Sunday, September 28, 2008

Ransom Note

Around here, we sometimes have trouble getting the kids to go to sleep. They share a room and like to spend at least a half hour, sometimes an hour, enacting dramas in the eerie glow of the Spongebob night light. I hear giggling in there even now. It's good that they get along well, but not so good that they keep each other up so late. And sometimes they fight. Still, a few weeks ago, we told them that we were thinking of renovating the house, adding a bedroom. "You can have your own rooms," we said brightly. They looked at us with horror. "No!"

One night recently, the two of them were jumping off their beds, clutching pillows to their bellies to cushion the fall. We heard thumps and giggles, and then a scream when one of them landed on a toy. We told them to knock it off, but it continued. When Larry had had enough, he marched up the stairs. He threw the door open, and in his best Darth Vadar voice, said, "That's it. No more toys." And he scooped up all their stuffed animals--all of them, including the prized ones from infancy that have had half their fur rubbed off, including the little red dog that G calls "Cakes." Larry scooped them up and marched out with them. The kids cried; they wailed, but Daddy's heart is like ice when he's been pushed too far. Finally, they piped down. 

Silence for a few minutes. Then the door opened and the G-man threw a paper airplane down the stairs and into the living room where we were sitting. Larry got up, unfolded it and found a carefully written note. 

It said: 

"Daddy. I do not like you. But if you give me my Cakes dog back, I will like you. And I will give you money. Love, G."

Apparently, he'd found a piece of paper and a pencil in his room and he had written the note while hunched next to the night light.

Larry had to cover his mouth to keep from laughing out loud. He said, "I have to reward this initiative." He took the Cakes dog back up the stairs and emerged a minute later with G's other prized possession, an oversized fake $20 bill. "He gave me the twenty," Larry said with pride. Seems like a fair trade.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Losing a Friend

My good friend Jack died the weekend before last. The news came as a complete shock. He died in his sleep, quietly. I knew him for 19 years. We met when I was a graduate student. In those years, he taught me how to be a writer, how to work as a freelancer, how to deal with editors, how to keep going when things go wrong. He introduced me to my husband, and attended our wedding. He asked about Larry every time that I saw him. He worried about Larry, but then he worried about almost everyone. I found out recently that he liked to brag a bit to his other friends about having introduced us. He was right to do so. 

Jack was a sportswriter for years and he described the world almost entirely in sports metaphors, so that an altercation with an editor became, "I stood him up at the blue line," or "I backed him up to his own goal." Once, he met one of my relatives, one who was nervously backing up to the door while she talked and said later, "She takes quite a lead off first base." After he turned 50, he began to refer to himself as "being on the back nine" of life. He sometimes referred to himself as the Wiley Veteran when dealing with students who tried to whine their way out of a deadline. And yet he had very few altercations with editors and very few run-ins with students. That's because he was always thinking and planning. I got many emails from him detailing his plan B in case an editor was going to turn down a manuscript or if a student was going to make another lame excuse about missing class and the deadline. His ability to anticipate the worst and plan for it (while obsessing over it) was legendary among his friends.

He used many of those same sports metaphors in his classes. He believed in the lessons of the sports world as guides to behavior off the field. He liked to say that playing sports doesn't build character, it reveals character. You don't get to make excuses or ask for rules changes on the field because you stayed up late or forgot to practice, or are having a bad day. Players learn to deal with bad luck, bad bounces, and their own failings. He told students that showing up every day, on time, matters. Making a deadline matters. Following directions matters. He docked them, docked their grades if they violated these rules, and they loved him. For undergraduates in their first or second class in writing, lessons that teach character are crucial, at least as important as learning how to avoid the dangling modifier. In fact, these lessons might me more important because no one else is teaching how to think, how to plan, how to show up every day with a good attitude, how to deal with bad luck and keep going. Few professors have the energy to reward those things. Those students who had the character or developed character along with their ability to write, those students he helped. He opened his rolodex to them and found them great jobs and great opportunities. And he invited them to be his friends. He had friends of every age, and that is an incredible fact on its own.

I didn't just learn how to write from Jack. He gave me lots of advice about life. I watched how he behaved in his marriage in order to learn how to be happily married. Many times he wrote to me about how he planned to spend a day. Jack was always up early, sometimes at 4 a.m. and he would go in to work by 6, and be home by noon. He always taught in the mornings so that he would have the afternoon off. He would make a huge ritual about shopping for groceries for dinner. He loved to cook and he loved to have the right music playing while he cooked. He would detail for me the things he bought, or was planning to buy and the rotation of music that he would play while making dinner. His dinners with his wife, Barbara, had that sense of ceremony. He was very French, in this way. (He would say French Canadian, but that's another story). But I saw from him that time spent cooking and listening to music, or doing anything that gives you joy, is not wasted time. These pleasures are important.

He also wrote every day. He would frequently send emails, the subject line of which contained the word count of whatever book he was working on. (Of course there was that one season in which every email contained his ranking in Fantasy Hockey.) I got lots of emails that detailed his struggles to write a novel at the age of 62. Had he ever written a piece of fiction before? Nope. But his solution was to sit down and write a story at 500 words a day until it was done. It was done in 6 months. Six months later he had an agent, and a few months after that he had a book deal. Hey, not everybody does it that way, but it can be done that way.

After that he talked about writing a screenplay. "I read a couple of them. It doesn't look too hard," he wrote to me one day. And then he noodled around on another novel. I admire that. I want to do that myself. Always thinking, planning, showing up early every day with a good attitude, and dealing with whatever bounces you get, good and bad. And finding a little rest and time for a pleasurable hobby in the afternoon.

There are worse philosophies to use as a guide in the writing life. I miss Jack. I'll probably miss him every day from now on.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Stage Fright

The boy book manuscript is at 66,000 words. In a little less than two months, we quaking co-authors must turn in a manuscript that is at least 75,000 words long. Back at the end of March, when we were on the phone, in conference call, with the editor and she announced to us the short deadline and the massive word count, it was all I could do to take a big breath and say, "No problem." 

No problem. After we hung up, the phone rang again and it was the agent, saying, "You were so cool about that." She seemed impressed. 

No problem. Calmly promising the impossible is an essential skill for a writer. And it has been no problem, so far. We have about 3 more chapters to go, and we keep scratching away at the sections we have yet to write. And yet, instead of speeding up, I've felt as though we've slowed down. It took five weeks to eek out the last finished chapter--instead of 10 days. At this rate, we won't finish in time. Sure, most of that included August and dueling vacation schedules and the yawning gap between summer camp and the first day of school. And the chapters we're working on now are about how much trouble boys can get into at school, how they can misfire in a classroom and how they can be herded into special ed by mistake. These are delicate issues. We want it to be right. 

Those are all good reasons why the writing is so slow, but they don't cover the real reason. The real reason is stage fright. It's the literary version of it, anyway. 

I remember years ago listening to a novelist (whose day job was editing nonfiction books) talk about this very thing. He said he always hit the wall at about 150 pages into the first draft of any novel. At about that point, he would stop writing and have to sit on the urge to throw the whole thing into a landfill somewhere and forget about it. There's a point, he said, at which the whole project stops being a lark that you can joke about (even to yourself) and starts to become something serious, something you can be judged on. And the fear that comes with that shift is almost overwhelming. 

We're nearing that point, although it's much later in the process. We can't stop now, and we can't sit around hoping that we're just going to find the inspiration to finish on time. Tony and I jokingly say to each other, "I wonder what she's going to think about this?" And then we sit in silence for a minute. Truth is, we don't know. The editor won't have seen a word of it since the day she bought into the project back in March. It seems inconceivable that this is how it's done, but this is how it's done. An editor doesn't want to see a book piecemeal. She wants the whole thing to look at all at once. 

And so we need to rev up. Keep going. Ten thousand more words to go.

No problem.

Friday, September 12, 2008

It's Snot Remorse

I opened up the G-man's backpack yesterday and among his drawings of giant insects engaged in battle with hapless planets was a note from a fellow classmate:

Dear G.

Sorry about the booger.


So, I showed the note to G. "What's this about?" I asked. G squinted at the note and went back to his Legoes, because he can't be bothered with the details of things in the past. He's a now-centric sort of kid. If it happened three hours ago, It might as well have happened in a previous life.

I pressed. "What does this say?" 

He sighed, and said, "Sorry about the booger." Like I can't read. 

"Yeah," I said. "What's it about?"

G sighed heavily again. Like I'm stupid. 

"He just put a booger on me. That's all." 

Right. Okay. I think I could infer that much. But the point here is that I don't think I've ever received a note of apology from a man before. Not ever. And not to make this about me, but geez. Do first graders routinely write notes of remorse? First grade boys?

"So, the teacher made him do this? Did she catch him?" 

G smoothed out his little pile of Lego pieces. The one he wanted wasn't readily at hand. He has this way of combing through them with his fingertips. Spreading them out, lightly grazing the tops of the pieces as though the one he wants will feel different.

"No," he said. 


"No! He just wrote a note, okay?"

Okay. Kids these days. What are you going to do?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Copley on Revere

Reading a book set in the 1790s makes me think of this painting that sits in the MFA. Copley was known (I think) for attempting to capture some of the character and personality of his subjects. Some of the people depicted in his works seem unusually sad or haughty. At any rate, he knew the people he painted. At the very least, he knew what was said about them.

And I ask you: Does this seem to be a nice guy?

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Whiskey Rebels I

I always giggle a bit when I see a book described as a "historical thriller." I love history, but I don't think of it as thrilling. I think the word thriller should be reserved for books that involve stolen diskettes, secret formulas, international conspiracies engineered by evil spies and viruses run amok. I recently tried to read one of those true thrillers, and couldn't get past the first page, which was a wildly flowery description of a butterfly fluttering at high altitude near a super-secret government research building in the mountains. And then the little butterfly crashes and is revealed to be a super-spy flying thingy. Government-employed brainiacs shriek their panic. Oh, wait. I did get past the first page. On the second page, a ruggedly handsome man climbs in the Alps with his wife. Tragedy ensues. I gleaned from the back cover blurb that she'd been unfaithful to him, so we readers are to be horrified but not overly sad when she plunges to a splattery death. I closed the book at that point. (Will it surprise anyone to learn that this same book is a major best-seller?)

Anyway, by robotic insect standards, The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss is no thriller, although it's plenty exciting. It's set in Philadelphia and rural Pennsylvania in the 1780s and 90s, a period of history not visited often by novelists. Even romance novelists seem to shun this era. Historians these days love to write about the founding fathers, but they tend to cast the great men in bronze. How dull is that? I worked at Yankee magazine many years ago as an editor, and history, specifically Colonial-era history, was something the other editors knew quite a bit about. More than once I sat in a meeting and heard a fellow editor refer to John Hancock as a moneyed boob inexplicably blessed with a beautiful and shrewd wife, to John Adams as a moody and pompous ass, to George Washington as a bit of a heartthrob (his presidency and advancing middle age notwithstanding) because he was one of the best dancers in the country. I once heard an editor go on at length about how Paul Revere was really a psychotic lapdog invited to the revolution not because he was assumed to be the equal of the blue bloods around him (he was not) but because he had what the rich boys didn't. He had connections to the sort of people who could be counted on to harass, torture or kill troublesome royalists when the occasion arose. 

Now, that's history. I've never looked at that Copley painting of Revere in the same way since then. 

Fortunately for me, this book contains the grittier brand of post-colonial history, the one I prefer. The story does involve financial conspiracy. (And here's  my one complaint about that: I don't get it. I'm only about 200 pages into this book and I'm hoping my brain can sort it all out, the conspiracy part, and how financial ruin is imminent for the country. But so far, no go. I'm sure it's me.)

Never mind that, though. The story is told with two narrators. The first is a Ethan Saunders, a former soldier and spy for Washington, who was accused of treason in the waning days of the war and drummed out of the service, and who is drunk for much of the first few chapters. We meet him stealing a watch and contemplating his own imminent death at the hands of a man he has cuckolded. When this man confronts Saunders, beats him badly, and stands ready to kill him, Saunders does and says this:

I cleared my throat. "Dorland, I am sadly disappointed with the man I hve become. I am drunk not only at this moment but perpetually. I have had no steady source of income in half a decade, and I am incorrigibly addicted to gaming, so that the money I steal or borrow or, on those rare occasions, earn, is gone as soon as it is in my hands. My clothes are old and tattered and frequently pungent to the nose, and above all of that, I believe that during your attack I lost control of my bladder and pissed upon my person."

"You think this should make me spare you?" Dorland asked. "Do you think your pathetic condition will stay my hand?"

"No, I only wished to make note of the sort of man your wife admitted into her bed."

Okay, so likable, daring loser on the one hand who is rescued and sent off in search of a missing person. And on the other is Joan Maycott, the book's second narrator, a woman who is young when we meet her first. (Here, the book goes back in time, and many readers will miss this jump and misunderstand what's going on because of it.) Maycott is forceful and smart and knows what she wants. What she wants most is to be a writer, to write a uniquely American novel. This is a major narrative risk, and it's almost a red herring, but that it gives this woman reason to study all the things she's going to need to know to take part in this national banking crisis later on, many years and chapters later as she either aids or hinders Saunders when they finally meet. Of course, that's not for many, many chapters. In the meantime, we follow Maycott and her husband from New York City out to the hinterlands of western Pennsylvania, where they hope to do some farming. They are cheated and find themselves as near slave-labor on an unworkable plot of land. There are several chapters in which their lives are threatened again and again, not just by the elements but by the corrupt men who run their settlement. In this lawless settlement, certain men think nothing of raping a woman in her own home as a way of intimidating her husband. Joan Maycott is a wonderful character and readers have to stand by and watch her driven half mad by all she endures in these few years in this settlement. To avoid starvation, the Maycotts turn to making whiskey, like so many of their neighbors.

This part of the story is the most interesting, for my part, as it shows how people could be so cheated by the system, under what circumstances this territory was cleared for farmland, where that labor came from, and also why people made whiskey in the first place. Why would farmers turn grain into whiskey? Primarily because crops could not easily be transported to cities and sold, but booze could find a ready market anywhere. The better the booze, the higher the price.  When the volume and the price are high enough, a tax will follow. All of this is at the heart of the plot.

Above all this information hovers another set of ideas about how a revolution cannot create a country. In the wake of the war, crucial decisions had to be made to create and maintain an economy, a banking and monetary system. The story (so far) also highlights the bitter feud between Hamilton and Jefferson over federal versus state rights, and what a federal government has the right to do, and which friends of the important decision-makers will be allowed to line their own pockets.  You can draw a straight line from that feud to the Civil War and to presidential politics today.

Somewhat less interesting for me is Saunders' story (again, so far), although he continues to be witty and swaggering and troubled and drunk, and he meets with Hamilton, runs into Adams, and faces his own set of dangers and heartbreak, too. He is an easy companion to lead a reader through the part of the story that takes place near this new federal government. What I always want in an anti-hero is for him to have a chance at love and redemption. (I'm a sap, so sue me.) I have hope for him on the redemption front. Love? I'm not so sure. 

More on this when I've finished the book. Meantime, I like it a lot. It's smart and scary and entertaining almost all the time.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Mad About Money

There was a little email thread that shot through the Grubbie community a few weeks (or was it months?) ago. In it, one writer tore off on a riff about how he didn't quite understand this business of writing for literary journals that don't pay. He confessed, or perhaps boasted, that he had never published any piece of writing without getting paid for it, and that he considered those who did such a thing were giving their talents away, and encouraging the entire publishing world to devalue writers. He went on and on about it, and I may be exaggerating his arguments in my memory. 

Someone wrote back to say, "Hey, you're channeling my mother." And we all had a laugh (I hope) and went back to our desks and our private neuroses. 

I remember feeling annoyed and implicated in this, and on both sides. I do write for money. I have written for glossy magazines for $1 a word and $1.25 a word, and for $1.50 a word. No more than that. (And I spent years and years writing for much less.) And yet I've never felt honored by the publishing world, or even noticed. In fact, I've felt held back because I don't like and can't quite get the hang of the hustling part of magazine writing. I'm not very good at coming up with ideas for stories or pitching them. I may have already taken advantage of all the lucky bounces I'm going to get in the magazine world, and that doesn't disappoint me. 

On the other hand, I took a couple of writing classes last year to do some experimenting on my own. In one of them, I wrote an essay about one incident in my time as a sportswriter. I sent it out to lots of little literary magazines, none of whom pay writers, and one of them took it. It should be out this fall. So on that side, I've given away, if that's the phrase, one of my best and most personal stories. So, I was a little annoyed by the notion that this might make me a loser of some sort.

Why is money the thing that most validates work?

This would be a silly question except that my son spent the better part of yesterday taping coins to a piece of paper. Some other kid at school had given him a dollar. No matter how many times I asked, he wouldn't give me the full story on why this other kid had given him a dollar. But he put the dollar in the center of the page and taped it down. Then he taped down a bunch of other coins he'd found or been given. He made a huge piece of art about money and he wanted to keep it with him all the time. We went to grandma's house for dinner last night and the G-man brought his artwork. He showed it to grandma and she fussed over it, telling him it was beautiful. He said to her, "It's for you." And we all sat up in alarm.

Grandma said, "No, honey. I can't keep this. It's your money."

But it wasn't money to him. The coins and paper were just that. They were cool, decorative objects to tape to a piece of paper. Grandma offered to count it for him. She counted the coins and said, "You've got seven dollars here." 

Larry and I looked over and said in unison, "What?" 

"Seven dollars," she said. "That's right." At this point G was insisting that grandma keep the moneyed paper and she was thanking him and hugging him and telling him what a good boy he is, and at the same time, saying, "You keep it."

And then I realized that G was measuring our reactions. He was taking it all in, noticing our shock and alarm over $7 in change. He was storing up all this information about how coins make people feel. 

We didn't leave that piece of paper at grandma's house. G brought it home with him. I suspect it means something different to him today than it did yesterday. It does to me, too.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The King of Kong

Last night I watched this documentary, and it is hilarious and also a bit sad. It's about the rivalry between the two best Donkey Kong players. As a sportswriter, I find it even more funny because the guys in this film, all of whom peaked emotionally 25 years ago, often speak of themselves in the third person, as big sports celebrities do. One of them has a sort of entourage of folks who like to refer to him as a big deal, as a Jedi knight for example, and all sorts of other nonsense. And they defer to him as though he is some kind of celebrity, as though someone outside this tiny group has ever heard of him. 

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Killer in the Garden

Killer Kowalski Dies at 81

Yesterday I heard about the death of this young man, and it made me sad. I'm no wrestling fan, but I did have the chance to do one wrestling story for OAG about ten years ago and Killer Kowalski was at the center of it. I'd heard from my husband (who grew up watching wrestling) that Kowalski ran a pro wrestling school in Malden and I thought that would make a great radio story. It did. 

The main reason why it did was Kowalski himself, who was in his early 70s at the time, still towering at 6 foot 6, and not quite ready to admit that he was getting old. It's hard to imagine how famous he actually was in the late 1940s through the early 1960s, how he and the other wrestlers traveled all around the country to play to packed venues, and then to different television stations around the country to wrestle in tiny studios under hot lights. 

Back then, wrestling was just as much a spectacle as it is now, and yet it was forbidden to admit that they rigged the outcomes or choreographed the fights. The wrestlers had their own jargon. A good guy who was expected by the crowd to win every match was called a baby face. The bad guy who was expected to lose was said to be "on the job." If a manager told a wrestler that he was on the job for the upcoming match, he knew that he had to lose. Kowalski in his 70s never admitted to any of this to me. I think he still considered it bad form to talk about the theatrics of the matches. He considered himself to be an actor, and that this was his life's role. He was the Killer, all his life. And he could recount moves from three decade old matches from memory. He could tell a great story, and put on the mean face as though it were still happening.

Not that he wasn't polite. He may have been a great villain in decades past, but he was unfailingly sweet and courteous. He spoke of his lifelong vegetarianism, how he felt that all people were essentially good, that we should treat others with love and more importantly think of them with love, even those we dislike. We should tell people that we love them all the time, he said. He was vehement on this last point and discussed it until my tape ran out and after. At the time, he believed in the power of vitamins and supplements and took dozens of them every day. He showed them to me. He also acted as a kind of guru to his students. He gave them advice about how to get along with co-workers and friends. He advised them on their diets, how to deal with injuries and medical conditions. He insisted on polite and professional behavior, on courtesy, in his gym. 

And he coached his students on their acting, on choreographing the sound effects of matches. He had specific techniques for stomping while pretending to punch someone so that there was a real sound to go with the fake punch. This is harder to coordinate than you might think. He showed them how to double over after a punch, how to grimace in agony while your opponent twists your arm behind your back. And when they didn't get it right, he'd climb into the ring,and do it himself with his wide, but now skinny shoulders and his haggard, hawk-nosed face, and he was the best one among them. He was still a star.

There are many reasons why I remember doing that story so well. One of them is that I went to a pro wrestling match and saw some of the newly aging stars of the, uh, sport. King Kong Bundy picked me up and shook me during our interview. And Greg "The Hammer" Valentine was really funny during our interview. Here is this guy, all pumped up, shaved chest, wearing a fake tan, reeking of Ben Gay. When I asked him if he was looking forward to the match, I expected Killer Kowalski's professionalism. I expected a man to give me a little of the tough guy villain talk. Instead, he hugged himself and said, "Not really. It's cold in here."

Also, Killer Kowalski kissed me during our interview. I'll never forget it. I was letting him lead the discussion, as I always do. He was charming and entertaining. He told me that on his 13th birthday, he announced to his mother that he would not eat any more meat. That was the day he became a vegetarian. October 13, 1939. I said, "October 13? That's my birthday, too." The expression fell off his face. And he suddenly looked mean. Or mad, or something. I thought he was upset because I'd interrupted him. He leaned forward, never breaking eye contact, took my face in both hands and kissed me lightly on the mouth. He was very serious about the whole thing. He called it a spiritual connection because we were born on the same day. Then he went back to talking about vegetarianism, and I did what any midwestern girl would do. I pretended it hadn't happened.

The day after the interview, Kowalski called me at home. It was fairly early on a Saturday morning. He told me that he regretted one or two of the things that he said that he felt might be considered critical of the WWF management. He asked me not to use them and I agreed. "Thank you," he said. And then he said, "I love you." 

I knew what he meant.