by Suzan Alparslan (pictured with Arlene Martel)
Question: How Did Rod Serling Touch Your Life?
When I was an early teen growing up on the upper west side of mid-1980’s Manhattan, I was aware of the Twilight Zone, but I hadn’t really taken it in, fully. The original Star Trek was woven tightly into the fabric of my childhood, pop-culture psyche, but The Twilight Zone came later.
One night it came on WPIX (channel 11). The episode was “Long Live Walter Jameson.” I remember it blowing my 13 year old mind. The tone, the feel of it and the payoff in the end. A little time went by. A few weeks, a couple months. Again, me alone in my room. Small TV screen, late-nite. I hear the theme song and am excited for my next exposure to the Twilight Zone greatness. What episode would it be THIS time? It took only seconds for me to realize that it was, again, “Long Live Walter Jameson.” “Well, that’s kinda weird,” I thought to myself.
I kid you not, a few weeks later the exact same thing happened. I had only seen 3 entire episodes of The Twilight Zone, and for the third time in a row, it was, you guessed it, “Long Live Walter Jameson.” Now, this could have been something having to do with WPIX’s programming. I was experimenting with some marijuana and mild hallucinogens at the time (I was becoming a deadhead back then). But this wasn’t the mind-altering substances. Was it chance? Was it coincidence? Was there some cosmic message I needed to receive from this episode? I dunno. But it was, a term whose popular use has accelerated in recent years, “meta.” It was a very Twilight Zoney thing in and of itself that I kept seeing the same episode.
Later came “The Dummy,” “Living Doll,” “Eye of the Beholder,” “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” “Five Characters In Search of An Exit” and a slew of others that would perfectly align with, or even pique my curiosity about, this world. Maybe my world was 3-dimensional and in color, mostly, mundane and a more contemporary version of society than depicted in The Twilight Zone, but the following universal themes really spoke to me: the nature of the mind, our subjective experience of being human vs. our objective roles in the world, inclusivity vs. exclusivity, the pain and horror of alienation or disconnection, not fitting in, struggle for identity and meaning, the notion of having to keep up appearances and the ways in which we relate to each other in packs or tribes — “us and them.”
All these themes made their way into me in black and white. Eventually, I would see “A Stop At Willoughby.” For some reason, the heart and soul of this episode spoke to me in my teens and still speaks to me in my late-forties as a statement about the externals of what we put value on, vs. what we truly value.
A little background on me. I didn’t perform well academically, as a child. I was told I had “learning disabilities.” The word “disabilities” was (and sometimes still is) crippling to my sense of myself in the world. I had a hunger for knowledge. I had human empathy, instilled in me by both of my parents. My mother was a nonreligious New Yorker of cultural Jewish descent and my father, a newly immigrated, former Turkish soccer star who had grown up in Turkey when it was being westernized by Ataturk. His background was Muslim, but he grew up at a time where secularism and education were emphasized as the cornerstones of freedom and progress.
In lieu of any kind of religious education, my parents (initiated by my mother) brought us to Sunday school at the Westchester Ethical Humanist Society in White Plains, NY. Their basic motto was “Deed before creed.” It was through this organization that my mother would later sponsor a Laotian refugee. He was a young man escaping turmoil in his country at that time and, prior to our move to the city, my mother turned our suburban basement into an apartment for him. I wasn’t cognizant of it at the time, but this act on my mother’s part, and this young man’s presence in my home would broaden my understanding of the world, of how, as individuals, we can make a difference in each others’ lives.
These were the values instilled in me. My mother suffered some mental illness and was not a saint, behaviorally. But at her core, she knew what was right and just. Where there was a cause, or need, it was her instinct to problem-solve in the best way she knew how. This usually involved using her financial resources impulsively, and without forethought, but with passion and purpose.
When we moved to the upper west side in 1983, my mother made our apartment the “official New York Office” for the “1st Earth Run.” Organizers passed through, and gathered to create an event where one long distance runner would pass a torch to another around the globe in the hopes of generating world peace. Perhaps it was a broad effort, but, symbolically, it was a beautiful one.
Yes, all these autobiographical factors of my youth connect to my feelings about Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone. My teenage years were unconventional. I rebelled against structure and formal education because those were the things I personally struggled with. I rebelled against the status quo, the “yuppies” of the day and romanticized the 1960’s, wishing I’d been born 20 years earlier. All of these sentiments could be found everything I found sacred, at the time; the substantial wit of Bob Dylan, the kinetic, ecstatic energy of Jimi Hendrix, the irreverent brilliance of Pete Townshend, the inner, feminine reflection of Joni Mitchell and the welcoming live music scene of the Grateful Dead. So what if I was a slow reader? I made art. Literary art seeped into my soul by way of music and theatre. And by theatre, I mean live theatre, film and certain TV shows.
I did read, too!! Don’t get me wrong. But by the time I landed as a freshman at my sister’s alma mater, Bard College in Annandale New York, there were, clearly, gaps in my formal education. I learned this the hard way. I was a high school dropout with a high GED score and a thirst for knowledge. The Bard admissions administrators must have seen some potential in me. They accepted me based on my art portfolio, but once I arrived, I found myself not wanting to live in my sister’s shadow for the next 4 years. It was a small school and she had been deeply immersed in the art department. Plus, I didn’t have the attention span for studio art, at the time.
So, I became a choreography major. But even in the modern dance world, and in every discipline across the board, I always felt I was trying to play catch up. I had to make up for those 15 years of dance training that it seemed everyone had, but me. Everyone was far more well-read than I was. I watched films of Martha Graham, whose dances were inspired by Greek Mythology. I loved to move, but my mind was not in my body and there were countless excuses to focus on what I saw as my inferior intellectual capacity. There were more references than I could absorb flying at me from ever corner of the Bard campus. (It was before the internet. One had to research impenetrable, dry textbooks to fill in the blanks.) And there I was, just trying to keep up and feel worthy of this incredible education opportunity, knowing I had a creative voice brewing in me, but never feeling good enough.
I graduated from Bard in 1992 with a BA in Dance Choreography. Initially, I’d wanted to double-major in philosophy, but I simply didn’t have the attention span or discipline to do it. My writing skills at the time of my graduation were probably subpar, and my critical thinking skills were just beginning to bud. I was a late bloomer.
What does a liberal arts graduate with a dance degree do after commencement? Register for massage therapy school, of course. I was always good at it and I thought it would offer me a flexible work life where I didn’t have to sit behind a desk and answer to anyone. During my early years as a professional massage therapist, I had an acting bug that came and went with high pressure auditions. I did learn about my own nature by way of theater education, though, and reading plays was just my speed.
Then I began writing. I thought I might like to write an autobiographical one woman play and then it occurred to me, with great liberation, that I would not have to actually perform my material. I could just write it! So, I took some memoir writing classes at Gotham Writer’s Workshop, and The New School.
Eventually, I would return to poetry, one of my early loves. This led me to a low residency MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles. (I am aware that Rod and Carol Serling attended the original Antioch College in Ohio, which inspired Antioch University.) It was 2002 and I was married and living in New Jersey. Twice a year, I did two week residencies in LA. It felt like an indulgent program. I didn’t know if I would go into teaching, or how my writing would manifest in the world.
One of the MFA requirements was to hand in a final manuscript. For poets, this meant a full length book of poems. Living in NYC for many years, I was a regular user of the MTA, particularly, the subway. With its distinct odors, temperature fluctuations, sights and sounds, it was a hub for autonomous observers of life who are, paradoxically, part of the human machine which is being observed. We are both entrenched and isolated in this world and urban mass transit was, to me, a clear, surviving metaphor for our condition. This would be my subject and I was flooded with inspiration.
Even more than the human population, though, in this backdrop of eternal flux, I became fixated on another population. A population who, too, were subjected to the rules of making it in the big city. They have been overlooked, but also studied. They have been stigmatized as pests by the bipeds, yet they are masters of survival. They are the New York City subway rats.
During my commutes between Brooklyn and Manhattan, and later, Jersey, I found myself writing poems about the rats. Then I found myself getting books and researching their history. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who was fixated on these creatures and how, for decades upon decades, they scurried and scavenged along the elaborate subway tunnels, generations of them traversing in the shadows, etching a home for themselves deep in the grooves of the city’s underbelly.
The NYC subway rat as my muse was obvious, cliche, perhaps, but still very compelling to me. The rat race. Sometimes they weren’t racing at all. Sometimes they got really close, too close. Sometimes the humans I observed were the rats, or vice versa. It didn’t matter. That was the point.
I truly don’t know which came first, the idea to write rat poems, or poems based on Twilight Zone episodes. At the time, there was no streaming service. I got as many DVDs as I could afford, using some of my student loan towards that expense. Then, once I realized the direction I was going in, I got a hold of Marc Zicree’s Twilight Zone Companion, which gave me all the original airdates and names of writers, everything I needed to give credit where credit was due and immerse myself in my project.
How could grad school be so fun? Am I really just borrowing from Rod and the other writers’ wealth of information, insight and literary references? Am I a fraud? I asked myself all those questions, but didn’t let it stop me.
The result was a full length manuscript of poetry called Twilight On The Tracks. The Twilight Zone poems were interspersed with NYC rat poems and various quotes, all blended together, partly as an homage to Mr. Serling, but with the intention of illuminating the human condition by way of some of the darker corners.
After graduating from Antioch LA, I ended up moving out there/here. I was freshly divorced. I tried some screenwriting but many of my old demons/self-imposed roadblocks got in my way. I still struggle with confidence and feel fraudulent with every creative endeavor. The inner dialogue goes something like,“Who do I think I am? Sure, I may have something to say, but who doesn’t? It’s all about the execution…and the rewriting. Oh, the rewriting. Sigh.”
26 years after graduating from The Swedish Institute in NYC, I still practice massage therapy. Ironically, I work through my own physical pain while I apply just the right about of pressure to help soothe others. But I still love what I do and this work has brought it’s own rewards. The immediate cause and effect of helping others and meeting people who I would not have met in any other context. I have dear friends, a happy family life, and, while I’m not writing so much these days — except for this essay long answer to your innocent prompt — I find myself painting and drawing again. (Of course, not having pursued fine art academically gives me a great excuse to focus on my technical weaknesses due to the gaps in my formal education. This tendency toward the negative shows up in just about every area of my life. It’s called “imposter syndrome,” I believe. It doesn’t have a real purpose, but I include it here to share my internal struggle. I paint anyway!)
In November of 2013, I had the pleasure of going to a Rod Serling convention in the Los Angeles area. It was wonderful to be in a room with others who, each in their own way, were as affected by the brilliance of Rod Serling, and/or The Twilight Zone as I had been. It was gratifying to un-peel the many layers of why Rod’s voice was so important, literally, and literarily. The recurring themes of social conscience that still mirror the external conflict of contemporary life, and Serling’s genius at artfully cloaking these themes by way of the fantastical, in the realm of infinite possibility. There is a reason his voice still matters and it’s not lost on cinematic artists like Jordan Peele, as well as the creators of Black Mirror and other masters of the genre. The torch has been passed, successfully, even though the vision, impetus and era of the original Twilight Zone is irreplaceable.
At the conference, I met both Ann and Carol Serling. I told them both about my manuscript, Twilight on the Tracks. I never followed up with Anne, who generously suggested I friend her on Facebook, but I did hand Carol a printed copy. Soon after, I received an email from her where she said it “looked interesting” and that she was looking forward to reading it. In typical Suzan form (perhaps similar to that of a defeated TZ protagonist), I wrote back a very self-deprecating email back to Mrs. Serling, almost apologizing for not living up to the greatness that was Rod. I never heard back. And I never did rewrites on the project. One of the rat poems “That Hunger” was nominated for a Pushcat prize back in ’06, but that was about the extent of it. Ultimately, I like some of the poems better than others, but I am proud of the overall project.
I did not expect to go on this long, but this is my story. And still, every year, I watch TZ marathons on the 4th of July and NYE, a pattern set by the SyFy channel, but filled in by me on the 4th! I always end with “A Stop At Willoughby” because, even though I haven’t chosen a life in the rat race, per se, being a sensitive human being in a fast-paced modern world, there is no getting around it. I am not unhappy, like protagonist “Gart Williams.” I like to think I am awake in the world, a simultaneously whole and broken human being, a product of both the 20th and 21st centuries with no shortage of years behind me. I am living life in the best way I know how at this time, and I count my blessings. That said, I am always grateful to know I’m not alone in dreaming of an idyllic escape “in the vast design of things,” a place of serenity within, or beyond — The Twilight Zone.
Suzan Alparslan, 8/19/19 (My 49th birthday!)