wanted to do that at one time or another, but this escapade turns out to be the worst foreign-policy mistake in the history of Asgard. Cranky dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins), who already suspected that Thor was a doofus (takes one to know one), hits the roof and throws Thor out of the house.

The disgraced thug falls with a thud in the Arizona desert where he is promptly run down by Natalie Portman, who plays Tina Fey playing the ditzy scientist. Here I closely identified with our protagonists because this is an almost exact replay of my first date with my wife. Alas, the movie grinds on with the traditional action/adventure formula of emotionally potent moments trampled by visually uninteresting battles. Thor’s hammer kills time buried in a crater. It might as well be hanging in my garage.

We don’t watch superhero movies for the sex scenes
Thor plants a kiss smack on his nerd girlfriend somewhere around the 90-minute mark. Kirk would’ve been in another galaxy by then. He wouldn’t remember her name, either.

Open letter to director Kenneth Branagh
Rene Russo plays Winona Ryder playing Frigga, Odin’s trophy wife. Russo has even less screen time as Thor’s mom than Ryder had playing Spock’s mom, and this includes her three-second battle to defend her comatose husband. Director Kenneth Branagh, you put a sword in Rene Russo’s hand, and then you ran away. Why are you afraid of strong women?

Another open letter to director Kenneth Branagh
A faceless, homicidal robot in chain mail that shoots fire from its empty helmet is not imaginative or even scary. Yul Brynner as a wooden-faced, homicidal robot in a cowboy hat in Westworld is imaginative and scary. Director Michael Crichton didn’t need special effects because Brynner’s face just naturally did that.

Not so fast, director Kenneth Branagh
Did it occur to you to hire a writer? Or did you give up when you couldn’t get Thorton Wilder?

Thunderstruck!
If you’ve been waiting for my point so you can stop reading and get in line for the upcoming Captain America biopic, you’ll be relieved to hear that I’m about to put the hammer down.

I didn’t expect to learn anything from this film, not even the name of the God of Thunder’s shampoo. But then, sitting there with the 14-year-old boy in my charge (who thought Thor was “epic”), director Kenneth Branagh taught me something.

Stellan Skarsgård, who plays William Hurt playing the avuncular scientist, takes Thor to a tavern for some demolition drinking. Thor carries him home. “We drank, we fought, we honored our ancestors,” Thor tells Ms. Portman. Skarsgård announces, before passing out, “I don’t believe you’re the God of Thunder. But you should be.”

And that’s the heart of the thing. We’re all Walter Mitty, walking around with secret lives inside us. We can fly, we have X-ray vision, we’re rich, we’re thin, we’re young, we’re heroes, we’re risk takers, we’re sending intimate photos to inappropriate people. (I’m speaking theoretically.) We want to walk in slow motion toward a desperate battle, with a soundtrack by Tim Burton or Danny Elfman but not Coldplay.

When I go to a movie and see Spider-Man swinging through space, I think, this movie was made in a lab. But when I see Peter Parker trying to win the woman he loves, I think, I know what that’s like. Or Clark Kent trying to hold down a job. At least I had severance. Or Bruce Wayne the lonely billionaire pretending to be happy in stately Wayne Manor. Been there, done that.

Battles in superhero movies are boring and predictable. What attracts me are the moments when the X-Men or The Avengers are trying to live normal, everyday lives; when, at least for one scene, they’re one of us. Just a slob like one of us.

One of my Dad’s hammers was designed to chip through rocks in search of fossils. Dad never used this hammer; it’s a souvenir from one of his superhero selves. It fits well with my legion of hammers, ready to fly to my hand to battle evil. Or drive stakes in a garden. Either way, I’m prepared to answer the call.

I’d like to have a few words with you men who need a welder’s mask to regard the full glory of your blazing birthday cake. Are you as strong as you used to be? Take this simple test:

1) When was the last time you deployed your muscles?
2) Did you ever have muscles?
3) Do you lose your superpowers under a yellow sun?

If you answered any of these questions, you are not only wasting your time, you are exactly where I was five years ago. To restore my manliness, I knew I had to change something, and that something was going to be my car. However, before I could surprise my wife with triple-chrome spinning hubcaps and a sound system loud enough to strip-mine coal, I spotted a rack of cards profiling the trainers at our gym.

What a simple answer, I thought. I’ll take a pill. No, I’ll hire the biggest, meanest, oldest guy I can find to make me stronger. And that’s how I spent six months working out three times a week with a former county sheriff who was built like a dump truck but was better able to withstand collisions. His nickname was No Neck.

More intense than RoboCop
No Neck stomped into the gym every day at dawn and he wasn’t there to teach people how to do sit-ups. He was a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, ready and willing to reduce Division I NCAA athletes to a puddle of tears. Or blood. It was all the same to him.

“Ninety percent of everyone you see down here is doing 100 percent of everything wrong,” No Neck told me before demonstrating the proper use of everything on the premises: the dumb bells and bar bells, the machines that tormented specific parts of the body, and the many ropes, balls, bars, bludgeons, battering rams, and harpoons. The regulars enjoyed hearing the noises No Neck wrung from me as he tried to turn my life around.

We had a lot to turn. No Neck introduced me to the front shoulder press and discovered I could barely lift a bar fitted on each end with 10- and 5-pound weights. (No Neck called these “baby wheels.” He called me Big Wheel, rejecting my suggestion of Thor.) “What have you been doing all your life?” he asked as I struggled through another series of kicks, rows, curls, and flies. “I’ve been reading books!” I gasped. No Neck wasn’t buying the American Library Association defense. “Give me one for God,” he said as I reached the end of my reps, and when I had done that, “Now one for me!”

That’s a lot of power for a lifelong intellectual
The squat press was the foundation of No Neck’s strength-training regimen. If you’ve never done this particular exercise, it’s simple: You stand in one place, then squat down. And stand. And squat. And stand. The only complication, and this is really quite negligible, is that you’re wearing a bank vault on your shoulders. When you feel that weight settle on you, a hundred thousand years of instinct immediately tells you to put the damn thing back.

Try explaining that to No Neck. He slowly increased the weight I was lifting, telling me I had a problem believing in myself. I hadn’t believed in myself as an athlete since the summer I learned how to copy Carl Yastrzemski’s batting stance, and you can see how far that got me. But I tried to believe, and not just in what we were doing in the gym. To trick my mind into accepting the punishment my body was taking, I came to see each battle-scarred steel wheel as another of my dreams that had gone astray or had never happened. I wasn’t depressed that they were so heavy; I was thrilled that I could throw them around! (I also bought black lifting gloves at a garage sale. Looking cool is worth half a victory in any sport.)

After months of work, my chest and shoulders emerged from my customary slump. My skin tightened as my muscles expanded. You could twang arrows off my thighs. I bought new dress shirts not because I’d gained weight but because I’d gained half a neck size. I stood tall. And after six months I achieved my greatest athletic feat: I hit 250 pounds on the squat press. I did three reps with No Neck behind me in case of trouble, and when I racked the bar with a gratifying crash BANG and did a victory lap around the room, everyone cheered.

How manly does a writer have to be?
When the thrill of victory had worn off and I had told all the people who might conceivably be interested and some who were borderline and at least one guy I didn’t know, I faced a serious philosophical inquiry: What the heck was I doing, lifting 250 pounds on my shoulders? That’s a hundred pounds more than me. That took tremendous effort. It’s good to be strong, but when would I ever use that much strength? I sit and I write all day. Plus I didn’t want people to start asking me to help them move.

About this time, No Neck and I parted company when I beat him at arm wrestling and he cried, though he claims he left town on a mission to train college athletes in Arizona. This happened five years ago and I might have some of the details wrong. I’m still doing his exercises, but at my own pace. I am much stronger than I used to be and just as strong as I need to be and I find that to be a winning formula.

(When the NCAA ran out of athletes and shipped No Neck home, he called to check on me. When I jokingly said I was up to 450 on the squat press, he growled, “If you were still with me, you would be!”)

God likes to throw the change-up
Your middle years are all about family, career, loves, hates, hobbies, and causes – pretty much what you deal with at most stages of your life. They’re about the dreams you had when you were small and whether you’ll ever make them come true. But one of the compensations of your middle years are the unexpected voyages. Like strength-training with No Neck.

I’ve been a devoted chess player since I was a kid, so in alignment with the trajectory of my life I once spent a year studying with a chess master. From this experience I learned that I was never going to be a chess master. And yet this bookish, bird-watching pawn-pusher went much farther in the weight room than he ever did on the chess board. Emily Dickinson was right:

We never know how high we are
Till we are asked to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies

Emily, by the way, had killer triceps.