No Badge of Honor

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I am a reader first. Then a writer. Then an editor.

I’ve been thinking about the relationship amongst these identities because they are so intertwined. Reading is what made me want to write. Writing forced me to understand how to edit. Learning how to edit enabled me to become a better and more critical reader.

I’ve also been thinking about the relationship amongst these identities because I’ve been reading a wonderful little tone poem of a book by Vernon Klinkenborg called Several Short Sentences About Writing. Klinkenborg takes exception to the idea of “flow” in writing, postulating that it comes not from inspiration but from hard work and firm attention to detail. In other words, it is crucial to be in control of your craft. “You can only judge intentionality in context,” he writes. “If all the sentences in a piece are clear and sharp, then perhaps–perhaps!–we can say that a slightly aberrant sentence is intentional, if there seems to be a reason for it. But if many of the sentences in a piece are unclear, ambiguous or weak, we have to assume that intention is irrelevant–indiscernible at best. We have to assume the writer lacks control.” Klinkenborg goes on to say that a writer’s job “is making sentences.” Other jobs include “fixing sentences, killing sentences, and arranging sentences.”

These prescriptives came to mind yesterday when I received a post from the blogging site Medium in my email inbox, that began “I am a terrible writer. I am almost ashamed of myself when I post on Medium.”

I confess that I was taken in. My curiosity was aroused. It was a good hook. Why would someone say that? So I clicked through and read the piece in its entirety. The writer was a young woman whose life had nearly been destroyed by her addiction to heroin. There was an honesty to the writing, in the sense that it was confessional and lacked artifice, but she was right in saying that she was a terrible writer.

There were sentences that tried to convey several ideas at once, some in contradiction to others, without the specificity that would imbue real meaning:  “I couldn’t assimilate, and it was torture really. I had been locked up, living on the streets , and High School was too much of a culture shock.”

There were sentences with misplaced modifiers: “Got a boyfriend in a band that was older than me and was getting into every bar I wanted to, before the age of 18.”

There were cliches: “I sank into that dark hole of heroin.”

There were typos, improper capitalization, misspellings.

Near the top of the piece, right after the confession of being a terrible writer, she doubled down–“And then I’m going to tell you why I keep writing in a sea of Grammar Nazis with brilliant minds that perfectly articulate whatever they want .”–as if being a terrible writer were a badge of honor signifying bravery and authenticity, as if it actually gave her a kind of added street cred, as if it absolved her of responsibility to the reader.

I am the first to champion honesty as a virtue in a writer. It may well be the greatest virtue. But honesty does not excuse laziness, lack of effort, a dedication to make one’s writing as good, as precise, as controlled (in the best sense) that it can be.

I will grant you that this writer, this self-confessed “terrible writer,” was not without her virtues. At times her writing had a rhythm, an odd pleasure to be found in her awkward syntax, and always the sense that she was not trying to hide behind her words but was in fact trying to reveal herself. Maybe that was why I found it so frustrating to read. I had the sense that if instead of using her failings as a shield, if she had actually tried to be better, spent more time editing herself, she might have created something worthwhile and truly revealing. That is what good writing does. Bad writing, at its best, can only suggest what might be there.

As frustrated as I was by the piece, I found myself even more frustrated by the comments.

“This is the first piece of yours that I have ever read. So it feels a little odd to be so obnoxiously assured in telling you how incredibly mistaken you are when you say you are a terrible writer. Terrible writing is many things, but to move someone in the way that you have me, is not something terrible…”

“Wow!

Who’d even notice grammar?

Powerful. Honest. Real, lyrically paced. I can’t wait to read more.

You are right: it would be a shame not to share and worse, to hide and be afraid. The only thing for which you might need to apologize is not writing. Don’t stop. Don’t…”

“When writing from the heart, it is impossible to “suck”. I need you here to teach me to be courageous, writing just as you write. You’re very easy to read because (I’m guessing) you write like you talk… and that is not the most common of gifts.”

There were many more such comments. After a while, I had to stop reading them. They were just too fucking depressing. The bar is set so low these days. Writers no longer have editors to help them improve. There is no one to stop them from foisting unfinished work on readers. And readers, like children raised on a diet of fast food, are increasingly unable to distinguish between the good and the bad. Their palate has been dulled. They respond only to things with a strong and easy taste.

It’s tempting to extrapolate from here. All roads these days lead to Trump. But suffice to say that we live in a time when the mere appearance of authenticity seems to be the only thing required to elicit an emotional response and a positive feeling about the cathected object.

One antidote to this dangerous illusion is to read the work of great writers. To keep reading them. To read intelligently, with an eye toward understanding what makes them great. And then when you write yourself, if that is something you choose to do, try to apply what you have learned. And understand, as Klinkenborg writes, that “most of the sentences you make will need to be killed. The rest will need to be fixed. That this will be true for a long time.”

 

 

 

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Final Push

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It’s been three weeks since my last entry and I can’t promise that it won’t be another three weeks until the next one. A lot’s been going on, including a 5-day semi-vacation in Gloucester, Mass., where Alice, Eden and I stayed with Alice’s brother Luke at the spectacular house he lives in on the Massachusetts coast.

I say it was a semi-vacation because I also visited my dad a couple of times while I was there, making the two-hour roundtrip drive to the VA hospital in Bedford, Mass., where he’s stationed (since he’s with a bunch of old soldiers that seems the appropriate term) in the dementia unit. Though the staff there is wonderful, it’s not a place that he ever wanted to wind up or we ever wanted him to wind up. But his dementia has advanced to the point where he really needs round-the-clock supervision to keep him safe, and this seemed like the best option. It’s a sad situation, and although both my sister and I have tried to make peace with it, there’s a certain degree of denial involved. We have a lot of friends who are going through the same kind of heartache with one or both of their parents. All I can say is that I hope to hell Eden doesn’t have to deal with a similar reality when I’m an old bastard. Or should I say an older bastard than I am now?

Back in the city, I was suddenly inundated with editing work, two books, one a memoir, one a novel, that both have real potential but need a fair amount of work that hopefully I can supply and/or outline. At the same time, as I wrote in an earlier entry, I’m trying to finish my own novel. I fear I wrote too soon about how I wasn’t going to let anything derail this final push, because as soon as wrote that, I got slightly derailed. The other thing that happened to slow down my progress was that Alice landed a great job. I don’t want to talk about it publicly at this point, but trust me, it’s great (do I sound a little bit like a certain presidential candidate there?), and we’re both thrilled. The only downside  is that it’s put more of a burden on me as far as carrying the load on household chores and childcare. Am I making excuses? I probably am.

Speaking of certain presidential candidates, the other major distraction has been this crazy political season. Watching it unfold is a bit like driving past an accident on the highway. I can’t seem to take my eyes off it. It’s bloody and gruesome and awful and riveting. And I’m addicted to reading about it wherever I can, hearing other people’s opinions on Facebook, watching video clips of both the candidates themselves and all the commentators and comedians who are lapping it all up. The other night I had a long, contentious but ultimately worthwhile and satisfying conversation with an old friend who is supporting Hillary (I’m a Bernie guy). We each have our different opinions but we were able to listen to one another, which I’m afraid is becoming a lost art in the emotion-charged world we’re living in.

This morning, I dropped off Eden at school and now I’ve got until pickup at three to do my thing. But Monday mornings after the weekend are always tough. Resistance is strong. What I’m doing here is a sort of palate cleanser. A warming up exercise to get me back into my writing head. At any rate, I probably won’t be hanging out around here much during this final push. Wish me luck!

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The Trap of “More Electable”

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Now that it’s looking more and more like Donald Trump is going to win the Republican nomination, I think it’s time to take a step back and think about what this means and portends for the general.

For Democrats, the question now is, whom should they pit against Trump? Who’s the best bet to beat him? A lot of my friends and the people whose posts I read on Facebook have been lobbying for Hillary because they think she is more “electable,” and they’re afraid of what will happen if the Democrats lose this election.

I get that. There’s a lot at stake here. We want the most electable candidate. But what does that mean in this particular cycle? On the Republican side, most people considered Jeb Bush the most “electable” candidate at the beginning of primary season. Lately, Marco Rubio has received the “most electable” mantle from the establishment. The voters ain’t buying it. Clearly something weird is going on. Traditional notions of what constitutes an electable candidate seem not to matter to the people pulling the voting levers. To anyone who is looking at this election season it should be clear by now what’s going on is indicative of a tremendous dissatisfaction with the status quo, and instead of resisting that idea, we need to understand it. Why is Trump dominating the primaries? Why is Sanders doing as well as he is?

The answer is actually not all that complicated. The system isn’t working for the masses. The American people are fed up with the establishment. They’re fed up with politics as usual and the idea that big money is running the show. They want somebody from outside the mainstream, somebody they perceive as uncorrupted. Yes, Hillary is leading Bernie right now, but that’s mostly because people who want to vote for Bernie are afraid he won’t win the general. I strongly believe that if Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, she will do so not because most Dems really prefer her, but because they’re afraid that Bernie isn’t electable. If a Jeb Bush or a Marco Rubio were leading the way on the Republican side, that would probably be true. But Trump’s ascendence changes everything. It totally alters the dynamics of how things will play out this fall. I’m now convinced that succumbing to fears about Bernie’s electability will be a huge mistake–and will actually ensure the opposite of the desired outcome, namely a Dem victory. Because I think that versus Trump, Bernie will be a much better candidate than Hillary. I think that Hillary is going to have a really tough time beating Trump and overcoming the anger of voters who are sick of the Bush and Clinton legacies. And I think a lot of people will be shocked to have so misread things.

This election will come down, as elections usually do, to the so-called independent voters, the swing voters. I think it’s pretty clear that Trump is going to get most of those independents in a matchup with Hillary. But in a race against Bernie, the independent vote will be a toss up. Not only will Bernie win more than his share of the swing voters, he will also pull some Republicans into his camp, people who would never in a million years vote for Hillary.

The Republican primary has been a referendum against the establishment, against Bush, against the mainstream. Anyone who thinks that the general election will not follow suit isn’t really paying attention.

Until now, I’d been on the fence about Bernie. I was worried that the people who were saying he was unelectable were right. But now I’m absolutely convinced that we NEED Bernie to be the Democratic candidate if we’re going to win this election. A lot of people see Bernie versus Hillary as a heart-versus-head question. As for me, my heart has always been with Bernie, but my head was telling me that Hillary would be our best chance in the general. Now my head is telling me that the game has changed, and I’m scared–really scared–that my friends and fellow Democrats won’t see this. If we look at this election the way the Republican establishment has been doing until now, we’ll be in for a painful surprise come November.

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Brooklyn in the House!

 

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It’s been ten days since my last post here. I think the winter doldrums have got me down. I’m still not feeling especially inspired, but I thought I might just throw out some off-the-cuff observations about last night’s New Hampshire primary.

I still don’t know how I feel about Bernie. We’re so conditioned to believe that politics is a dirty game that we worry that the guy who’s playing it straight is a sucker bet.

Admit it. Aren’t you afraid that we’re being set up? Have you not pictured the Republicans rubbing their hands together and saying, “Can you believe it’s working? We may actually get the Dems to nominate a socialist?”

How deep in the bag for Clinton is the Times? Bernie stomped Clinton’s ass in New Hampshire and instead of giving him credit, the Times’ headline was “Bernie Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton in a state where he has long held an advantage.” Whaaaat? It actually wasn’t that long ago that Sanders was down 44 points in New Hampshire, a state btw that Clinton won in 2008.

Did anyone see the footage of Sanders playing hoops just before he gave his victory speech?  The old bastard can ball. The Fox commentators killed me. “Is this like some kind of a joke?” Meghan Kelly said. “How’s he doing that? He’s making every one.” “He’s from Brooklyn,” Bret Baier responded.

Btw, I predicted that John Kasich would finish second in New Hampshire. If you don’t believe me, ask my wife.

My friend Nolan Dalla, who was my inspiration for starting this blog, penned an entry the other day, “I Just Got ‘Push Polled’ by Hillary Clinton’s Nevada Campaign” that has gone viral.

This column? Definitely not going viral.

 

 

 

 

 

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Super Manly

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Next Sunday will mark the 50th Super Bowl in history. I have watched every single one of the first forty-nine. From my perspective that’s an incredible fact–both for the amount of time that has passed since I watched the first one, and the idea that I was able to see the beginning of what has become an American institution.

I think it’s fair to say that nobody had any idea at the time that the Super Bowl would become an event of such magnitude, an event that, to pilfer a quote from Walter Matthau, “exemplifies all the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great.”

For me, the novelty and import of that first game, pitting the NFL’s and Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers against the AFL’s and Hank Stram’s Kansas City Chiefs, was surpassed in excitement only by Super Bowl III in which my New York Jets, led by Broadway Joe Namath, pulled off what still has to be considered the greatest and most tectonic plate-shifting upset in football history when they beat a mighty Baltimore Colts team that had been rated an 18-point favorite by Vegas. I was 13 years old when that happened, and the Jets have not been back to the Super Bowl since. That game ruined me forever for all intents and purposes, consigning me to lifelong Jet fandom and 47 years of subsequent suffering. But I am not here to talk about that. What I want to talk about is that first game, which was not by any stretch of the imagination a great game but was still, for my 11-year-old self, a near religious experience, a kind of early introduction into manhood and hanging out with the boys.

My dad and stepmom were living at the time on the top floor of a brownstone on West 22nd Street that Jerry Orbach and his then-wife Marta Curro owned. Jerry and my dad were good friends. On Super Sunday 1966, I was invited with my dad to watch the Super Bowl down at Jerry’s place. It was just the three of us and Ben Gazzara, and what I remember most vividly is that Jerry and Ben broke out cigars immediately (my dad stuck to his Gauloise), and the three of them drank bourbon and cracked wise in a haze of smoke as we watched the game on Jerry’s color RCA. I was in heaven to be included in this convocation of maleness even if I was bummed that the Chiefs, in their good guy white uniforms with red trim, wound up getting blown out. I did not drink that day. I did not smoke. But I felt a part of something big and manly, probably for the first time in my life. For this Jewish boy who never had a bar mitzvah, it was a day of initiation into the brotherhood of men. Fifty years later that is what stays with me.

 

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Why It’s Different This Time

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I have been a Bernie man right along. He is one of the few politicians I have ever trusted. His positions have remained consistent for 30 years. He is who he says he is. And he believes in what he says he believes in. But I woke up at 5 this morning in what amounted to a cold sweat. Because it is looking ever more possible that he may win the Democratic nomination. And that scares me.

I’m very afraid that the Democrats might lose this election. Bernie would be the most socially and economically progressive candidate to win the nomination in my lifetime. I remember what happened to George McGovern, the last real progressive to head the Democratic ticket. I remember how Eugene McCarthy captured the anti-war youth vote in ’68 before his RFK entered the race and McCarthy’s campaign flamed out. I also remember what happened when the Republicans nominated an extreme candidate of their own, Barry Goldwater. The Dems crushed him. In national politics, the conventional wisdom says that the middle rules. That’s why candidates always move toward the middle once they win the nomination. Maybe voting for Hillary, someone who is sure to do that, is the prudent course to take. That was the thought that interrupted my dreams this morning.

But thinking back to those other races, Goldwater and McGovern, I remember that they were running against middle-of-the-road candidates like LBJ and Richard Nixon, and that what is going on in this cycle is something entirely different. If the GOP were to nominate Jeb Bush, I would be very worried about Bernie topping the Dem ticket (even though the supposedly moderate Bush is only slightly less conservative than the most ardent Tea Partiers in the new-age radicalized Republican party). But I don’t think Jeb has much of a shot. Neither does Kasich. Even Rubio seems like a long shot. Right now it seems most likely that the Repugs are going to nominate either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, both of whom reflect extremist views at the opposite end of the spectrum from Bernie.

What is happening in American politics right now is that the middle, what used to be called the mainstream, is shrinking in reaction to the wealth disparity. The majority of Americans whose lives seem to be increasingly difficult are gravitating to extreme solutions to combat their feelings of powerlessness and discontent. They are sick of the same old same old. They want real change. I know I certainly do. That is why I think this election is different. We thought we were going to get Bush vs. Clinton 3.0 at the beginning of the season. Now it’s looking like it might be Trump-Sanders or Cruz-Sanders, and that is a reflection of the angry mood and desire for change that has seized the nation.

So instead of giving in to my fears about Bernie and his electability, I am choosing to embrace instead the idea that this is an incredibly rare opportunity for real change. Yes, it is risky. We could wind up with Donald Trump or Ted Cruz as the president. But I think it’s time to roll the dice, to see what happens if, instead of doing the same thing we always do–the working definition of insanity–we take a chance and shake things up. It’s possible, even likely, that if Bernie were to win (and doesn’t that still seem like a pipe dream?), he would find it impossible to implement any of his policies. But damn it, just this once, just one time in my life, I want to see what would happen if someone like him were to get the chance.

Because I really believe that if we don’t have a peaceful revolution, which is what the election of someone like Bernie would represent, there will be a violent one, or else a state of fascism headed by a demagogue like Trump or Cruz.

 

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Highlights of the Offseason

New York Mets v Miami Marlins

It’s nice to be thinking about baseball during a January blizzard. For Mets fans it’s particularly nice because Cespedes is coming back and all is well in Metville! In the end, that’s all that matters, isn’t it? So why does my joy feel tempered? Why do I feel like the abused child who has just been given a cookie? Why am I still suspicious and waiting for the next lash of the belt?

Tyler Kepner in today’s The New York Times wrote that the deal for Cespedes means that the Mets may actually know what they’re doing–and that they’re doing things the right way.

Sorry to disagree Mr. Kepner, but just because you draw to a gutshot straight and hit it doesn’t mean it was a smart play. It could be a good play, if you were getting the right implied odds, but it’s not a good play merely by virtue of the result.

I like Sandy Alderson. I think he’s a smart guy. He’s done a really good job of putting the Mets together under some pretty trying and compromising circumstances–namely the Wilpons and their money constraints. But Sandy has also gotten very lucky, hitting inside straights even when the odds weren’t giving him the right price. The Mets wouldn’t have gotten to the World Series last year without Cespedes, but they only got him because Sandy’s original and ill-considered trade for Carlos Gomez (which would have cost the Mets Wilmer Flores and Zack Wheeler) was derailed by a medical problem at the 11th hour.

Similarly, whatever praise Sandy is garnering now for having stuck to his guns and won the day by signing Cespedes on his terms should be put into a like context, i.e. he got lucky. He got lucky because Cespedes actually wanted to be a Met. He got lucky because the market for Cespedes turned out to be a good deal less active than many thought it would be, including Cespedes and his agents. He got lucky because Cespedes decided to gamble on himself and leave money and years on the table by turning down an offer from the Mets arch rival Washington Nationals. He got lucky because the Nationals interest in Cespedes actually prompted the Wilpons to offer more money than you know they wanted to, lest they suffer through a public relations nightmare. He got lucky because if Cespedes had signed with the Nationals, we would right now be screaming bloody murder, knowing that Alderson didn’t have the flexibility to match what the Nats offered. And we know, from that vantage point, that the stance he adopted was actually less a strategy than a restriction.

Nevertheless, there are people, including the aforementioned Mr. Kepner from the Times, who seem to think that the Mets conducted their business in a smart way and see the result as an affirmation of the approach. The Mets may actually be going about their business strategy in the right way, but it’s not because it’s the best way. It’s because it’s the cheap way and it happened, in this case, to align with the right way. But we actually know that because of the Wilpons, Sandy would be doing things the cheap way even it was the wrong way. He doesn’t have a choice–or the flexibility.

As with poker, most people use results as their measuring stick in determining whether they’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Getting lucky encourages them to stick with bad practices and strategies. Right now the Mets have a small window of about two or three more years when they have what is arguably the best pitching staff in baseball under their control at bargain basement prices. Their sole and only strategy should be to surround those cheap and amazing pitchers with the best supporting cast they can, even if they have to overpay some of them. Yes, that is correct. Even if they have to overpay some of them. The opportunity to build a dynasty around a core of young talent comes around once every thirty or forty years. And when that opportunity comes, you need to do everything you can to take advantage. The reason Mets fans have been so enraged this offseason, up till now, is that the Mets owners and front office have been acting as if there is some principle they’re supporting by refusing to overpay the players they need, when in fact they’re just being cheap.

 

 

 

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Long marriage, short life

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Alice and I saw the movie 45 Years the other night. This isn’t going to be a review of the movie but there may be spoilers, so if you’re planning to see it, be advised.

In an age of comic book blockbusters, it’s rare to find a movie targeted to adults, so we definitely had the movie on our short list. As it turned out, a friend of Eden’s was having a birthday sleepover, meaning that for the one night she’d be gone, we’d be empty nesters with no responsibilities or obligations. Our wild and crazy plan: dinner and a movie.

In retrospect, I can say to other marrieds reading this that if you’re planning a date night, 45 Years is probably not the best choice. Essentially, it’s about an old married couple, Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, who are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary (they had planned to celebrate their 40th but it was postponed when he needed bypass surgery). The week before the celebration, Tom Courtenay receives a letter informing him that the body of his former love, who had fallen to her death while hiking the Swiss alps with him over five decades ago, has been discovered at the bottom of a ravine, frozen. In the wake of this discovery, the marriage begins to unravel.

Sound romantic? Light and uplifting?

For me, the overriding message was that in the end our spouses remain unknowable to us, and love, in its existence, its fragility, its compromises and its rationalizations, is never what we think it is.

As if to prove how close these ideas hit to home, and how unsettling they can be for a couple to think about, Alice and I began what seemed like a reasonable discussion of the movie as we left the theater, then drifted into weirdness and pointless disagreement during dinner, outright hostility on the walk home, ugly shouting and screaming in our dimly illumined living room, and finally angry silence and crossed-arm sleep later in bed. The substance of the fight scarcely matters. What underlay it was the sense of being misunderstood; feelings of entrapment; the idea that our life’s adventure had somehow been stolen from us; and in our case, with our one-night preview of the empty nest, the fear that without the distraction and unifying concerns of parenthood, we’d be left with nothing but those feelings.

The morning light can often seem harsh, but for us it softened things. A smile with a hint of regret helped, as did apologies for things said in the heat of the moment. We reminded ourselves of what we actually liked about each other and what we loved. I remembered a relationship I had that actually did end over a movie–Tom Jones–not because of any issues that the movie brought up directly but because I loved it, she hated it, and that alone constituted irreconcilable differences.

Alice and I would never have that happen. If anything, we would be more likely to to sink under the  weight of too much agreement. Though we often see and understand things in our own peculiar ways, we also share a general world view that is simpatico, values that align, principles that we hold to be important and self-evident. Even in our understanding of the dark side of marriage, we are two peas in a pod. We are not afraid of looking at what we have critically, of looking over the edge of the cliff, of confronting what it would mean to fall or fail. I remember one married friend who told me that she had such doubts about the institution, about the very idea of being with someone, that she had to make the choice to stay with him every single day.

“You look at Jim every morning and consciously make a decision about whether or not you want to be with him?”

“Every day,” she said.

“That sounds exhausting.”

“In a way it is. But it’s also affirming. It keeps me in touch with what’s alive with us.”

It’s been years since I saw that friend. I have no idea if she and Jim are still married. But if they are, they’ll be coming up on their 35th wedding anniversary. I don’t know if either of them has any frozen exes waiting to be discovered in the Swiss Alps. But I hope they’re still married, still deciding to be married every day. Frozen exes or not, it’s probably a good idea to consciously reaffirm your choices, if not every day, at least now and then, else they sneak up on you 35 or 45 years later and bite you squarely on the ass.

 

 

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The Ties that Bind

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I’ve been working on a novel for the past seven years. Even as I type that sentence, I am filled with shame. It’s not because there is anything ignoble about working on a book for a long time. Just that in my case, it feels as if there is. You see, I have this incredibly strong sense that this book shouldn’t have taken me this long–and I write that as if it’s finished, which it’s not. But in my mind this is a book that could have been written in a year, should have been written in a year, and the reason it wasn’t has to do with my own failings of character, nothing more and nothing less. Oh, I could give you reasons. I could tell you that I started it, wrote a hundred pages, got derailed by various things–a full time job, a toddler, writing a TV pilot–that interfered with my ability to focus on a project that promised little in the way of monetary recompense. I could tell you how after each interruption, I found that in order to reconnect with the story I had to virtually start over from scratch. But explanations feel lame. They feel like an excuse. And of course they are.

As I write this now, I don’t know if this novel is going to be worth a year’s effort much less seven. I do know this, however. This time I am going to finish. And even with my sense of shame about the time involved, when I finish I will be proud of myself for my perseverance. Because it would have been much easier to quit. I did that once a long time ago, on a novel that I spent six years working on in my 20s.

Perhaps I should mention at this point that my father spent over thirty years working on a novel that he never finished. By my estimation, he began it in his fifties, the same age I was when I began mine. Talk about legacies!

Purely from a writing perspective, I can’t imagine a worse role model than my father. It’s small wonder that my wife worries about me, worries that I am going to fritter away the rest of my life on a fool’s errand. I try to reassure her that I am not like my dad, that I have already published four books. But it is also true that none of them were novels, and it gets harder to make the case for my novel as each new year passes and I still have not typed “The End.” Ten years ago, right after Eden was born, when Dad was 85, he and my stepmother visited Alice and me in Brooklyn. He brought with him a zippered duffel that must have weighed fifty pounds. Inside were the thousands of pages of his unfinished opus. He had finally given up on ever being able to sort it all out or make a book out of it. “I’m leaving it to you to do,” he said.

Thanks, Dad.

Though I had no intention of following through on his wishes (that would mean taking guilt and masochism to a level extreme even by my standards), I reluctantly accepted the bag. He was 85, after all, and I am not that mean. Despite my resolve not to open Pandora’s box, curiosity took hold, and I read through some of the thousands of pages he had bequeathed me to see what he had been up to all those years. It wasn’t that “All work and no play” moment out of The Shining, but in a way it was more painful. There seemed to be many different versions of the same thing–I mean many, sometimes as many as ten–and though the writing was often quite good, it was maddening to read. I was unable to find progression in the story or a comprehensible plot. Finally, I put the pages back in the valise, swearing at him for having unloaded his baggage on me. The duffel is still in my closet ten years later, a feng shui nightmare that I am not brave or cruel enough to throw out.

My father in the meantime has developed dementia. He is 95 now. His wife, my beloved stepmother, Libby, became ill a year after we moved them into an assisted living facility in Cambridge. She died a mere six months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Dad stayed in the assisted living for a while but it proved too difficult and risky for him to continue there; he needed a higher level of care. So now he’s in a VA nursing home in Bedford, Mass., that caters specifically to old soldiers suffering from dementia.

I’m writing this while on a bus back to New York, returning from my monthly visit to see him. Though I saw him only yesterday, I’m pretty sure he’s already forgotten. His memory is like an old pair of socks, worn and baggy, with many holes in it. Interestingly, unlike most of the other men in the facility with him, Dad has a real awareness of what’s going on inside his failing brain. He’s almost always cheerful, even if conversation is difficult and often circular. He says, “I’m not going to remember what you’re saying. My mind has shot off into outer space.” Or “You have to understand, I don’t have all my marbles anymore.” One thing he always does remember, however, and this is true whether we’re face to face or on the phone, is that I am working on a novel. “How’s it going?” he asked me yesterday. “Have you finished it yet?”

“Not yet,” I told him. “But the end is in sight.”

“How long do you think?”

“A month of solid work, if nothing else intervenes.”

“Do you have an agent?”

“I’m going to try and get a new one as soon as I finish.”

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I realize that on some level, my novel has become his novel, that he can’t separate his own erstwhile obsession from mine, and that it is firmly lodged in his brain this way because at 95 he is still on an unconscious level seeking the closure he never got. I have thought about lying to him, about telling him that I’m finished even though I’m not, just to relieve the anxiety he feels both for me and himself. It doesn’t feel right, though.

As much as I want to give him that gift, it’s got to be the truth not a lie. I say this knowing that he’ll never actually read my novel, even if he’s still around, because he can’t retain things long enough to follow a story of any length. The days when I needed his approval are long behind me anyway. That’s not what I want from him. Whatever disappointments he’s caused me or I’ve caused him, all I want to do now is give him something to make the time he has left more peaceful and happy. When I write “The End,” it will have meaning for him nearly equal to the meaning it will have for me because it will be a liberation from, as  well as a celebration of, the ties that bind.

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The Circles of the Internet

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I’m an internet basher. I admit it. Sometimes I think it is the devil’s greatest invention, that it will undermine and ultimately destroy us. It certainly has already fairly demolished my means of making a living. Evidence in hand: I used to get paid for doing this.

There is also a growing consensus that the internet is rewiring our brains, changing the way we think. A piece by tech writer Nicholas Carr went so far as to ask if Google is making us stupid. But even if it is, it is part of the devil’s genius that the internet is also capable of great things. Else we would not be so addicted to it.

Let me tell you where the free-associative fingertip-walking nature of the internet led me today. Last night, only a year behind the times, Alice and I watched the final episode of Mad Men. The final shot of this brilliant show was of the hilltop ad for Coke, the famous one with a multiplicity of people singing in “perfect harmony.” We were led to believe that Don Draper, after walking away from advertising, had gone back to the Madmen life and then created this seminal ad.

It got me thinking about who had actually created that ad, and that led me here: Back in 1992, when I was living in Chicago and working at Playboy, I used to go, after work, to a bar in the Playboy building called The Gold Star Sardine Bar. It was an elegant little bar with a stage and a seating capacity of 50. All the big cabaret performers of the day performed there. The engaging owner, who tended the bar himself, was a man named Bill whose last name I couldn’t now remember. What I did remember is that he told me that he had worked in advertising at one point. He claimed to have invented the phrase “It’s the Real Thing” as well as “Black is Beautiful.” Are you beginning to see my thought processes here? Bill was certainly a character and a wonderful raconteur, but I had no idea if he was telling me the truth or not. I do know that one day I went in there after work and just as I sat down at the bar another patron got up and left, and Bill came over to me and said, “You want these?” and handed me an envelope with two tickets to that night’s Bulls playoff game inside.

“You’re giving me these?” I asked.

“The guy who just left gave them to me. It was Jerry Reinsdorf [owner of the Chicago Bulls]. I can’t stand the bastard or his team. I wish he wouldn’t come in here. He’s always trying to get on my good side, but I see him for what he is. A phony. Anyway, the tickets are yours if you want ’em.”

That night, I sat courtside with a friend and watched Jordan and Pippen beat my Knicks. I’m telling you this story because it gives you a small sense of who Bill was in the Chicago landscape and because after all these years I am still wondering if some of the things he told me were true.

Enter the internet. Unable to recall his last name, I type in “Bill Gold Star Sardine Bar” and up pops a bunch of entries about the man whose last name it turns out was Allen. Sadly, I discover that the bar closed in 1997, five years after I left Chicago, and that Bill Allen died in 2001. Some of the unique qualities of The Gold Star Sardine Bar come back to me: they never charged a cover or had a drink minimum. Cigarettes were free. Ice cubes were made out of Perrier. Drinks were never served during performances so as not to disturb the performers. White Castle sliders were delivered and served throughout the day.

During its 15-year run, the bar hosted among others Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, Bobby Short, Julie Wilson and Andrea Marcovicci (either they were working for a fraction of their usual fee or Bill was losing a tremendous amount of money running the Gold Star). He also launched the careers of a few local performers. Patricia Barber was one. Another was a beautiful singer named Eden something, whom I developed a little crush on.

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Enter the internet again. I’m quickly able to discover her name was Eden Atwood. At the time, I had never known anyone named Eden and I thought it a magical name. It must have entered my subconscious in some way. When Alice and I named our daughter Eden it never even occurred to me that it might have any connection to a singer I had watched a few times in another life years before. Another thing I discovered in my internet wanderings is that Eden Atwood is now an advocate for the civil rights of people born with intersex traits. She, herself, it turns out, has intersex traits, which I think in oldspeak was referred to as Hermaphoriditic. Who knew?

But I digress–which is after all what the internet encourages. It’s kind of one big series of digressions, after which you look up and hours have passed. Back to Bill Allen.

The bulk of his money came from starting a chain of supermarkets in the Chicago area called Treasure Island. By the time I met him, his partners in the business were suing him for embezzlement and he was countersuing. Their charges against him included the fact that he was funneling money from Treasure Island into the Gold Star Sardine Bar. Whatever else was true or untrue, no one argued the fact that Allen was the marketing genius behind the chain’s success.

Which brings me back to where this all started. Did Allen the marketing genius  coin “It’s the Real Thing?” or “Black is Beautiful?” I can find nothing on the internet to connect him to either phrase. The “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” hilltop ad was conceived by a Bill, but his last name wasn’t Allen, it was Backer. And as far as I can determine, Bill Allen never worked at McCann Erickson.

Interestingly, though, and this is a connection not made on the internet but one that comes to me as I am thinking about all this, my father and stepmother were good friends at one time with a woman named Penny Hawkey who did happen to work for McCann.

And among the ads that Penny wrote was the Mean Joe Greene Coke commercial, one of the most famous and best loved of all time. Like Peggy on Madmen, Penny Hawkey started as a secretary and worked her way up through the ranks to the top of the heap. One of her daughters, Molly, became an actress. Molly’s agent submitted her for an audition on a show she’d never even seen. That didn’t deter her; she went to the audition and  got the part. The show?  Madmen.

Just Google it, if you don’t believe me.

 

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