Hurricane Thoughts: If You HAVE to Have a Disaster …

Watching the wall-to-wall coverage of Hurricane Irma today and thinking.

I have been through most of the major categories of natural disasters – floods, earthquakes, fires, hurricane, tornadoes. And this will sound odd, but if I had to pick one, if someone said “You’re going to have a disaster, what’ll it be?” I would choose a hurricane. Every time.

Not because I liked the hurricanes I’ve been through. Of course not, they’re amazingly powerful and destructive and scary. Hurricanes have a voice, and as the storm goes on it goes from a rumble to a demonic shriek that would scare the crap out of you even without the lash of wind and rain.

But here’s the thing. You can see a hurricane coming. You usually have about a week’s warning. When we were on St. Croix and Omar hit the island, it came “out of nowhere,” and we still had almost three day to prep. You have a little time to get supplies, to board up, to figure out what you want to do about it. If you live on a small island, there’s nowhere to go and you have to choose between your home or a shelter. If you’re in the states, you can decide to get the hell out, as so many of our friends in Florida did.

Earthquakes and tornadoes come out of nowhere. You never see ’em coming. Tornadoes are strangely quixotic, taking this house and sparing that one. When you get word of a tornado heading your way, if you’re lucky you have time to get down to the basement. If you live in Oklahoma or Kansas or Missouri, you know you’re going to have some tornadoes every year, but there’s no telling when or where.

Quakes? If you live in earthquake country, you know it’s always possible, but you never know exactly when or where, so that’s always sitting in the back of your mind. You’re sitting in your home or office minding your own business, the way you do every day – then suddenly the ground is doing a samba under your feet.

And fire has its own brand of horror, raging like a living thing as it destroys everything in its path. The “hot shot” fire crews who go out and man the fire lines, armed mostly with digging tools – shovels and mattocks and machetes – trying to cut off and quell the burning beast, have a special place in the hall of heroes. As a young reporter I walked through a forest fire with a crew and they have nothing but my sincere praise.

So no. I am watching the coverage of Hurricane Irma and feeling guilty that I’m glad it’s not heading my way, even though that means it’s ruining someone else’s life. I do not “like” hurricanes.

But I would rather get hit with a hurricane than any other natural disaster. It may be Mother Nature at her most destructive, but at least she announces her presence before she gets there.

Hurricane Prep – One Unusual Thing

We learned to prep for a hurricane on the island. Yes, you definitely need all the things they tell you – nonperishable food (a manual can opener is a good idea. If you only have an electric can opener, you’ll be disappointed when the power goes. Disappointed and hungry) Drinking water – a gallon per person per day you expect to be cut off. Your prescriptions. Important documents in a sealable bag. Don’t forget pet food. Gas up the cars and get some spare fuel if you can. All that stuff.

One thing you don’t hear as much about is cash. If you can, get a couple of hundred bucks cash, or at least a hundred, because if the power is out any length of time that plastic in your wallet won’t do a damn bit of good. You need some cash.

Insect repellent is also a good thing to remember.

But after Omar, maybe the single most important thing we had was a bucket and a rope.

On St. Croix, most people’s water supplies is the rain water run off stored in a cistern under the house, and pumped up under pressure. When the power goes out – and in the islands that’s pretty much a given, the power will go out in a hurricane, or storm, or stiff breeze or because it’s Thursday – your pump suddenly doesn’t work and your house has no water.

We didn’t want to use up our drinking water to flush the toilet, but with the number of people in the house – there were eight of us – flushing was going to happen. With a bucket and rope, we could open the cistern and haul water out. We were four days without power, and it was nice to be able to take a bucket shower, or flush. I can’t imagine what we’d have done without the bucket and rope.

Reading matter is also a good thing. We were four days without power. As it happened, we had just a few weeks before purchased, used, a 32-volume set of Agatha Christie novels. We all went through all of them. Some weren’t very good, some were classics, and I was enchanted to discover the Parker Pyne and “The Mysterious Mr. Quinn” stories.

I also remember the evening, four days after the storm, when the WAPA truck (V.I. Water and Power Authority) came slowly down the street, going from pole to pole, resetting transformers. People stood out in front of their darkened houses watching, and when they power finally came back on and the block lit up, there was cheering up and down the street as if we’d just won the lottery.

In a way, we had.

Max Is Set, Now Let It Begin

Max (right) and Chaz at the entrance to Pontchartrain Hall North on move-in day.
Max (right) and Chaz at the entrance to Pontchartrain Hall North on move-in day. (And by the way, the image on Max’s shirt is from a video game he plays, “Overwatch,” which Tori painted on the T-shirt for him.)

Saturday was move-in day for new students at the University of New Orleans, and Tori and I have been pretty achy and tired ever since, getting Max setup and ready to go.

But at least there was plenty of help. When we pulled up in front of the hall with a pickup load of his stuff, a group of student volunteers, faculty and administrators immediately engulfed us, unloading our stuff before I could even get out of from behind the wheel, and dragging it up to his room. This included his new mini-fridge (60 pounds) and his guitar amp (65 pounds.)

It’s a UNO tradition. It not only makes the moving go more smoothly for everyone, but it gives the new students (and their parents) the feeling of belonging, a feeling that people there care about their students.

We got his stuff unpacked and organized, making the best use of the space possible. It helped that the bed could be raised high enough so that fridge and amp fit underneath. After we’d done most of the organizing, Tori and I walked over to the University Center – the student union – and grabbed lunch, then got something for Max, who was helping Chaz – his best friend from high school and now one of his college roommates – organize his own stuff. At the cafeteria’s “Creation Station,” the woman showed Tori how to pull together a bowl of vegetables, meat and pasta, which the woman then stir fried for him. As she cooked the woman – Michelle was her name – assured us that Max was in the right place and promised Tori, “I’ll look out for him.” Had to feel good about that. And the stir fry looked delicious.

Pontchartrain Hall is an awfully nice facility. They’re not typical dorm rooms, they’re suites, with four smallish bedrooms, each. Max’s room (A) shares a bathroom with room B, which is occupied by Chaz. That unit then shares a large living area with another unit of two bedrooms (C and D, natch) and a bathroom. A fairly comfortable arrangement.

Sunday was moving day for returning students, and that includes the two guys who are sharing the other half of Max’s suite. On Sunday we had a few more things to drop off for Max and we met one of the two, a studiously nerdy looking guy who was busy setting up his computer system. Then we ran him over to the nearby supermarket to pick up some things. Yes, he’s got a meal plan and won’t starve (Michelle will look out for him, right?) But you know how college is.

Then, with lumps in our throats, Tori and I headed home.

Now it’s up to Max. There are a couple of days of “welcome to campus” activities and then, on Wednesday, classes start. And that’s Max’s job for the next four years – working hard, getting A’s (please gods, please) and becoming the great adult we know he can be.

It’s the way it should be, but we miss him.

And one other thing UNO

The mascot for the University of New Orleans is fitting for Max, the son of a pirate who also made a bit of a splash in the buccaneer world. They are the UNO Privateers. A privateer, of course is basically a pirate who did all the paperwork. Max will fit right in.

Full Circle on Button Fly Levis

Things came full circle Friday night.

The story starts 44 years ago, the summer of 1973. We had just graduated from high school and a group of six or seven of us – a mixed group, no couples – had jammed into a station wagon and headed out to a drive-in movie.

I have no idea what we saw. It was just a group of friends enjoying that interlude between high school and the rest of our lives. But one thing made it memorable, at least to me.

One of the people there mentioned having gone shopping that day and had purchased a pair of button fly Levis. Not remarkable in itself, but we started playing with the phrase. Someone, it might have been me but who knows, said, “Button fly Levis took the zip outta my romance.” And I said – and yes, I’m sure it was me – “Sounds like the title of a country western song.”

And my friend John Sanders (who now uses the full family name John DeGrazia-Sanders) turned to me and said – “Write that song!”

So I did. Took two days, but I was determined. Partly because it was a dare, right? I couldn’t turn it down, and partly because it was a funny idea and I didn’t want someone else to take it. I ended up with a plaintive country western ballad that told the story of unrequited love – or at least unrelieved teenage lust.

The problem was, I don’t read or write music, don’t play an instrument. I can sing bit. So I wrote the song but it was really just a bunch of words that fit a pattern. I sang it a few times, but it was probably different every time I sang it.

It was eight years later, when I was working at the La Grande Observer in the far back corner of Oregon, that I met my reporting colleague Jim Angell. Jim is also a great guitar player and performer. He listened to me sing it through a couple of times, tweaked a couple of lines and figured out the chords for it. It became a real song. We actually performed it at the Eastern Oregon State College Oktoberfest that year. Afterwards the college president told us we were nuts. I appreciated that.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, Father’s Day. We are now in the New Orleans area, and Max – as I’ve mentioned a time or two – plays guitar. Plays pretty well, as a matter of fact, and will be studying music in college this fall. He’s been taking lessons at the Guitar Center, and every fifth Friday of the month (for those months that have five Fridays, of course) they have a jam session. The students and the teachers get together and play. Sometimes a student will play something particular he or dshe has been working on. Usually one or two eight year olds will plunk out something on the piano, but there’s usually three or four people up on the stage playing drums, guitar, keyboard, bass. There’s an old guy who teaches wind instruments, and he’s usually on stage throwing in sax solos and keeping them together. Tori’s gotten on stage a couple of times to sing with different combinations of players. It’s fun.

Well, we’ve been going to these for four years, and Friday’s was Max’s last as a student, since he starts classes in August and the next five-Friday month is September. So earlier this year I tracked down Angell – he’s in Wyoming no happily married and just back from a vacation in Iceland – and he sent me the chords, and this Father’s Day Max sat down and played “Button Fly Levis.” We practiced it a few times this Friday at the jam session we performed it together.

It was a blast. If you listen to the video, you’ll recognize that my voice doesn’t go quite as high as easily, as it did 43 years ago. It’s a little strained. But I’d forgotten how fun it could be to perform, and Max followed me wherever I was going so it was OK. I told the story, and people laughed in all the right places, and applauded at the end.

It was especially sweet to perform the song with Max. He is the age now I was when I wrote it. It was fun to share that moment from my past as he’s getting set to start his future.

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.

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!