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!

The Brain Can Be a Funny Thing

Odd how the brain works. At least mine. I’ve got plenty on my plate, but my brain keeps handing me new stuff.

I am working away on my project, a middle-school holiday horror story. And it’s coming along. And another idea has been percolating in the back of my mind which has potential.

But a couple of days ago, while I was in the shower, when I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, I got hit, hard, by a way to solve the problem with “Chance.” That as my first novel. I really liked it. My then-agent was extremely enthusiastic. A friend had gone over it and said he had thought it would take him a week or so to read it but it took two days because “I literally couldn’t put it down.” It was at Little, Brown for nine months, worked its way up the submission process until the final meeting. And they decided to pass. After nine months.

Anyway, my agent (who has since parted ways with me) sort of lost heart, made a few more desultory efforts to get the book sold, and finally told me, “Chance is dead in the water.” I will never forget those words. “Dead in the water.”

Two days later I started the book that became “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” Which is a better book, I think.

But I still like “Chance,” a lot. And I’d like to resuscitate it, bring it back to life because there’s some really good stuff in there, some great characters and action.

Problem is, I cannibalized a few pieces to use in the early part of “Chrissie.” The whole getting aboard a ship under a different guise, early days learning the ropes. So I have to come up with a different opening and transition, it’ll change a chunk of the story and I have to work out how.

And then, in the middle of the shower, it all came to me. I wasn’t thinking about it, it just jumped into my head, fully formed. How to get him on the ship, how to get him with the pirates. All of it. Actually a little better than it was. I’m looking forward to getting to work on it.

And then I was having a conversation via email with Mark – Cap’n Slappy – my friend, partner in piracy and writing partner. We were talking about my son Jack, my eldest, who with his girlfriend Casey in about six months will make me a grandfather. (Very exciting!) Anyway, he asked if I was wanted to be called “gramps” or “Pop-Pop.” Neither. “Gramps” is a little “Beverly Hillbillies” for my taste, and “Pop-Pop” is insufferably cute. I am not a fan of cute.

No, I said. I’m thinking Grampa will be just fine.

And then I started thinking about my dad. When his first grandchild was born (my niece Jenny) he decided he wanted to be called Gandalf. An interesting choice, because Dad didn’t like “The Lord of the Rings,” didn’t understand what the fuss was about. (One of the few things he was ever wrong about, but I guess it’s a matter of taste and “Degustibus non diputandum est,” in matters of taste there is no arguing.) He later decided, nah, that’s kind of high falutin’, I’ll just go with grandpa. But by then to the kids, he was Gandalf and that was that. And it fit. To his grandchildren he was the wise old man who knew everything and could tell stories better than anyone, (And they were right.)

(By the way, his birthday passed just a few days ago. He died 15 years ago, but there’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t think of him. Happy birthday, dad.)

And I was thinking, yeah, it’d be neat to have a cool name like Gandalf. But that was taken. So I’ll be more than happy with grampa.

Of course, I’m a pirate. SO maybe something a little piratical. Like – Oh, I don’t know – And then it hit me.

Oh my god! Not only is it a great grandfather name, but it’ll be a great title for a book I’m going to write as soon as I wrap up this project. A children’s picture book that I WILL finish before the baby is born. (Although I’ll have to figure out about the illustrations, *I* sure won’t be drawing them. You don’t want to see my drawing.)

So thanks a lot brain. Like I wasn’t busy enough already? But I have to admit, those were both great ideas.

A Shopping Trip That Rated a Grade of C

Went to Costco yesterday, determined to buy only things that begin with the letter C.

Am I obsessive-compulsive or something? No. I just decided to play a game as I shopped. And I suppose it might have helped keep the cost of the trip down. After all, it’s Costco, and we always end up spending way more than we planned.

So here’s what I picked up on my expedition.

• Coffee

• Cheese

• Cereal

• Cherry tomatoes

• Chips

Hmmm. How about

• Chicken eggs

• Calcium-enriched orange juice

• Corn-free flour tortillas

• Carved ham

• Crisp frozen Taquitos

• Crunchy granola bars

Then there was something we really needed, but working around the “C” rule was tricky. I finally came up with …

• Cubed ice, melted and placed in individual serving containers – in other words, bottled water.

Was that cheating? Then you’ll really love:

• Cados, avo

What can I say? I really wanted the bag of avocados.