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.
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.”
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
• Cherry tomatoes
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.
Tori and I took off for a mini-vacation last week, Wednesday through Friday at the Gulf Coast in Alabama. We had driven through the area two years ago after missing a freeway entrance and deciding to see what lay down the road. We liked what we saw. I wrote about it here.
We ended up staying last week in Orange Beach, Alabama. In retrospect, we should have gone on down the road a bit to Gulf Shores. Nothing against Orange Beach, it had a beach and that’s what we wanted. But it was all huge condos on the beach side of the main drag, all strip malls on the other. There was a lot of that in Gulf Shores, but there was also some of that “funky beach town” air. Lesson learned.
Still, we woke up to the sound of waves, and were on the beach Thursday and Friday as the sun rose. That was the whole point, so we’re not complaining.
There’s Something about Tori
I don’t know what it is about Tori. People just come up and start talking to her, telling her their life stories. It happened both mornings on the beach.
The first was an older guy (older than me, even) who was walking purposefully up the beach, clearly getting a workout. And he stopped to explain to us why he was using cross country ski poles.
It’s not like we were the only people on the beach. There were scores of folk up and down the sand he could have stopped to chat with, but he chose us. They always do.
He was visiting from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (or ooper-land, as the residents call it.) There were 300 inches of snow on the ground in the UP, and he and his wife were enjoying the sunshine.
The ski poles were because he has bad knees, he explained, and they help take a little of the weight off them as he walks. He’d had his knees scoped and knows they’re not in good shape, but he doesn’t want knee replacement surgery. A friend of his had that procedure and has never been quite the same. See what I mean? People just start spilling their guts.
His doctor – “a foreigner,” he told us – had kidded him about the problem. “He told me ‘I know what the problem with your knees is,’ and then started poking my stomach.” So, yeah, he as carrying excess weight that put extra stress on the knees. Point taken. I’m working on that same issue myself.
But you get the point. Out of nowhere this guy stops to give us his medical history.
The next day a couple roughly my age walked by with a handful of debris. “We’re picking up trash,” they said. The husband walked on. She stopped to chat.
She was from Franklin, Tennessee, she said, and they were down for a while visiting the beach before spring break brought a load of drunk college kids. I mentioned that when I was a kid I had lived near there in Nashville, while dad worked at a factory in Franklin.
That set us off on a discussion of how much the area had changed since she had moved there with her husband to work at the nearby Saturn plant in Springhill. They were originally from Detroit. And we went on for another 15 minutes or so.
I think it’s Tori. There’s just something about the woman I married that draws strangers to her to tell their life stories.
You Could Feel the Ghosts
The weather on the Gulf Coast was warm and bright Friday, a sparkling day, but as we walked through the tunnel, a brick-lined vaulted passageway into Fort Morgan, and stepped out into the sunny parade ground, I felt a chill. You could feel the ghosts.
Fort Morgan is at the eastern point guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay. The fort actually goes back to the war of 1812, and it played an important role in that conflict. But its pivotal moment came during the Civil War, when Mobile was the only port on the gulf still open to Confederate blockade runners. In August 1864 the Union decided it was time to shut it down.
It wasn’t a huge military action, nothing like Antietam or Gettysburg or even Shiloh or Stones River. But the port was vital to the Confederacy, and thus vital to the Union. It is best remembered, when it’s remembered at all, for the words of Union Admiral David Farragut. When warned by a subordinate of the Confederate “torpedoes” (really floating mines) that had just blown up the ironclad USS Tecumseh as it tried to enter Mobile Bay, he replied, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”
And as we walked into the fort through that long tunnel, I could imagine what it felt like being a Confederate soldier, marching into the fort and not knowing if you’d get the chance to march out. Inside, the fort’s outer wall was lined with large chambers, dark and gloomy. And like I said, I could feel the presence of the men who had fought to defend the place. Standing on the wall looking out into the bay, it didn’t take too strong an imagination to see the Union ships moving into place to blast the fort into submission.
We spent more than two hours in the fort and on the grounds outside. It was time well spent. Then we took the ferry across the mouth of the bay to Dauphin Island, spent a little while at Fort Morgan’s twin, Fort Gaines, on the western entrance to the harbor, and headed home.
The thing that stopped us at Fort Gaines wasn’t the fort itself. Out on the lawn there was large wooden “thing.” That’s all I can come up with to describe what it looked like. Maybe 20 feet long, four feet high and almost that wide. It was obviously made up of many timbers.
Turns out in 1998, when Hurricane Georges blew through the area, this thing had been dredged up from the deep and washed ashore. Examination showed it to be a section of the keel of a wooden sailing ship from around the 1800s. There was no way to tell what ship, where it as from, how it ended up at the bottom, or whatever happened to the crew.
(I know we took a couple of pictures of it, and I’ll post it as soon as I can find it.)
You could see the places where ship’s ribs were attached, how it was pieced together. A timber eight to ten inches square was perpendicular to the main piece, and you could see how it had been cut and shaped by a long-dead hand. There was only one way to do it in the 1800s, no power tools.
It was another set of ghosts. The craftsmen who built the ship, the unknown crew who sailed on her. It doesn’t take much to wake them. All you have to do is be open to them.
Like I said, we had first found ourselves down on Alabama’s Gulf coast by accident. And that paid off again, in a small way, last week. We had left Orange Beach heading west, planning to catch the ferry. We weren’t in a hurry, just ambling west. And we ambled just a little too far.
In Gulf Shores, the coastal highway jogs north, and I missed the turn. Not a problem. I could (and did) jog around a couple of blocks to backtrack, then get back on the route.
But what I saw stopped us in our tracks.
Built into the side of a building was a pirate ship! I assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that it was the entrance to a restaurant. We stopped. Pictures were taken. Then we got back in the car. And as we drove up the road on the other side of the building, we saw what it was – Souvenir City. A really big shop featuring what I assume are T-shirts, postcards and every plastic geegaw a vacationer could want to remember their trip to the shore. I mean big. I’ve never seen a place that big dedicated solely to the sale of coastal tchotchkes.
What we had seen, made up as a pirate ship, was the rear entrance. The front was a giant shark, and to get in to buy a set of Gulf Shores placemats and a “Roll Tide” backscratcher you have to enter through the shark’s gaping, tooth-lined mouth! Pretty cool, eh? We didn’t go in, we have all the bric-a-brac* we need, but I’m glad we saw it. And we wouldn’t have if I’d have made the right turn in the first place.
Similarly, on Thursday we were exploring to the east. We missed Flora-Bama completely, apparently it’s not so much a town as just a line on a map separating the two states. We ended up on Perdido Key, south of Pensacola, where we pulled into a parking lot to take a break.
And there, down on the pier, two sailing ships were tied up. Not just any ships. These were replicas of Nina and Pinta, two of the three ships that were part of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas. Why there wasn’t also a Santa Maria replica I cant say. But they were fun to take a look at. And later that day as we lay on Orange Beach we looked up and there was one of them cruising by, then turning slowly and heading back into the sunset.
Anyway, those were some of the highlights of the get away. The best part, of course, as spending the time on the road with Tori. When we married we already both had children, then had more right away. So we never got a whole lot of “us time” until the last couple of years. So it’s always nice to get away, just the two of us.
* Reminds me of one of my all-time favorite reporter quotes. A woman I worked with in Oregon came back from interviewing a little old lady and, to give us an idea of how crowded with a lifetime of souvenirs her home was, commented “The knick knack shelves were choc-a-block with bric-a-brac.” Sheer genius!