Thursday, November 1, 2018

To Hell With Your Pumpkin Spice Lattes

Today, November 1st, is my favorite part of Halloween.

It's over.

I don't like Halloween.

Easy. I know there are many of you that absolutely LIVE for Halloween. Good for you. I'm not a goalie. I'm not going to stand in the way of you enjoying it. I just don't . I'm not sure when that happened, because what kid doesn't like Halloween? Somewhere along the way, I soured on it.

Maybe it's that I don't like pranks. Never have. I don't think that's it. I've never been a fan of the horror genre. What about the candy, you ask. Growing up with a peanut allergy in the pre-safe room 70s and 80s meant that easily half my candy was inedible to me. It sucked.

Really, it's none of those things. The truth is that they don't exactly make costumes for fat kids. I mean you can only dress as a ghost or newspaper stuffed scarecrow so many times. Even today, I find costumes, masks and wigs hot and confining. I was fortunate that my mother was pretty handy with the sewing machine. This meant that every so often I could be creative and come up with a fat kid costume, though I'll never top the year I dressed as TJ Big Boy and people literally thought I was the official mascot.

I don't completely hate Halloween. I love seeing kids in costume, especially really clever ones that they obviously put time in or are really passionate about. Being a parent also changes your perspective a bit. Costumes are more inclusive and accessible. And my kids love costumes. My son runs around in his fireman or police or army uniform all the time. He had a ninja costume for a while too.

My kids know my disdain for Halloween. It's not a secret. The night before Halloween, my daughter expressed her excitement over and over. I listened, smiling dutifully but clearly artificially. She's too smart to fool. She looked over to me and said, "Daddy, I know you hate Halloween, but just for tomorrow, could you love it?"

Ugh. Talk about crushing devastation. My kid knows me. She knows how to play me.

So, yesterday, I loved Halloween. For Natalie.

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Return of the NAFL, Part 1: Football For A Buck

When I was in junior high, I created and ran my own football league. Seriously. Games, box scores, stats, poorly drawn logos, team colors and uniforms, everything. This was the pre-Internet days where I chose my teams by using an atlas I got for Christmas (I'm going to write about my map fetish someday, seriously, what kid asks for an atlas for Christmas?) My library register in the mid to late 80s would be little more than an endless list of Dungeons and Dragons guides, The Lord of the Rings books, a professional football register (think of it as a print version of Pro Football Reference) and The Sporting News Guide and Registers for the NFL and USFL. The USFL was the most frequently checked out. I was obsessed with it. I was new to football and became obsessed with it.

My dad isn't a sports guy. I'm convinced part of my teenage rebellion was my obsession with sports. My connections to sports came geographically not passed down from generation to generation. I was born in Queens, which meant I was a Mets fan. My mom says she's a Mets fan, so I guess maybe that's the generational fandom. Being raised on Long Island in the early 80s meant that I was all about the Islanders. Football wasn't on my radar. (And forget basketball!) When I moved to Syracuse, football became my thing. And why wouldn't it? I was a 6'1" and 220 pound 6th grader. Unfortunately most of that 220 pounds came in the shape of a bag of pizza dough shaped like a person. I was (still am mostly) slow, clumsy and weak. And lazy. But I loved box scores.

I was a baseball guy and box scores told a story. I've opined in other places, maybe even this blog. One thing I sorely miss about daily newpapers is the box scores, whether the full page of baseball scores during the summer, the tiny, incomplete college football boxes on Sunday mornings, the rigidly structured NFL scores or complex NHL boxes with their plus/minus and penalty minutes, I would absorb them all. Don't ask me the quadratic formula, but dammit I could break down a box score. It was this obsession that led to me creating my own football league. But it was also my obsession with alternative football leagues. It was such an obsession that I created my own league based on box scores.

 I would spend hours working on my fictional league, named the North American Football League, crafting it into something, though I couldn't say what. These were hours I should've been writing or doing school work. Instead I was creating accounts of fictional games with fictional players. My friends knew about it. Mocked me for it. But they did that with most of my creative endeavors. (Lesson of my blog lately: teenagers are shitheads.) I was recently reminded of all of this reading Jeff Pearlman's outstanding Football for a Buck.

From the moment I first heard about the book, I was excited. I was a fan of the USFL from the moment I heard about it. A spring football league meant as an alternative to the stodgy NFL. I only vaguely knew about football then, but this alternative league was exciting to me. I love alternative football to the NFL and will always watch when I can. I loved the ESPN 30 for 30 about the USFL and couldn't wait to read this book. And it doesn't disappoint. 

Born of a high school English project (thanks Jeff for inspiring me as a teacher with this since now my students are going to do a similar project as Mr, Height, maybe in 20 years they'll be an anecdote about Mr. Zeleznik in someone's book) and a genuine obsession with the USFL, Pearlman's passion was pretty parallel to my own. The uniforms, the nicknames, the stories, the personalities...these were the things pro sports should be about. Pearlman's book perfectly and fairly accounts for the rise and fall of the spring football league from it's earliest gestation to birth, stumbling start, early successes and, ultimately, its hastened failure at the hands of a egomaniacal huckster desperate to get his own NFL team. Honestly, if you want to know what the anthem controversy is all about, this is it. 

Pearlman's book is terrifically written, light, entertaining and incredibly informative. It feels like you're just shooting the shit and sharing stories about this crazy league. A lazy writer would've really ratcheted up the parallels between what happened in the USFL to what is happening in our country at present, but Pearlman deftly integrates it. It's an important part of the story and you can see the skill in the presentation of facts in the book about a good idea that went bad mostly because of a snake oil salesman. 

It's the stories about the USFL, the owners, players and fans, that really makes the book so fun. It was insane. The 80s were insane and a "rebel" football league looking to buck tradition was even more insane. Never mind that this book is a harbinger of what we are experiencing now, it's a fun, amazing read. Jeff Pearlman's other books have moved up my queue and maybe they'll inspire me to write something thought I don't exactly know what it will be. I know that I'm inspired to do something with my old league. The North American Football league lives again and I'll talk about that in my next blog post.

Football for a Buck is the clubhouse leader for best book of the year for me. I loved it that much.

In the meantime, go buy Football for a Buck, check out Jeff''s terrific podcast Two Writers Slinging Yang and keep your eyes on this space for more on whatever the North American Football League is going to be. I don't know if I can create a character as vivid and incredible as Paper Fields for my league. But let's see what happens.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Where's My Barry Manilow Wardrobe?

I don't write about school often. I don't want to gripe, complain or harangue about my job. I've worked enough shitty jobs to know that as shitty a job that teaching can be sometimes, I've got a pretty good gig. This week I had something happen in Study Hall of all places that got me thinking about who we are in the stories of the people around us.

A little backstory. I have a spinal condition called Scheurmann's kyphosis. In short, I'm hunchbacked. It's not aesthetically pleasing to look at, especially if I'm tired and/or wearing something that is a little more form fitting than I normally would. Such was the case in junior high when the head cheerleader, who sat across from me in art class, loudly asked about the hump in my sweater. That afternoon I asked my mother to take me to the doctor because of it and was given a name while showing me the sheer power of being the head cheerleader. In the pre-Internet days of the late-80s, I was left with a cheery description from the doctor: a rounding of the spine, a wedging of the vertebrae and a larger lung capacity (not that it helped when I had to run the mile), so take that head cheerleader. (If you happen to read this since we are friends on Facebook, there is honestly no hard feelings for this despite the tone that it may have.) Over the years, the back has caused many levels of pain, from slight discomfort to Crooks from OF MICE AND MEN level body repositioning including the fracturing of several vertebrae while taking a jump I had no business jumping while skiing to impress a girl when I was seventeen.

I'm self deprecating about it for the most part, dressing as the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" one year by wearing a Notre Dame sweatshirt. The degree of my "hump" depends on my weight, if I'm lifting, what I'm wearing and how tired I am. It oscillates from full on Quasimodo to slightly slumped.

For the last few weeks I've been  finishing a tough rewrite (it's done and delivered), so I've been working after the kids go to bed, staying up past midnight while still waking up at 6-6:30. So, by the time I get to study hall 9th period (out of 10), I'm gassed.

I must have been sitting more slumped than usual (the sweater I wore didn't help) and one of the precocious ninth graders noticed my severely slumped posture, loudly pointing it out to his boys, who then spent the rest of study hall mocking me with banal attempts at cruelty without actually saying it to my face. (They're ALWAYS cowards.) One (at least) took a picture, posting it or sending it out to their friends. That bothered me. I don't want to be a meme or go viral. It was the reason I didn't engage when I had every right to. If I were to engage them (with no physical proof), then I'm the crazy white teacher that goes viral. As I so often do, I absorbed the hits. Luckily, the next period two of my seniors both told me they liked the way the sweater looked on me. So, obviously we are dealing with some real a-holes.

This rolled around in my head for the rest of the afternoon and for a while after. Why were the opinions of some highly immature 9th graders affecting me like this? As I often do, I tried to frame it beyond simple cruelty and I couldn't. It also made me think of Richard Vernon.

Yes, THAT Richard Vernon. The quintessential dickhead 80s principal ( Ed Rooney is an acceptable equivalent) played by quintessential dickhead 80s actor Paul Gleeson. To be fair, I have no idea if he was actually a dickhead, but he made a career out of playing them. (There's a later post about my dream 80s movie called The Dickheads.) Richard Vernon was one of our generations great villains. Darth Vader, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Steff, Doug Neidermeyer, Johnny Lawrence (though there's a perfectly valid argument to be made that Daniel LaRusso is actually the villain in THE KARATE KID) then Vernon. When Gleeson played the irascible Vernon, he was forty-five. I am presently the same age. It dawned on me in that moment, to these kids, I'm the Richard Vernon to their John Bender in the story of their lives. Suddenly, it put everything into perspective.

To this day, Vernon is still one of the great villains to many. but in the proper context, especially considering my age compared to his, he's a vastly more interesting and sympathetic character than he was when I was younger. Could you imagine having to come into school on a Saturday morning to oversee detention? I'd be salty too. There's also a great but brief scene in THE BREAKFAST CLUB that sheds new light on Vernon and his Barry Manilow wardrobe. He's alone in the hall and there's a close up on his face. Instead of the smarmy, cruel Vernon we get a weary, lonely middle aged man. We learn nothing else about his character beyond what we need to know about him as the protagonist to our intrepid band of heroes. At this stage of my life, I find him a far more sympathetic character that I have more in common with and maybe I always did. And maybe that's the way these kids saw me and reacted in the limited way they could. (Barry Manilow wardrobe would be far above their pay grade.)

While I don't think I'm Vernon-level of cruel despite the reactions of a few fallow freshman, I see where I might fit in their stories, though I like to think that I'm more of a benignly, blundering Mr. Belding instead.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Holiday Ro-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oad

My public library as a table in the front as soon as you walk in called the "Luck Day Display." On the table are a bunch of "hot" books that have a limited check-out time (7 days with one 7 day renewal). A few weeks back I went to pick up some holds that I had and my eye caught a book on the table. Usually I ignore the table because of the prevalence of books about the present situation we find ourselves in thanks to a duped working class, but this time, I was  stopped cold in my tracks. The book had the eye grabbing title DON'T MAKE ME PULL OVER by Richard Ratay. How could I not stop with a title like that? I literally said. "Ooooh" when I saw it. (Honestly.) I grabbed it, checked it out with the other books I'd reserved and went on my way. It is easily one of the best reads of 2018 for me. (2018 has been an interesting reading year for me and the number of non-fiction books that will make my best of list is going to be interesting.)

The book chronicles the history of that grand American tradition: the road trip. It is a terrific combination of an informational, historical account of our culture's obsession with cars and the importance of infrastructure to the growth of our nation and a narrative reflection of the experience of the road trip. Filled with loads of amazing contemporary American history, I found myself googling things every three to four pages for more information on a person, place or thing mentioned in the book. Not for a lack of information but because some of the things mentioned could easily fill books of their own and Ratay doesn't overwhelm you with too much info, instead parsing it out in perfect portions for you to enjoy. From the very history of our highway system to the ancestors to places like The Great Wolf Lodge, the Holidome, the book is an informative but light read.

Where the book really shines though, is the narrative sections, where Ratay takes us along on a road trip with his family. I smiled until my face hurt. We didn't take a lot of long road trips like the ones Ratay describes in his book, but what he describes is still comically relatable. I spent weeks at a time with my grandparents in the summer and they took me all over the Northeast. I have fond memories of the beaches of Maine, hunting for Champy on Lake Champlain and visiting old relatives I didn't know in Wilkes-Barre. Reading this book made me wish that I'd embraced my writing earlier and kept journals or notebooks in my youth.

One of the things in the book that really struck a chord was Ratay's obsession with "making time." My father was obsessed with "making time" while driving too, whether it was from Syracuse to Long Island or our house to Wegmans. I discovered this weekend that he is still obsessed with making time as we drove from Spring Hill, Florida to Syracuse this past weekend. I'm more of a "journey not destination" guy, part of my continued rebellion I suppose, and where I hoped for a leisurely drive, he clearly set the tone. And I didn't like it.

We left in the early evening and chugged along all night. No stops for food. Minimum bathroom or stretch breaks. No time for anything slightly equating sightseeing (to be fair, it was night) or souvenir shopping. Factor in the fatigue I was feeling from getting up early and taking the flight down, it was a difficult trip. It was a trip I always wanted to take, but my father's obsession with "making time," finding the cheapest possible gas and obsessively tracking our gas and mileage made it less fun than I hoped. I don't know if I'd ever do it again. Not that I could, since both my kids tend to get violently ill in the car.

I think road trip movies have also colored our view of the road trip. Those experiences are as ingrained in our collective memories as actual road trips we took. NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION kind of romanticized the road trip for my generation. (There's an essay in me about how when we first watched the Vacation movies, we were Rusty and now we're Clark.) (There's also a second essay in me about my theory that the quality of a Vacation movie is in direct correlation to the quality of the Audrey actress.) Movies like SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and CANNONBALL RUN added to the mystique of the road trip too. We all pretended we were Bandit or JJ McClure racing to outrun Sheriff Buford T. Justice or trick the nebbish AF Foyt, even if it was our parents driving.

For now, I'll stick with the short road trips we take now. Maybe, eventually, my kids won't get sick when we are in the car for long periods of time. They are getting better, but it looms every time we get in the car for a trip longer than a few hours. The book certainly got me thinking about it again, despite the trip last weekend. It also gave me two solid book ideas that I wrote in my notebook. If you've taken a road trip as a kid, as a parent, as a couple or are thinking of taking one, this book is a lot of fun.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Situation Normal: Stressed & Behind

I'm stressed.

I'm behind.

As usual.

This is a common lament. That first sentence is a little melodramatic. I'm definitely feeling some pressure and suffering the ill-effects. We're not talking huge, the world is going to Hell, an immature, likely alcoholic dudebro douchbag having his life "ruined" by getting a lifetime appointment job while a credible (though "uncorroborated") victim has to live with death threats and public shame that will likely cause more victims not to come forward kind of stress, but stress nonetheless.

(I have thoughts on the mistakes we've made in the past that I may write and possibly, though not likely, share publicly. I've made plenty that I'm ashamed of but I'm not trying to take a lifetime appointment that will affect millions of lives.)

This year, I've made some major changes in the way I so things in the classroom. I'm a writer, right? So this year, I made my class into a writing class. Focusing on writing, drafting, feedback, conferencing and modelling in a likely futile attempt to prepare my seniors for the rigors of college writing. Or whatever is next for them. I've vowed to keep up on work, giving timely feedback for students. And I've fallen woefully behind on that vow.

There's an assortment of reasons why. Sheer numbers is one.It's a lot to work through and give meaningful feedback to every student. Granted, my numbers aren't horrible as some of my colleagues, so I'm probably whining a bit. I'm also struggling with a more thorough approach this year to the feedback I give. I'm spending more time going line by line than I have in years past. That has me questioning myself a lot because I'm grappling with the question of does the work stop being their voice and become mine with the feedback I'm giving? It's an issue I've always struggled with when it comes to feedback and modeling. It's a razor's edge that I'm walking and it's adding to the stress.

Compounding that is that my "professional" writing life has hit an uptick in the last two weeks. I've been getting attention from two projects and it's been a pleasant surprise. One that I sort of cast aside into a "need to rewrite/polish" pile that I was going to tackle this fall. First, I decided to work on something new, blending my "epic fantasy" mind with the YA "voice" that I've been working on with my contemporary stuff, think Megan Whalen Turner's THE THIEF meets "Guardians of the Galaxy", to sort of clean the palate before tackling three rewrites before thinking about satisfying the "old school, doorstopping epic fantasy" itch I've had lately. I worked through the first "act" of the first rewrite, making it more concise by cutting and moving about 12k of garbage. As I was doing that, I used that part for some Hail Mary queries of the project when an agent was asking for YA epic fantasy. Well, to my surprise, a few of them were the Gerald Phelan to my Doug Flutie. I knew the project still needed polish, so I went to it, giving myself four to five days to bang out the revision. That has turned into eleven days as I realized that the third act is kind of a mess. God damned previous representation....never mind, that's a private rant for another time. Thankfully, one of the requests was for a partial that I'd already complete the number of requested pages.

I've been slugging away for eleven days, staying up later and later, neglecting some school stuff, fitting in writing everywhere and any way I can. (Reading a really good book that I'm going to blog about when I finish has taken away writing time, too.) Yesterday I got to a particular snared mess that needed some high explosives to fix. Naturally, I worked myself into a migraine over it. (I'm assuming that a rash of migraines is related to this.) So, I'm super behind today.

In addition to that project, another has gotten interest from agents, including a R&R from one a few months back. Regretfully, her agency dissolved over terrible circumstances. I put that further down the queue and actually kind of "put it in a drawer." Well, happily, she's back in business, so I have to put it in the on-deck circle. Then yesterday I received a request for it from another agent (when it rains it pours, in a good way) that I kind of Hail Mary-ed on this one (the David Tyree to my Eli Manning). I sent it out without the rewrite. I didn't want to leave another agent twisting in the wind. Hopefully, he'll find it as strong as she did.

In the end, being busy is good. I have to go out of town for the weekend, so it feels like there's a ticking clock. It always feels like thaat when I hit one of my hot streaks like this. Kind of like "Non-Stop" in HAMILTON: "Write day and night like you're running out of time."

I just have to manage the stress, I guess. Writing this made me feel better even if I'm a little further behind.

As usual.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Paperback Reader

As part of our continuing efforts to put our house back in order after the fire that gutted it, I put together my side of the new study that was our former dining room. I discovered the top shelf was the perfect fit for my collection of Game of Thrones beers from Ommegang Brewery and that the bottom two shelves were just right for paperbacks and hardcovers, respectively. I'm very happy with the way it came out.

In addition to the beer bottles, two Coke bottles (I'd prefer Pepsi) emblazoned with my childrens' names occupy the second shelf along with my paperbacks. Yes, my two favorite Jedi Masters: Obi-Wan and Luke overlook my workspace, acting as sentinels for my collection.While my book collection pales to others (granted, I lost a ton of books in the fire), I'm happy with it. I also noticed my propensity to mass market paperbacks. There's something about them that still make me smile when I look at them.

I love mass market paperbacks. Long the realm of beach reads, media tie-ins, romances with covers featuring buxom, bodice ripped women hanging from shirtless, well-proportioned men, binding stretching epics and countless westerns and "men's action" novels, the mass-market paperback was where I cut my teeth as a reader. Until recently, hardcovers were too expensive and too bulky. A mass market paperback was affordable and mobile. One could be easily shoved in a backpack, pocket or Wegmans apron. I still love them today, even though I own a Kindle and prefer hardcovers. There's still an appeal though to the mass market paperback. The smell. The feel. The off-white/gray, newsprint like pages. The flexibility of the cover and the spine. The tiny maps and pages of character lists or glossaries. It still thrills me a little bit. And the covers. They had weight.

The almost always garish covers meant to grab the attention of the budget minded consumer, giving you just enough of a glimpse of what to expect between those flimsy, cardstock covers for a mere $3.99. Between those covers I felt the angst of the tortured Tanis Half-Elven as he led the companions to defeat Takhsis, followed a hobbit out of his hole where he found a magic ring and more than once found myself drawn to the salacious pairing of a wealthy man's lonely wife and the mysterious, handsome stranger there to buy horses from her husband. These were my classics (except for To Kill A Mockingbird and Gatsby), my literary canon. And I don't regret the education in the slightest.

From the countless Forgotten Realms tie-in novels to the pulpy crap my father picked up at garage sales (Gor. Don't get me started on Gor), these books were formative parts of my development as both a reader and a writer. Dragonlance and A Game of Thrones were both mass market paperbacks and their influence on me is marked in every word I write and every page I read. I dreamed, still dream, of seeing the unwieldy ZELEZNIK taking up the spine of one of these books.

Mass market paperbacks are often the realm of the midlist or the little known debut author. There are gems to be found. I implore you to go find them. Go out and buy a mass market paperback. Even if you're a hardcover or Kindle reader. Sure, they aren't $3.99 anymore, but they're still easier to carry than a hardcover, you don't need to charge them or shield them from the sun.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Genetic Predisposition

Sunday was a typically hot, nasty, muggy August day in Syracuse, which means I shuffled the kids off to my inlaws, threw them in the pool to burn off some energy and NOT stare at a screen while sucking in air conditioned air. I ensconced myself, somewhat comfortably, in my usual place beneath the gazebo reading and staying hydrated. I managed to even finish the book I was reading, the novelization of THE LAST JEDI (it's amazing, but I'll talk about that later) as I alternated between the gazebo and some much needed vitamin D therapy. As I sat there, I kept on eye on the kids, listening to them play and it got me thinking about writing. (What doesn't at this point?)

My daughter brought an entire retinue of Barbie dolls with her. My son brought several action figures as well (there's a blog post in me about the difference between dolls and action figures-you know but I still might write about it) to go along with the dolls and playsets at my inlaws. For a good half hour, the kids have played a pretty epic sounding melodrama involving mermaids, supermodels, naked princes and Imperial Stormtroopers. I listened as carefully as I could, making sure they didn't notice I was paying attention and scribbled some notes. They had, in a very short time, created a pretty coherent, complex and interesting story. It had a decent plot (we're talking 5 to 10 year olds), solid world building and good characterization. It followed narrative rules and had a very clear structure, even though it was open ended since they were playing. It made me wonder, "How did they know how to do all of this?"

Campbell tells us that story telling is a deeply human, psychological thing that is ingrained in our very DNA. I don't entirely disagree with this, but it can't be that simple. Or can it?

I've told this story before. Six years ago, our local public broadcasting channel, WCNY, broadcast the most recent performance of WAGNER'S RING CYCLE from the Met. I stayed up watching it. During the performance, my then four year old daughter came downstairs and watched it with me. She proceeded to come up with her own version of the story based on what she observed and the little in interpretation I could offer via the Internet. Her version was pretty entertaining and spot on, with some interesting variation. It made me think that story telling is ingrained in our psyche because, as a four year old, she didn't have a lot consumed information at that point and it had to come from somewhere. But it can't be that simple.

We consume a lot of information in our lifetime: books, television programs, movies, comic books, cartoons, our parents' stories, the Internet and video games. We process that information and it shapes the way we think. I wouldn't be the writer I am if not for things like STAR WARS, LORD OF THE RINGS, DUNGEONS or A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. These are things that inspired me, moved me to make things like it. I have a list of my "99 Inspirations" that I keep (another series of blog posts) and I know for a fact that my stories come from those things. The first step in learning writing is emulating what you see. I wouldn't know about writing if I didn't try mimicking LOTR as a sixth graders or GOR as a middle schooler (don't judge me, my dad got them at a garage sale) or A GAME OF THRONES as a twentysomething. But I also know that I always told stories. I came up with the stories when we played in the neighborhood (I'm going to write about that because I realized a few months back, my neighbors and I were literally the kids from STRANGER THINGS). I was always the scientist. Weird huh?

I guess it comes from both, but some of us are compelled to put words onto paper, into magic boxes or sit around at lunch telling about the time our wives caught us doing something we shouldn't have been doing. 

For now, I'm planning my mermaid/supermodel/Imperial storm trooper fantasy only question is, do I give my kids a co-author credit?