Thursday, December 31, 2009
It is the last day of 2009 and I am in lovely Jacksonville, Florida. As many of you know I am a serious student of history. Among the most important events in human history are the invention of the wheel, signing of the American declaration of Independence, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and Bobby Bowden’s last game, which is tomorrow in Jacksonville’s Municipal Football Stadium, formerly known as Alltel stadium.
I will be attending along with my son and we will be rooting for Saint Bobby to pull off one final win against West Virginia. Mt alma mater, Florida State University has seen better fotball years but this promises to be a memorable game. Hopefully West Virginia has enough class not to rain on Bobby's parade and d something crass like win.
So I’ll get to the point Happy New Year.
I hope all the readers of Naked Authors as well as the other Naked Authors have a wildly interesting, satisfying, fruitful year. I like to look at each year as a new beginning unless things are already going well. I have to admit, living in Florida, being gainfully employed and the father of happy, healthy kids, I’m not sure how much better things could go. So I won’t start over this year. I hope it’s a lot like 2009, without the stock issues and weak, worthless health bill.
See you next year.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
ONE PICTURE IS WORTH...A C IN TORTS: When I was in law school, I would find a secluded carrel in the library and pretend to study. Actually, I would spend hours browsing the bound editions of LIFE and LOOK magazines from the 1940's and 1950's. My own personal time machine. On display now at the Museum of the City of New York, hundreds of photos from LIFE. Here's a 1947 shot of Salvador Dali. Working, sort of.
RECOMMENDED READING: I'm thoroughly enjoying Gerald Posner's "Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth, and Power," his non-fiction account of the growth of my former (and perhaps future) home. Sometimes, we forget how young the city is. In 1896, when New York City had 3.5 million people, the City of Miami had 300. Miami Beach, zero, but lots of mosquitoes.
HOLIDAY SWEETS: I can't spell Pffereneuse, but I sure like the cookies. Peppermint bark, too. I'm written before about the new rage, combining bacon with chocolate. Check out "Bacon Gets Its Just Deserts" for recipes for Chocolate Bacon Peanut Bark, Maple Apple Bacon Cake (pictured), and more.
SHERLOCK HOLMES, TOUGH GUY? I don't know about you, but I'm not keen to see Sherlock Holmes a scruffy, kung-fu action star. On the other hand, I was reluctant to see "Avatar," and the picture took my breath away. Astonishing. Other movies I've enjoyed this year:
"A Serious Man," the Coen brothers dry and deadly satire set in the Jewish suburb of St. Louis Park, MN in 1967. Lots of Woody Allen influence here. Existential questions raised, and the answers are grim. A kick-ass ending.
"The Hurt Locker," bomb disposal squad in Iraq. You'll dig your fingernails into the armrest. (Any critic who says "explosive" should be shot).
"Precious." Abused Harlem girl fights back. It's no day at the beach.
"Up in the Air," timely George Clooney vehicle in the era of downsizing.
"Brothers," Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman on the effect of war (Afghan) on soldiers' families at home.
HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL...
Monday, December 28, 2009
I recently spent a delightful evening at the Japanese American National Museum in L.A.’s Little Tokyo for a screening of the documentary “The Killing of a Chinese Cookie” from writer/director Derek Shimoda.
Before the screening, budding pastry chefs from The International Culinary School in Santa Monica participated in a dessert competition with only one rule—the ingredients had to include fortune cookies. The winner was a layered trifle-type concoction that wasn’t bad but my personal favorite was a mysterious pudding that was as light as dandelion fluff with a hint of sweetness that may not have been sugar. The creator refused to reveal even a hint about the ingredients, resisting all of my finely honed detective skills.
Everone received free copies of Joe Wang's The First Book of Tasteless Fortune Cookie Fortunes. Wang is a thirty-six year veteran of “a famous Chinese fortune cookie manufacturing company,” where he wrote fortunes. The book contains a few that were rejected by the Fortune Approval Committee, like “That which you admire the most about yourself will wrinkle and shrivel.”
Event organizers handed out Chinese take-out boxes containing a baby’s undershirt printed with fortunes that read, “A surprise will appear in my pants” and “A nap is in my future.” If you are looking for a hilarious gift for a new baby, check out this company.
The film features interviews with people steeped in the fortune cookie trade who all agree that few people in China have ever heard of a Chinese fortune cookie. The pastry is undeniably a U.S. citizen. The crux of the mystery explored in this film is who was the baker who invented the fortune cookie. Was he Chinese or Japanese? Did he live in Los Angeles or San Francisco? Author Wang believes Makoto Hagiwara first served the cookies at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1914. Others disagree. The film is a fluffy confection that could have easily won the aforementioned culinary contest. Listening to the filmmakers speak at the Q&A following the screening made me believe that they had loads of fun making this movie. Click here to watch the film.
Do you remember any of the more prophetic fortunes you got in a cookie? Like "You are doomed to be happy as a writer." Any fortune cookie traditions? Like reading each fortune aloud at the table and tagging on the words “in bed”?
Happy Monday (in bed)!
Friday, December 25, 2009
I was going to write something long and meaningful today, but mulling over my post while snuggled under the covers waiting for the house to get warm before I put a toe to the floor this Christmas morn, I decided to share a lovingkindness meditation. Yes, I think it's all one word. I first learned lovingkindness meditation at Spirit Rock, a center for Buddhist meditation close to my home in northern California - well, yes, it had to be California, I hear you say. The essence of the meditation is to wish for others what you would wish for yourself. People often do this with one special person in mind, however, I remember the story about a woman who was traveling on a 'plane that was in a bit of trouble, and the passengers had to assume the crash position (if that were me, it would be with a big bottle of brandy). She had always found lovingkindness meditation calming, but not only that, she was thinking of her family, of her loved ones, and everyone she would miss if she were to die. Then her thoughts grew and grew so that, as the seconds ticked away towards the anticipated crash landing, she knew her lovingkindness had to encompass everyone, everywhere. In that moment her lovingkindness became universal, and her heart filled with the warmth of the moment, banishing all fear. So, with that in mind ....
May you know Love
May you know Joy
May you know Safety
May you know Wellbeing
May you know Abundance
May you know Warmth
May you have Shelter
May you have Laughter
May you know Freedom
May you know Peace.
Always and forever, may you know Peace
(and my special one - May your horses remain sound and may the vet only be called out to give the annual shots).
Have a wonderful Christmas Day, and may you be safe, wherever you are.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
I recieved this in my e-mail. Everything after this is from the e-mail. Comment if you feel so moved. I felt this was a touching, not necessarily professional, poem.
Merry Christmas to all.
New Christmas Poem
TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS,
HE LIVED ALL ALONE,
IN A ONE BEDROOM HOUSE MADE OF
PLASTER AND STONE..
I HAD COME DOWN THE CHIMNEY
WITH PRESENTS TO GIVE,
AND TO SEE JUST WHO
IN THIS HOME DID LIVE.
I LOOKED ALL ABOUT,
A STRANGE SIGHT I DID SEE,
NO TINSEL, NO PRESENTS,
NOT EVEN A TREE.
NO STOCKING BY MANTLE,
JUST BOOTS FILLED WITH SAND,
ON THE WALL HUNG PICTURES
OF FAR DISTANT LANDS.
WITH MEDALS AND BADGES,
AWARDS OF ALL KINDS,
A SOBER THOUGHT
CAME THROUGH MY MIND.
FOR THIS HOUSE WAS DIFFERENT,
IT WAS DARK AND DREARY,
I FOUND THE HOME OF A SOLDIER,
ONCE I COULD SEE CLEARLY.
THE SOLDIER LAY SLEEPING,
CURLED UP ON THE FLOOR IN THIS ONE BEDROOM HOME.
THE FACE WAS SO G ENTLE,
THE ROOM IN SUCH DISORDER,
N OT HOW I PICTURED
A UNITED STATES SOLDIER.
WAS THIS THE HERO
OF WHOM I'D JUST READ?
CURLED UP ON A PONCHO,
THE FLOOR FOR A BED?
I REALIZED THE FAMILIES
THAT I SAW THIS NIGHT,
OWED THEIR LIVES TO THESE SOLDIERS
WHO WERE WILLING TO FIGHT.
SOON ROUND THE WORLD,
THE CHILDREN WOULD PLAY,
AND GROWNUPS WOULD CELEBRATE
A BRIGHT CHRISTMAS DAY.
THEY ALL ENJOYED FREEDOM
EACH MONTH OF THE YEAR,
BECAUSE OF THE SOLDIERS,
LIKE THE ONE LYING HERE.
I COULDN'T HELP WONDER
HOW MANY LAY ALONE,
ON A COLD CHRISTMAS EVE
IN A LAND FAR FROM HOME.
THE VERY THOUGHT
BROUGHT A TEAR TO MY EYE,
I DROPPED TO MY KNEES
AND STARTED TO CRY.
THE SOLDIER AWAKENED
AND I HEARD A ROUGH VOICE,
'SANTA DON'T CRY,
THIS LIFE IS MY CHOICE;
I FIGHT FOR FREEDOM,
I DON'T ASK FOR MORE,
MY LIFE IS MY GOD,
MY! COUNTRY, MY CORPS.'
THE SOLDIER ROLLED OVER
AND DRI FTED TO SLEEP,
I COULDN'T CONTROL IT,
I CONTINUED TO WEEP.
I KEPT WATCH FOR HOURS,
SO SILENT AND STILL
AND WE BOTH SHIVERED
FROM THE COLD NIGHT'S CHILL.
I DIDN'T WANT TO LEAVE
ON THAT COLD, DARK, NIGHT,
THIS GUARDIAN OF HONOR
SO WILLING TO FIGHT.
THEN THE SOLDIER ROLLED OVER,
WITH A VOICE SOFT AND PURE,
WHISPERED , 'CARRY ON SANTA,
IT'S CHRISTMAS DAY, ALL IS SECURE.'
ONE LOOK AT MY WATCH,
AND I KNEW HE WAS RIGHT.
'MERRY CHRISTMAS MY FRIEND,!
AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT.'
This poem was written by a Marine.
The following is his request. I think it is reasonable.....
PLEASE. Would you do me the kind favor of sending
this to as many people as you can? Christmas will be coming
soon and some credit is due to our U.S.and Canadian service men and
women for our being able to celebrate these festivities.
Let's try in this small way to pay a tiny bit of what we
owe. Make people stop and think of our heroes, living and
dead, who sacrificed themselves for us. Please, do your
small part to plant this small seed
Monday, December 21, 2009
On Saturday, the Los Angeles Police Department Pacific Division police station organized Winter Wonderland, an event that provided food and toys to less fortunate families in the area. I volunteered to help.
I don’t think many people associate the police department with this sort of happening but it was just one of many similar events they sponsor during the year for which they do not get nearly enough credit. The officers deserve major kudos for their dedication and hard work in coordinating these events. Also worthy of praise, are the merchants and community members who donated hundreds of new toys (and yes, books) and bags of food to distribute.
A DJ played Christmas music. Santa was perched on his Santa chair, posing for photos. The Hungry Hog and Starvin' Steer provided free hot dogs and chips.
A community group paid for North Hollywood Ice to blow snow over bales of hay, creating a downhill sled run that delighted the children.
Local restaurateur Billy Thompkins of Tompkins Square Bar and Grill, located at 8522 Lincoln Boulevard in the Westchester neighborhood of Los Angeles provided food for all of the volunteers. Whole Foods markets gave designer grocery bags. Everything was free. I wish I knew the names of everyone who donated items, but those I do know have a new best customer.
The need was great as evidenced by the crowd. The gates didn’t open until 5:00 p.m., but families began congregating at 5:30 a.m. By the time Winter Wonderland began, hundreds of people were waiting in line.
Unfortunately, we only had enough food for one hundred families. It was heartbreaking to turn people away. A girl of about five whose family didn’t get one of the prized food tickets, came up to me during the evening.
“We’ve been in line since eight o’clock this morning,” she said, “but my daddy was late and we didn’t get a ticket. Can we please have some food?”
At that moment, I would have given her my 401K, for what it’s worth, but as it turned out she was just one of many heartbreaks and joys of the day. I heard enough sad stories to last me for a while, but I also saw smiles and heard words of gratitude.
Next year at Winter Wonderland I will be in the food line helping out, but this time I’m going to chip in for groceries to feed a few more families.
Merry Christmas Eve Eve Eve Eve and as Tiny Tim once said, “Tip toe through the tulips.”
Friday, December 18, 2009
It was in good old Target, in July, that I saw the first round of holiday season accoutrements at the checkout. Red plastic bags with a design of white snowflakes. It was 95 degrees outside. I’m more old fashioned. I like the Holidays to start closer to December, and I like the twelve days of Christmas, along with the tradition of leaving the tree adorned and in place until January 6th. And although we say “Happy Holidays,” I’m sorry, I’m more of a “Merry Christmas” person, given that where I grew up, the only other celebration was the winter ritual of Saturnalia – there were a few pagans lurking in those villages, you know. And frankly, I lean more towards celebrating the season rather than the event, with it’s tinsel-laden opportunities to reach out to those near and far with cards, emails, gifts, parties, telephone conversations and good cheer.
The newspapers – online and paper – tend to come up with the “feel good” stories at this time of year, those human interest snippets that make the heart sing or, perhaps, urge us to action for those less fortunate. This week I read a story about an organization in the UK which makes it possible for soldiers based overseas – and we know where most of them are at the moment, Afghanistan – to record stories for their children. Here’s what it says on the website:
“Across Afghanistan are secret caches of The Gruffalo, tattered and dusty copies of the children’s book hidden safely in British army rucksacks. While soldiers recover from the latest bout of fighting, army padres poke their heads through desert tents, asking if anyone wants to read a bedtime story to their children, 4,000 miles away.
Another favourite spot for recording is a British army ammunitions compound, where a dog-eared copy of The Night Before Christmas is the most popular right now. Soldiers sit alone with their book amid the stacks of bullets and explosives, whispering into a microphone about how “the children were nestled all snug in their beds”. Meanwhile, the warrant officer guards the door.
These recordings, edited free of sandstorm wind and the constant beating of helicopter blades, are now being played to soothe thousands of British babies, children, and teenagers missing their fathers this Christmas.
It’s part of a new service called Storybook Soldiers, offered by volunteers in the Army to try to close the family fracture caused by the conflict in Afghanistan. Although soldiers can send occasional e-mails and make even more occasional satellite phone calls, thousands of families have discovered that there is nothing more evocative than the sound of a parent’s voice, reading.”
I know that in both the USA and UK, military personnel are not drafted, it is their choice to serve in this way (though for many their choices are limited), but whether you support or abhor this war, the thought of a parent serving in the unforgiving terrain of Afghanistan reading a story for their child thousands of miles away makes the soul ache.
But there is something else, which as writers we are connected to in a fundamental way, and that is – once again – the power of story. Stories connect people, they give us another way to look at the world, to understand what has come to pass and what the future may hold. Stories bind communities and bring people together in so many ways. For all the ups and downs of the business, being a storyteller is as good as it gets, for my money.
So, with that in mind, who are you giving books to this holiday season, and what did you choose for them?
And if you see one of those bins where you can leave a gift for a child, or a soldier ... a book is a pretty good idea.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Although I was raised in a relatively bland South Florida household, I have learned to embrace different cultures as Florida has evolved from a southern state to an international destination. Miami is now the Casablanca of the Caribbean, full of mystery, intrigue and money. As a pudgy person, I certainly embrace all forms of cultural diversity in food, gobbling up Cuban food with as much relish as Chinese food.
But there is one cultural trait which I refuse to accept or appreciate. This, of course, involves the European habit of a middle age, out of shape man wearing a small Speedo at the beach. I used to think that the human form could not make someone uneasy or uncomfortable but I now have to say that I was wrong. Most men should not be allowed the choice to wear a bikini anywhere in public and this includes the Sunshine State's miles and miles of beach.
This prejudiced was reinforced last Saturday while I was jogging on the beach in the tiny town of Gulf Stream, Florida, not far from my house. While I would never consider myself graceful or antelope-like, at least I wear full shorts and a T-shirt while I fight my ever losing battle to age. As I cruised along the beach I was forced to watch a man running towards me in nothing but a bright red Speedo. I have nothing against the French, hot guys looking for other men, Olympic swimmers, or models from triathlete magazines, but I seriously doubt that this guy was any of those things. He was large and hairy with the running gait of a hippo after hip replacement surgery. I recognize that a Speedo may give him better tan lines but the image kept me from eating for several hours after the traumatic event.
We here in Florida have grown accustomed to outsiders and understand the need for tourism. We love our Canadian cousins to spend all winter here. We respect our English friends who find that their English Pounds go much further than they used to. We tolerate the French. But what we really need is some common sense when it comes to beachwear.
The before and after phots of the California Governor say it all. The random guy in a Speedo pounds the point home.
No matter what the urge, or your fashion sense tells you, Speedos are never the way. To quote Nancy Reagan, "Just say no, hell no!"
Are there any fashion statements which you are firmly against?
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
It was one of those memorable ones; one you don't forget. And it might be sad that he has died (today), except that he lived so well. My own father died two years ago on New Year's Eve -- the anniversary coming up; we will spend it with my mom. I don't believe a single day has passed since his death that I've not indulged myself in some memory of him, or a tip of my hat to him. Death is not what separates us; oddly, it's what unites us. Though I have a lump in my throat thinking about my own dad -- missing him -- and Roy, celebrating him, I know the thing to do is swallow it away and smile. It's a gorgeous day here in Missouri. My father would have mentioned that, would have made me look out the window and see the day for what it is: sunny.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Everybody loves Coach Brian Kelly. He's a perfect fit for Notre Dame. Blah-blah-blah. Sure is. It's all about HIS glory. Unconscionably, Kelly is abandoning undefeated University of Cincinnati before the biggest game in its history: the Sugar Bowl against Florida. Gotta hustle over to South Bend and start recruiting. Don't want to lose a linebacker to Michigan. Hey, Kelly, what would you have said to a star player who crapped out on you? You're a PUNK! As for Notre Dame, I hope Navy beats you again.
"What Are You Reading Now?" is a Miami Herald feature. Today was my turn, and here's my answer: "The Lineup," edited by Otto Penzler. A bunch of noted crime writers spill the beans about their series characters.
"DEXTER" caught me napping Sunday night. I'm usually a step ahead of plot twists and turns. Hell, I do it for a living. No excuses. There were clues for several episodes. But I got blind-sided by the knockout "reveal" at season's end. Shame on me. And kudos to Tom Kapinos after a season of juggling the ball just to keep John Lithgow alive. Ka-pow!
It Ain't Complicated: I caught a screening of "It's Complicated," a mild-mannered rom-com triangle featuring middle-aged lovers. There's no nudity, unless you count Alec Baldwin's hairy torso. But, it's R-rated, because of one brief scene where Baldwin and Meryl Streep take a few tokes. Ridiculous! Jeez, it's enough to send me to the LEGAL marijuana shop on Ventura Blvd.
Now, that's chutzpah! I knew Jamie McCourt was my kind of woman when she asked for more than $300,000 a month in spousal support from hubby Frank, owner of the L.A. Dodgers. But how's this for chutzpah? She no longer works for the team but sent her young driver/paramour to Taiwan as a Dodgers' ambassador, and Frank is not amused.
I Need Friends: I have 2,170 Facebook friends and would like some more. If you're on FB, look me up. There are lots of "Paul Levines." I'm the one in the Penn State network.
Monday, December 14, 2009
A week ago Saturday I went to The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood to hear Joseph Wambaugh speak at the sole Los Angeles book signing for his latest novel, Hollywood Moon, the third in his trilogy about LAPD officers in Hollywood Division. He looked boyish and rested, belying his upcoming 73rd birthday.
For the uninitiated, reading one of Wambaugh’s books is to be a fly on the wall of any police station, black-and-white patrol car AKA "shop," or cop bar in the city and to experience humor and pathos in the real language of the blue-suits who protect and serve our city.
Wambaugh is a legend in the literary community, so as you can imagine the crowd at the bookstore was standing room only and included Robert Crais who was in the signing line just behind me. If you contact the store, you can probably still get a signed copy of Hollywood Moon for your very own.
Wambaugh told several amusing stories about the intersection of his police work and his Hollywood connections. He demurred when asked about his favorite authors, admitting he wasn’t well read in the crime fiction genre and in fact, had never opened a Raymond Chandler book until after he had written about eight of his own.
He said he recognized that thrillers are mega bestsellers but he doesn’t want to write them. He prefers to tell stories about the humorous side of the human condition. His villains aren’t über evil monsters out to destroy the world. They are ordinary—sometimes inept—people who make bad choices that tip that first domino.
Wambaugh said he interviews approximately fifty cops for each novel he writes. He credits them with making his books authentic, because except for an authorial tweak here and there, the incidents he writes about are real. He meets with four men or four women at a time. He never mixes the sexes in these get-togethers, because he has learned that the chemistry doesn’t work. Neither does trying to record the conversations because people clam up. On average, he said, it takes four drinks to get the male cops to tell their stories. Females are more loquacious. All they need to get them talking is a sniff of the cork.
When I stepped up to get my book signed, I told him I was an LAPD Reserve Officer, so he signed with his serial number, along with the words “Semper cop,” always a cop.
I sometimes read too much into gestures like that, but because of James Ellroy’s Introduction in the September 2007 paperback of The Choirboys, which I had just reread, I was primed to find longing and regret about his being forced to leave the Department prematurely. Ellroy wrote:
Officer/Sergeant Joseph A. Wambaugh, LAPD 1960-1974. He stayed 14 years. He wanted to stay 20. His celebrity sandbagged him. His author life fucked up his cop life. Suspects recognized him and begged autographs. Agent calls and producer calls swamped the Hollenbeck squadroom. He had to go then—but, oh Jesus—the ride.
According to the bio on Wambaugh’s Web site:
Wambaugh's "moonlighting" novels did, in fact, create something of a stir, particularly in the offices of the L.A.P.D. Wambaugh's superiors were not pleased that the young officer had written an "inside" view of their department, let alone one that featured officers who accepted gratuities and committed perjury. Wambaugh recalls in a Publishers Weekly interview the reaction of his superior officers: "The problem arose because (my novels) depicted cops as human beings, complete with rotten moods and frailties, and not as the robots people are accustomed to seeing on television shows about policemen.... I could see the administration being mad if I were giving away secrets, but I'm not: there are no secrets to reveal." Still, pressure from superiors and his increasing celebrity forced Wambaugh to take an extended leave from the L.A.P.D., during which time he researched and wrote what would become his most important work [the non fiction book The Onion Field].
Wambaugh resigned from the Department after publication of The Onion Field and has enjoyed continued success in the book world as well as in Hollywood. On Saturday, he joked that if he’d stayed on with the LAPD he would probably be retired now and working security at Walmart, but I wondered if he still missed the adrenaline rush, the camaraderie and the stories he once experienced firsthand, because once a cop; always a cop.
On Our J's post last Friday, one of our Naked Readers (berenmind) asked us for some books on our holiday wish list. Mine includes Joseph Wambaugh's The Onion Field because the history and tradition of playing bagpipes at the funerals of LAPD officers killed in the line of duty began with the death of Officer Ian Campbell, a bagpipe player, who was murdered in an onion field outside of Bakersfield.
What books are on your holiday wish list?
Friday, December 11, 2009
... of course, it could be a gin and tonic on a summer’s eve, according to taste.
I’m talking about books, in case you didn’t know. I belong to a book group in San Francisco, a group of (give or take) 8-10 women, all from varying backgrounds, all with a deep love of the written word and every one with a strong opinion and a direct manner of expressing her views. Frankly, I just like to sit back and listen to the dialogue, the banter, the conversation. Mind you, it gets a bit tricky when that conversation splits four ways and no one can hear themselves speak.
On Wednesday we all turned up at J’s house, Secret Santa book gift in one hand, a bottle of something nice in the other. J had put on the spread – it was her turn to host - and the conversation had begun in earnest before we even had a full compliment of members present. Joining that conversation was like diving into a pool and looking for a free lane. And it was great. But how did the cold beer enter the foray, when we were all quaffing chardonnay or pinot grigio, except for A who was experimenting with a wine called “Bitches Brew”? It came up when I asked the assembled group how they would describe the book, in a nutshell, seeing as I hadn’t read it, but that’s another story.
“It was like a cold beer on a hot day,” said JN.
M shook her head. “No, more like a gin and tonic, with lots of ice.
“It just went down easily, in one sitting,” added JN.
“But getting back to the plot, there was this bit ....” said K.
And they were off, out of the gate at a gallop again, one opinion flying here, another there; and I think I even heard a “What was she thinking?” uttered. The lionesses were into the carcass of that book and a feeding frenzy was in progress.
“You know what this reminds me of,” I said. “When I was a kid, listening to my mother and her sisters discussing the latest episode of Peyton Place.”
M leaned forward, “Well that’s it, this book was just like Peyton Place.”
Boom, voices were raised and we were into the meat of the matter once more. And pretty soon, we would be leaving the bones and walking away, on the prowl for another literary feeding.
“What will we read next time?” I asked, setting the detonator.
“No chick books,’ urged R. “Let’s read something by a man.”
“But we did Nick Hornby last time.”
“Oh, he doesn’t count.”
“What about a classic?” I suggested.
“On The Road,” said D.
“The Brother’s Karamazov,” A waved her Bitches Brew to press her point. “Or we could read a play.”
One suggestion followed another, with M rushing over to J’s bookshelves to pull out suitable TBR’s (J has an enviable collection). By the time I left, my head was buzzing, and I hadn’t even touched the Bitches’ Brew (it looked weird, very weird, a sort of cranberry-ish colored concoction). I had no idea when the next meeting would be, or what we would be reading, but no doubt A will be emailing the group this week with details. I drove home thinking about the book, about the other books that came up in conversation, and I felt very small in the world of what there is out there to read, all those different stories, all those writers with their tales, and millions of readers with their own tastes, highbrow or lowbrow, no plot or dense plot, and every book relevant and vital in its way, and appealing to someone’s idea of a good read.
I had scored Zadie Smith’s new collection of essays in the Secret Santa gift exchange (talk about a feeding frenzy ....), and even though it was late, I couldn’t wait to get home and dip into my prize. The fire was alight, the Christmas tree illuminated and in the corner the armchair beckoned. Now, what beverage would suit Zadie? A cup of chamomile tea, perhaps? Warm cocoa? A glass of hearty red wine? Or a hot toddy for a winter’s eve?
Thursday, December 10, 2009
The other day my family and I were eating at a pizza parlor, which are not called pizza parlors anymore, and when I refused a basket of rolls to go with a pizza, the waitress said, "Yeah, that would be a lot of starch." I can remember my mother telling me I couldn’t have pasta with chicken and mashed potatoes because it would be too much starch. When I was a kid we ate starchy things. With today's emphasis on more precise fitness terms starch is rarely an issue. Carbohydrates are frowned upon, but I haven't heard a nutritionist talk about starch in over a decade.
The word calisthenics meant push-ups, sit-ups and jumping jacks when I was in elementary school. Everyone moaned when we had to do calisthenics because it meant that we weren't playing football or kickball or anything else with the ball that was fun. I'm not sure one of the young trainers at the gym where I work out even know what the word “calisthenics” means. They work out, do aerobics, lift, host a variety of classes and will even do sit-ups, push-ups and jumping jacks but they never do calisthenics.
When I was in elementary school I remember asking permission to go to the lavatory. My speech recognition program doesn't even have lavatory listed in its dictionary. I have no issue with “bathroom” or “toilet” but lavatory also seemed a little more classy and interesting.
When we discussed a person who might be a little overweight one word we used was “stout”. It meant a thick, perhaps pudgy person. I liked the word but have only heard it used once in the new millennium.
One word, which may have passed out of use for social reasons is “Oriental”. I never heard it used in a derisive or degrading way but “Asian” has completely eliminated the need for the word Oriental. I'm sure I just don't understand the geographic and cultural subtleties between the two words. In a similar vein, I rarely see the word occidental. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I ever saw widespread use of the word.
What are some words or slang you haven’t heard in a while?
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Here's the long and short of it -- which, I believe means, all of it: I'm still working on the outline. And by "working" I mean 8 to 12 hours a day. It is quite the process.
There have been complications: on Tuesday I was in St. Louis; on Wednesday, New York; on Thursday, back to St. Louis; on Friday, Phoenix Arizona; on Saturday Phoenix Arizona and St. Louis. One of those weeks. but thankfully, I work well on airplanes.
Since Naked Authors is ostensibly about the life of writing, I should mention that the trip to New York was unusual. It opened with a two-hour meeting with a website design company that is building a platform for a book series I'm writing. These guys are of course young and ambitious, creative and intuitive. Spending two hours in a room with them, it's like spending several days with most "business" people. They had come up with a prototype a week earlier, and honestly, didn't thrill me; but, and here's the thing, they had completely redesigned the contents by the time my publishers and I met with them: very impressive. It's interesting to watch the process. I left the meeting incredibly excited about what I might see next -- not that my opinion matters to anyone involved in the project, though they are kind to make me feel it does; I am basically a bystander, and grateful to be given a learning opportunity. These guys are brilliant, not a word to be thrown around lightly.
That meeting was followed by about a 60 minute video shoot where I'm out in front of hot lights speaking off-the-cuff one-liners to both promote and "tease" upcoming books. I'm not terribly good at it -- I required many takes for the simplest of lines -- but I did have a brainstorm while riding the elevator out of the building, and I then returned to the studio and shot for another 10 minutes, hopefully this time with better lines!
But, the highlight of that same day was a reception with film company executives. It was the kind of meeting you wouldn't see every day of the week: the chairman of the film division had flown out his chief executives to meet with 10 or 12 authors from the company's book group. Now normally, I'm not sure film divisions are even aware of the book group, much less embracing it. Yet, here were four serious movers-and-shakers taking time to meet the "creative side." It was an example of true synergy, a word that is bandied about but rarely practiced. The meeting itself, a lavish cocktail party, provided no sense of whether or not any of my particular titles will move forward as films -- but that wasn't the point. The point was for all of us to put a face on the name, to put a handshake in place of an e-mail, and to that purpose the meeting was a tremendous success. But what knocked me out, and still has me thinking, is that these executives would travel clear across the country just to meet 10 authors. As weird as it sounds, that may be a first. Who knows if it will mean anything at the Cineplex this year, but standing with my back against the wall, listening to the chatter, watching the smiles, I sensed -- right or wrong -- that something good was going to come of this. As a (big) fan of film, I can only hope.
It was one of the good days.
Tuesday, December 08, 2009
WHY ARE CREATIVE PEOPLE SO DAMN NASTY? "She wasn’t nice. She was rarely polite. And no one who knew her well would have called her a generous woman." That's the opening of "The Talented Miss Highsmith," the new 700 page biography of Patricia Highsmith, one of the great crime novelists (and monstrous personalities) of the 20th Century. The book, by Joan Schenkar, is getting socko notices.
Here are some of Ms. Highsmith's hijinks, excerpted from Jesse Kornbluth's review at Daily Butler:
She drank a quart of gin a day. She left the United States to live in Europe because of what she called “the Negro problem” --- by which she did not mean discrimination against Negroes, but the civil rights movement that had Negroes demanding their rights. She took tips left on restaurant tables. She’d drive 60 miles to get a cheaper spaghetti dinner. She called Hitler’s extermination policy a “semicaust”, because only half the world’s Jews died. A mental health professional, observing her for only a few minutes, pegged her as a psychopath. Another writer described her as “a black cloud.” Her own assessment: “If I were to relax and become human, I could not bear my life.”
A new biography of Raymond Carver portrays the writer as a destructive alcoholic and a violent husband. A lot of highly creative people are nasty pieces of work. In a recent New York Times Book Review, Stephen King makes this observation:
Writing talent often runs on its own clean circuit (as the Library of America’s “Raymond Carver: Collected Stories” attests), but writers whose works shine with insight and mystery are often prosaic monsters at home.
King points out that, among his other faults, Carver was an "irresponsible boozehound who habitually ran out on the check in restaurants, even though he must have known it was the waitress who had to pay the bill for such dine-and-dash customers."
And this, from Janet Maslin's NYT review of Mitchell Zuckoff's "Robert Altman: The Oral Biography:
Altman’s son Stephen recalls his father [warning] “that if it ever came down to it and he had to choose between all of us and his work, he’d dump us in a second.” After he stopped drinking and started to develop a warmer relationship with his children, he still said that in retrospect, “I don’t think I’d do anything different. It would be false.”
Why are so many creative people self-centered and self-destructive? Alcoholics and drug abusers. Self-pitying and self-loathing. Unfaithful spouses and indifferent parents. Is unrepentant narcissism part of the creative gene? Or is it learned behavior? Or...do you disagree with my premise? Are these the exceptions?
L.A. DRIVERS CAN'T HANDLE RAIN: We had our first significant rainfall since last Spring yesterday. The result: 300 traffic accidents in the county between 5 a.m. and 11 a.m. That's more than double the usual number. If it ever snows here, I'm barricading myself in the house.
Monday, December 07, 2009
I love Christmas. As a child, I remember gazing out the window on Christmas Eve with my head resting on my hands, willing Mother Nature to drop a fleecy blanket of white on our front lawn to cushion Santa's landing.
Our family decorated the tree with handmade ornaments: perfectly cracked walnut shells glued together and hung with a satin ribbon and popcorn on a string. One year the owner of our local market gave my sister and me a paper fireplace left over from a holiday display. Every Christmas after that, we set it up in the bedroom we shared. We rolled old newspapers and fastened them with rubber bands so they looked like logs. Then we colored the paper with red, orange, and yellow Crayolas to look like fire. After the fireplace was “lit,” we hung our stockings, which were not made of brocade and glitter and did not have our names embroidered on them in gold thread. They were socks borrowed from my father’s drawer.
Our house was redolent with cinnamon, as my mother cooked applesauce on the stove, and I listened to the latest installment of the serialized radio adventure featuring Judy and Jimmy Barton and “The Cinnamon Bear,” searching for the silver star that had gone missing from atop their Christmas tree.
As an adult, I have always tried to create my own form of holiday magic. I decorate my tree with ornaments I’ve collected from friends, family, and on my travels. I also make decorations, like this snowman.
And this Santa.
Last year the season swept in like a blustery Santa Ana wind and the thought of lugging tons of ornaments from the storage unit just for a few days seemed less magic and more hassle. So I left Christmas moldering in boxes in Marina del Rey.
Once I made the decision, a malaise washed over me that hung on throughout the season. This year as a palliative, I began decorating for Christmas the day after Thanksgiving. As I placed the ornaments on the tree, I understood why I had felt so compressed during the previous season. My memories were musty and needed airing.
I missed looking at the yarn angel my Auntie Violet made for me when I was a child. I was glad to see it again because she just passed away a few days before Thanksgiving.
After my beloved Dottie died, I received a package in the mail from the vet. Inside was this Christmas ornament, a Westie with angel wings. Looking at it still breaks my heart but it also lifts my spirits remembering her joie de vivre and her indomitable spirit.
My dear friend Tom McGinn gave me this bear several years ago at one of my book signings.
As our longtime Naked Readers know, Tom passed away in September of 2008. I think about him often but especially this time of year.
I don’t need the calories, but this holiday season I’m going to make Doris’ pinwheel cookies and plum pudding topped with Gladys’ rum sauce because it’s tradition and my way of honoring their memories. I’m also going to make Marianne’s fruitcake and maybe some Dark ‘n Stormies to toast my fellow Nakeds because for me, part of Christmas is remembering those we love and sometimes those we’ve lost.
What is the holiday decoration or tradition that you can't live without?
Friday, December 04, 2009
I’ve always liked thumbing through the array of classes offered via community education programs, and I have to confess, it’s not just to see if there’s any particular course I would like to enroll in – I just love some of the descriptions, whether for flower arranging (“A Winter Flourish – decorating your home with winter blooms, berries and foliage”), pottery (“Learn how to throw a pot!” Hmmm, reckon I learned how to throw a pot years ago – and lucky for the guy in question, I missed!), or Hatha Yoga for the Over-50’s. ("Supple up for the rest of your life ..." What happened to “fifty is the new thirty?”) The description in one catalog for the Alexander Technique had me giggling for some time: “Bring a towel and six paperback books.” The mind boggled, though I have since found out how the towel and six paperback books are employed in this particular class.
A few days ago the local winter community education catalog arrived, so I flicked through the pages to see what might draw me out during the dark months. And somewhere between Basketry and Acrylics for Beginners ($10 materials fee, payable at class), was the following:
Write Your Own Obituary.
Well, that made me sit up and take a second look. Write my own obituary? Frankly, it gave me the creeps, and having followed the advice for many years to “be careful of the images you put out into the universe,” I found myself wondering if it was such a good thing to start tinkering around with one’s obit. Isn’t that a bit like tempting fate?
When I was a kid it annoyed me that my mother went straight to the obits in the local paper. I think she must have been about forty when she started lingering a little longer over that particular section. She would not look up from the paper, but you could hear the commentary from the other side of the broadsheet, punctuated with occasional drags on her cigarette, after which her hand would come around the side of the newspaper to flick ash in the ashtray.
“Oh dear, that woman was only forty-two.”
“Fifty-five and she went in her sleep.”
“Ninety? Well, he had a good innings.”
“Listen to this ....”
And so it went on. I used to complain about this habit, thinking it ghoulish ("Oh, Muuuuum, you're really creepy."). Trouble is, I have been doing it a bit myself lately, and I know what it is – looking for deceased persons who are the same age as me. I’m not as bad as my mother – I mean, I don’t really linger over the obits. It’s just that, if I happen to land at that page, I’ll have a quick scan. But – writing my own obit? I wondered who might want to go to such a class. Control freaks who can’t bear anyone else writing their post-mortem biography? Someone who wants everyone to forget the serial marriages and a drinking habit?
As you can see, I’ve thought a bit about this now, even though I hate to play fast and loose with fate. I wonder if writing one’s own obituary ahead of time gives one something to aspire to – a sort of template of behavior, values and accomplishments to bring to life, before death, if you see what I mean. Hmmm – now, what would I like my obit to include?
I think I would like to be remembered well. I’d like it to say that I made people laugh, that my home was warm and welcoming. I’d like it to say something about my love of nature, of animals, of wild places. I’d like to be remembered as adventurous. I’d like my obit to say how important my family and friends were to me. I would like to be remembered as an energetic sort (“She rode horses every day until she was almost 80.”), and as generous (“After winning the Super lotto Jackpot in 2010, Jacqueline was on a quest to give almost all her windfall away, leaving only enough to sustain her as she grew older”). I would like it to say I loved telling stories, one of which enchanted the judges of the Mann Booker Prize, who stunned the critics when they awarded the prize to a mystery writer. I think I would like it to say that she passed away quietly in her sleep in her own home (no need for dramatics at the end, make it simple, that’s my motto).
I’ve got to tell you, writing that paragraph was a really, really weird experience – and as you can see, I wrote it on the fly, didn’t think much about it because it was a bit scary. And I don’t think I will ever do that again. Writing the bio for the back of the book is hard enough, without looking back on what hasn’t happened yet (regarding Super lotto – only a matter of time). So, I don’t think I’ll be lining up for that class.
Mind you, there’s always: “Tune Up Your Brain!” or “How To Give A Great Foot Massage!” (Bring a towel).
Seen any good classes lately? Or ... what would you like to see in your obit?
Thursday, December 03, 2009
Okay, so I won't shoot the little yappy bastard, but I have considered relocating him for a quieter existence. Using that rational I'd have to board my wife somewhere too. Regardless of my plans for a more peaceful home life, I want you to take a look at a blog I've been reading lately.
Among the best blogs on the mystery genre was the Sun Sentinel’s Off the Page, which was written by famed reviewer Oline Cogdill. The key element was not blog posts on blockbuster novels on the way or bestselling authors selling more books, but rather a glimpse into lesser known books and authors. The blog did mention big time writers like the final post on Michael Connelly’s appearance on the TV show Castle. That hit the web on September 19th of this year. Then, for whatever reason, the Sentinel pulled the plug on the blog. If the web is the future of newspapers and newspaper give up on the web, my advice is: Don’t invest in newspaper stocks. Off the Page could have been a beacon to other newspapers gasping for life and searching for the avenue to the future. Instead, the Sun Sentinel only provided others with a chance to snatch up one of the most insightful chroniclers of the crime fiction scene.
Enter the brilliant Kate Stine of Mystery Scene Magazine. Last year at Bouchercon, Kate asked Oline if she would be willing to do a blog for Mystery Scene. Oline’s response, “I was doing the Sun Sentinel blog but I have a big mouth so I figured I could do both. What I like about doing the blog is it lets me talk about things happening in the mystery that either don’t fit into a review but are interesting, quirky and readers would enjoy reading about. Not every thing about the genre is strictly a review or an interview.”
The result of that conversation is at www.mysteryscenemag.com/msblog , a wonderful , professional view of the crime fiction community written by Oline and a few other contributors.
Oline went on to say, “I have blogged about authors being trivia answers; about why people should attend Bouchercon; about the inside jokes in some mysteries -- how authors will have their characters read other mystery authors. I also can be more immediate -- we might not have the lead time to get in a review about an upcoming PBS mystery film in the magazine, but I can review it for the blog. I have done DVD, movie and TV reviews many times. In a review or an interview, one has to be objective and focus on the work, not yourself. In a blog I think I can let my personality and sense of humor and even personal life show.”
Oline sums up her experience perfectly. “I am loving doing the blog for Mystery Scene. Suggestions are more than welcomed.”
What would you like to see on a Mystery blog?
Oh yeah, the photo of the dog at the top of the post is Oline's dog, Gizmo. Ha, ha, ha.
Wednesday, December 02, 2009
Well, now I'm elbows-deep, or is it knuckes-deep?, in outlining the first of the two novels. And for the faint of heart, don't try this at home without goggles. I'm an outliner who likes to know everything that's going on at all times in every aspect of my book, so that as I dig into my book I can enjoy the writing, savor in the new characters, and feel myself in the settings. I don't like to be thinking about plot at times like that. So I outline, big-time.
The process is arduous. My early outlines are done on spreadsheets. Each central character gets his or her column, in the rows go down the page chronologically. Sometimes there might be five or six rows to a day -- sometimes only one or two. The first outline was 64 rows deep in four columns wide. A major scene happened on each row, and sometimes in multiple columns because that scene might involve more than one of the principal characters. So, you get the point: there were a lot of words on the page, a lot of thought went into it. At this early stage of outlining I work with a freelance editor, Ed Stackler, in part because I trust Ed and like him a lot, and in part to conserve the energies of both my agents and my Putnam editor for work in the future. After consulting with Ed, I threw out the first outline. It was about 10 days of work.
I started and completed a second full outline, this one about 68 rows deep. And, yes, you guessed it: I threw it out. By this point, not only was I getting a really good sense of my characters as well as what was and wasn't working as plot elements in the story, but by working with Ed, by going back and forth with ideas, I was beginning to see the bright spot amid the dull.
This allowed me, about two weeks ago, now several weeks into this process -- four, five? I'm not sure -- to strategize about four or five key elements (scenes) in the novel. I wrote "white papers" on each of these, whether a set piece, a string of scenes, or what Christopher Vogler calls "thresholds." Each of these papers was 3 to 10 pages, single spaced, and each went back and forth between Ed and me perhaps 5 to 7 times. Slowly -- sometimes painfully so -- what would have been huge plot problems were spotted in advance, and I went to work finding ways around them, through them, over them, or under them. With each completed white paper I sensed those parts of the book that represented the biggest threats later, during the writing process. They were being caught and dealt with in advance. Some of those days I was almost euphoric as I saw that I had solved what might have been a bear trap of a plot point months down the road.
The process is so slow, it can be so frustrating, but there are of course times I just feel like starting the book and not worry about any of this until I get there. But that's always an option. Even with an outline in place, I can always abandon it. What I like about this process -- no, what I love about this process -- is the sense of freedom gained by solving these big problems in advance. For one thing I find myself incredibly excited by the story. I want to write, I'm not afraid to write. For another each time I re-work a scene, throw it out, rebuild, I learn something new about my characters. We go through this together, these characters and I, and it's in these challenges that I learn the most about them: how they will respond when in trouble; where they can stand on their own; where they scream, and why. But it is agony of course: the weeks of work, the reworking and reworking again of a small four sentence paragraph, yet one that may be a pivotal point for the plot without which the novel might collapse and fall over. Ed is paid in part for his patience of course, but he exercises his editorial compassion and restraint responsibly and with surprising dexterity. He raises red flags gently. He strains ligaments when waving the checkered.
I'm not there yet. How I wish I could write that I was. I'm somewhere early in the third spreadsheet. I left out earlier that after those first two spreadsheets I extracted all the information and wrote it out into prose, roughly 45 page documents, so it could be expanded upon and make more sense. Both of these are in the recycle pile. I need to get through about two thirds more of the novel to reach the end. My guess is this time I will be looking at 100 or 130 rows. Once Ed and I have both signed off on this scene-by-scene grid, I will, once again, embark upon the extraction process -- pulling those abbreviated scenes like taffy and stretching them into something more readable and enjoyable.
Though the process sounds painful, it's actually fun. None of the words really count, only the ideas. And although there are pressures in every aspect of creating a big, frolicking novel, I find that when the words don't count -- or maybe, it's just that they aren't ready yet, like a cake in the oven -- I can throw ideas on the page with abandon and watch for when they relate to each other, and when they do not. Out of this grow characters that interest and intrigue me and whom I learn to love. A learning process. Several months long, it now looks like. But all a part of the process. Oh, what a process!
on Twitter as RidleyTheWriter
Tuesday, December 01, 2009
TIGER WOODS will be revealed to have staged his car crash to cover injuries his wife inflicted after he insisted she groom her private parts to resemble the 18th green at Augusta.
SARAH ("GOING ROGUE") PALIN will get pregnant and write a sequel to be titled, "Going Bareback."
BOBBY BOWDEN retires today. Dadgummit!
YUM. YUM. My third favorite meal is the 2/3 pound cheeseburger with horseradish mayo and a side of sweet potato fries from The Counter in Studio City. According to the restaurant's website, that amounts to 2,250 calories, 5,560 mg of sodium and a dainty 34 grams of saturated fat. Burp. Beer and dessert not included.
STANFORD'S TOBY GERHART, with his 26 TD's and 1,736 rushing yards, gets my vote for the Heisman. Okay, I don't really have a vote, and as a result Texas's Colt McCoy will win.
AUTHOR AND RACONTEUR LEE GOLDBERG denies he is the father of Heidi Klum's latest child but he can't deny the existence of a new book. Out TODAY in hardcover is "Mr. Monk in Trouble," a train robbery tale with the usual Monk mishegoss. I predict this one, ninth in the series, will make lots of loot, and good thing, because Seal is going to sue Lee for alienation of Heidi's affection.
MIKE HUCKABEE, you nutbag. You did a bad, bad thing.
SARAH PALIN...yes, again...loses her eyeglasses and departs from her prepared text when announcing her candidacy for the Presidency, saying: "Read my hips. No new faxes."
THREE FOOTBALL PREDICTIONS: Florida beats Alabama and Texas, but loses a close game to the New Orleans Saints in the Super Bowl. Notre Dame asks parishioners for extra moolah in the collection plate so it can pay many millions to Charlie Weis and his staff of boobs and bumblers. Joe Paterno announces he will absolutely, positively retire...after the 2023 season.
THE BIG TEN/ACC BASKETBALL CHALLENGE finally goes to the boys from the midwest. Games tonight.
GLENN BECK is found to be a paranoid schizophrenic who escaped from a mental hospital in Bavaria. Fox offers him a raise.
HURRICANE SEASON ends today. Hooray. Jim Born takes down the shutters and puts up his Christmas lights.
YET ANOTHER FOOTBALL PREDICTION: Cincinnati's Brian Kelly shockingly rejects the Notre Dame job because it's a step down. Jim Harbaugh takes the position just so he can play Michigan every year. Marc Trestman, coach of the Grey Cup champion Montreal Alouettes, gets the Stanford job. (This one is serious, folks).
YET ANOTHER CHARLIE WEIS ITEM: The former Notre Dame coach has a 27-pound lead but goes down to a close defeat in 2010's "Biggest Loser" on NBC.
IN BASKETBALL: The New Jersey Nets change their name to "Fairleigh Dickinson" and promptly lose to Seton Hall.
PROSPERITY RETURNS: In 2010, the stock market sets a new high, unemployment plummets, real estate stabilizes, and the Taliban are on the run in Afghanistan. Former Vice President Dick Cheney calls President Obama "a traitor and a communist who is leading the nation to ruin."
Monday, November 30, 2009
“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” French writer and philosopher François-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778), better known by his pen name Voltaire wrote these words. Many people interpret the sentiment to mean that perfection is difficult if not impossible to achieve so at some point are forced to view our efforts as being good enough. My only question is how do we know when we’ve reached that point?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept lately and it was brought to mind again this past Saturday at a screening of the movie “That Evening Sun.” It’s the story of Abner Meecham, an elderly Tennessee farmer who escapes the nursing home where he’s been living for the past three months and returns to the family farm only to discover that his son has leased the property to an old enemy without informing him.
The film was followed by a Q&A. Ed Harris interviewed the film’s star, Hal Holbrook.
At eighty-four and with over fifty years in show biz, Holbrook talked about how meaningful it was to shoot the movie in Tennessee, the setting in the book and also the home state of his wife, Dixie Carter.
Toward the end of the interview, Harris asked for questions from the audience. The last one of the evening went something like this: “Mr. Holbrook what inspires you to keep going after all these years?”
Holbrook had been charming and informative throughout the interview, but his face lit up and his passion bubbled to the surface. In a strong, clear voice, he said: “What keeps me inspired? That’s easy. All I ever wanted to be was a good actor."
This Oscar-nominated, Emmy and Tony award-winning thespian is certainly much more than a “good” actor to his legions of fans, but I noted with particular interest that he hadn’t said he wanted to be a legend, or an actor whose publicist booked him on a thirty-two city tour to promote the film, or even a rich actor.
In a recent Los Angeles Times article, Holbrook reiterated this point of view:
"… I have never thought of myself as being a star. I just wanted to be the best actor I could possibly be."
I was impressed that Holbrook is still working on his craft. He said thanks to Sean Penn’s direction in the film “Into the Wild,” something inside him became unplugged and he was able to use that newfound awareness for his role in “That Evening Sun.”
Even after I left the theatre, Holbrook’s words continued rumbling around in my head. Every day we all face the perfection versus good enough dilemma. A business executive wonders if she has time to tinker with a report due on her boss’s desk by ten. The artist adds brushstrokes to a painting that will never be finished. A writer massages her manuscript, sometimes to its detriment, before she is willing to send it out into the world, because she worries that “good enough” gives her premature permission to quit. If perfection is unattainable but we continue reaching for it, we end up unsatisfied. Worse yet, we never finish.
For writers, actors and others, as well, it’s easy to get caught up in the white noise surrounding our work—the reviews, the fans, the awards. It takes somebody like Hal Holbrook to talk us down, to remind us that it's really about the acting or the writing. At least it should be. Thanks, Hal. You unplugged something in me, so here goes, “All I want is to be the best writer I can possibly be.”
And by the way, you were way more than good in this film. You were perfect.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
First, happy Thanksgiving.
I like to write about completely different themes each week. I throw in a few columns on writing and books and occasionally like to mention writers I know. This week’s column shows what good taste I have. Oline Cogdill, widely considered the best critic on the scene today, agrees with my assessment of Joseph Wambaugh’s great new book Hollywood Moon.
Joe Wambaugh is one of the few people who I listen to in publishing and police work. He’s the king of all cops-turned-writers and has achieved a place in the literary world that few have attained. But enough of my hero worship.
This is what Oline Cogdill said in the Sun Sentinel about Hollywood Moon.
Veteran author Joseph Wambaugh weaves together several seemingly unrelated vignettes for a darkly comic, gritty look at street cops and identity thieves in Los Angeles.
In the last of his trilogy chronicling the goings-on in a Hollywood police station, Wambaugh balances Hollywood Moon's absurd situations with the horrible behavior of people who have little regard for others. But each scene – whether outlandish or poignant – has a sense of authenticity. Wambaugh's keen scenes of life on the streets permeate Hollywood Moon.
The cops who patrol the Hollywood streets are a mixed bag who, despite their quirks, are united in their respect for their job. Surfer cops Flotsam and Jetsam know the ocean as well as they do the streets; they can carry on a conversation in surfer-speak while collaring a suspect. Nate "Hollywood" Weiss would rather be in films but has found his greatest acting role as a cop. Wambaugh takes special care with his female cops – Dana Vaughn, Sheila Montez, Mindy Lang and Sgt. Miriam Hermann – to show how they cope with sexism among their colleagues and criminals. Each cop knows "there are real monsters out there" on the streets.
The myriad scenarios eventually come together in a plot about a credit-card scam run by a husband and wife – the domineering Eunice and her scheming husband, Dewey Gleason. Dewey uses the various teams of scam artists he employs as a chance to hone his acting skills, appearing as a different person to each set of criminals. Despite his prowess working with the low-level criminals, Dewey has not been able to find out where Eunice has stashed their money. Dewey's management skills begin to slip when two of his meth-addicted employees decide they want more money. Dewey and Eunice's enterprise takes another turn when he decides to bring in Malcolm Rojas, a teenager whose good looks help him cover up his seething anger.
Wambaugh pulls together Hollywood Moon's non-lineal plot in a believable story that also packs an emotional wallop at its finale.
In his 19th novel, Wambaugh continues to show how the job of being a cop affects each aspect of an officer's life, a track he has followed since The New Centurions in 1971.
Have you read any good books lately?
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
... which is worth a look and bears consideration. The CSMonitor is an example of an award-winning newspaper learning to survive in the brutal world of journalism (a topic off-discussed here at Naked Authors). The Monitor, as I understand it, suspended the daily paper, but not daily reporting. It maintains the daily reporting at its website, and publishes a (nicely formated and meaty) weekly for subscribers. I don't know the paper's finances, but I respect its heritage of fine reporting and hope the new system allows it to stay in business. If a worthy business model, maybe other city papers and local papers could adopt something similar.
One thing is for sure (after spending two weeks in a car with Dave Barry, I learned a lot about this) unbiased journalism is in deep trouble. We are moving toward a society that gets its news from either "yellow" sources, or editorial-slanted reporting, ie Fox or MSNBC. Neutral, free-minded reporting is moving toward a non-profit business model -- NPR, PBS -- as corporations use their newpapers to push economic and political agendas. And that brings us back to the top of this blog: if you run your finger down the column on "% of donation reaches need," you'll see NPR is one of the highest in this category. "Let freedom ring," may come down to keeping non-profits like NPR alive and thriving.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
By Bill Epstein...
Signposts. You can see them and know what they mean. Or you don’t know what they mean. Sometimes you don’t see them at all.
Just out of school in 1969, I started as a reporter at the Philadelphia Bulletin. The first signpost I saw but didn’t understand was when I sat down to a typewriter that was three times as old as I was.
I remember thinking, wow, we had electric typewriters at the Penn State Daily Collegian. What’s wrong with this place?
My enlightenment came within a couple of weeks. I noticed a memo on the newsroom bulletin board that compared the monthly circulation figures of the Bulletin to those of its local rival, the Inquirer. Both newspapers had lost many thousands in circulation. But since the Inquirer had lost more, the Bulletin’s managers had titled the memo “We Won!”
Next month, new memo from the managers. Again, both newspapers lost circulation, but the Bulletin lost less. “Good News,” read the conclusion. “We won.” And so on for a third month.
By now I’m thinking that I’ve nailed this signpost. This is no strategy for long-term business success.
Within a short time I found myself with an opportunity for a different way to earn a paycheck. Having little in the way of financial responsibilities and it being the right time in life to take a risk, I put my journalism career on hold in favor of joining a political campaign. I remember my green-eyeshaded city editor saying to me as he puffed on his cigarette, “You shouldn’t do this, kid. You have a future here at the paper.”
His words came back to me 10 years later when the Bulletin folded and put 2,000 people out of work. I was glad and lucky that I wasn’t one of them. His words came back to me again, just weeks ago, when my son, Matthew, got married. At the wedding I was talking to one of his 30-something friends and former colleagues who works for a western Pennsylvania newspaper. Yes, eight years ago my son did the same thing I did. He came out of school and went into the newspaper business. Go figure. Four years ago he again did the same thing, leaving the business in favor of law school.
So Matt’s friend tells me that conditions at his newspaper are no different than at just about every other newspaper, magazine or radio and television station in the country. Advertising down. Staff being laid off. People being asked to do more with less. Lots of new, uncomfortable realities, and no certainty of survival.
Here’s a guy in an industry that’s not likely to offer jobs at the Harrisburg Patriot News or Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for people at smaller newspapers anytime soon. Big difference from the day 40 years ago when I finished a paid summer internship at the Bulletin and that same city editor told me that I had job as soon as I graduated in 10 months.
I felt badly that I couldn’t offer my son’s friend some good advice. Fortunately, he’s smart enough to understand the signposts, and, sadly, they’re a lot easier to read now.
Any signposts you’ve missed, or, better yet, saw and understood?
Monday, November 23, 2009
I should have known that spontaneity sometimes ends in disaster. Last Wednesday was a crazy day. I had a physical therapy appointment at 10:00 a.m. After that, I raced to my volunteer job at the local police station where I worked for an hour or so before rushing to Marina del Rey to have lunch with a friend who was passing through the area. Later, back at the station, one of the officers asked me if, due to a shortage of contestants, I could participate in a chili cook off the following day.
I vaguely remembered making chili once before. It wasn’t brain surgery, just meat and beans, so what could go wrong? I had to be at a meeting in the Fairfax district that night from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m., but surely I had enough time to do the chili fandango before ten the next morning.
However, later when I looked through my cookbooks, the chili recipes seemed more complicated than I remembered. Nevertheless, if I was going to be up all night cooking, so be it. After all, my word is my bond.
First, I zipped to the grocery store to buy the ingredients, a page and a half of exotic stuff like pasilla chilies, which I’d never heard of before. The recipe called for Eureka beer with an asterisk that said if Eureka wasn’t available, any dark beer would do.
Not surprising, Joe Albertson didn’t have Eureka beer, so I scanned the refrigerated cases for an alternative. I’m not that familiar with dark beers so I grabbed a six-pack of Guinness and flew to the checkout counter.
At home, I began to chop and dice in a race against the clock. So much food was flying, I’m still finding remnants of Serrano chilies ground into the grout of my kitchen tiles. The dried beans were supposed to soak overnight, but who had time for that? I threw them in a pan with water and willed them to soften because, rain or shine, those babies were going on the stove when I got home from my meeting at nine.
By 5:15, I had poached, pureed, and pounded according to directions. I threw the first phase ingredients, including three bottles of the Guinness beer, in the pot to simmer for a couple of hours. I hate to leave anything cooking on the stove when I’m not at home but duty called. I had to make that meeting.
It took me forty-five minutes to creep through rush hour traffic to the Farmer’s Market. I arrived five minutes early, just in time to jog into World Market to buy some soap I didn’t need in order to get a break on the parking fee. I plopped the soap in my purse—no time for a bag—and bolted for the meeting room, arriving just as the clock struck six.
No one was there.
I waited ten minutes before searching the lower level to see if the group had moved the meeting downstairs. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Where were they? Finally I thought, Screw it. Chili waits for no man or meeting. If I darted through traffic, I could get home in time to start the next phase of the recipe and maybe get some sleep before the roosters crowed. (The next day I learned they had changed the meeting date without telling me.)
Decision made, I ran back to my car. In another forty-five minutes, I was home and ready to begin part two of the recipe. There were some questionable instructions, such as add a “bunch” of cilantro. A cup I understand, but how much is a bunch? The “bunch” I’d purchased at the market was a lot of cilantro, but was it too much? Yes. I opted for a “hand full” instead of a “bunch.” I put the beans on the stove to cook for two hours, poured myself a Guinness, and sat down for a little R&R while watching “Glee.” Glee was great. The Guinness was—how can I say this without betraying my Irish roots?—a little bitter.
Just before midnight, I combined the two halves of the chili and tasted it. It was awful!!! Not inedible, but unpleasantly bitter. So much for Guinness as a beer substitute. Now what? I considered throwing the whole mess away but the ingredients cost $55.00. Besides, it was a lot of chili to dispose of. What if my garbage disposal overheated and caused an electrical grid failure. I’d be responsible for a blackout population explosion. I couldn’t flush the stuff down the toilet. All those jalapeño peppers surging through the underground sewer system producing heat and friction might cause nuclear winter. My brain was exploding. I decided to sleep on the decision.
Nevertheless, I didn’t sleep. I tossed and turned and considered my options:
- Starting all over, cooking through the night if necessary
- Admitting failure and bowing out of the cook off
- Buying chili from a restaurant and passing if off as mine
- Putting a mea culpa apology next to the crock pot
- Adding salt
The following morning after more hand wringing, I decided to suck it up and enter my chili in the contest. I dropped the crock pot off at the station, surrounding it with bowls of sour cream, chopped onions, and jack cheese hoping accoutrements would disguise the bitter taste. When I returned later that day, I tiptoed upstairs anticipating bodies writhing on the floor in gastrointestinal distress, moaning, “Number eight did it.” My breathing was shallow as I entered the cook-off room. It was empty. No bodies. No yellow crime scene tape. No arrest warrant with my name on it. There was lots of leftover chili in other pots but my chili was gone, which meant only one thing: Somebody must have thrown it away. I sniffed the trashcans for the co-mingled odors of Guinness and jalapeños but found no evidence to support my theory. I blew out a huge Whew! Somebody—actually lots of somebodies—ate my chili and didn’t die. There was much to be thankful for.
I didn’t win the cook-off but I have a year to find a chili recipe that works because next year I’m going to win that freakin contest. It’s the least I can do to make amends. All edible chili recipes welcomed.
So, you ever have one of those days?
Friday, November 20, 2009
As you probably all know by now, I spend a lot of time with my two horses, Oliver and Sara. They’re like chalk and cheese – Oliver is young, sturdy, happy to watch the world go by, whereas Sara is a workaholic, and having been laid off due to injury, is now dancing on her toes to get back to work. In my dressage training – kind of like ballet for horses – I look for parallels in my work as a writer. It’s not such a big leap, actually, because dressage demands a deep level of attention and communication that is mirrored in that “zone” I can go into when I am writing. So since last week, when I took that communication to another level with my horses, I have been wondering what that might mean to the creative process of writing.
It’s very easy to get into a bit of a rut with riding, especially when you get on a horse or two every day, and you’ve only so much time to spend at the barn. I’ve always made a point of spending time with my horses, just running my hands over their backs, stroking them and talking to them, so they know I’m not there to just saddle up, ride ’em and then lead them back to their stalls, or to the paddock. But sometimes I feel like a bad mother, at those times when I do have to just get in, get the job done and zoom back to the computer. I sometimes feel like that with my writing when a deadline is looming, forgetting my father’s advice that “you never push the boat out without that final coat of paint.” With all that in mind, last week I attended a five day course in “equine touch” taught by the amazing Linda Tellington-Jones. You may have heard of her – she pioneered the “Tellington Touch” a form of massage (though that’s not a completely accurate description) that can impact behavior in animals. She’s been on TV many times, and the outcome of her methods, when practiced with care, can be mind-boggling.
The course was taught on a ranch close to the small town of Bodega (The Birds was filmed there), amid the rolling hills of Sonoma County. Each day I drove out there and felt as if I were back in England, the landscape is reminiscent of Wiltshire or Dorset. Thomas Hardy would have been at home. Then the work began – and we were in at the deep end immediately, with Linda and her assistant trainers not only demonstrating, but following us as we went to work ourselves. Each horse presented us with challenges, demanding we get to know them and understand how THEY felt about what was going on, and what we were asking them to do. The learning was as deep as the touch – yet the range of “touches” were, for the most part, light, executed with grace and intention. In a short time the stubborn horse became willing, the scared became brave and that young hell-raiser became a gentleman – all as a result of intention, attention, and touch. I expected the learning curve to be significant, but what I didn’t expect was the spiritual impact of the work upon all gathered, and the way the horses seemed to move around us – and that surprises me, because I have always been aware of the “otherness” of horses, even when I am working up a sweat trying to get Oliver to canter with ease!
Each day I drove home wondering about my writing process, and what I might apply. And I think it’s this – that in some ways it is easy to skim over the surface, see the deadline approaching and go for it, words on the page, as fast as you can. Or you can get stuck, and forget to keep the fingers moving, light on the keyboard as the story unfolds. We let unwanted thoughts hamper our progress, and sometimes that great demon, self-criticism. With horses there has to be an honesty in communication, and I think that goes for writing too.
I wondered how, if what I learned while working with the horses was about effecting change at the cellular level, deepening the relationship from that point (oh, and thrown in that big word “trust” from there), then how do I do that with my writing? I don’t have the answers to my own questions, but here’s where I’ve arrived at, thus far, in my deliberations. That each day it’s important for me to do some reflection before I set to work. As a professional writer, it’s my job to get to work, hit the page and get going on the next installment of the story – but I can linger a bit before I start, set my intention for the day’s work. I can reflect on what I know, what I have written, about the characters, and I can ask myself a range of questions about the authenticity of communication – how do I make all this more real for the reader? What can I bring to the page that both deepens the story, my engagement in that story, and keeps it moving (keep the fingers moving)? But I think the lesson really comes into its own in the rewriting process, when the clay is on the wheel and it’s time to get in there and lick it into shape. One little technique I started to use a couple of years ago, was to put certain words, sentences and paragraphs into boxes, outlined so that they were separated from the herd, so to speak. Then I would consider what was in the box, and how I could improve the image that my word, sentence or paragraph was communicating. I didn’t do it very often, which is surprising as it really worked well and gave me a sense of slipping under the skin of the story.
Elizabeth George says that, “Character is Plot, Plot is Character.” So how do we render our characters even more authentic? How do we get to know them a little bit better, and how do we draw in our reader with that knowledge? That’s another “cellular level” question. I think there are many more.
As you can see, I’m rolling this one around in my mind, asking how I engage with the process of writing, of crafting a story, at a deeper level? I only have a hoof-ful of answers, but I am sure that some of you have your own responses to that question. I’d love to hear them.