Happy Pie Day, Everyone

Thursday is Thanksgiving. And around our house, that means today – Wednesday – is Pie Day.

It started a little more than 20 years ago, when we were in Oregon. We started hosting what we called the “Theater Orphans Thanksgiving.” Virtually all our friends were people we knew from Albany Civic Theater, they were in many ways our family. And a lot of them, not all but a lot, were either single or on their own in way way or another, with no definite plans for the holiday.

So we invited everyone over. We hosted it for three or four years, then it worked its way around the group. We made a turkey (until we started making two) and everyone brought the thing without which it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving for them. Greg brought a ham to go with the turkey. Pat always brought “the pink stuff,” a cranberry and horseradish concoction. Sandy learned how to use the end of the potato peeler to dig out the eyes – he was amazed! Reed brought those candied yams – the sweet potatoes with marshmallows melted on them. I would be happy if I never saw those on my table again, but for Reed it just wouldn’t have been Thanksgiving without them. And that was the point.

It was always a great crowd and a great time. I think the biggest crowd was right around 30 people.

And Tori spent the day before making pies. Not a pie. Many, many pies. All kinds. Apple, cherry, pumpkin (of course,) pecan, chocolate, even for a couple of years, mince meat – which no one ever ate but her mother, but that was OK, because that was the thing that made it Thanksgiving for her.

It was always at least nine pies, and the biggest year, she made thirteen. Thirteen pies laid out in our kitchen to cool. That’s a lot of pie!

We don’t live in Oregon any more. I assume the theater orphans still gather somewhere, still share the holiday and their personal traditions “without which it wouldn’t be …”

And for us, now, it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving if Wednesday weren’t Pie Day. Tori isn’t making as many – Thank god! I’m supposed to be losing weight! – but she’s got more than a couple in mind. An apple, a couple of pumpkin, a pecan (or maybe two!)

We actually are expecting one of the old crowd for dinner tomorrow, Cam, the son of a theater friend and a theater friend himself, is coming by to share the holiday with us. And beside the turkey and the potatoes, there will be pie. Plenty of it.

A Night of Theater at the Movies

Last night (Tuesday) we went to the movie theater for the one-time showing of the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch. It was a stage version, with multiple cameras. And my god, it made you wish you had been in the theater!

As we were leaving, a middle school aged girl we were with asked, When was this set? Was it supposed to be today, or Shakespeare’s time or what? When was it. And I smiled and said, “It just was.” Every Hamlet is different, brings something different to the stage. I am not and never have been one who adheres to the idea of an “authentic” interpretation of Shakespeare, that if it’s not done exactly like it was 400 years ago it’s wrong. Theater is live – it happens NOW, right in front of you, and good theater is, at root, about you.

A great cast. Cumberbatch is amazing – and far and away the funniest Hamlet I’ve seen. Just little things, a turn of the head, a different inflection than you’d have expected. That whole England thing. Really very good Claudius, solid Gertrude, Laertes, Polonius, Horatio. (Very nerdy Horatio, very different than I’ve seen him before.) Rozencrantz and Guildenstern – Rosencrantz is hilarious – very good. And the grave digger is always a highlight, just one of those little scenes where you get to see an old pro do his thing, almost effortlessly.

Ophelia? In the first half, she’s OK but very “acty.” You can see her acting, see her thinking. A little better after she goes nuts. She was the weakest character, but she always is. You DID really feel for how she was being used, caught in the middle, but that’s more about the people around her than her. Ophelia is always a problematic character. I’ve never seen one I really bought. So she was definitely the weakest link, but she always is so I didn’t worry about that.

But as good as the cast is, as amazing as the acting is, it’s really the staging that just blows you away. And it did. It just blew us away. The “slow motion” was really effective, pulling Hamlet away from the picture for his soliloquies while the action seemed to be continuing, creating the sense of this all being an inner monologue. And some of the big stage effects were really surprising. Not sure how they could do that every night.

One interesting choice they made. They cut the whole first scene, the “Who goes there?” “For this relief much thanks” scene. Started it with Horatio finding Hamlet for the “Thrift, thrift” scene. And it totally works. Turns out here’s not one thing in the first scene that you need as an audience. So there’s almost 10 minutes trimmed right off the top.

National Theatre Live brings some remarkable stage productions to 2,000 movie screens around the world. This was my first, but it won’t be my last.

Their production of Hamlet was really, really good, even better than you’d expect from such an institution. If you get a chance to see it, it’s awfully good.

When You Work the Fair – You Work

the-jolly-rogers
Ol’ Chumbucket and the Jolly Rogers.

That’s how you sell them, one book at a time. One reader at a time. Over and over. You do whatever it takes.

We were at the Louisiana Renaissance Festival last Saturday. The festival has theme weekends, and last weekend was pirates. I had made arrangements with the guy who runs Pigasus Books, a roving Ren Faire book merchant, to sign books.

I was the guest of Master James of York, the owner of Pigasus and a right charming gent. He had set up a table outside his tent and had a chair for me. It looked disreputable, but he told me it was actually very comfortable. I wouldn’t know. I never sat down.

That’s rule No. 1, of course. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – The bookstore or venue will usually provide a table and chair. Never sit down in the chair. If you sit down, you disappear. It’s too easy for the crowd flowing past to ignore you, to refuse to make eye contact, to willfully not see you, even when you’re dressed in full pirate gear. (And at a Renaissance festival, pirate gear tends to blend right in.)

No, you’ve gotta make them see you. You’ve got to engage them, draw them in. Especially at an event that isn’t specifically about books. If you’re working at a bookstore or book fair, people expect to buy books. At a Renaissance festival, books are one of the last things on their minds. So you have to get their attention.

Hardly a soul walked by that didn’t, at the very least, get a hearty “Ahoy!” from me. I talked to almost anyone. If they gave an embarrassed smile and muttered, “Hello!” they got a rejoinder that it was pirate weekend and only “Ahoy!” would do. One woman gave me a “Howdy,” and I chased after her until she mended her ways.

And sometimes that was it. More times than most. But if they slowed, paused, or looked inclined to interact with the pirate, I’d start pitching “a pirate adventure, written for pirates, BY a pirate!”

You never knew what might work. If they wanted to talk, you talked with them. One family was the Jolly Rogers – their last name was Rogers, and by god they were jolly! I explained about International Talk Like a Pirate Day, how I came to write the novel, listened to them talk about the books they liked, and eventually made the sale. Nice people, I hope to see them again.

Then there was the husband and wife from Lafayette who listened, and whose ears perked up when I mentioned writing the first draft while living in the Caribbean. What was that like? Turns out they were feeling very bad about the election and were contemplating moving back overseas. They had been thinking Europe (they’d spent a couple of years in the Czech Republic) but wanted to know what the Caribbean was like. We talked about island life for about ten minutes, maybe more. Then, a little bit to my surprise, they bought a copy of “Chrissie.”

Sometimes you can tell in the first 30 seconds whether you’re going to make a sale, but you never give up. One family had a couple of smaller kids. We chatted, and I talked with the kids, but you could feel it wasn’t happening. Then the wife suddenly looked at Tori and asked, “Were you guys on TV?” I sighed inwardly. She was talking about our “Wife Swap” experience, in which we played the “pirate family” on the ABC “reality” show. (I put “reality” in quotes for a reason.) So we chatted about that for a minute or two, and they ended up buying a copy of “A Li’l Pirate’s ABSeas.”

You do what it takes.

And everyone who bought a book went away with the postcard with book info, my website and my email address, and I asked each one to please write to me and let me know what they thought of the book. I always do that, and I mean it. I really want to know.

By the end of the day, we had moved some paper. And Master James of York took the rest of the stock I”d brought in. So at the end of the day we had had a lot of fun, and made a little money.

Well, we made a little money unless you count the fact that while Tori and I were selling, our kids Max and Kate were out wandering the festival, with my credit card in their pocket. SO it was more of a wash, really.

But a fun wash.

Win a Signed Copy of ‘Chrissie’

csFINALfrontNews for my friends on Goodreads: Starting Thursday you have a chance to win a signed copy of “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” For the next three weeks Goodreads is hosting a giveaway of four copies of my young-adult adventure pirate adventure novel.

As you no doubt know, Goodreads is an online community of more than 20 millions book lovers designed “to help people find and share books they love… [and] to improve the process of reading and learning throughout the world.” It’s sort of like Facebook without cat videos, pictures of your dinner, and all that.

If you’re interested and haven’t signed up or just want to check it, you can go to Goodreads.com. And signing up is easy and free. If you’re any kind of a reader, you really want to be a member.

One of the things they have at Goodreads is giveaways. With three clicks, Goodreads members can sign up to win books offered by authors. The winners are randomly chosen by Goodreads, so I’ll have nothing to do with choosing.

From Nov. 18 to Dec. 8, you can enter to win one of four autographed copies of “Chrissie.” When it goes online I’ll post the link.

Here are just a few of the comments readers have given the book.

Just finished reading this book. It’s a great read for young and old! … Good job. John Baur! Looking forward to the sequel! – David Garrett

If you like a good book I would like to recommend Chrissy Warren Pirate Hunter … Great reading all the way through. – Sharon Denardo

This is a very compelling story, moving at a great pace. I hope there is a sequel in the works, because the story leaves you wanting more, in a good way. While I am technically not a young adult, I think they will enjoy this, too. – D. Van Middlesworth

Just finished Chrissie Warren! Wow what a journey! I laughed, I cried, and I can’t say I could enjoy anything more. This has to be among the top in my favorite pirate books. I’m so glad this amazing piece of literature found its was onto my bookshelf! – Janine Myers

It’s Hard to Be Optimistic

I am normally a cheery guy, optimistic. One might even describe me as “chipper.” But not right now. I have been feeling resigned, almost numb, since Tuesday night. And it’s not even the fact that we’ve elected a crass boor as president. It’s not just the racism, and the misogyny, the hate. I mean, it IS all that. But it’s much worse than that.

On election night in 1980 I was disappointed, but I told myself, “Maybe I’m wrong, maybe Reagan will be successful and things won’t be as bad as I thought.” But I was right, and they were. In 2000, I was angry, but I again said, “Maybe Bush isn’t as stupid as I think he is. Maybe what he’s been talking about will actually work and it’ll be all right.” But he was, it didn’t, and it wasn’t.

But this is different. I can’t pretend that there’s a chance that things will work out. We’re about to see a rollback of the 20th century.

Trump is going to undo everything Obama accomplished in the last eight years. He wants to smash Obama’s legacy. Affordable Care Act? Gone. Dodd-Frank consumer protection? You’re on your own when dealing with Wall Street. LGBT protection? Marriage equality? Woman’s right to choose? Forget it. Good luck. And you can expect a “religious freedom” law within the first month or so, which will allow discrimination.

But while Trump sets his eye on the legacy of the nation’s black president, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are going after the crippled one. FDR’s legacy, including Social Security, will be in the trash. Oh, sure. They’ll say they are saving Social Security. Don’t be fooled. What’s left will be a a shell. Also Medicare and Medicaid, which are more Lyndon Johnson’s legacy. They’ll replace it with block grants to states, so if you live in a progressive state you’re not necessarily screwed, although I wouldn’t count on it. But if you’re in Kansas, or Texas, or Alabama or here in Louisiana, you’re probably screwed.

And a few other president’s will be knocked over as well. The rest of the Voting Rights Act. Roe v. Wade. Even some Republicans will be in the path of their bulldozer. The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act from the Nixon years will be gone. Trump even mentioned getting rid of all those pesky food safety regulations. So there goes Teddy Roosevelt.

I recommend everyone give a look at Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” It’ll be instructive.

And for those who say we should obstruct Trump the way the Republicans have obstructed Obama for eight years – they are forgetting the key difference. The Republicans have the votes. They did for the last eight years and they do now. Sure, Schumer might be able to stall a few things with some parliamentary tricks, deflect a few things, but he can’t stop them.

We can protest. We can march, and flood them with emails and letters, we can object. Everything except actually stop them. For at least the next two years, and probably more like four at the least, they’ll get their way. They’ll roll back every bit of social progress accomplished in the last century. Welcome to 1899, folks.

And the economy? Well, the only plan besides the wall that Trump every really enunciated was his massive tax cut, with the vast majority of that largesse going to the very rich and corporations. According to Trump, that will prime the economy and create huge amounts of investment in the private sector, creating jobs which will in turn generate such a booming economy that overall tax revenues will go up and save Social Security etc. etc.

Two problems. First, when has that ever worked? Answer – never. In fact, the period of the greatest economic growth in our country’s history, the 1950s, was also the period with the highest tax rates. Because they knew they’d be taxed on their income, corporate owners tended to plow their earnings back into the company, increasing the value of their shares.

Second, the recipients of the Trump tax breaks are the same people who already have most of the money, and they’re the ones who sent jobs overseas in the first place. So tell me how that’s gonna help. Are they suddenly going to experience a burst of America First pride and shift all their investments back? I could be wrong but it doesn’t seem likely.

Oh, and even if they do, how long does that process take? They get the tax cuts next year, which won’t start showing up on their bottom line until the following year. Now they’ve got all this money and they’ll say, “Screw our overseas investments! Let’s expand or create production here! USA! USA! USA!” So they need to invest in new infrastructure, factories, production equipment. Figure that’s about another year before it starts having any effect. Meanwhile, the federal deficit is ballooning because of the cut in revenues, so their answer will be massive budget cuts.

Oh yeah, and during the campaign Trump expressed willingness to increase the minimum wage (although I never got any sense of him being committed to it, it was just something he had to say) but the GOP House and Senate have been the roadblock to that. So, there’s that.

And there’s a lot more likely, and I don’t see any way of stopping them until 2020. And even if we’re able to oust them in two or four years, they’ll leave behind a reactionary Supreme Court that will obstruct justice for the next couple of decades. So, good times!

I don’t like feeling this way. I love my country and I see bad times ahead. Maybe a way to fight back will emerge. My optimism WILL return, I know that. But right now, all I can say is take care of yourself – because the government we’re about to get sure as hell won’t.

The Cubs Won? Is That Even Legal? A Son of Chicago Contemplates the Impossible

I’m having a little trouble wrapping my head around the idea that I live in a world where the Chicago Cubs are champions.

I’m from Chicago, born a Cubs fan, the son of a Cubs fan who was himself the son of a Cubs fan. And until last night, the only one of us who had ever seen the Cubs take it all was my grandfather, and he would have been six or seven when they last did it, in 1908. Dad never saw it happen. Until last night I never did.

I came of age in the ’60s and the Cubs were the first team I rooted for, in any sport. The first time I really started following baseball was the cursed 1969 season. There was a chant in Chicago that year – “Beer is great. Whiskey’s fine. The Cubs will shine in ’69.” They were the Cubs of Ernie Banks (my favorite player of all time,) Billy Williams (I still have my Billie Williams model fielder’s mitt,) Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Randy Hundley, Ken Holtzman. By late August they had an 8 1/2 game lead over the New York Mets. At that time the Mets, who had been started in the early ’60s, were a joke, a horrible mess. 1969 was the first year they were even respectable.

And then, the unthinkable happened. The Cubs went on a losing streak, the Mets with their great pitching staff started a win streak, the Cubs went into Shea Stadium clinging to the lead and two days later left town in second place. New York never looked back. They went on to win the most improbable World Series ever, routing the mighty Baltimore Orioles in five memorable games. In the space of about three months they had gone from being a joke to the Miracle Mets, the Amazin’ Mets. And the Cubs were an afterthought, just a pathetic punchline in someone else’s story.

I never quite got over that.

My family moved out west and I became a Dodger fan, and eventually was able to enjoy a couple of World Series victories with the teams of Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Dusty Baker. And don’t forget Fernando Valenzuela! Fernandomania swept Los Angeles and took me right along with it. Dodger Stadium was more than a sports complex. It was a holy place, the way Chicago’s Wrigley Field had been. Coming down the tunnel to the stands and seeing that impossibly green field glowing under the lights, it was special.

But my interest in baseball was starting to fade. A player strike didn’t help, but more than that it was the sense that baseball didn’t care about its history, about its traditions. The designated hitter, steroids, interleague play. Free agency in which players that were part of “your” team could switch cities like so many hired guns. (Don’t get me wrong, I support the idea of free agency, I’m all for players’ rights. But it stings when a beloved star flees your town for greener pastures.) When some young player was told he was approaching a record held by some legendary figure from the past, he’d as often as not say, “Who’s that?” I interviewed Dodger pitcher Don Sutton once, which should have been a highlight, and the way he treated the questions I asked made it clear baseball was a silly passion to me, while to him it was a job, nothing more or less.

And if the owners and the players didn’t care about “the game,” why should I? Why should I care and pay for the privilege of caring?

Then, in 1998, the O’Malley family sold the Dodgers. And they didn’t just sell them, they put them in the hands of Rupert Murdoch and the Fox Entertainment Group, where the corporation viewed it not as a sacred trust but as an asset they could use to attract viewers, especially in Asian markets and Mexico.

That was it. I literally have not watched a baseball game from that day until this month. I couldn’t tell you who won last year’s Series or even who played in it, don’t know the names of any players. Anything. I was done.

Until I started hearing this spring that the Cubs were pretty good, in fact the favorites to win it all this year. “Yeah, right,” I thought. “Been there before. Won’t get fooled again.” And if they somehow did make it to the Series, god wouldn’t let them win. It would be the ultimate divine “fuck you” to the city of Chicago. In fact, if they won it might usher in the Apocalypse.

So I really don’t know how the season played out. Was it an exciting pennant race, or an inexorable march to the pennant by a team that wouldn’t be denied? I have no idea. All I know is I woke up one day and heard on the news that the Cubs had beaten the Dodgers (a little irony there for me) and would be in the Series against the Indians, another cursed franchise. Not as cursed as the Cubs. The Indians last won the Series in 1949. The Cubs in 1908. Cleveland fans are neophytes, rank amateurs in the art of suffering for your team. Plus the Cavs had just won the NBA title, so it just didn’t seem fair.

But I actually watched a good portion of the series. Not all of it, but I did find myself falling back into the rhythms of the game. I actually enjoyed it. It didn’t seem possible that the Cubs would win, down three games to one. But they scrapped their way back into it and forced a seventh game.

Still, I wasn’t fooled, even when they were up 5-1. When the Indians tied it in the eighth, I thought, “Ah! Here we go again. I know how this story ends.” Then it went to extra innings and there was a rain delay and I laughed. It looked as if the baseball gods weren’t going to let either team win.

But the Cubs used the delay to pull themselves together. And with me watching, and feeling my dad’s presence, I watched as they pushed a couple of runs across the plate, then withstood a final Cleveland rally and won.

So it seems as if I now live in a world where the Cubs are champions. And that means almost anything is possible.

Music Review: Mason’s ‘Pirate Party’ Rocks the Corsair Classics

pirate-partyFirst, a disclaimer. I met Tom Mason five years ago, have seen him on stage several times, and consider him a friend. In 2012 he told me an idea he had for a song. I gave him a couple of ideas for lines, a couple of which he adapted and used in the song “Talk Like a Pirate,” for which he graciously gave me a co-writing credit. The following is written not because Tom is a friend, but because I want all my friends in the pirate community to know about this terrific album.

How many versions do think have been recorded of “Drunken Sailor?” Of “Blow the Man Down,” “Haul Away Joe” or “Bully in the Alley?”

It’s a rare pirate band that doesn’t have at least one of them – or all of them – on their playlists and CDs. And there are a lot of good pirate bands out there, a lot of recordings.

So if you’re a pirate musician, how do you do something different with it? How do you make your version distinctive?

If you’re Tom Mason, it’s not a problem. Tom Mason and the Blue Buccaneers have a new CD out, and it’s a must-add to anyone’s collection of pirate music. The album is aptly titled “Pirate Party.” It fits. This is the disc you’ll put on when you gather the brethren for a bacchanal. It’s a lot of fun.

The album is made up of eight pirate classics, two of Mason’s original songs from his earlier albums, and three of his originals which haven’t appeared on an album before. (I blush to mention that I was involved in the creation of one them.)

But though the songs are familiar, Mason and the band infuse them with a real, robust joy. It starts with the musicianship. Tom is a great blues and American Folk guitarist and singer/songwriter who was making his living in the music world long before he decided to explore pirate music scene eight years ago. The crew are pros from the Nashville music scene. Together they give the album a rich, full sound.

Their version of “Blow the Man Down” has the swing and swagger of a New Orleans second-line parade and a funky syncopation on the chorus. The old favorite “Drunken Sailor” gets a kick-ass new life, pulsing with a Bo Diddley beat driven by percussionist Pete Pulkrabek. The classic shanty “Haul Away Joe” rocks, and the album opens with a bang with a rousing “Bully in the Alley.”

The other classic numbers are “All for me Grog” and “Wild Mountain Thyme,” and the performance of the latter is the most traditional on the disc, a really beautiful Scottish ballad that’ll have buccaneers reaching for their bandanas to wipe their eyes. (And if you’re wondering why there’s a song about mountain wildflowers on a pirate album, this is exactly the kind of song sailors would sing while gathered on the ship’s bow in the evening, singing along and thinking about home – and wiping their eyes.) “Wild Mountain Thyme” is a gem.

There are two instrumentals, “Irish Washerwoman/Swallowtail Jig” and “Morrison’s Jig/Lilting Banshee,” both of which give Leandria Lott’s violin a real workout.

The new originals are, “Pirate Party,” a good song for an election night party, a number that would not be out of place in a 1930’s Harlem nightclub (if you can imagine Cab Calloway wearing an eye patch); “Talk Like a Pirate” (the song that celebrates International Talk Like a Pirate Day, which Tom graciously gave me co-writing credit on); and the very funny “Pirate Polka.” He rounds out the CD with two numbers from his first album: “The Pirate Song” and – one of my favorites of his numbers – “Throw Me in the Drink,” a celebration of alcohol with an infectiously sing-along chorus and a “pound yer tankard on the table” rhythm.

All in all, “Pirate Party” is a rollicking party of an album suitable for any gathering of filibusters. Invite the crew over and turn the volume up. You’ll have a grand time.

You can order your copy of “Pirate Party” at http://www.tommason.net/.