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Thursday, December 15, 2011

KILLING TIME



          By Carolyn J. Rose
 
 “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.” Richard II


 “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” Walden
         
If I had a page for every squandered hour of my life, I’d have at least a hundred more novels to my credit. Some of them might be a waste of paper or download capacity. Some might be just about worth reading. One might be pretty darn good.
         But life doesn’t work that way. So those wasted hours are just that—wasted, worthless, gone forever.
         I’m not talking here about the hours given over to activities that are a normal part of our biology and/or the routine of life—sleeping, eating, bathing, grocery shopping, cooking, getting an education, etc. And I’m not talking about hours lost to events over which I had little or no control—sickness, surgery, storms, friends in crisis, family in need.
I’m talking about the hours left after subtracting all of that.
         I chose to forfeit some of those lost hours—whiling them away watching mindless TV shows, driving endless miles to get no place in particular for events that, in retrospect only barely beat out watching paint dry, smiling through dinner and a movie on fix-up dates where it was obvious from minute one that there wasn’t a single volt of electricity between us. And I wasted many minutes wishing I was taller, thinner, and smarter, and lamenting rejection in all its many forms for all its many reasons. Those minutes are still accumulating.
I resent my poor time-management choices, but I hoard more resentment for those who intentionally squandered my time. I’m talking about bosses addicted to endless meetings with fuzzy agendas that expanded like accordions, professors who managed to take topics with the potential of raging wildfires and deliver lectures with no more heat than a smoldering chunk of charcoal, agents and publishers who held onto manuscripts for a year or more and forced me to ask for the rejection.
And I reserve much resentment for myself because I should have walked out or walked away.
So my resolution for the year to come will be to take more care with the time that’s left. I vow to kill less of it, to strangle fewer seconds, murder fewer minutes, and to find myself guilty of hour homicide less frequently.
Will I keep that resolution?
Only time will tell.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sleazy is as Sleazy Does

Sleazy is as Sleazy does.

And little lambs eat ivy. Oops, wrong song.

It’s a funny thing about book reviews—especially when someone is turning a critical eye to your own work. Often, you realize that other people don’t always view your characters in the same light you do. An example:

Steve Moore just wrote a nicely-crafted critique of my hard-boiled mystery Shotgun Start for Book Pleasures dot com. He liked the book, for which I am grateful, and gave it a generally positive review and recommended it. All good. But he had an interesting take on my protagonist, Neal Egan, a former cop who is eking out a living as a golf hustler. Steve says: “Egan is a jerk, cad and misfit.” My immediate reaction: “A cad? A jerk? Is not.” The misfit part of the equation, I’ll concede. But a cad? Steve, this isn’t a Noel Coward play. You might as well have called him a bounder.

But then, I began to think about it. Neal was tossed from the police force because of anger management issues. He makes a living fleecing rich suckers out of their money on the lush country club and resort golf courses of the Albuquerque area. His P.I. partner is a serial adulterer. Now past his 40th birthday, he still drives a vintage muscle car and listens to headbanger music turned up to the bleeding ears range. He withholds evidence from the police. Estranged from his mother, he hasn’t talked to her for ten years.

He doesn’t call his mother regularly? Okay, maybe he is a bit of a cad.  A bounder even. But, I would say, Steve understood the changes I was trying to bring about in Neal’s life and outlook. He notes: One thing I will give him, though, is that he stays away from drugs, something hard to do in his sleazy life where drugs seem to be all around him. “Sleazy” refers more to his obsessions with drink and women—his roomie calls him Slick many times in the book and the name is appropriate.

Sleazy? Sleazy? Okay, I was willing to admit Neal is a cad, but sleazy? Does sometimes starting his day with a Negra Modelo, sharing a house with a beautiful bohemian painter of erotic art, occasionally sleeping with strangers and busting into a biker bar, handgun at the ready make his life sleazy? I think not.

A conversation with my wife revealed that she agrees with Steve about most of these observations about Neal. This made me think about context and frame of reference. As a teenager and college-age whelp, I was one of those kids your parents warned you about. I stayed out late, hung out at pool halls, learned how to French-inhale Marlboros and, had testosterone slapping through my arteries like the Rogue River funneling through a narrow slot in the rocks and would have pretty much slept with anyone of the female persuasion unwise enough to encourage me. My favorite pub featured a bartender nicknamed "Dirtbag" who earned his moniker on a daily basis. I also may have inhaled some marijuana, although Arkansas Bill asked me to deny it. Is it any wonder I drifted into a career as a disc-jockey and professional ne’er do well?

Carolyn, on the other hand, earned a 6.45 on the 4 point grade scale, treated her parents with respect, worked hard at part time jobs and flew through the University of Arizona with flying colors. After that she joined Volunteers In Service to America and helped improve the plight of poor people in Little Rock. I’m pretty sure she was overqualified for sainthood. From what I can gather, she also stayed away from boys like me.

Here’s the point. Because of the direction I steered at that stage of life, Neal’s lifestyle doesn’t seem sleazy to me in the least. In some ways, it mirrors my own experience. I too popped a top while watching Mr. Rogers in the morning. I, too, gambled on the golf course. (Mostly losing). I too, had consensual sex with people I hadn’t been properly introduced to. The people he hangs with are very much like the folks I chose to surround myself with. For Carolyn, (and apparently Steve) Neal and his gang (we’re not a gang, mijo, we’re a social club) were people you crossed to the other side of the street to avoid. That’s too bad. You probably would have enjoyed having a cad or bounder in your life.  

I’m not suggesting that writers should change their approach to characterization to cater to the predilections of the more innocent and naive among their potential readership. I do think we need to keep in mind that the impression your characters make on readers may not always be what you expected.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

DISTANT VOICES, INSTANT MEMORIES


My son, Rob just turned forty, two weeks before my sixty-third birthday. I spoke to him the other day, teasing him gently about the inexorable march of time. His response was good-natured, but still, I could hear in him the tone of disbelief that his youth was a distant dot in his rear view mirror and that middle-age was more than something to await, poke fun at and dread. It is, instead, his present reality. He has transformed from the straw-haired gamin-bodied boy of the fading photos in my album to a bald (a gift from his mother’s side of the family, I think), somewhat thick through the waist, hard-working globe-trotter of the first order. His job, coordinating webcasts for Intel studios sends him all over the world. Sometimes, it seems like he spends more time in airplanes than his apartment in Hillsboro. Recently, for the first time in his life and mine, he got a raise and moved into an income category I never attained in my forty-three years of broadcasting. This is a good thing, and I reminded him of the many times he slept on our couch and occupied our spare rooms during the student/multi-hair colored thrash rocker/between jobs phases of his life. “Buy a king-sized futon,” I advised him. “You never know when Carolyn and I will show up at your door.” He laughed, but I detected an uneasy quality to his guffaw.

Coincidentally, about a week before our conversation, I’d discovered an unlabeled flash drive in the glove box of the Prius. It moved to a counter in the living room for a few days and finally, I took it down and plugged it into my computer. When the menu came up with the contents, I remembered where I’d gotten it—a birthday gift from last year’s birthday from Rob.

When my son was nine or ten, a small portable cassette tape recorder became his toy of choice. At the time, I co-owned and operated a four-track recording studio and creative advertising concern with my friend Rick Huff. Rob spent quite a bit of time there and even voiced his first paying commercial, a cute testimonial for McDonalds that padded his Chuck E Cheese arcade game contingency fund by $25. Soon, he was “laying down tracks” of many of the events of his life.

The flash drive contained dubbed-to-digital snippets of Rob, in a quavery sing-song boy-soprano commenting on our day to day life in Albuquerque, spinning stories about imaginary super heroes and editorializing on the “weirdness” of his dad and his partner Rick. This last part is hard to deny—it’s a matter of record with dozens of eager-to-testify witnesses. He also invents and sings songs—about his pets, about school and makes the random joyful noises only a kid knows how to generate. There are also clips of the television shows he was watching, including running commentary and several minutes of me, co-hosting the local segments of the Jerry Lewis Telethon.

I’m not overly sentimental about the past (Who was it said nostalgia’s not what it used to be?), but hearing his voice (and the younger version of my own) put a lump in my throat the size of a ruby-red grapefruit and dampened my eyes. He was a great little kid, a difficult, but still quality teenager and young adult. Now he’s a middle-aged man I’m proud to call my son and my friend. The flash drive is a sobering reminder that I don’t see as much of him as I’d like to.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Thank you, Elizabeth Lyon. (I think.)

         

For ten years, until the end of 2010, I was an associate editor for Elizabeth Lyon’s Editing International.Under her guidance, I worked on 10-12 projects a year, learning to identify strengths of manuscripts as well as weaknesses and/or missing elements. I learned how to model ways to convert “information dumps” into bits of backstory woven into the tale and how to link that backstory and description to character development. I learned to demonstrate how to turn narrative into dialogue and how to inject conflict and subtext. I learned how to link description to action and point of view, and how to enhance character voice and author style . . .
During those ten years I edited for writers who disputed every word of my evaluations and for those who wrote to thank me for my suggestions and kept me updated on their progress toward publication. I edited for writers who probably still have my photo up on their dart boards, and for one or two who became friends.
By the end of that decade, I was pretty good at editing. And I was so tired of it I couldn’t wait to retire.
I came to think of it as having the job of carving the Thanksgiving turkey for a hungry group already gathered at the table. There was no time to admire the bird. I had to slice it apart and get it on the platter.
Other days I thought of editing as looking through a window at an awesome view for a moment, then focusing on the smudges and streaks on the glass, the cracks and chips, the fact that it was only a single pane and not insulated.
Editing changed the way I responded not just to the manuscripts that came across my desk, but to every book I opened.
So, thank you Elizabeth Lyon, for making me aware of what makes characters feel real, what makes dialogue sound like conversation overheard, what makes a story satisfying, layered, rich, memorable.
Thank you for insisting that I demonstrate and model as I evaluated. Because of that, I internalized elements of novelcraft that previously I’d struggled to learn.
And—sigh—thank you for making me aware of all the reasons that a book might fall short. My search for missing elements and weak spots made me better able to see the flaws in my own projects.
Thanks to you, Elizabeth Lyon, I’m a better writer than I was when you first asked me to “take a look” at the mystery written by a client.
But, thanks to you, Elizabeth Lyon, I’ve grown impatient. If a book doesn’t hook me in the first few pages, I put it down. If an author writes away from a critical scene, summarizes a fight in narrative, gives me talking heads in a generic setting, or intrudes to explain something, then I close that book.
Thanks to you, Elizabeth Lyon, I’m so aware of the skeleton beneath the skin, of the muscle and meat and tendon, that it’s difficult for me to see the whole Thanksgiving turkey, to simply enjoy the experience.
Thanks, Elizabeth Lyon. You made me the reader I am today—picky, picky, picky, picky.

http://elizabethlyon.com/

Monday, October 3, 2011

My fantasy life becomes a book

There has been all kinds of speculation about why people write stories. But most would agree that it's a way for them to work through unresolved personal issues, gain perspective on the events of their lives and, in some cases, wreak revenge on people who have wronged them by using fictional characters as catharsis. I co-wrote The Hermit of Humbug Mountain because of a night of terror (all created by the overactive imagination of the precocious 9-year old me) spent wandering around lost on an Oregon Coastal headland. 

Shotgun Start, my hard-boiled detective novel set on the high desert of New Mexico, is, in part, the fulfillment of a life-long fantasy--to be skilled enough at a sport to compete at the highest levels. I have to confess, I have recurring dreams about soaring above the rim and over the hands of the athletic giants of the NBA. Mike Nettleton, the greatest six-foot tall, white, non-jumping power forward in the history of the game, that's me. At 62, I still fantasize about throwing a curve-ball that fools even the most accomplished hitters in major league baseball. A-Rod. Whiff. Ichiro?--sit down bud !!! And golf? I'm totally delusional. 

I've played the game since I was twelve years old, taken lessons from a dozen pros, all of whom, after taking a look at my swing would shake their heads and ask me if I'd considered taking up bowling. "At least you don't have to go look for the ball," one of them told me. As hard as I've worked at it and as much as I practice, I'm only a slightly-above average golfer. Depending, of course on your definition of average.


Creating the character of Neal Egan for Shotgun Start let me live vicariously, as the disgraced former cop hustles rich suckers on the tightly manicured fairways of the country clubs and resort courses of central New Mexico. Neal's talent is offset by the disaster that is his personal life and the danger he faces when his ex-wife's lover is shotgunned to death and the police believe he might be an accomplice. His inability to stay out of the investigation leads him into a world of murderous bikers, the methamphetamine trade, internet pornography and the Mexican Mafia. 


Here's a question for you. What is your longest held secret fantasy? What would you have liked to have done, that you never had the chance (or ability) to do? Would love to hear about it.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Truce in the War on Drugs

     
 
 
Since we've been beating ideas back and forth for reducing the national debt and making the federal government operate within its means, how about we put an end to the war on drugs? This multi-billion dollar boondoggle has been underway since someone in the Nixon administration noticed that most of the anti-war protestors were dope smokers and continues to suck money and resources out of our country to this day.
     Let's face facts. You are never going to make any significant impact on drug use by trying to impede the supply. People have always used substances to alter their reality and always will. Sometimes the substances are food or caffeine, sometimes they are marijuana and methamphetamine. Even gambling is a form of escape from ordinary conciousness. Some would even argue cell phones have become a nationwide addiction. Certainly, they cause their share of traffic accidents.
     Now, before you write this off as a rant by some drug-ingesting overaged flower child, let me reassure you. One drink is a big party night for me. I no longer smoke marijuana, although I will admit it's part in my distant history. I don't smoke cigarettes, drive too fast, or eat magic mushrooms. I will admit to a skinny white-chocolate mocha three or four times a week. A party animal I'm not. 
     I also recognize that drugs and alcohol ruin many lives, fracturing families, causing horrible traffic accidents and sometimes leading people to commit acts of violence. But . . . 
     The only thing we accomplish by tightening the supply of drugs and arresting users is filling our prisons and jacking the prices of the drug to levels that make organized crime organizations more determined to find a way to get the substances to those willing to pay the freight. 
     Many states, Oregon and Washington included made it harder for small-time crank cookers to put their hands on large quantities of pseudo ephedrine which is used in the manufacture of speed. In succeeding, they froze out many biker gangs and the like who were producing meth in smaller quantities, but created a very lucrative opportunity for organized crime families to import the product in bulk from Mexico and sell it for escalated prices. When we sprayed paraquat on Mexican marijuana plantations, choking off the supply of the cheap, relatively mild weed many children of the sixties remember cashing in their pop bottle money to buy, they helped provide stimulus to the massive marijuana plantation of Northern California that grows more potent and much more expensive cannabis. 
     The other argument you hear against legalizing drugs goes like this. If it's legal, that's telling kids it's acceptable and young people who wouldn't otherwise try drugs will light up. This rationale has been dreamed up by people who either (a) don't have kids (b) don't spend much time around their kids or (c) don't remember what it was like being a kid. For the kids who do choose to use, the very illicit nature of the drug, the danger involved in using it, is part of the attraction. Being a kid is all about defying your parents and what better way than to risk jail with your behavior.  The more we can do to shift the depiction of drug users from glamorous outlaw to pathetic losers who need help, the better off we'll be.
     Here's a common sense approach. Lets legalize all heretofore illegal drugs. Pot, cocaine, heroin, methampetamine, whatever. Create government run stores that would sell regulated amounts of the product to registered users at a fair market price. Use any money generated, after you pay the store's employees and the people who make or grow the substances their cut, to create large-scale rehab programs. Have signage in the stores and run TV and internet ads reminding addicts that they can get into a rehab program instantly to quit their destructive habit. 
     What would this accomplish? First it would take the profit out of drugs and freeze out organized crime and the violence associated with it. Second, it would allow us to identify and treat people with drug issues. Third, the sucking sound of "The War on Drugs" billions circling down the drain would no longer be heard. Instead we'd move the balance sheet into the black and finance programs to rehabilitate drug users. 
    One caveat before I give you a chance to have your say. Despite being against jailing people for drug use, I am for being harsh on people's actions when under the influence of controlled substances. If you amp up on meth and run your car into someone and hurt or kill them, I'd be against you seeing the light of day ever again. If you rob a convenience store at gunpoint for the money to feed your habit, you should also go away for an extended stay behind bars (with a chance at rehab while in). If you abuse or neglect your kids because of your drug use, we should find them new families.
     Instead of hacking programs intended to help the poor and elderly, why don't we look at some common sense ideas for putting a dent in our national debt. I welcome your thoughts.





    

Friday, August 19, 2011

Mellowing Out

Max: Mom says we need to learn a new trick. We need to learn to mellow out.

Bubba: Yeah, Dad says the same thing, but he says we’ve got to chill.

Max: I don’t know if I can learn any more tricks. I already do roll over, jump, dance and drool on dad’s pillow.

Bubba: Mellowing out isn’t a trick, it’s a state of being.

Max: Like the beings Mom puts in salad.

Bubba: Beans. Those are beans. Black beans, white beans, garbanzo beans.

Max: And carrots. She puts carrots in the salad. I like carrots. And celery.

Bubba: (Sighing) Mr. Attention Span. Okay, try to concentrate. (She flops to the floor) See, this is being mellow. Notice that I’m calm and quiet.

Max: Quiet. Sure, I get it. That’s what Mom wants us to be so she can write.

Bubba: And so we don’t have to go to the timeout place.

Max: You mean Dad’s office in the basement. He’s got a nice sofa and soft pillows and sometimes he eats snacks and drops stuff on the floor and after a while he lets us out.

Bubba: And then we run up and jump on Mom’s lap and tell her we’re sorry.

Max: But you’re really not because in a few minutes you’re sitting on the back of the loveseat and barking at anything that moves on the street.

Bubba: Oh, like you’re perfect. Every time that cat comes into our yard you yap your head off and keep going even after I stop. And don’t get me started about the day you chased the fly up and down the stairs.

Max: It was a big fly. It had a wingspan like an eagle.

Bubba: Eagle, schmeagle, it was a fly. A housefly. A baby housefly.

Max: Okay . . . well . . . so . . . but that fly had big teeth. You just didn’t see them. Besides, it’s my job to chase stuff that gets in here ‘cause I’m younger and faster and I have to protect Mom and Dad because they have opposable thumbs and credit cards and they buy the dog cookies.

Bubba: Well, I’m older and slower and it’s my job to bark at stuff on the street so it goes away and doesn’t get in here in the first place. I can’t mellow out and protect the house, too.

Max: Right, ‘cause if you were mellow you’d sound about as mean as Dad when he tells me to get off his pillow. You’d be all like, “Yo, dog on the street, don’t mean to bother you, dude, but you’re blocking my view. Would you mind shaking a leg instead of your tail?”

Bubba: I’m an intelligent female dog. I’ve never said “dude” in my life.

Max: (Sticking out his tongue) Wrong, you just did. Guess you’re not that intelligent after all.

Bubba: (Snarling) Oh, go chase a fly.

Max: (Sprawling on the bed) Later, dudette, right now I’m chilling out.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Back-to-school sales, fresh starts, plot twists, and promises

I’ve never been one to rise early to hit the opening minutes of a pre-Christmas sale. In fact, I’ve never been one to get up late—or any time—to get a bargain on holiday gifts for friends and family.
It’s not that we don’t exchange gifts—although lately we’re more inclined to give to charity instead of to each other—but because all the twinkling lights, shiny ornaments, and seasonal music remind me of wishes unfulfilled and dreams that never came true.
I was never good at holidays. Perhaps if I’d read more realistic books things might have been different. But there was a wide chasm between reality and those fictional descriptions of love and happiness, making the best of things, genuinely encouraging each other’s success, and building enduring togetherness. Too grounded in the way I wanted things to be, I did little to bridge that chasm, and now the memory of it overshadows the season.
Back-to-school sales, however, draw me in like a bass to a wiggling lure. I love to riffle the pages of blank notebooks, touch pens as yet untried, inhale the smell of new pencils, erasers, and glue sticks. I love the slick stacks of rulers and index cards and notebook dividers with colored tabs. I love to zip and unzip backpacks and imagine what will go into the pockets. I love new shoes and shirts and jeans. I love to see kids with fresh haircuts and eyes wide with a mix of fear and excitement and confidence.
But most of all, I love the sense of promise.
Like the pages in those new notebooks, the days of the school year ahead are blank pages on which students will write. There are possibilities and opportunities, tests to be aced and scholarships to be won.
And there are human dramas that, like a mystery with a plot twist in the middle, could change direction and have an ending other than the one we might expect. Struggling students could, this year, make connections. Shy kids could come out of the shadows at the back of the room. A bench warmer could win the big game. The girl who always painted sets for the drama club could get the starring role.
A back-to-school sale energizes me and makes me think about the possibilities in my own life. It makes me eager to plow into new writing projects and finish old ones.
And, to make sure that feeling comes home with me and lingers, I always buy a fresh notebook, a new pen, and a pack of pencils.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Candy Box Time Machine


            A few years back, my older sister gave me an old candy box. Across the top the words Gobelin Chocolates, share space with an illustration of three pieces of candy, one cross-sectioned to reveal a pink core. At the bottom of the faded and chipped yellow and blue box are the words 
"ALL SOFT CENTERS."        
            "What?" I asked with my eyebrows.
            "Love letters. From our father to our mother."
            The second question, also verbally unasked was why? Why are you giving them to me now? What am I supposed to do with them? He didn't talk dirty in them, did he?
            Recently, during my bi-decadal swamping out of my basement office, pool room and guy cave, I spotted the box on a bookshelf. Needing a break from cleaning (I'd spent a grueling ten minutes already), I pried off the lid and examined at a collection of envelopes, sent to my mother in the late fall and early winter of 1942 and 43.
            To read, or not to read?
            There are several good reasons I've held them in abeyance in the years since my sister dropped them on me.
            I can't get past the idea that, somehow, even though my mother died in 1983 and my father nearly ten years later, that I would be invading their privacy. My father wrote those letters for my mother's eyes only. Who am I, nearly seventy years later, to eavesdrop on a confidential correspondence?
            The second reason betrays the ego-centric tunnel vision of most human beings. Since I wasn't born until November 7, 1948, my parents, in my reality, didn't really exist prior to that time. Their life, as mine, didn't begin until that day. Oh, sure, I knew that all six of my older brothers and sisters were products of my widowed father's first marriage and my mother's earlier, unsuccessful relationship, but those were abstract concepts. The Carroll and Jo Eleanor Nettleton I knew were an older couple (I came along very late in their lives. Probably not a poster child for successful contraception), who worked hard at a variety of low-paying jobs,  were involved in their community, taught me life lessons by example, and supported me in everything I did or attempted to do. They were not, by any stretch of my young imagination, two people who'd carried on a love affair, either via mail or face to face, six years before my birth. No how, no way. Even now, at 62, the same age my father was when I started high school, the perception is hard to shake. Your mom and dad, for crying out loud, were never people. They were your parents. A totally different genus and species.
            Except here was the evidence, in a box that was once packed with sweet confections from a company in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
            I slid off the lid and drew the first envelope, dated November 2, 1942 out. Using my thumb and forefinger, I plucked out a single sheet, filled on one side with my father's small, neat hand, and began reading.
            Darling, Jo: it began. Over a period of several days I read most of the letters. Much of it was a chronicle of the trials and tribulations of two people, during the difficult days of World War 2, trying to come to grips with their feelings for one another and the complications caused by my mother's rapidly disintegrating common-law marriage. I was struck by the depth of my father's love for my mother and the heartfelt expression of his ache for her. He used fanciful words, (all G-rated, thank you very much) that I would have never guessed were in his vocabulary.
            I'm glad I read the letters, even though the mere mention of them still makes my eyes go moist. It brings my folks, gone these many years, back into sharp focus. It's almost like a blank silhouette of them has been suddenly filled with color and light and fully animated. They lived, they loved, they did the best they could. It's all any of us can hope for.

Thanks, sis.

Goblin Chocolates
"ALL SOFT CENTERS"

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Existential Highwayism


I came within inches of being involved in a nasty wreck Saturday night. Had it not been for driving the speed limit, my habitual use of side mirrors, good reflexes and even better brakes on my 06 Prius, I d have found myself scrunched against the guard rail of the southbound Marquam Bridge
      Like all traffic accidents or near misses, this one seemed to develop in a split second. A glimmer in the passenger's side mirror made me swivel in time to see a green SUV bearing down on me from three lanes over. I fought the impulse to crush the brake pedal, which would have sent me into a death spiral and make me a target for every car behind me. Instead, I let up on the gas, put heavy but steady pressure on the brakes and said a dirty word  As I slewed toward the guard rail, the SUV was on top of me in a nanosecond. Luckily, the driver chose to accelerate at the same time I slowed and his rear end cleared my front fender by something approximating width of his walnut-sized brain.
       Notice I used the words his rear end. Unfair, since there was no way of gauging the sex of the reality-challenged yahoo behind the wheel of the SUV. I couldn't see the driver through the tinted windows. Besides, it's irrelevant. But I'll use he, for convenience sake in the rest of this blog.
      He sped away. I said another, much dirtier word and leaned on my horn. Several other drivers joined in venting with me.
       I reached Lovejoy Fountain, where I was performing for the final time in the Portland Actors Ensemble production of TheTempest without further incident.  As I prepared for the show's opening, I found myself wondering what the driver of that Utility Vehicle had been thinking when he made that multiple lane change and nearly hit me.
       Was he drunk? Texting a restaurant reservation in? Playing charades with the other occupants of the car? Was his thinking limited to the simple realization "I'm over here, I need to be over there?  Did the concept that there might be another car in the space he wanted to occupy even cross his mind? Did he think the other car (me) had a lot of nerve being there.
       How about the aftermath of the inches-from-disaster incident. Did he realize how close he came to causing a freeway tangling multiple vehicle crash? What did he think the hallelujah chorus of car horns chasing him down the 405 was about? Did he try to laugh it off and try to rationalize it to his white-knuckled passengers?
       Living in an urban environment and driving in the worst examples of Portland's gridlocked morning and afternoon traffic for 16 years, I've witnessed numerous incidents of what my wife calls "Existential Highwayism."
       People back out of driveways into the flow of a busy four-lane street without looking, taking it on faith that the other drivers will stop for them. Texting pedestrians step off a curb and into the path of onrushing vehicles without glancing up. "I'm in a huge hurry" types tailgate at eighty miles per hour while checking their voice mail.
       Let's be honest. All of us, at one time or another has let our attention waver and have caused or nearly caused an accident. But the lack of focus behind the wheel seems to have grown to epidemic proportions.
      Blame technology. With all of the distractions built into today's lifestyles, we've become a society that believes it's own hype about multi-tasking. Focusing on one thing and performing it to the best of our abilities is "so day before yesterday." This would not only explain the actions of the driver who nearly T-boned me, but the driver I saw playing a ukulele and reading the funnies at a stop sign the other morning.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Coping with Rejection


(Honesty/Laziness Alert. This blog ran a year ago on Melanie Sherman’s blog, http://melaniesherman.blogspot.com/ If you haven’t been there, visit soon and treat yourself to a laugh.)

 Rejection.
 It’s as much a part of my writing life as carpal tunnel syndrome, brain cramps, and a butt that looks best in a bathrobe.

Being rejected cuts as deep as not being asked to the prom or being stood up on your wedding day. (Although, for the record, I had a darn good time not going to the prom, and have been guilty once or twice—in the midst of a discussion that wasn’t going my way—of wishing there’d been nobody waiting at the end of that aisle.)
Just as there are stages of grief, there are also stages of rejection—in fact, the first few stages are almost identical.
Shock and Denial. Check. I find myself staring at a rejection notice confident that if I look long enough I’ll see someone else’s name at the top or that the “not” will disappear and I’ll see that an agent is “interested.”
Pain and Guilt. Check. I feel I failed my story by not saying the right things in that query letter, by not writing a better first sentence for the first chapter, or by not being worthy to tell the tale.
Anger and Bargaining. Been there, done that. I’m guilty of crumpling rejections and hurling them against walls, and guilty of promising to drive within the speed limit, be nicer to those with too many items in the express line, and eat more fruit and vegetables if only . . .
Depression and loneliness. Oh yeah. Writing can be a lonely experience at the best of times, and loneliness can be a slippery slope into the depths of What’s the Point? Canyon.
So, unless you’re one of those rare writers who lands a publisher with the first toss of the query net, you might want to have a coping strategy—or several coping strategies—to get you through these early stages of rejection. And you might want to be aware of the potential cost of each course of action.
Here are some of the strategies I’ve employed in the past and the benefits and drawbacks I’ve discovered:
          Vacuuming
          Imagining that agents are the dirt beneath the beater bar, I charge around the house sucking them up. On the plus side, I discover the carpet has a pattern. On the minus side, I pinch a nerve in my shoulder and wear out the carpet attachment. Dirt returns and brings along its close friends, dust and pet dander. I put away the vacuum and start
          Taking long walks
Going with the theory that a tired writer is a less angry writer, I set out to see my neighborhood. I raise my metabolic rate, strengthen my heart, and lose a few pounds. But I develop planters fasciitis, suffer excruciating pain in my heels, and have to fork out $400 for special orthotic devices that make it feel like I’m standing on a pipe. I give up walking in favor of
Water Aerobics
Telling myself that others will suffer more from the sight of me in a bathing suit than I do, I hit the pool six days a week, strap on a flotation belt, and start building something I never knew I had—core muscles. Within two weeks, I’m doing the cross-country ski maneuver and tuck jumping jacks with the best of them. Within three weeks I develop dry skin, split fingernails, and things on my neck that look a lot like gills. I cut back on water aerobics and substitute
          Gardening
Pretending that weeds are agents, I uproot them by the dozen and trim back shrubs with a vengeance. The lack of weeds and overhanging branches reveals numerous bare places. I spend a small fortune on bulbs and plantings to fill them. My dog eats several and digs up more. Others are attacked by grubs and bugs devour most of the rest. I retreat to the deck and the strategy of
          Catching up on the TBR pile
I inhale some great literature and feel energized, then come across some not-so-great literature and contemplate unfairness of life. Feeling  sorry for myself once more, I resort to
          Whining to friends
On the first day I collect 10 “poor baby” responses. On day two, I rake in 6 “poor babies” and 4 “I’ve got a call on the other line.” On day three I get two “poor babies” and 8 message machines. On day 4, no one answers. With one foot sliding down that slippery slope I mentioned earlier, I sulk to the bottle-filled cabinet in the buffet and begin on my new strategy of
          Indulging in chilled adult beverages
Determined to numb myself to the pain of rejection, I drink too fast and get a stabbing headache. After self-medicating to treat that headache, I wake up the next day experiencing hangover Armageddon. Furious at myself, I hit on a new strategy
          Writing another novel
          “I’ll show them,” I chortle. “They haven’t seen the last of me. I will learn more about plotting, characterization, scene structure, subtext, and backstory. I will never quit. I will never give up. They’ll have to pry this keyboard from my cold, dead fingers.” Finally, a strategy that combines time-consuming, distracting reaction to failure with time-consuming, distracting forward action.

To my surprise I found that, for the wrong reasons (spite and revenge), I did the right thing—burned off the negative energy and faced up to the realities of writing for publication. The next step was to accept those realities and the fact that I couldn’t change them. That enabled me to move on, to reconstruct myself, to practice discipline, to nurture others. Over the years, I published a number of mysteries through small presses and recently landed a contract with Five Star for Hemlock Lake.
Reviews so far have been positive and with each one I tell myself, “You wouldn’t be reading this if you hadn’t stopped arguing, avoiding, indulging, and whining.”
Like writing itself, I found coping with rejection was a journey during which I learned much about myself. I’m not the same person I was when I got my first rejection slip. I think that’s a good thing. I think my friends—who now take my calls again—would agree.

Monday, June 20, 2011

W.W.W.H.D? (What Would Will Have Done?)

Performing Shakespeare live, in a public park, has the feel of controlled anarchy to it. Despite the fact that the Portland Actor's Ensemble has a permit to stage The Tempest in Lovejoy Fountain Park Thursday-Saturday between now and mid-July, there is a vibe of being in a group of kids who have snuck into the area and begun acting out for the amusement of themselves and anyone else who happens by and wants to watch. Here's a picture of our theater, which also acts as a space for dog walkers, street punks and harmonica-playing vodka-swilling street people. More on that in a moment.
















The spontaneous feel of bringing The Tempest to life is not in any way hindered by the fact that we rehearsed it for nearly two months before starting the run. The reason? We're dealing with elements that are beyond the control of the actors and our stage manager. Take opening night for example. A long-haired heavyset fellow sat, shirtless, drinking vodka from a bottle in a paper bag and playing riffs on his harmonica. The trilling was loud, random, and mostly non-musical. When we gathered in our warm-up circle to stretch, vocalize and otherwise get ourselves into the right frame-of-mind to perform, we found we'd added a cast member. The drunk had sauntered over and joined in. He also kept a running commentary going that was apropos of . . . well . . . nothing. My fellow cast members, being, basically, a mellow bunch just went about their business and tried to ignore him. This strategy worked fine until we actually began the play and he took a seat in the audience. Here's the first scene of the second act in which my character Gonzalo a loyal, optimistic and somewhat delusional advisor to the king is being harassed within an inch of his life by the King's brother and Prospero's usurper, who later plot to kill us both. 
 














Problem is, while they were harassing me, our friendly mouth-harp player and drooling drunk was laughing hysterically at non-existent punch lines, advising the actors on technique and muttering loudly. 


We played on. One of the board members of the Portland Actor's Ensemble sat down next to our problem drunk and managed to mellow him out for a time. Or perhaps he took a little Smirnoff fueled nap. We did encounter him backstage (behind the sculpture) early in the third act  where he seemed to be enraged that we were returning to the actor's area after finishing our scene. "Get the bleeeep back here." He commanded. "You're not done yet." Maybe he had access to pages of the script we'd never seen? After that he returned to the audience and continued his running commentary. We forged ahead and made it to the last ten minutes of the show, the dramatic climax, when he snapped to life and began blowing the mouth-harp in the middle of one of Prospero's speeches. 





















Once again an arm-over-the-shoulder and a quiet word from the Actor's Ensemble's resident diplomat managed to bring him under control.

 After that, the next two nights of the show were a piece of cake. All we had to deal with was inclement weather, a collection of street punks and their barking dog backstage, people passing by carrying on loud cell phone conversations and a 3-year old who escaped the clutches of her father and ran onto the stage. Apparently she had some strong opinions about Caliban's plot to whack Prospero. 

So, I can see the question forming on your lips. Why on earth would anyone want to subject themselves to this kind of pandemonium and fear-based adrenaline? Here's what it boils down to for me. So much of life is predictable, repetitive and frankly, boring. We go about our day-to-day routines, act responsibly and meet our obligations. There's something life-affirming about putting yourself in a situation where anything can happen and probably will. Since The Tempest occurs on a desert isle, populated by strange-and-wonderful creatures, our talented and unflappable cast view Mr. Vodka Mouth-Harp man, the opinionated toddler, street kids, jets passing by drowning out the dialogue, sirens wailing and the loud hum of traffic as part of the adventure. These wacky and random encounters provide us with ammunition as we gather after the show at nearby Karaoke bars and pubs to commiserate, revel and toast each other for not panicking, staying in character and entertaining our "peeps." despite anything God or vodka could throw at us. Personally, I feel like I'm creating memories that I'll take to the grave with me. Some families you're born into. Others you acquire.



I'd like to think that Will Shakespeare would have laughed at our travails and totally understood how we felt. After all, his plays were performed in front of an audience of rabble who stood in the mud and talked, gambled and even fornicated while they tried to remember the Bard's words in their proper order. The nobles, who sat in the higher reaches of the theater, viewed the swirling, swearing, drunken crowd below as much a part of the show as Caliban doing a spit-take on Prospero. What would Shakespeare have done with our heckler? Hard to tell. But Will knew, as all of us do, that the play's the thing.

For performance times and directions to the park check out the web site for the Portland Actor's Ensemble. 

http://portlandactors.com/





Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Pit Bull and the Pendulum



















Bubba:  Okay, squirrel boy, pay attention.

Max: (lunging against sliding glass door) Of course. I'm listening to 
every . . .every . . .

Bubba: Word I say?

Max: Word you say. Right!

Bubba: The topic today is Pit Bulls.

Max:  That's our topic?

Bubba:  Right.

Max:  No problem. I've got an opinion. Me, me, call on me.

Bubba:  (sighs) Max, go ahead what's your opinion?

Max:  I'm all for them. Absolutely. 100% in favor without question.

Bubba: Really. You feel that way? You like Pit Bulls?  Big scary dogs with teeth that lock down on you like a land shark on steroid?

Max:  Pit Bulls. Oh. (he blushes) Geez, I thought you said pet bowls. Where our food lives. (long pause) Never mind.

Bubba: Here in Vancouver, dogs and their people have been attacked by Pit Bulls whose owners didn't have them on a leash or weren't strong enough to hold on to them.

Max: We've got some in our neighborhood, huh?

Bubba: Before you came along, when we still had Dudley, the wonder dog, one came after us. Mom screamed and scooped me up and he rushed to defend us.

Max: Wow, I bet that was exciting. (thinks about it) and scary.

Bubba: The Pit Bull got Dudley by the neck and wouldn't let go. Dad tried to pull it off, and got bit.

Max: Wow! What happened.

Bubba: Finally, Dudley got loose, and the women grabbed the Pit Bull and Dad called them some very dirty names.

Max:  Like the ones he calls me when I get him out of bed at 2am to let me out so I can chase squirrels?

Bubba: Like that, only worse. Anyway, they're talking about whether or not to outlaw Pit Bulls in the city limits.

Max: Uh, well, maybe, I could see that. Couldn't I?

Bubba: The problem is that when nice people raise Pit Bulls and keep them under control they're okay.

Max: I see a big, hairy, Schnorkie but coming here.

Bubba: But, some really scary, nasty, mean, stupid and inconsiderate people like to raise Pit Bulls and use them to show people how tough they are.

Max: Ooh, big dilemma. Like when I'm trying to decide whether to play little football down the stairs or sleep in Dad's lap.

Bubba: But if they ban them all, what's to keep somebody who doesn't like, say Maltese, from banning them? Or if somebody gets bit by a renegade Pomeranian, and the next thing you know, dinky dogs like us are forced to become outlaws. Or move to La Center.

Max: So what do we do?

Bubba: That's a tough one. I guess maybe we just bark like crazy at any dog bigger than us . . .

Max: Pretty much all of them, right?

Bubba: Right. And hope for the best. Say, isn't it almost dinner time?

Max: I think I heard the can opener. Race you to the Pit Bull.

Bubba: You mean pet bowl.

Max: What you said.