Friday, July 4, 2008
Somebody cue the Willie Nelson and then follow it up with Ricky Nelson and "Lonesome Town."
And then bring me the world's smallest violin so somebody can fiddle it for me.
What can I say? Been home barely 24 hours and I'm not quite ready to go yet. But as of 9 tonight, we're off to Kalamazoo and points beyond.
Maybe it's just coming home, and knowing the time I have with Katie and Jonah is going to be scrunched by the necessary rituals of laundry and repacking and all the chores I left behind -- lawn, weeds, catbox, bills -- and on top of that, a nice gooey layer of exhaustion that doesn't quite leave you with such a quick turn-around between arriving and back out the door.
And yet, I've got it lucky, since the corps and most its attendees were tromping off to three parades today after a mere eight-hour furlough in the Windy City yesterday afternoon. And I had my own bed to collapse onto last night, and my own coffee brewing this morning.
So hit me with the fiddle. My 30-hour homestand qualifies as being spoiled in the rigorous drum corps summer. But with my batteries recharged, I'm ready to get down to it again.
Being on the road has been FUN. Seeing the shows, meeting fans of the book and newcomers alike, slinging T-shirts and DVDs and hats and pins when I get a chance to climb aboard the CPI trailer, and yeah, even the nightly bus rides and a cold shower or two have a certain charm to them.
It's why you get attracted to an activity like drum corps in the first place -- all the places you go, and the people you meet. And that, too, is why I bother to pick up the pen or twirl the typing fingers as a writer: to collect other people's stories, to tell my own, to connect.
OK, I'll stop with the deep stuff and tell you where we're going to be next:
Saturday, July 5 -- Kalamazoo, MI
Sunday, July 6 -- Michigan City, IN ***
Monday, July 7 -- Louisville, KY
*** Means that The Old Man will be there as well, probably your only chance to pin down Don Warren for an autograph until DCI Finals week, and maybe not then, either.
So, hope to see you on the road. I'll be back July 9 with a fresh serving of DRUM CORPS LUNCH, when I'll be chatting with former Blue Knights tour manager Greg Kuzman, who published a diary of his 1994 summer as a member; and with Cavaliers driver Bruce Miller. If you don't think Bruce tells some whoppers, well, you haven't hunkered around the cook truck with him about 8 p.m. on a long rehearsal day.
Well, and now I'm about to go do just that. Tally ho!
Sunday, June 22, 2008
And so it begins!
The weather was fine and the stands were shaking in the town along Rock River. And when the lights finally dimmed shortly after 11 p.m., SAMURAI had been unleashed and the Cavaliers found themselves on top.
Their score of 73.4 got the 2008 summer rolling in the right direction. But the boys' performance is what really blew minds. After Phantom Regiment's final encores faded, a pair of women approached the Cavaliers' souvenir trailed and gushed, "You guys were mindblowing. Simply mindblowing!"
I won't try to put it any better.
After my broken-down '06 Hyundai derailed plans for the Old Man and I to attend the season preview in DeKalb on Friday night, I was highly buzzing and itching to get to Rockford and raise the curtain on what is sure to be an amazing summer. Rockford, like the Green Machine, did not disappoint.
Thanks to all who came out to visit Don Warren and I at our first gig getting Building the Green Machine out to you at shows. This is what it's all about! Great conversation and tingly moments. Here are some of my favorites:
Met Dave Fiedler Jr., son of original Cavaliers drum major Dave Sr., and nephew to second drum major Jarvis Fiedler. Honored to talk to you, sir! Hope the book brings back fond memories of your dad.
Met Gary Warren, a former Belleville Black Knight from the golden 1950s. He suffered a long time for his name in the Cavaliers' "s***-kicker" downstate rivals. In fact, he asked Don Warren to sign his book to "My illegitimate nephew" and told us of how he was herded onto his bus, like the rest of his corpsmates, when the post-championship fight broke out in 1957. He wasn't permitted to jump out and help his "relative" or the Cavaliers, but told us, "in my heart, I was always a Cavalier, I think." Very cool.
Met Gordon, a Madison Scouts alum from the 1950s with lots of stories to tell, including how he battled at the 1957 fight alongside Cavaliers secretary Millie Magee, and was there when she swung her umbrella at eastern combatants.
Met several amazing 2008 Cavaliers, including Dean, an enthusiastic rookie with many gears to go in the ranks. He had Don Warren sign his Cavaliers jacket! And R.J. and his fellow Cadillac baritones. I especially dig, R.J., that you're from Ohio, like me, and know the magic of Skyline Chili!
Also had a chance to chat with Steve Vickers, publisher of Drum Corps World, whom I've spoken to on the phone and over e-mail several times but was happy to finally meet face to face. And had a great time talking with Dan Potter of DCI Field Pass. Look for the segment with Don and I hitting DCI.org in the next week.
Somehow, in all the excitement, I forgot to eat. So I grabbed McDonald's on my way out of town about 11:30, and ate in the car, finally pulling into the garage back home just before 1 a.m.
Now it's time to prepare for the first broadcast of DRUM CORPS LUNCH, coming to you live this afternoon at 3 central. And the next stop? Look for me at Blue Water Brass on Monday in Port Huron, Mich.
And... GO GO GREEN MACHINE!
Friday, June 20, 2008
Can't get enough of drum corps and marching band?
Well, sharpen your silverware and fill your plate with Drum Corps Lunch.
We're a new Blog Talk Radio show, hosted weekly by Colt Foutz, author of Building the Green Machine: Don Warren and Sixty Years with the World Champion Cavaliers Drum & Bugle Corps.
Colt's book tells how a ragtag bunch of Boy Scouts from Chicago morphed into the Cavaliers, winners of 20 national and world championships. It's also the life story of Don Warren, who came up with the idea for Drum Corps International in 1970 while standing at a stadium urinal in Delevan, Wisconsin.
If that's the type of fun and in-depth insight into the marching activity you appreciate, you'll love Drum Corps Lunch!
Each week, Colt draws on his background as an award-winning journalist to interview a mix of drum corps movers and shakers -- corps directors, alumni, publishers and fans with something to say.
We'll talk tour, summer 2008 scores, history and a whole lot more.
Coming up this month (All times listed are Central):
3 p.m. Sunday, June 22: Tom Montgomery, a marching band alum and drum corps booster; and Jeremy Van Wert, Santa Clara Vanguard alum and author of drum corps memoir Not for the Faint of Heart
1 p.m. Wednesday, June 25: Don Warren, Cavaliers founder and DCI co-founder; and Steve Vickers, (tentative) publisher of Drum Corps World
1 p.m. Thursday, July 3: Gary Moore, percussionist in the Cavaliers 60th Anniversary Corps and author of Playing with the Enemy; and Mike Pease, chairmen of the 48th-annual Pageant of Drums July 6 in Michigan City, Ind.
It's a half-hour helping of smart talk you can sink your plastic corps-issued fork into. And you can participate!
Tune in each week during show time at www.blogtalkradio.com/drumcorpslunch, and dial the call-in number at (347) 539-5082 to chat LIVE.
You may go away hungry -- but it will be hungry for more Drum Corps Lunch.
Friday, June 6, 2008
All Hail to Those Who Book, and Book Well
Cheers to certain Columbia College folks -- and friends of Building the Green Machine -- named in this week's edition of New City, which again reprised its "Lit 50" list of "Who Really Books in Chicago".
The annual guide is a great way to get the pulse of what's happening on the literary scene in the city without frisking a librarian or downing the marketing Kool-Aid.
In other words, your brain won't go hungry -- or thirsty; such a consumer, your brain -- with these authors.
Topping the list this year is veteran journalist and national treasure Studs Terkel. Wanna know how long Studs has been working the beat? The quote New City chooses to lead off his entry says it well: "As the Titanic went down, I came up," referring to his birth on May 16, 1912. His memoir of his 90-some years, Touch and Go came out last fall.
I always miss some of the folks my grad school alma mater is affiliated with, because baby, we rock the lit house, so an incomplete HUZZAH to:
#8 Joe Meno -- whom I haven't had yet for a workshop, but I'll see about changing that
#42 Sam Weller -- whom you may recognize from his gracious endorsement of BTGM, right after DCI executive director Dan Acheson on the back cover. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Sam in our Creative Nonfiction class in Spring 2007. Valuable insight and a lot of fun. If you haven't read his authorized bio of Ray Bradbury, DO SO! And look for more from in the very near future.
#50 Stephanie Kuehnert -- A Columbia alum, her debut novel "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" hits stores this summer. I had the pleasure of serving on a panel for young authors with Stephanie in May, and folks, if you can make it to any of her events, do. She's down-to-earth, funny, and pleasant, which shouldn't fool you into thinking she has anything less than the writerly chops of a panther. Great to see her make the list at a hot 50 -- and shooting up the charts.
For more from New City, visit their site. And for all the "booking" you can shake a trade hardcover edition at, visit the Printers Row Book Fair this weekend in the South Loop downtown. Look for Building the Green Machine at the Columbia College tent, at Dearborn & Harrison. I'll be reading at 12:10 p.m. Sunday, June 8. For more info visit BTGM on the web.
See you there!
Saturday, May 31, 2008
Hey drum corps fans and bookworms!
Come check out the Midwest's largest literary event -- and hear me read selections from Building the Green Machine.
The Chicago Printers Row Book Fair is next weekend, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. June 7-8 in the South Loop downtown. Find a complete schedule of events and other fun stuff HERE
I'll be reading some of the wacky tales -- the clean ones! -- from BTGM around about 12:10 p.m. Sunday, June 8 as part of the lineup of featured readers and performers at the Columbia College tent. We're at Dearborn and Harrison, and one of the cool spots to be during a red-hot weekend celebrating all things prose.
Advance copies of the hardcover edition also will be available from Columbia's bookstore, and I'll be happy to sign yours.
So come downtown! Check it out! And don't look for me in the same Norwegian sweater I wore back at this December bar reading. But if you're in the mood to tip back some cold beverages afterward, look for me at Hackney's Pub.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
It's hard to believe that in a few short weeks, school will be out and camps underway and the drum corps season even closer to stepping off.
As DCI revs up, so too does the summer season for Building the Green Machine. Check back here and on the NEWS page for announcements about the bookstore release July 1, bookstore signings in your town and special sales and events at drum corps shows.
I'll be hitting the road with the Cavalier Promotions Inc. souvenir trailer to bring the book directly to YOU. Check out the dates and show sites below, and plan on stopping by to say hi and chat about drum corps history -- the kinds of crazy stories you'll find in the book, and the kind that will be written on and off the field this season!
It's going to be a busy -- and fun -- summer!
See you soon,
Where to look for BTGM on the road this summer
June 21 -- Rockford, IL
June 23 -- Port Huron, MI
June 26 -- Oswego, IL
June 27 -- Bloomington, IL
June 28 -- Madison, WI
June 29 -- Naperville, IL
June 30 -- DeKalb, IL
July 1 -- Lexington, KY
July 2 -- Fairfield, OH
July 5 -- Kalamazoo, MI
July 6 -- Michigan City, IN
July 7 -- Louisville, KY
July 15 -- El Paso, TX
July 16 -- Midland, TX
July 17-18-19 -- San Antonio, TX.
July 20 -- Denton, TX
July 26 -- Atlanta, GA
July 27 -- Charlotte, N.C.
Aug. 3 -- Rosemont, IL -- Cavaliers' 60th Anniversary Banquet!
Aug. 4 -- Naperville, IL
Aug. 7-9 -- Indianapolis -- DCI quarters, semis and finals!
Friday, March 28, 2008
You know the type of feeling you get when good things happen to an even better person?
Well, prepare yourself for a case of the happy shivers.
1972 Cavalier Gary Moore's book, about his father Gene's major league baseball dreams, dreams which were ultimately sidetracked by World War II, during which he served as a guard for captured German submarine prisoners (and taught them to play the game he loved) is one of those sparkling success stories in life and in publishing you never get tired of telling. The heart that he put into working on this book, delving into his family's past and our nation's pasttime, as well as the gruntwork he has done to spread the word, is a great example for anyone trying to achieve any goal, let alone penning a bestseller.
But then, that's the type of effort he always put in with the Cavaliers. And he had some great examples in the corps to learn from.
Well, cue up another case of the happy shivers for how hard work has paid off for Gary. On Monday, Gary will kick off his national book tour for the paperback edition of Playing with the Enemy, released by Penguin, and the audiobook version, released by Illinois company Oasis.
Oh yeah, and the major motion picture of the book begins shooting this spring.
The latest iterations of his book come on the heels of a sensational hardcover run with Savas Beatie, whom many of you will recognize as the publisher of Building the Green Machine. As I note in the book's Acknowledgments, Gary is responsible for "opening the door" to a powerhouse independent for my story of Don Warren's life and the corps loved by so many. Well, that's a bit of an understatement. Gary has bowled me over -- continuously -- with his enthusiasm for my little feat of drum corps history, and has always been there with a kind word, advice, a laugh, a cheer, what have you. In other words, the kind of guy the Cavaliers regularly turn out from their ranks, a man anyone would want in their corner.
Well, let's offer Gary an enthusiastic drum roll for his latest success. (I'd make it a fanfare, but then, we all know what an old stick-wielder would say to that.) Couldn't happen to a better guy.
And if you're all about sinking your eyes into a great story, pick up your copy of Playing with the Enemy. There are a few autographed editions of the hardcover left -- get them while you can! And a great paperback and audiobook to add to your collection.
And if you've got the time -- hopefully, I've given you the inclination -- stop by the Barnes & Noble on North State Route 50 in Bourbannais at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 31, and show your support for a great Cavalier. That's when the book tour kicks off -- fittingly, in his hometown. Visit www.playingwiththeenemy.com for more info.
Above is a look at Gary in his Classic Cavaliers duds -- playing the snare, second from left.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
"Machine" voted into DCI Classic Countdown
A long, cold winter for drum corps fans will soon come to a close.
Beginning Friday, tickets go on sale for DCI’s "Classic Countdown."
Hard to believe these ducats go for a show that’s still a month away - but they go fast. On April 24, more than 300 theaters across the country will show some of fans’ favorite field performances from the past three summers.
The six performances were voted on by thousands of visitors to DCI.com this winter. The favorite six from 2005 - 2007?
2007 Blue Devils – "Winged Victory"
2007 Bluecoats – "Criminal"
2005 Cadets – "The Zone"
2007 Carolina Crown – "Triple Crown"
2006 Phantom Regiment – "Faust"
2006 Cavaliers -- "Machine"
All great shows, and part of a format this year that will bring us recent performances (though I do love seeing those truly vintage shows -- 1989 Vanguard, anyone? 1992 Cavies? How about 1967?!!!).
So... what do you think of the selections? What do you remember most about those shows?
I love the music of Machine -- but then I always get a charge out of the Cavaliers’ music. And I dug the robotic movements, and The Slingshot, and all those blitzkrieg marching maneuvers that the Green Machine performs so well.
What got your socks going up and down?
And when it comes to the Classic Countdown theater showings -- I know, I know: nothing beats seeing it live in the stadium -- what do you dig about the format? How does the theater experience add to your viewing of DCI’s greatest shows?
Head to the Green Machine blog at www.cavaliersbook.com/interact and fire away with your comments -- or weigh in here. And let the countdown to summer 2008 commence!
Sunday, March 2, 2008
Which is to say that from our earliest days as a species, when chucking spears at the nearest saber-toothed mammal took the place of, say, chucking spent beer cans at the TV after a Browns interception, there has been a primal connection between guys and food.
Tom Hanks, in Castaway, knows what I mean. "I have made fire!" he roars.
The scene left on the cutting room floor is from the next moment, when Tom, weeping, realizes there's no good flank stank for a thousand or so miles. Somehow, a grilled Wilson volleyball doesn't go as well with fermented coconut juice.
Simply put, real men cook.
Read the full essay in the February 27 edition of the Youngstown Vindicator, online here:
Saturday, March 1, 2008
Grappling with the Revision Monster
When it comes to my fiction, I am alternately driven and confounded, which I guess is as good a sign as any that it's worth pursuing.
I came into grad school scoffing at those who might write me off as merely a journalist, since my foundations were always in creative writing and fiction, and since I applied what I knew about that craft to the best of my nonfiction work. I think where I am now in my development is picking at the lock of revision, struggling to open the secrets that lie guarded there. Maybe there's a danger in making too much of this. You simply work at the material until it is ripe, until it moves, until it hits the target cleanly. But then, it must be a particularly sticky challenge since for many the material comes rather easily, but realizing the material's potential takes a great deal of time -- and work.
It is probably also a sign of my still-toughening skin in the matter of writing fiction that whenever I ask for criticism there is the blush of hope that my critic will be bowled over, and the material will have been born whole and perfect. And that when criticism comes, on the first read I fail to detect the positive feedback, and hear only the questions, and the cuts, and then despair that I'm truly in over my head, the secrets won't be unlocked, the way is barred.
Thankfully, I give criticism a second read, and then a third. And begin to calm down. And remember that if my journey has led me this far, perhaps equipped with a thicker skin I can make it a bit farther down the path.
Eventually you've got to shut out the demons you conjure to stymie yourself and focus on the real task at hand, that by dismissing your inner doubts as so much poisonous and unproductive black smoke, you can instead find the real and helpful voices that can lead you from a heap of drafts to a stack of finished pieces.
Yikes, maybe I spent too much time reading The Legend of Sleepy Hollow this morning. (In an old supplementary reader, published 1880.) Stripping all the artifice away, I guess I'm saying: Do we ever get over that childlike voice in the heart of us wondering, "Am I any good? Do I have a shot?"
So many variations on the answer to that, when the only one that matters comes from myself. And with that weighty prelude, I dig in to revising, hoping that I find a way for the arrow to hit the mark.
Sunday, February 24, 2008
Well, I wake up to my friendly evening anchor faces, Brian Kenny and Jay Harris telling me what's up in the world of hockey scores and basketball trades and yeah, the usual everyday string of steroid hearings, drug arrests and coach recruiting violations, when a birthday party breaks out.
Bill Walton, basketball Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst, waltzes into the room on his rebuilt knees and brandishes a birthday cake before Harris (his 43rd, according to Wikipedia), warbling in his Deadhead drawl, "Happy Birthday to you...."
I had to blink a couple times, pinch myself. I grinned a little, at first, but this scene went on for a bit. And when I began to notice the camera angles -- those full-body shots so many news shows are going to lately, to vary it up, I guess -- and the canned chummy dialogue began flying about like so many rubber snakes uncorked, well, my sleepy grin bent to a snarl and I switched off the damn TV to get an honest 40 winks.
I just don't get the phenomenon of news "personalities" trying so damn hard to be your buddy, to bring their, well, lack of personality bumping into your living room like a relative you never asked to stay over, but keeps hanging around, munching your milk and cookies.
I'll try to dredge up some examples from my mind dump. OK. So there are the full body shots, the anchors walking or pacing in a studio before some huge screen, when we used to only get the awkward backwards shuffle on feature off-site interviews. There are all the weird props, like CNN has unveiled for its political coverage this season -- the kind of dynamic feeling they achieve there is on a level with Paula Abduhl dancing with a cartoon cat: childish, and a little creepy. There are the football preview dudes, standing around on their painted studio football field before huddling up and running a few plays. They way they look over their shoulder at you, as if you were standing on the fringes of their group, is more than a little disconcerting -- are they going to call my number? Hit me with a pass? Oh, God, will I have to decipher the quarterback's cadence? LAME TWENTY-FOUR-SEVEN CHUMMY TALKING HEADS... HUT HUT HUT.
You just end up feeling sorry for them, like at an awkward corporate function or high school reunion. They're trying so damn hard for you to LIKE them. We're uncomfortable, they're uncomfortable, and it's because they're mostly bad at it. The Weather Channel people ought to be honored with a Wooden Spoon award, or a Pullcord Dummy statuette, or something. I mean, it's weather, right? Just give me the highs and lows and the outlook for the weekend and save the comments about your bikini or barbecue or quotations from Whitman for your next keynote speech at Bumblef*** Vocational Tech.
OK, I'll stop shouting at the TV now.
It's just that I don't need any more buddies in my life, canned voices trying to sell me something I shouldn't look for on the TV or from a telemarketer in the first place. Part of giving yourself over to the mindless glare of the TV is forgetting you're doing it in the first place. Real skill in getting you to tune in is making you unaware of the hours you're devoting to it (hey, it's a national average), sitting in one place, imagination on holiday, colors flashing across your eyes, butt growing numb. And then Heather Tesch and Nicole Mitchell start riffing on actual evapotranspiration and it's not just the weather anymore, it's amateur hour at the local Funny Bone.
And you don't even benefit from the two-drink minimum.
I may be the voice crying in the TV wilderness here, but spare me the small talk and buddy-buddy stuff and just read me the news. Give me the scores, tell me the forecast, and let me enjoy my own off-key birthday warble from my own relatives and friends.
We'd ask you over for the birthday dinner, but I think you've already had your fill of smoked ham and cheesy corn.
Saturday, February 23, 2008
Holy Gigabytes, Batman!
It's still amusing to me that my Google mail account can be stuffed with some 600 MB of extensive back-and-forth between friends, teachers, editors, bosses, and the goofy daily emoticon swap the wife and I engage in. You know:
It's like a mere 10 percent of e-mail capacity in the golden age of Gmail, and yet it swamps by a factor of three the Mac I took to college with me.
Don't even get me started on the pea-brained capability of my old Commodore 64.
Plugging my Power Mac 7100 right into the wall in my dorm room at Carnegie Mellon was my introduction to the wondrous and corrupting world of the Internet, circa 1994. People were still "fetching" documents and pictures across the country then, usually on campuses. Mosaic, an early forerunner of Netscape, was clanking along in its beta version, but no worries. At tech-savvy CMU we were hooked directly into each others' computers via the campus ethernet (first in the world to go wireless a few years later), and so began our transformation into electronic squirrels, hording all the free games and pictures (porn? NO...!) and movies and sound files, etc. we could click our happy little fingers to.
I remember in the first blush of downloading, I imagined I might squeeze an entire pirated movie onto my hard drive, as if that were even possible then. Instead, we made due with 20-second snippets from Animal House and sound files from Ace Ventura and Pinky & the Brain, and thought ourselves with it. And we were, for the time.
Part of being "with it" was the ritual almost-monthly scrubbing of your hard drive, or else employing the nascent StuffIt and other compression programs to clear up space on the computer for more bootlegged junk.
My 250 MB hard drive -- which ran a cool $4,000 for the whole system back then -- quickly capsized. And I had to browse the computer tech mags for the ominous-sounding external storage devices. I paid around $800 for my 750 MB "attic" to cram more junk in, which I connected to the main three-encyclopedia-volume-size drive with a SCSI, or "scuzzy" cable. Remember those? To take the air of geekdom off the whole hook up, I named one drive Chip, and the other Dale, or Calvin and Hobbes, or Gwen and Pam, whatever floated my dorm room sensibilities at that particular time.
And now my Gmail slush pile alone could devour poor Calvin... or was it Hobbes?
Oh well. At least I never had to resort to receiving e-mailed porn. That crap comes whether you ask for it or not.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
That sense of childlike wonder, and terror, and love: he taps into it, with language that does justice to the "poetic" tag we so often eagerly slap on writing that moves, is lyrical, entrances, or some combination of the three. Which are traits of great writing, don't get me wrong. But poetic? Not necessarily.
Bradbury is poetic. He hammers away on a special nerve that snakes its way back to childhood; and so even when I am rereading a story or book of his for a second, third or fourth time (and so on), I find myself experiencing the same sensations of magic and wonder that stole over me in the initial reading.
Ah, I guess a long prelude to a snippet I wanted to share. From Something Wicked This Way Comes, about two boys, and the daily give-and-take in their way with each other:
"God, how we get our fingers in each other's clay. That's friendship, each playing the potter to see what shapes we can make of the other."
Right on, right on.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
Man vs. Wild
I've often remarked to my wife that the Discovery Channel show "Man Vs. Wild," which sends Katie and I'm sure at least five other females (as in hundred thousand) ooohing and aaaahing every week, could be just as effectively filmed in our backyard.
With a few well-placed grunts, and dizzying camera angles, and a day's growth of beard (facelifts and six-month fitness binges aside), your average Joe couch husband could do a pretty passing impression of survival hunk Bear Grylls caught in a Congolese cave pit, or tromping over shards of volcanic rock.
Our backyard has a wicked gopher holl in the far right corner -- I could spend ten minutes or so vamping my way over it. There's this weird silver grass sprouting up along the back fenceline -- I could spend a night talking about its dietary benefits and rip into it with gusto, a few strands provocatively poking through my teeth. I can mimic thirst, hunger, exhaustion. I'm a pretty good sweater, too, if it came to that. And I can rig up all the Boy Scout lean-to fires you could ask for.
Done with an Australian accent, I could have the Discovery film crew over here in a second. Or at least public access.
Ah, but my point. And I do have one.
Nothing makes me go all survivor guy like the recent dumping of snow we endured in the "Greater Chicagoland Area." Several powdered doughnut dustings nearly every day in the early part of last week, then the prodigious eight inch dumping Thursday, followed by the Super Bowl whiteout Sunday.
I'm normally a neighborly guy, but I reserve the right to pound my chest and act like the King Gorilla when I've spent an hour and longer digging out of our driveway and doing all the sidewalks on our corner lot besides. C'mon, across-the-street dude with the snowblower -- I'm up and leaning into it by 7, can't you pull the ripcord on your cakewalk device before the mail comes in the afternoon?
Probably dangerously, this attitude can extend to the roads. Me and my more-or-less family-man sedan, riding the bumpers of the SUVs and grumbling about "If you can't drive in it, there are perfectly good buses... short ones." Not really fair, I know. (I'm good at the personal guilt.) How can SUVs win in this weather? On the one hand, they're built for getting through it, so why the hell are they dragging ass? On the other, they're built for getting through it, so why ride MY slip-sliding-sedan ass -- gimme a break, gas guzzler!
See? They can't win. I can't win. Bear Grylls can't win (read about he and his crew faking their "authentic" survival shoots here: investigation). The only victor in all this is Mother Nature, who laughs at the trenches I dig to allow nonexistant walkers a place to cool their heels, and happily heaps on the wet and heavy stuff when the piles around my mailbox are approaching shoulder height (youch, says my back), then turns around and hits us with 45 degrees hours after my latest feat of shoveling, producing fog and receding piles.
Ah, but anyway -- it's a great workout, right? If you pull something major, and end up in traction for all of February, take heart: that scapegoat Groundhog says we won't see sun until March, anyway.
The view from our driveway Friday, half done:
Thursday, January 31, 2008
More Books to Burn a Hole in my Wallet
Just slalomed home from another trek to the bookstore.
Went out specifically to buy books for my classes; came back with a bag a bit heavier than planned.
Ah, hell. I don't feel guilty, precisely. Just aware that I'm fairly stocked up for now. At least on new books. They'll eat the lining right out of the old wallet if you're not watching. And by you, I mean me. My sin, however venial.
Anyway, here's today's haul:
Sons and Lovers, by D.H. Lawrence
The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973-1982
Both picked up for classes. The Lawrence for Advanced Fiction; Oates's journal for Dreams & Fiction Writing. Haven't read much Lawrence, so I'm into that, especially since it comes in place of reading Lolita for the fifth time. (Nothing against Vladdy the Great; you can't beat the "killer prose style" of maybe my favorite book; but stack of haven't-reads is growing tipsy on the shelves here, might as well dive in.) You can't swing a cat in a bookstore without hitting Oates. (I know, Katie: but why would you swing a cat?) And her journal is a great example of how that form feeds process. Hell, is process.
The Best American Short Stories 2007
Tales from Margaritaville, by Jimmy Buffett
What can I say? Borders, you have foiled me again with your Buy 1, Get 1 Half Price table. I probably own too many Best American collections for my own good, but they're always a great read. Katrina Kennison, when she was series editor, probably populated a quarter of my bookshelves with her picks for the annual: Rick Bass, Robert Olen Butler, Sherman Alexie, Corey Doctorow, Alice Munro, Philip Roth are among those I read first in these pages. And I slowed down long enough at the bargain dumps to see Stephen King guest-edited this year's edition -- pretty interesting -- and that after 16 years, Kennison had moved on in favor of Heidi Pitlor. All right. The Buffett book was suggested by my Parrot Head bro, Jake. And it was half price. So I took the bait. Short stories by the Bard of Key West? Well, it ought to be a good antidote, to say the least, for Munro and Oates.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
The Martian Chronicles
All by Ray Bradbury, natch. I'd only intended to come home with Martian Chronicles, but... . These are the books I read and reread as a kid, checked out over and over from the library. It's a shame Borders didn't stock better, hardback editions, because for keepsakes like these, I would have bought them. But I've always been more about substance than style when it comes to stocking my shelves (hence the trail of broken spines marking my favorites), and I'm looking forward much more to owning these editions and having them at my fingertips whenever I want than helping the Borders cashier make like a Vegas day-tripper dinging the bell in slot row. When you can come home with three Bradbury classics for around twenty bucks, there's no reason to moan.
Not a bad day's haul, all in all.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
I was humming along on the treadmill this morning -- not literally humming, mind you, but approximating that humming in the sizzle and burn in my thighs as the belt rolled along about 4.3 mph -- trying to block out the conversations of the women elbowing along in place next to me, talking about how their husbands are the ones who usually "initiate things" and how when they lose the next 14 lbs. maybe they'd be the ones to "get things going," if you know what I mean, when the whole tiring sharade was pleasantly interrputed.
A sweaty slab of a guy, we'll call him Hank, happily wheezing, and sweating there in place beneath the glow of Oprah and Regis broadcast on the health club televisions, blahd something de-blah de-blah blah blah, and the women stopped chirping, and grinned at him familiarly, and I paused in turning the page of the book (in this case, The Name of the World, by Denis Johnson) I cart around protectively in these situations, and I listened for a moment.
"Guy I know says he keeps fit doing one sit-up a day. (The women were positively rapturous in their attention at this point.) Half in the morning, when he gets out of bed; the other half at night, when he goes to sleep."
The women broke up laughing; I smirked my sort-of puzzled smirk; and Hank ambled down the line, wheezing and sweating.
Well, if that's what it takes to remind you the old heart muscle is still clenching, the blood's still coursing and the body still bends, well, OK.
I'd much rather get myself all worked up in a fierce froth and pile crunches atop running atop a healthy bedtime tussle atop the large bowl of tortilla soup iced by the extra cupcake besides and then hit the pillow in a pleasant snore only vaguely undercut by remorse and then wake to the alarm bell to do it all again.
But I do know from now on I'll give myself credit for at least one sit-up. Nice to know that if you just make it through the day breathing you can count yourself in the plus column on that.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Barter-minded. Did I really use that in a subject line?
OK. Here's the poop. Purveyors of fine oriental cuisine have never been stingy with the fortune cookies, and in a household with two adults and one baby more prone to SMASHING said fortune cookies to dusty bits rather than eating them (though just give him the chance to gum that strip of paper), we often have an excess of good mojo (or the Chinese equivalent) to go around.
You, too, I'm betting.
So how to decide who gets which fortune? Can't you just feel the heavy gears of fate hinging on our decision?
Well, not exactly.
I made an executive move the other night over sweet and sour chicken and General Tso's and swapped my fortune, from a cookie already opened and almost devoured, with my wife's. I can't remember what my original fortune said, but hers was:
OPPORTUNITY AWAITS YOU NEXT MONDAY.
Which, assuming your average Wok Hut doesn't follow Associated Press style, and seeing as this was Friday, I took to mean Jan. 28, my first day of classes for the spring semester. I figured -- I can use all the "opportunity" I can get.
Which is funny, because we read so much into those inch-high strips, don't we? Opportunity means... what, excatly? Opportunity to be an asshole? Opportunity to cross the street? Opportunity to drive a sensible family sedan with a sometimes-kicking V-6 under the hood? Opportunity to eat the extra cupcake?
Well... check (shamefully... but we're talking ONCE all day here -- what's your record?), check to the checked power, check and check, and check (Mmmmmm... Hostess from the freezer).
I'm not about to take my on-duty Wok Hut representative to Vegas or anything, but not bad for $20 on a snowy Friday night.
And excess fortune cookies mean you can get another glimpse at the fates on the reheat. Mine was:
JUST BE YOURSELF; YOU ARE WONDERFUL.
Ah, Wok Hut. Flattery will get you everywhere! And for the sake of ancient fast-food tradition, I will agree with you.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
I know my way around the stacks and the dumps (those bins at the ends and in between aisles for which publishers pay big, big Benjamins), but I allow myself to get lost a little, to forget the names of authors or titles I may have scribbled on my memory, for later use (this isn’t the grocery store, after all; my intellectual life is not likely to suffer in the same way, say, my diet will if I forget the weekly supply of roughage), and get entranced by the glossy spines all lined up, the intoxicating scent of ink on paper.
I know that whatever I discover and pull off the shelves to take home is likely to occupy me for a few weeks, in the manner a queer shell or monstrous mollusk means work for the marine biologist. Books are one thing in my life I don’t get neurotic about, needlessly piling on the pressure of what I will do with the knowledge I acquire from them. I look at books as transportative for the sake of motion, little more. As a writer, most of what I absorb from reading is by osmosis. I don’t want to think about it too hard. I want to cherish the state of mind a good read puts me in, the natural and incremental way savored pages tip me toward my own filling of the blank space on the screen, the netting of phrases and sentences I’ll send marching along in my own due time.
It’s an easy way of becoming inspired, of acknowledging what I read as a corner of my writing process – a cozy one, warmly-lit and waiting for me to return, but a corner only.
It’s like the innocent joy you used to take in learning. The way you could eyeball a syllabus and come to a later week in the semester, a week in which a 30-page practicum were due, say, or a completed story draft, and rather than getting sweaty-palmed and wigged-out about it, you got a charge instead, thinking, “hey, by then I’ll have written a full story” or “wonder what the story will be like.” Not – hey, can I do it? Or, God, only eight weeks until the nightmare assignment is due. As acceptance and confidence that if it’s called for, you’ll deliver. You’ll learn how to along the way.
I shop for books now the way I used to buy music in the days of cheap cassette tape stockpiling at the local Hills and Hecks and K-Mart. Back then, I’d pluck five or seven albums at a time from the bargain rack, unearthing the rare and the weird and the influential: obscure Harry Nilsson, Jack Johnson, Joe Walsh and The James Gang, used Jackson Browne, solo Sonny Bono, vaguely battered Pixies, and dropping maybe a week’s allowance for the privilege of popping them in the tape deck of my VW Rabbit – or whatever friend happened to be driving – for the ride home. There was a joy in discovering the clumsily orchestrated or puzzlingly recorded tracks, and also the gems that could stump music school audiences later, when I did that gig, or at least serve as Happy Hour trivia. “Hey, does anybody know the B-side to the original release of this?” My wife, then merely a work buddy, would always chime in, “YOU know.”
It’s different now, filling out the – ahem – CD collection, which with the switch to the portable digital of the I-Pod generation is already obsolete. For me, books have the definite advantage over fingernail-picking the cellophane wrap and making three or four tries to peel away the damn sticker gluing the top of the case together. Who wants to cradle a plastic rectangle, anyway? Nothing beats the feel of a brand new book spine, the pages crisp as you finger them, the back unbroken as you flip to the opening pages for the first time, allow the opening sentences to beam the voice of that writer into your brain.
Or maybe this is all a long-winded excuse for why I come home to my wife every season having dropped around a hundred bucks on books at Borders or Barnes & Noble, or why when we came across a leaning wooden sign pointing down an alley to a used bookstore in Lahaina, Maui during our fifth-anniversary, she knew what happiness I’d experience weighing how many finds I could cram in our luggage for the return trip.
And hey, didn’t I sound this rhapsody only a few weeks ago in this very space?
So… what I came home with yesterday:
A lot of short story collections. Even though I’m digging into novel projects on my own work desk at the moment, I have a backlog of short fiction I want to get back into in revision. As I mentioned above, I didn’t go hunting for more short stories as a means of assigning myself work in that form, because my reading and writing are connected in a more intuitive way. Or at least I’d like to think so. It’s more of getting the music in my head for later, I guess. And more importantly, tunes I haven’t heard before.
So, along those lines:
The Toughest Indian in the World – Sherman Alexie
Runaway – Alice Munro
Drown – Junot Diaz
Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
The Whore’s Child – Richard Russo
I’ve liked just about everything of Alexie that I’ve read, but never picked up a full collection. I’ve read one story from the Diaz and Lahiri collections elsewhere, and both of these collections were debuts – and greatly acclaimed. As for Munro, hell, everything she publishes ends up in The New Yorker; might as well check it out in a forum other than the “Best of” collections. I loved Russo’s Empire Falls, and thought I’d give his short stuff a try.
I also picked up:
Tender as Hellfire – Joe Meno
Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir – Joe Meno, again
The Name of the World – Denis Johnson
Lyra’s Oxford – Philip Pullman
This is where the short story binge begins to break down. I picked up Meno because, again, what I’ve read I’ve liked, and I wanted to get some of his short stuff. But I hadn’t read Hellfire yet, a novel about adolescent guys growing up together, a bit like the platform for my Hell’s Darling Boys, but maybe too close to the bone as I get into that novel? I thought about putting it back, but didn’t. Johnson’s book is a novella, and I love his work in the “longer” short form. (It was also cheaper than paying the full hardcover price of his recent National Book Award-winning novel. Funny, Borders, how Tree of Smoke was 25 percent off before the award announcement!) And the Pullman rounded out my recent circuit of the His Dark Materials trilogy; something short, and something to stash away for my own kids someday. If Jonah is able to move from The Golden Compass, etc., to shorter stuff by uncovering the 40-odd-pages Lyra’s Oxford, well, that’s great. I’ll take it.
All this should keep me busy, polishing mollusks so to speak, as the new semester gets underway Monday. And I haven’t even bothered checking what I’ll be buying for classes.
Good thing, then, when I came home to my wife, I also came home with groceries.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Who do you write for?
(and you are writing for somebody, aren't you?)
"Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I'll tell you a story."
--- F. Scott Fitzgerald
In my writing, I find audience to be such a fundamental motivator of process and fuel for voice, I don't know how anyone could write seriously without it. Or a sense of it.
Audience gets your hand moving, your fingers twirling. "What do you have to say?" is very closely entwined with "who are you saying it to?" It very much guides "how do you want to say it?"
Reading William Zinsser, like, the first week in my undergrad Journalism I course, helped me identify something I'd always instinctively guessed about audience: the stories you choose to tell, the words you pluck from the ether to tell them, are very much influenced by the imaginary people just off the page you're addressing. Or in the case of a high school Speech class, where everything written is read aloud that period, or the following day, or later that week, you're writing for your very real classmates, and the teacher, an audience of your peers, essentially.
Tickling my teacher and my classmates was always fuel for process, got me bending over the paper and going for the jugular, as it were. At the newspaper, and in my fiction, the audience is broader, perhaps, but I still aim for that sophisticated reader with a sense of humor and heart. Maybe that reflects me, but it's a bit different than writing to myself. It's presenting myself, as I am, in a persuasive way to bring people around to my way of viewing the world. It's a bit of voyeurism, of channeling another's thoughts, made easy by the lyrical voice that carries them there. At least that's how I see it. It's making love, in a way: swapping sweat, and fluids, and intense groans and glances, without mussing the bed so much.
An obstacle I've had to identify and work to get around in teaching is the idea of me as audience. Of course, I am a part of my students' audience. I see and hear how their stories are constructed in our sessions, and I read the drafts and rewrites they turn in. But are they writing for me, to me? I hope not. Because there I see the danger of writing to meet their idea of an ideal they think I'm looking for, or worse, to fulfill the assignment and just do the work for the exercise's sake.
Sure, sometimes you have to do that. But if in the process of doing the work you're not awakening something deeper, something more focused, something more tangible and living from the center of you that yearns to write, needs to write, then we really are just killing time in the cubicle, and in the classroom, and the prospect of students gaining something deeper from the writing, or learning something useful from their process, is cut off from the start.
Engagement, right? That's what an audience, or an idea of an audience in the writing process, brings to what's on the page. It's a mutual gut check: if the writer is invested in the material, we at least give them the benefit of the doubt and read on. If not, here comes the blessing and curse of the medium being so portable, able to held in the hands – it can always be put down, cast aside.
We're looking for the compelling story, the one that's never been told, or told in this way, before. Unless the writer has lived it, breathed it, smelled it, tasted it – or seen and believed in it enough to bring forth a singular vision – what the sophisticated reader is getting is merely a facsimile of experience. (Which all writing is, of a fashion, though we sophisticated readers demand that it stand up and dance a jig or take a bullet and writhe on the floor a bit for us. So damn picky, readers.)
Voice, and its awareness of audience, really sells a writer's commitment to the story, and how well we are engaged as readers. It doesn't have to be some mystical, fleeting thing. It's about identifying the material that is working, reading it aloud, directing and placing the demand on students to notice and comment on what is working in their writing, and to talk about why, and then to carry forth those insights in active rewrites of the material, going for and working toward an ever-more sustained passage of effective, engaging writing. To know who you write for, to feel around for the words and images and places and sights that get the story to where it is directed and most effectively get across what you have to say.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Unlike approximately 87 percent of Americans (according to my pulling a random number from my ass), I've never approached dates with the dentist as something out of The Marathon Man.
My grandfather and great-grandfather were both dentists, and my mom a hygienist, so I've been brushing like a good boy my entire life. I don't know, maybe Dustin Hoffman just never got rewarded with a coupon for a free ice cream cone at the end of his appointments.
Yeah, I did braces, and got the old wisdom teeth yanked, had a spot of sealant slapped on once or twice. But generally, my good habits have won out. There was a strange moment during an appointment last year where three dental equipment salespeople were sitting in as the tartar was scraped away and the enamel was polished and they were all, like, praising me for my alignment, gum depth, tongue grooves and saliva production in turn. Freaks, right? I went and treated myself to a large Dairy Queen blizzard after that, extra peanut butter and cold fudge.
Like most other changes associated with the onset of awful adulthood, my glittering youth has lately taken a hit, even in the dentist's chair. The daily coffee-drinking habit, my freaky work-at-home schedule (which often involves diving straight from bed into the writing, and saving the shower and... yes, Mom... morning brushing for sometime after lunch... ach and ich and yech), and even my branding as an "aggressive brusher" have contributed to a little more attention from the dentist than I would like. Still, very mild. But I'm no longer getting the fluoride star, or the floss-embossed bauble, or whatever trinket they're handing out lately. Certainly no Goshen Dairy coupon.
So, at the end of my appointment Monday, I found myself filling out a card for a return date next week, when my unholy cavities will be filled and my conscience cleansed.
I hope the appointment is as entertaining as this last one.
There are certain people you appreciate candidness from. Your spouse, for starters. Your M.D. Your banker. Probably dentist isn't that high on the list. I mean, how often are we going to draw on our knowledge of gum depth, or bite-wing X-rays? But I gotta say, the things I picked up from a chatty spin in the chair on Monday stuck with me.
Take my dentist's experience as an intern. She worked in an office that was attempting to mandate 20-minute appointments, and expected its staff to follow through. As a student, my dentist was hesitant. "What's the matter?" her boss said. "You only clean above the gumline anyway, right?"
The attitude was typical money-grubbing b.s. when it coms to health care in this country. Saving time to make more money and thus probably compromise a patient's care. To my dental office's credit, I always leave feeling overinformed and glad that I got my money's worth in every appoiontment. I wouldn't want it another way. For instance, I've learned that I'm too aggressive as a brusher: I'm slowly wearing away my gums with how avidly I go at it. And now I know that my dentist is paying attention to the gunk below my gumline. I even know that she's not particularly confident in her ability to floss patients -- all those crooked nooks and crannies; "they know their own teeth better than I do," she said.
Well, that's true to a point. I also learned during this appointment that I have a certain freaky trait in one of my molars called a Cusp of Carabelli. Wikipedia tells us: (it) is a small additional cusp at the mesiolingual line angle of maxillary first molars. This cusp is entirely absent in some individuals and present in others in a variety of forms. In some cases, Carabelli's cusp may rival the main cusps in size. ... (T)he development of this trait is affected by multiple genes. Carabelli's cusp is most common among Europeans (75-85% of individuals) and rarest in Pacific Islands (35-45%).
OK! So I'm a freak, and it's probably going to affect my kids. But in a good way, as also evidenced by my X-treme saliva production. Anybody who used to suffer the wrath of my trumpet spit valves in band, eat it: saliva helps keep the teeth clean and free of bacteria, and is one reason why when adults teeter past middle age, and are popping all number of meds, of which the common side effect is drymouth, their teeth start to go all British Isles wonky. So there.
But there are freaks worse off than I. Take the story the presiding dentist treated me to when she popped in to confirm my cavity-free streak was busted.
Apparently, there was this optometrist's assistant in Evanston, Ill., who was examining a patient. He first asked her to place a strip over her eyes, and keep it on for five to ten minutes. "Don't look," he said. "No matter what." FIRST CLUE FOR THE EYE PATIENT GET THE HECK OUT OF THERE.
Dude was also wearing full medical scrubs, which my dentists, consumate professionals that they are, gleefully derided. "We need to wear scrubs," they insisted, "with all the stuff flying around here. He was an optometrist's assistant? But whatever. He was living the dream, acting the part." SECOND CLUE FOR HER TO RUN FOR THE EXITS.
The assistant next dimmed the lights. I assume there was no music, but I'm picking up a certain Barry White vibe here. Next thing the patient heard was her shoes falling to the floor as the assistant removed them. THIRD CLUE
"What are you doing?" she asked, as he took off her socks. "Don't remove that strip," the assistant reminded her.
Next, he proceeded to suck her toes.
Still, the patient asks, "What are you doing?"
"Checking your blood sugar," the guy said. Hey, it's an answer.
She then got the heck out of Dodge and landed herself and said scrub-wearing toe-sucker in the newspaper. Haven't confirmed where yet, and don't exactly care, because hey, this is a dental office that delivers: the cleaning, the toothcare advice, the quirky insights into the self, even the uncommon health industry gossip.
As it stands, I'm much more wigged out by my trips to the optometrist. The lights do eventually go out, the lens-analyzing contraptions are pushed up against your face (think of the number of noses that have rested there before yours), and the doctor is usually hovering about an inch from you, shining a light in your eyes while his own are strapped to some saucer-looking contraption, all the while breathing through his nose.
My eye appointment is Feb. 4. Probably I should wear lace-up hiking boots, just in case.
Taking a Page from the 'N Synch Dictionary...
... or NOT?!??
What's that line about tripping into geezerdom? You know your generation is out of touch when it doesn't understand the current generation's music?
Well, young grump that I am, I don't buy it. I believe that some stuff is better than other stuff, and always will be, and that most of the commercial sludge we are subjected to in the early a.m. hours on VH1 and MTV (which are more about Scott Baio and crazies like New York now anyway), is not designed to last, or mine the more meaningful depths of musical expression, but alternately titillate, puzzle or disappoint and then fade away, leaving a trace less gripping than a graze of the fingers, a peck on the cheek.
How else do you explain Britney Spears's popularity, and the fact that I can't remember a single song lyric of hers beyond her breakout "Hit Me Baby (One More Time)", which owes a great debt to the sight of her cavorting in a Catholic school girl uniform. Or maybe I really am out of touch.
I didn't used to think so. But then, instances like last night's post-wifey-gone-to-bed lounging-before-the-TV start to crowd up on me like so many gum-snapping teenyboppers. (Wow, now THAT'S an old expression.)
I was quaffing my Leinenkugel's Big Butt Doppelbock, propping my feet atop the coffee table, and clicking from the History Channel (old guy staple) to VH1 (lingering affection for) to, for some reason, the Disney Channel (54 must feel good under the fingers). There, I caught the ending strains of the video "Like Woah" from sister act Aly & AJ. (They AREN'T twins, as several lisping teeny bloggers will tell you. Man, why am I still a sucker for research? Especially on this?)
Now, live and even simulated music still has a magical-trance effect on me. I watched the thing until the Mouse came on and told me to tune into Cory and Cory, or Zack and Cody, whatever. And I could have sworn, in the manner of so many Justin Timberlake odes, I caught the pronunciation of "me" come out "mae." What's worse, I heard the next rhymed line as ending in "brain."
You know the ways of wunderkind Timberlake and his former dancemates. Fa la la la la... "It's gonna be (bae) me (mae)."
I used to amuse all but one of the grizzled denizens in the Sandusky Register newsroom by wondering, aloud, whenever our biz reporter and Justin-freak Beth Naser played the tune, "Who's Mae? Why's it gotta be her? What about Aunt Bea (BAE)?"
Or something to that out-of-touch effect.
So, I thought I was witnessing the evolutionary implication of Justin's mangled diction in the lyrics of the A&A sisters. "Something something something ME (MAE) / and it's something something BRAIN (BRAIN)." Egad! At least, for the unimaginative songsmiths out there, it's another word with which to rhyme insane.
Ah, but then I looked up their lyrics today. Yes. Did a google search of the Bobsey Twins and Disney Channel, etc. etc. and clicked to their web site, where I learned how to pronounce "Insomniatic" (uh... no), and found handy lyrics to the song in question.
Apparently, the only place brain and "mae" pop up are:
"Life is good I can't complain... Your image overwhelms my brain..."
So why did I hear "mae" rhymed with "brain"? Well, I have been guilty of imaginative lyric manglings before. I used to think Bon Jovi sang "I want to be just as close as... Holy Moses..." in the song "Bed of Roses." And there are other mismanagements of the aural evidence I'm sure my wife can indict me on.
Still, I'm not convinced I'm the crotchety old-timer just yet. Maybe they DID sing it. Maybe.
Ah, who am I kidding? I don't even own an iPod. I still play my tunes the old new-fashioned way, via CDs, singing along in the car or throughout the house, and that crotchetiest of crotchety Old School methods: performing it myself.
And maybe that's the ultimate test of being out-of-touch. You won't find me juke-stepping around my son's spilled blocks, making like Timberlake. Or fretting over my lovesick brain like A.J. and Aly. Nah, I'm liable to jump on the home piano and break into Ben Folds or some classic Cat Stevens, maybe do a Harry Nillson impression of an Irving Berlin standard as filtered through the vocal stylings of Rufus Wainwright.
And I still get goosebumps when Liz Phair growls into "Never Said" circa 1993. (FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, fellow oldtimers). But can you really stack up two Aly & AJs to one sultry Liz?
Uh, no way.
More Trips Down the Rapids
of my Writing Conniptions
I prefer to think of them as inner convictions. And if the trickle I let loose last week happens to swell into a flood, why, then I'll go swirling down the drain, pitching my conniptions as so much frothy gurgles.
What the hell am I even saying?
Oh, right. That grammar and usage thing.
Some other somethings on my mind (funny how once you let one rant out, the next four elbow up to the front of the line):
Silly Announcers, English is for Americans
It occurred to me: why are sports announcers so eager to save face by dumbing down plural team names to the singular?
As I said, I don't recall this being a problem back in the days when I'd catch Jack Buck doing the Cardinals over my radio late at night as a kid. Probably the proliferation of teams like the Heat and Lightning and Magic gave our modern-day talk jocks commentary diarrhea. But why so insistent on "the Cleveland Brown sideline" or "New York Met cap"?
Is it the fear of screwing up a plural when it should be possessive? You know, New England Patriots bench, or the Patriots' supply of itch-proof protective cups. That sort of thing, the sort of thing most of us think twice about when writing anything in an official capacity.
But wait: they're saying it on television and the radio. So the Giants' postgame spread and the giant's postgame spread (up at the top of the beanstalk) sound the same when spoken aloud. What gives? Last night, in the Packers-Giants pregame, only Curt Menefee went with "Packers" consistently. Terry, Howie, whoever else was there, they all shuddered back into "Packer" bench, sideline, locker room, etc.
We don't change Staples to "Staple office supply store." We don't alter Reese's Peanut Butter Cup to "that confectionary delicacy that Reese whips up."
Oh, all right (two words, lady's and gent's (double parenthetical, to note my whimsical use of the apostrophe there)), I'll shut up about it now.
Keep the Madness in Your Family
We just made it through Christmas card season. Anybody get one where the family name is signed like this:
The Warren's what? The Dupree's card? The Cruise's handwriting?
Last time I checked, if you're referring to one or more members of the Foutz family, you may call us Foutzes. Even better, drop a line like "we invited the Foutzes to our wedding reception, and heck yes there is an open bar."
Now, I'm less committed when it comes to seeing the plural use on a mailbox or decorative front stoop plaque (if you must). Because it could be referring to your house: The Warrens' abode, The Duprees' castle, The Cruises' compound of insanity. But for the love of Amos Apostrophe (and his love child, Amber Ampersand), don't let me catch you pulling a "The Foutz's" or "The Jone's" or the like. Unless you're referring to the throne room, which around here, mornings, is definitely "The Foutz's", meaning mine.
And if your name is Showers, and you're trying to parse out Showerses or Showers' or Showerses' -- Josh, how do you do it? -- better just use the old journalists' trick and WRITE AROUND IT: "the Showers family". Or put the money you could spend on a mailbox decal or decorative pigeon-stained stoop plaque into a big gulp bottle of Wite-Out instead.
Scratch 'n Sniff -- It May Smell Like Teen Spirit
This is a phenomenon I've lately witnessed on MySpace, the tortured exclamations of my fellow friendlies, bellowing things like:
or signing their names "Janeeeeeeeeee".
Let's traipse around a bit in Phonetic Spelling Land, shall we? It's a nifty little realm, ruled over by a benevolent prose stylist, forgiving of lapses in decorum as long as they provide the barest glimmer of entertainment, and are readily understood, hence the name of our kingdom.
So... sound it out, as Miss Molly used to say. What does "Welllll" sound like? Probably Bill Cosby with a cheekful of the old Pudding Pops. I can't even contemplate "Awesomeeeeeee" or "Janeeeeeee". Did you step on a mouse or perhaps get something sticky on your "e" key while typing? Where are you connecting from anyway?
Same goes for "loverssssssss" and "good timesssssssssss". Is the only place you can get to a computer the local snake farm?
So... sound it out. I think you mean to say:
"Weeeeeeell, gotta go, 'cause I got a bad case of the nasty poops."
And: "Monica and Ross dancing in that club on Friends -- awesoooooome."
You can't say you "loveeeeeeee" your "loverrrrrrrs". But I'm betting you loooooooves you some good tiiiiiiimes.
And you won't catch me longing to "danceeeeeee". But I might get down enough to daaaaance. Yeah. Ross-style.
Enough conniptions for one night.
Friday, January 18, 2008
Popping a Forehead Vein
or, Hey TIME magazine,
it's Christopher REEVE
Somebody, quick, hand me a dictionary so I can commence slamming my head against it. Make it a Webster's. Unabridged. And then clear out of the way because when I regain consciousness I'm going to start making like Captain Caa-aa-aa-ve Ma-a-a-an and start looking for unsuspecting heads with which to connect.
What has stoked my ire and fire? What has brought out my inner bludgeoner? Grammar, that's what. Particularly those sticky words we were taught to add s to, or es, or ies, depending on what is called for by the English language and what our cramped little minds can bear to remember. Or, more specifically, the words that already have an s at the end, or didn't to begin with, and don't want or need any changing.
Excuse me a moment while I grab a towel and stop myself frothing at the mouth.
So who am I aiming my terrible swift dictionary at today? Let's (contraction of let us, kids) start with sportscasters, shall we? Those denizens of the broadcast booth, those practioners of the play-by-play, those frail-as-a-beaver-gummed-sapling fellows when it comes to exhibiting a splinter of intelligence about team names and how they take a plural or possessive.
I don't know how many times in the past couple playoff weekends (and every game I tuned into during the regular season), I choked on my beer whenever I heard a reference to the "Brown 45-yard line" or the "Bengal bench" or the "Steeler sideline", etc., only to hiss back at the TV, It's the BROWNS' 45-yard-line, BENGALS bench, STEELERS sideline!
Team names -- or most of them, before the recent rush of Heat and Avalanche and Jazz and Lightning and Magic -- are plural. They start out that way and they stay that way. There is no Pittsburgh Pirate team. There is no Denver Bronco stadium. They are the Pirates, the Broncos. Players take cues from the Cubs' manager, or Giants head coach Squinty Yellsalot. Oh, I suppose a player could be a Cub, or a Giant. But you are a Brewers fan, a Browns backer. Things get a little more irksome when we try to refer to a player of the Red Sox as a "Red Sock." He is? What cycle do you wash him on? Better to just say Red Sox player. Someone is not a "Diamondback pitcher" because there is no Arizona Diamondback team. They are the Arizona Diamonbacks.
Gah. What the Sam Wyche??!!? (Former Bengals coach Sam Wyche, by the way. NOT former "Bengal" coach.)
Second example to get my forehead vein pulsing, though I admit to being charmed by it, and I don't really pay it much attention, unless the elongated, lilting a's are getting on my nerves. Chicagoans LOVE their superfluous plurals. But, hey: Chicago, you will survive without your neighborhood "Jewels" grocery store. If, somehow, "Soldiers" Field is incinerated in a localized apocalypse, football will still be played along Lake Michigan. It's because the grocery store is Jewel and the football stadium is Soldier Field. There are more examples, but as I said, I tend to give this one a free pass until you start sounding like the Superfans on SNL.
Final teeth-grinding example: Today, I was flipping through the mind and body special issue of Time, and came across this entry in their feature on celebrity couples: "Dana and Christopher Reeves." Hey, maybe the copy editor was thinking of his or her golden childhood, watching George Reeves star as Superman, but the 1970s version of the Man of Steel (my childhood) was and always will be Christopher REEVE.
Or maybe the copy editor is just from Chicago.
OK, I'm gonna go shut myself in an isolation booth somewhere.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
One of the toughest feats of juggling I do in life is finding balance between work and family. As a freelance writer who clicks and clacks away on the computers at home most days, the dividing line between when it's time to get down to bidness and when it's time to PLAY can be blurry. I try and remind myself to throw myself as fully as I can into the moments I play or work, and plan ahead to create the space in which I do either.
Ah, what the hell. That's a sort-of wishy-washy preamble to an example of PLAYING. Hanging with my son has meant rediscovering all the goofy fun in me that was never really far from the surface as a graying old adult. Racing cars, rolling balls, tackling and tickling... good stuff. And then there are blocks. I must have spent HOURS as a kid on at least a dozen different block sets -- you, too, huh? Legos, Loc Blocs, Construx, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs were among the materials with which we constructed our imaginary worlds. But probably the best ones were the rawest materials: a nice canvas sack of wooden blocks, you know, the leftover bits at the ends of hunks of wood our dads and grandfathers would cut in their shops, sanded and varnished, maybe painted, and turned in the classic shapes: cubes, boards, triangles, half-moons, columns round and square.
A friend with two little boys was kind enough to give us a tin with around 100 blocks in various sizes and from various sets. For Christmas, I bought my son another 100 blocks. Or, as my wife would argue, did I buy them for ME? Well, one of my favorite playtime activities is setting up as many towers I can build while Jonah is distracted, banging the lid of the block tin, or chomping on a stray column or two, and then stepping back and watching him discover them. His usual utterance, when we dump all the blocks on the floor, or he spies a tower across the room is: "WOOOOOOOOOOAAAAOOOW!" One of the best sounds in the world. And then he proceeds to crawl on over and swipe the block with one hand: KABLOOIE. They all come down.
Well, you'll see. I kind of wish they had sound on these blogs so I could add the songs and instrumental soundtracks I hum to myself while building these worlds for Jonah (this may be the foundation, after all, of my own composing as a kid; EVERY thing my brother and I played with -- G.I. Joes, Transformers, blocks -- got jumbled and thrown together, with original storylines, and because of my geeky gift, original music, too...), but maybe you add your own soundtrack. It's OK, too, if you utter a spirited WOOOOOOAAAAOOOOW.
Rest in pieces, Blockatopia. Dec. 31, 2007 -- Jan. 1, 2008.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
I put it this way in Building the Green Machine: the more you try to wrap a cover around history, the more it keeps spilling off the page.
I was stunned, and a bit silly-stomached, to hear from Don this week about Jeff Fiedler's decision to step down as Cavaliers director. (You can read about it here.)
Stunned, because Jeff is such a pillar of the organization. It's been his life for 35 years. And I figured it would be his life for a decade or two more. In December, driving with Don Warren someplace or other, I commented, "You know, Jeff will pass your record as corps director (for 25 years, from 1948-73) in 2016 or so." I was kidding, but I meant it. You know? And only a few days ago in this space I commented on my own son being ready to audition in 2023 or someting, with my hope that Jeff would still be director, a new Old Man for the history books.
I'm silly-stomached, which is to say a bit saddened, because I admire Jeff greatly. In telling a little more than an outline of his life in the book, from his childhood days as Little League impresario, and admirer of drum corps, to his tenure as drum major, then instructor, then program coordinator and assistant director, to his triumphant turn as director, I couldn't help it: as a writer I was tickled to tell the story of a man so dedicated, and so passionate, and so talented at what he does. I've seen his character and leadership reflected in the men and boys and volunteers in his charge. They were in very good hands, and it showed, on and off the field. This is a feeling I know is shared by many.
Still, getting past the first moment of hearing the news, and all the inevitable questions about why, and why now, I also feel the first stirrings of gladness and optimism for Jeff, and the great places he's bound to go from here in life. And I feel a continued awe and confidence in the Cavaliers as an organization. Here's why.
I'm excited for Jeff. Maybe it's too soon for that, for most of us. You miss him too much already. And will continue to. But the reason for my excitement is that it seemed no matter who I talked to about Jeff, in the next breath, after they're saying how grateful they were for his leadership, and his loyalty, and his talent, they would inevitably marvel at, "gee, how did we, the Cavaliers, get so lucky to keep him for so long?" A guy with Jeff's mind, and his personality, could go out and do so many amazing things beyond drum corps. Why they didn't lose him earlier, or at least in the years after college, and his degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, and the myriad opportunities that come up from the Cavalier network, was a theme repeated often.
So I'm excited for Jeff. Excited that having been freed up from the 24-hour days he puts in, and the grueling summer tours, and the constant questions from the board and the Old Man and parents, volunteers, alumni, members, prospects, etc., that he'll be entering a new chapter of his life, and writing it with fresh eyes and eager hands. I'm not saying "foo" on all that other stuff -- it was his life, and a rewarding part of it, or else he wouldn't have dedicated so much time, so much passion to it. Much as I say the stories of the Cavaliers and all its volunteers, alumni, members, fans, etc. are the stories of Don Warren's life, that's true of Jeff, too. He's enriched you, you've enriched him. But it's his life. And I know we'll all be cheering him on in his next endeavors, excited for him to find new challenges, career, love, family, contentment, time -- whatever is out there that's in store for him.
I also am not decrying this as a death knell or horrific blow to the Cavaliers. It's a shocker, no question. You can't lose someone so important, so talented, and not feel it. But I don't think Jeff is ever going to be really "gone" from the Cavaliers. His legacy and spirit will live on in a number of ways. And you know what? It's a testament to the organization that they have a whole ROSTER full of talented, driven folks who will make 2008 one of the best years ever. They're BOUND to. If a hallmark of the Cavaliers is consistency, it doesn't begin and end with one man. There is so much reflection and synergy between all the cogs and gears in the great Green Machine, lessons instilled by Don Warren, and Adolph DeGrauwe, and Don Heitzman, and Jeff Fiedler (to name a few), that are in very capable and talented and true-to-the-Cavalier-philosophy hands of stars like Bruno Zuccala, and David Bertman, and Richard Saucedo, and Erik Johnson, and Jim Ancona, and Jim Casella, and Scott Koter, and Mike Gaines.
The list goes on, as you well know. And the Cavaliers will, too. This is an organization that truly embraces, down to the last line on the volunteer form, the philosophy: If it's not good for the kids, what good is it? The Machine rolls on, and capably.
So, congratulations to Jeff on what awaits. We're with you. And congratulations to Bruno on taking the reins -- we know you'll do well.
With that, I leave this space open to comments, reminiscences, fare-thee-wells, thank-yous, etc. Or, share your thoughts at the blog for Building the Green Machine.
What's your favorite Jeff Fiedler story, from life, from the book? What do you see him doing now that his midnights aren't spoken for?
Below are two looks at the man in action: first, as drum major; second, in the stands on some tour stop from a shot by Sly Sybilski.
Monday, January 7, 2008
The tape, of a phone conversation between Roger and ex-trainer Brian McNamee Jan. 4, mainly sounds to me like a former employee (McNamee) down on his luck ingratiating himself to his boss (Clemens).
It featured this exchange, over and over:
Clemens: I just want someone to tell the truth.
McNamee: What do you want me to do?
And other exchanges like this:
Clemens: All I know is that I didn't do it.
Or this variation:
Clemens: I just can't figure out why you would tell people I did steroids.
McNamee: What do you want me to do?
And then McNamee goes on about firing his lawyers, and not knowing what to say, etc. etc.
Clemens's lawyers interpret his silence, and his not contradicting Clemens whenever Clemens says he didn't take steroids as being indicative that McNamee doesn't dispute this, that Clemens didn't take steroids.
But in the context, of a worried and indebted McNamee talking about how Roger treated him better than others in his life, about how Roger invited him into his home and that he'd eaten dinner with the family and modeled his parenting after Roger, it sounds to me like McNamee is really trying to do it backwards now, to ask Roger to put words in his mouth, what the official version of things should be.
When Roger says he can't figure out why McNamee would tell people he did steroids, it sounds more to me like Clemens is saying he can't figure out why McNamee didn't know to shut up. And when McNamee responds with "Just tell me what you want me to say" (becoming increasingly agitated as the call goes on, inserting swear words), it really sounds as if McNamee is befuddled, like -- "What do you expect, man? You did the stuff. I'm sorry, but I had to tell them or I was going to go to jail, and I have nothing -- no money, no family, my kid is sick," etc.
Where McNamee is distraught, Clemens seems cool, and haughty. Acting the boss, and also very careful about his actions. He knows this is being taped, after all. (And I wonder about its admissability in court; granted, this was a press conference, and the grandstanding is in full bloat right now.) He knows the legal implications. He's already talked to Mike Wallace, and refers to the press conference scheduled for Monday. Seems like a cat jumping on the bait and trying to force something, to me.
And McNamee never takes the bait, as much as Clemens's people will stress he never stands up to Roger and says, "You know you took steroids," or "I told them the truth, Roger." What is telling to me is McNamee's tone -- subservient. And also what he does not say -- he doesn't say, "You're right. I lied."
It's a creepy phone call, but more so for the way Clemens and his lawyers are bringing this out like it explains so much. And for the way it portrays him as a haughty, former boss disappointed in a lackey. Last I checked, McNamee was talking to lawyers under penalty of perjury when he laid out the testimony. That's the legal version of the truth. And the tape further adds to that by showing a former employee and friend anguished by what he had to tell. And a former boss trying to spin it.
Sunday, January 6, 2008
Foremost, my wonderful wife, who is also a writer, understands me and my passion and supports what I do. I cannot stress enough how important this is.
Second, my "chops" were in pretty good order, since as a newspaper reporter, and a prolific one at that, I wrote every day. When I wasn't writing, I was interviewing, or laying the groundwork for writing. And when I wasn't doing either, I was dreaming about doing both. I had a nice foundation of six years eating, breathing and sleeping writing.
Along with the chops came discipline. I knew the only way to get a story out was to get it out on the page.
Fourth -- and I didn't mean when I started this blog for it to be so ordered -- I had a soft place to land when I left the Naperville Sun. I was already well into a book project, and I had made up my mind to apply to MFA programs in order to find myself a new community of writers and contacts (very important) and continue honing my craft. I also want to teach. Now, I hadn't been accepted to Columbia when I handed in my resignation, but I had made up my mind that no matter what, I was going to go for it, I would write my way through whatever came up. OK.
The good news for me is that it's work out so far. Oh, I still lie awake some nights gnashing my teeth over money, fretting over the impracticality of leaving a career where I was solidly contributing and getting immediate gratification for an industry where progress is solitary and slow. But that conviction remains: I will write my way through whatever comes up. And now that I'm nestled into my fourth semester of grad school, with my nonfiction book just out, and a few freelance credits to my name, I'm looking forward to what's next. And taking stock of what I know -- and can share.
This is all a lengthy preamble to spotlighting a few of the reasons I'm blogging in earnest this year. The literary reasons, anyway. At school, I have ample opportunity to swap contacts, share publishing stories (many of which, inevitably, are about rejection), get turned on to tips and secrets, compare notes on process and find that crucial audience of peers that can help lead you to breakthroughs in your craft. As I pointed out above, I was well on the way to finding these thigs for myself months before my first semester in the MFA program. I knew I couldn't thrive without them. Much of writing is lonely, but you can't hope to succeed at it without the (at times painfully) public side: submitting your work, querying agents and publishers, contacting the media (from the other side now, for me), interacting with readers, networking, reading your work aloud in public (for some of us, A THRILL; for others, an invitation to their own beheading).
Early on, though I made it my mission to write every day, no excuses, when the writing wound down I also made sure to put in some productive time researching the business. I buried my nose and affixed a forest of Post-Its to market guides like Writer's Market and Jeff Herman's Guide to Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents, and agent tomes like Betsy Lerner's The Forest for the Trees. I eyeballed the fine print at the front of story collections, noting the journals where my favorite authors were published, as well as where Best Of... compilations found their stories. I also did a great deal of research online, fattening my Favorites menu with book publishers, agents, journals to submit to, web sites of writers I love, useful blogs, places for industry news and legal advice -- anything relevant, I socked away.
Getting this blog up and running, partly due to my publisher's beginning blogs on the book biz from a publisher's perspective and insider tips on book marketing, reminded me that all the links populating my own, personal bandwidth could also benefit YOU. At school, we get our fill of this stuff, and thankfully. But even my classmates have connections and insights that I don't have; any chance we get, we mine each other. Well, now a lot of the stuff I have, I've laid out here, like a Thanksgiving spread you're welcome to belly up to: dig on in!
This morning, I expanded my "For Writers" list into four categories: agents, industry news & advice, other writers, and submitting. This is by no means an original or comprehensive set up. Many of these links will lead you to sites and blogs that have a wealth of other information, and that's by design. This collection represents a chunk of what I have and use at the moment -- and a lot of my loosely-organized system depends on my "site hopping", following one fruitful contact to get me to the next, and the next, and so on.
So, about the lists:
The Agents category mostly contains sites where agents blog. These are the ones I've been reading for a year or more now. They're windows into the publishing world. Agents blog about query letters, and manuscript reading, and sales, and the way they do their business. Very useful to know for writers attempting to break in. And at the top of the list is a useful place to start -- or even finish -- your search for representation. Who knows how long AgentQuery will be free? Check it out!
The news and advice list is pretty self-explanatory and could have been twice as long. Of particular use to me are the legal advice sites: I've linked right to the pages I draw stuff from. For Chicago writers in a pinch or a jam, Lawyers for the Creative Arts offers pro bono services.
The Other Writers list could also be longer, obviously. These are a few of my faves, many of whom, like T.C. Boyle and John McNally and Jim Butcher and Marcus Sakey, blog about the biz and share their own tales of publishing and offer insights into process. I may in the future link to some of my colleagues here -- up-and-coming writers you should put on your radar screen.
Lastly, because it's so long (and hardly complete), is a list of journals you might want to submit to, or indexes of the same. Some I've tried knocking at, others I'll get to, others are the dreams we should all keep dreaming. As with any, make sure you familiarize yourself with what they publish before sending your stuff on over. The clot of query letters is thick enough with uninformed writers gumming up the works. There's also a link in this section to The Unsung Critic, who champions the cause of beginning writers (particularly screenwriters): he (or she) reads manuscripts and writes a review on the site. If that's your bag, baby, crinkle it.
Feel free to drop me a comment or a line with your experience following these links or surfing the waters of rejection/acceptance. And in all cases, GOOD LUCK!