Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Sad Saga of Blockatopia

an essay (mostly) in pictures

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

Farewell, Jeff Fiedler...

... Though Not Goodbye

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.

Jeff dm

Jeff dir

Monday, January 7, 2008

Roger's Press Conference: What the (BOOOOOOP)?

I'm blinking like I'm trying to make sense of baby babble here -- does anybody else feel the way the Roger Clemens defense team does, like the tape today actually contributes anything significant to his defense?

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.

McNamee: (silence)

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

Getting Linked for Literature

When I decided to jump the track of my journalism career and veer into the uncertain world of freelance writing, I was blessed to have an arsenal stocked with weapons and talismans that made life on the outside a little less shadowy.

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!