Fun with a Phone Scammer

Sometimes you make your fun where you find it.

Max has been receiving calls from the “U.S. Government Grants Department,” offering him a $9,000 grant. Now, we’re certainly interested in any help in paying for his college education, but this was pretty obviously not legit.

The next time the guy called, I motioned for Max to give me the phone.

“Hello?” I said.

He identified himself as Randy Miller. He had a flat accent, maybe Eastern European, hard to place. He said he was from the U.S. Government Grants Department, and was offering the Maxwell Powers at this phone number a $9,000 “loyalty grant” for being a good citizen. Only 1,700 people in the country were to receive such a grant. Max was going to have to call the Treasury Department at a number he gave me (which turns out to be a VOIP phone, voice over internet protocol. Pretty sure Treasury uses regular landlines.)

I observed that it was a sorry state of affairs if only 1,700 people were deemed to be good citizens. He ignored that. I then asked to whom my son would have to pledge loyalty to receive this money. He seemed puzzled. I decided to play a role.

“We don’t pledge loyalty to just anybody in this household,” I said. “We’re very religious and only pledge loyalty to our lord and savior Yahweh.”

He went back to page one of his script.

I asked again what department he was from.

“The Government Grants Department.”

“What government?” I asked. “This isn’t some foreign country trying to subvert my son, is it?”

He went back to page one of his script.

“Well $9,000 is a lot of money,” I said. “I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want $9,000. I know nine or 10 people and none of them would turn down $9,000.”

That one was kind of out there, and I wasn’t surprised he didn’t bite at it, although I was a little disappointed. Back to page one of the script.

This went on a little longer, but frankly I was getting bored. He was not, I have to say, a foeman worthy of my steel. So I finally told him that Max wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college.

“That’s a lot of work, four years. He’s thinking he might do better getting a job like you have, trying to rip people off with a phone scam. You don’t have a college degree do you, and you’re doing okay at this con game, right?”

He started to go back to page one, then he sounded offended and challenged me. “I haven’t asked you for any money, have I?”

“Not yet, but I’m online reading a report about your scam. You’re following the script, and I know that before this is over you’ll tell him to buy an iTunes gift card to pay the processing fee. I can read it right here. I may sound stupid, but I’m not as stupid as you.”

And I hung up.

It was 15 minutes. I would have liked to play him longer, but frankly he was boring me. At least that was 15 minutes he wasn’t scamming somebody else, so I guess that’s something.

By the way, anyone who wants to send Max a few bucks for his college tuition is welcome to chip in. But he’s not paying a processing fee via iTunes cards, and he’s not pledging loyalty to anyone.

 

Blues on a Sunday Afternoon

Max at Preservation Hall 061117About this time five years ago we were planning our move from St. Croix back to the mainland, and we had picked New Orleans as our landing spot.

It wasn’t the “safe” choice – we could have headed back to the Northwest where we have friends, know the lay of the land, could have blended right back in. But we wanted the adventure to continue. So we picked a city we’d visited once and found interesting and started getting ready.

We also wanted to give Max a chance to explore. He was 14 years old and really getting into music. What better place to scratch that itch than New Orleans?

And Sunday that all paid off! On Sunday, Max got a chance to perform in the legendary space of Preservation Hall, one of the cradles of traditional jazz and the blues. Pretty much anyone who is anyone in the New Orleans jazz world has played in that very modest space. And now Max has too.

Max has been taking lessons at the Guitar Center almost since we got here. Back on St. Croix he took lessons from a teacher at Good Hope School. This fall he’ll continue his study as a music major at the University of New Orleans.

Preservation Hall is not a grand concert space on the order of Carnegie Hall or anything like that. It’s actually one of the shabbier buildings in the French Quarter, and that’s a place that has some shabby buildings. The hall’s exterior is a muddy brownish color with streaks of other hues – it’s almost impossible to describe the color except for “old and weather beaten.” Inside, the paint is peeling, the plaster is cracked and falling. It’s maybe 25 feet square, with a couple of rows of benches in front of the performance space. I leaned against the wall in the back – but only after checking to make sure it wouldn’t collapse under my weight.

But it’s not about the state of the walls. It’s what has happened inside those walls, in the air, the enclosed space, that matters a great deal. It was started in the 1950s as a place for the city’s traditional jazz musicians to gather and jam. It became the place to hear traditional New Orleans jazz, and grew into a band that traveled the world, turning people on to the joy of their music.

That joyful music was starting to fall by the wayside in the ’50s, along with the musicians who had lived it all their lives. Preservation Hall became the place where it was collected and treasured and performed and revived. And now Max has a part of it.

The Guitar Center holds a regular performance time – I guess you could call it a recital – and the woman who organizes it happens to be married to the guy who does tech for Preservation Hall, and one thing led to another and there we all were Sunday at 11 a.m. Instead of cramming into the performance space at the center, we were cramming into one of the hallowed venues in the city.

Instead of the Guitar Center’s electronic keyboards, the piano students played the hall’s old upright piano – battle scarred but still with a bright sound. Several of the drummers, playing on the Preservation Hall kit, did very well. And there was a woman, I’m guessing in her late 30s/early 40s, who a year ago decided she wanted to play sax. She got up there and did fine. Got a ways to go, but I marveled at the guts she showed.

And then there was Max. He was playing “Graveyard Playboy,” a blues song he wrote that displayed both very good musicianship and his weird sense of humor. Over the years all our kids have all displayed humor that the more rigid, stodgy types might sniff at and call “inappropriate.” It comes from being raised in a largish theater family where the influences included a lot of hanging around with adults. And Max, being the youngest by a good many years, has it in spades.

Max is very comfortable in his skin, he knows who he is, isn’t afraid to show that to the world, and isn’t interested in judging or being judged about it. He just got up and performed – he’s a good musician, can play the hell out of that guitar he got as a high school graduation present, and perhaps more importantly, he’s becoming a very good entertainer. (You can see his performance here.)

So when he sang about meeting a woman in the cemetery who was there to bury her second husband (who had died when she fired a bullet “and he got in the way,”) he paused and said, “I like ’em crazy,” it was pretty funny. The woman sitting next to me paused, cocked her head then said, “OK” and laughed.

Max had a couple of things the other kids didn’t. It wasn’t just the musicianship. There was a pretty wide range of that. But most of the kids, you could see them thinking, could almost hear them counting, worrying more about getting the exact right note than keeping the flow, the rhythm. Max was just up there playing, relaxed and confident. He had stage presence. He missed a couple of lines, jumped a couple of places, but if you’d never heard him practice the song you’d never have known it. He just smiled and kept playing. He had fun with it, and the audience did, too.

And now, no matter where he goes in life, no matter what he decides on for a career, he’s always got that on his resume. “Oh yeah, I played Preservation Hall.”

 

Why Does My Brain Do This?

Most mornings I wake up with an earworm, some fragment of a song, usually absurd or obscure but always annoying, rattling around my brain on an urgent repeat loop for several hours. But even for me, today’s takes the cake. It’s the title song from a movie made in 1965, which I saw once, sometime in the late ’70s or early ’80s. I’d be surprised if 10 people on my friends list has ever heard of it. It’s as stupid a movie and song as you’re going to see/hear, a Cold War spy and sports spoof set in a fictional Arab country, and – if memory serves – pretty offensive on many, many fronts. “John Goldfarb Please Come Home.”

Pretty good cast, Shirley MacLaine, Peter Ustinov, Richard Crenna, the Notre Dame football team, a host of familiar faces including an uncredited Terri Garr as “Harem Girl. Script by William Peter Blatty, who would later hit it big with “The Exorcist.” But just dumb and probably offensive by today’s standards.

I found the song on YouTube and played it through this morning – sometimes doing that helps shake a song out of my skull. (Trust me, don’t click on the link. It’s awful.) And I found something interesting – at least to me. The movie’s score and title song were credited to “Johnny Williams.” I thought the name perhaps more than coincidental so I checked, and yes, “Johnny Williams” grew up to be multiple Oscar winner John Williams – “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” “Jurassic Park” … you name it, he probably scored it. And if you look back in his filmography, in the 1950s and ’60s he wrote a lot of schlock, including “John Goldfarb Please Come Home.”

Still have no idea how this came popping out of the darkest depths of my memory hole to get priority access to my frontal lobes, but there you go. That’s how my brain works. By mid morning it had completely gone away, as usual, and it may be another 30 or 40 years before I think of it again.

But damn. “John Goldfarb Pleased Come Home?” What the hell.

A Day 18 Years in the Making

In 1997, Tori and I – much to our surprise – learned we were going to have another child. Our youngest then was Millie, and when Max was born in 1998, she was six. So yeah, we were surprised.

At some point during the pregnancy I did the math and said “Holy smokes! (I didn’t say smokes) When this one (we didn’t know the sex) graduates from high school, I’ll be 62 years old!” It seemed just impossibly old to have a graduating senior.

Then I thought about it and sighed. “Well, I was planning to be 62 anyway, so I might as well be doing something useful.”

And now I’m 62 years old, and today Maxwell Mark Charles Douglas Oscar Baur is graduating from high school. Couldn’t be prouder of the young man he’s turned into. Yes, he’s smart – graduating fifth in his class and I never see him working that hard – yes, he’s talented and fun. But what we’re really proud of is how thoughtful he is of other people, how sensitive he is. how much he cares about other people. I imagine it’s mostly his mother’s influence.

In a couple of months he’ll be off to the University of New Orleans to study computers and jazz guitar (where else would you study jazz guitar than New Orleans?) It’s a very exciting time, and we’re proud of him and eager to see him make his mark.

Congratulations Max. You done good! We can’t wait for what comes next.

A Couple of Stories About Mom

Sunday was Mother’s Day, of course, and we (me and Max and Kate) spent it celebrating Tori. A movie. Max made a special dinner (stuffed mushrooms and pasta,) a gift and – best of all – when Tori and I woke up Sunday morning the house was, maybe not spotless, but really, really clean.

It was a good day.

Right now, however, I want to talk about my own mother. To a great degree, I am who I am because of Mary Ellen Baur. She’s been gone 14 years. Instead of something sappy and sentimental I’ll tell you a couple of true stories.

Mom was smart – I mean, genius smart. She hated when anyone brought it up, but her IQ had been tested at 150. “It doesn’t mean anything, it’s plus or minus 15 points,” she’d protest. “Oh, so it could be as high as 165?” Might have been the only time she regretted her kids learning math. She was always interested in science. She could spend more time combing through tidepools than anyone I’ve ever known. She was a Girl Scout leader, sometimes three troops at a time as well as serving on the district council (seven of her eight kids were daughters, so …), ran “Great Books” programs in school, carpooled us to school (driving in three carpools every week) and so much more. And after she got us all in school, she went back to school, got her teaching credential and taught fifth grade at the local Catholic school for more than 20 years. (And, unbeknownst to me, she had a thing for Harlequin romances. In cleaning out their house, we found literally hundreds of them tucked away.)

When I was 7 or 8, I don’t quite recall now, I had the mumps. No one gets the mumps anymore because all kids are vaccinated, or should be, but in the ’60s they were still a problem and potentially serious. My glands were swollen and I had a temperature, and I couldn’t move around because the thinking was – I don’t know if it was real or not – that would spread them in my body and cause dire consequences. For a week I lay on the couch, all day and evening, waiting for the swelling to go down.

After the first day I was bored out of my mind and told mom so. She left the room and came back with a big book – the first volume of the encyclopedia. Now that might sound absurd, but she knew me.

“Look at this,” she said, pointing to articles on airplanes, astronomy and astronauts and the army and automobiles, animals and armor. I was hooked. I spent the rest of the week poring through the volume, and then, on through the alphabet. This was a kid’s encyclopedia, but a few years later when we acquired the World Book, I worked my way through that.

Yeah, as a kid I read the encyclopedia – for pleasure. Not every word, not every article. But a good chunk of every volume. Even into high school when I was at loose ends I would pick out a volume and thumb through it until something caught my eye, and settle down to read. Because of mom.

Once in high school I was going on about some – to me – interesting, trivial factoid I’d run across, and mom looked at me, shook her head, and said, “You are a font of useless information.”

Which turned out to be at least a little ironic. When Trivial Pursuits was sweeping the nation, I was good at it. Very good. I never lost. Never. Except one time. My mom beat me. Didn’t just beat me, she kicked my ass. So who had the greatest store of useless knowledge, hmm?

We lost mom to Alzheimer’s before we lost her for good in 2003. In fact, it was on Mother’s Day 1999 that I learned she had the condition. What a phone call that was. I had called home to wish her happy Mother’s Day. Dad answered and said she was taking a nap, but while I was on the line he had some news. Not only did he tell me that she had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but for good measure he added that the same week he’d been diagnosed with ALS. Yeah, that was a memorable Mother’s Day.

The last few times I saw her, she was already gone. The thing that made her her wasn’t there any more. But there was one more story.

Mom and dad were always a perfect match. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s still true, I never saw them argue, don’t recall a single instance when they weren’t one. If you’ve ever read Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” you’ll know what I mean when I call them a duprass. (And if you don’t, read the book.)

As their separate conditions deepened, they actually became even closer. As dad lost his physical ability, she became his hands. As she lost her memories, he became her contact with the world.

After dad died, mom was in a residential home in Denver, a short distance from my sister’s home. And she seemed oblivious of what had happened. Once she was talking about dad and some of his accomplishments and the cartetaker said, “Your husband sounds like a remarkable man.” “Oh he is,” mom agreed. As another of my sister’s commented, “She’s in denial – and it’s working for her.”

Anyway, that was mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

What Is Writing?

It’s different for everyone. Here’s a baker’s dozen writers giving their idea of what writing is. But first, a bonus quote – from me. Writing is a persistent itch. Every morning you have to sit down and scratch it.

“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Thomas Mann

“Let’s face it, writing is hell.” William Styron

“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” E.L. Doctorow

“In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” Denise Levertov

“Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” John Edgar Wideman

“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” Stephen Greenblatt

“I want to live other lives. I’ve never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” Anne Tyler

“I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” Michael Cunningham

“Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” Anthony Powell

“Writing is … that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” Pico Iyer

“Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one’s luck.” Iris Murdoch

“I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.” —William Carlos Williams

How Many Words? How Many Pages?

I allowed myself one day to be excited about the children’s book I talked about yesterday. Now I have to get back to the serious business of writing a funny horror story about Christmas – for young readers.

But I gave myself a chance to think about it and do a little research. I have read many, many children’s books. After all, as our friends say, Tori and I have “many, many children.” So I am more than familiar with the genre. One thing I wasn’t sure about is how many words. Obviously not a lot but, generally, what’s the range?

I’m not trying to be proscriptive here. You can write any genre of book, any length you want. There’s no rule that says you can’t. If you want to write a 470,000 word young adult novel, got right ahead.

But if you want to be published, you have to understand that publishers are risk averse, they like to do what they know and what their experience tells them will sell. The book business is, after all, a business. That doesn’t mean something wildly out of the norm won’t sell, but unless you’re James Patterson (don’t we all just hate him?) or Stephen King or a celebrity, they’re not likely to give you a chance to see if you’re the exception to the rule.

Don’t you want to stack the odds in your favor? That means giving publishers something they recognize, that they think they can sell and make money on, and part of the equation is fitting into general length guidelines.

There’s a lot of information about this available online, and I got the answer I needed. If you’re interested this one has a good discussion and this one was kind of funny.

And they agree on the main point.

So I’m looking at writing the story in about 500 to 600 words. And you might think, “Hey, only 500 words? That’s easy!” And if you said that to me I’d spit in your eye.

Write a 110,000-word epic fantasy and yeah, that’s a lot of words. You’ve got plenty of room to play around with. You can take all the time you want to describe the dragon, scale by scale, or explain the physics of your fictional universe that allows a ship to blast across the galaxy in a heartbeat.

When you’re limited to 600 words, every word has to count. Let me say that again. EVERY WORD HAS TO COUNT. Which means you have to know exactly what the story is, exactly what it’s supposed to mean, and then be able to convey it in that 600-word span. And, by the way, they need to be short words that kids know. You can’t use the 2 bit words, like proscriptive.

So the three rules (so far) are:

– Know the story.

– Know the audience.

– Make every word count.

And, it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway – NO RHYMING.

Seriously, I don’t know why people think a little kids book has to rhyme, or even should rhyme. In fact, most publishers and agents won’t even look at a book that rhymes. Nobody likes rhyming books that weren’t written by Dr. Seuss. When you’re as big and famous as Dr. Seuss, then you can rhyme to your hearts content. When I was reading books to my kids, which I did a lot, I HATED reading rhyming books, except of course, “Green Eggs and Ham.” (By the way, my reading of that one is classic.) But that wasn’t a big problem because we had very few rhyming books in the house. Those stilted rhythms and bad rhymes used to drive me nuts.

People who think it’s easy to write a kids book, you  know, just pick up a pen and knock one out, full of rhymes, obviously have not done any research. Look at the library. Look at the local bookstore and see what’s selling. I guarantee you publishers are looking at what’s selling and basing their decisions about what to publish accordingly. How can you have the nerve to try writing a kids book if you don’t read kids books? And I don’t mean back in the day. I mean yesterday.

OK, let me just step off my soapbox now (yes young ‘uns , a soapbox is a thing. Along with the rotary telephone and the horse and buggy. Look ’em up on Google.)

And speaking of word counts, let me finish with a memory I hope is amusing.

When Mark and I decided to write our first book and had interest from an agent he asked me, “How many pages do we have to write?”

I said, “About 40,000 words or so, I’d guess.”

“But how many pages is that?”

“It depends,” I said. “How big is the page? How small is the type? We only have to write one page, if it’s big enough to hold about 40,000 words.”

It took a couple more passes to get the point across, but eventually we got to work and cranked out 40,000 words of funny.

And now, back to work. I have to make sixth graders excited and a little scared. And it’s gotta be funny!