New Year Resolutions? No, I’ve Got Something Better

I don’t do resolutions, not per se.

I have done them, and like everyone else I have had indifferent success. I think it was 1996 that I figured out the reasons for that.

a) We always make it something huge – I’m going to quit smoking this year, lose 25 pounds, learn how to sculpt or knit or perform brain surgery.

b) We always think making this huge thing a resolution for the new year will somehow make us more likely to achieve the goal, when in reality it just ups the pressure. Failed new year resolutions are legendary. I decided that if I want to lose weight or learn Italian or take up pottery, I’ll do it because I want to, not because the words occurred to me on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1.

So on Jan. 1, 1996, I made a resolution I knew I could keep. I promised I would not wear a tie all year.

And I kept the resolution! All year! First time I’d ever done that. My wife, Tori, commented at the time, “You need better problems.” She was probably right, she usually is, but I thought I’d come up with a winning formula. The next year I made myself a stiffer challenge, one that would require a bit of effort. I resolved that when I went grocery shopping, after loading the groceries into the car I would always take my cart all the way back into the store, every time, rain or shine. Not only did I keep that resolution for the whole year, it actually became a habit that I still follow today.

But that’s been it for me for resolutions. I don’t have any new year resolutions for 2017.

What I have is a schedule.

I know what I need to do this year, know what I want to accomplish. And I know about how long it ought to take to do it, if I’m serious. Which I am, so I’ve got a schedule.

I will finish project 1 in the next two weeks. Project 2 (I’m not ready to discuss most of them in any kind of detail) I think has terrific potential. I’ll finish the first draft by April 1. Then project 3, the movie treatment for “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” That shouldn’t take more than a couple of months – just a matter of adapting the story I know so well to a different medium. That’ll give me the summer to revise the first draft of the project 2. Finally, when fall arrives I’ll get to work on project 4, the sequel to “Chrissie,” which with a little hard work, luck and concentration I should be able to finish by the end of the year.

Ambitious? Probably. Written in stone? No, but I’m going to try to keep on that pace. I’m not getting any younger, and I’ve got a lot of writing to do. I don’t have time for a lot of navel gazing. It’s just a matter of that old adage, apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and keep it there until you’re done.

I’ll have some other things going on – a book festival in March, any other readings and events I can muster. And a trip out west this fall, which will be for family but there’s no rule that says I can’t try to sell a few books while I’m there.

If you made a resolution – more power to you! Keep it up. If, like me, you take a different approach, get cracking.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some work to do.

 

2016 – a Kidney Stone of a Year

This is the first day of 2017, and I say, thank gods!

2016 was a kidney stone of a year. Yeah, it finally passed, but – Ow!! At times it seemed as if everyone who’d ever had their names in the paper for anything was on a list, and the guy with the sickle was collecting. And I’m still not ready to talk about the election.

So I’m delighted to see the new year in, though there’s really no reason to think it’ll be a whit better. But before I start looking ahead, I want to take a quick look back at the personal parts of the old year, which from that perspective had some great highlights.

Tori and I had a couple of great road trips. The long one took us to Virginia for the Blackbeard Festival, with stops in Jamestown, Yorktown and Harpers Ferry, and up to Maryland to see our niece, Jenny, then on to Pennsylvania for a book signing, and down to Baltimore for a book event (and a very, very disappointing dinner at the Silver Queen Cafe. If I never go back it’ll be too soon.) Then down to Knoxville for a couple of days with our friends Robyn and Dan and a couple more book events and then home. Our second trip was on the Talk Like a Pirate Day weekend, when we headed out to Cedar Key, Florida, the little town with the giant heart, for the Cedar Key Pirate Festival, followed by a drive home for the holiday itself and an appearance at the local Barnes & Noble.

Along the way, we met some great people who I now count as friends.

Besides the events themselves, it was just great to spend so much time with Tori, just the two of us. Max is getting ready for college (another highlight of the year, he’s near the top of his senior class and has been accepted at the University of New Orleans where he’ll study jazz guitar or computers are both.) That certainly suggests that we’ll have more time together – just the two of us – than we ever had before. Since the day we met we haven’t had a whole lot of that, we both had kids when we met, and then had a bunch more right away. So, while we miss the kids who are out making their own way, we have to admit the idea of being a couple is kind of enticing.

We also got some news Saturday that makes us even more excited about the new year, but I can’t talk about that quite yet. It’s not my news, and I have promised to wait a couple of weeks.

Speaking of the kids, Millie and her boyfriend, Kevin, spending the Christmas weekend with us was a treat. It also brought one of my favorite moments of the holiday, maybe of the year. A little thing, but sometimes those are the biggest.

I have used a coffee grinder for most of the last 27 years, but when we moved from the island in 2012, our latest coffee grinder did not make the move with us. So I’ve been buying ground coffee for four years. This Christmas Tori got me a new grinder and a pound of beans. As I opened it up, it opened a channel to a memory for Millie and Kate.

“Oh, yeah,” Millie said. “Every morning when I was lying in bed I’d hear the coffee grinder in the kitchen and know it was almost time for you to come wake me up.” “Yeah,” Kate said, “I remember that.”

You never know what’s going to spark a memory for your kids. You hope it’s something important, some way you’ve shaped their lives, or something fun, vacations to the coast or reading all the Harry Potter books out loud together.

But sometimes it’s going to be something as simple and homey as the whir of the coffee grinder from the kitchen stirring them from sleep, signaling that their day is about to start. A sound you associate with the comfort of sleep and the comfort of family life.

And of all the things that happened in 2016, that was the one that got me a little misty.

Monday I’ll talk about resolutions (spoiler alert, I’m not making any. I’m making something better, instead.) But for now, so long 2016. You were pretty awful, but you still brought us some light from time to time. It’s just a question of what you’re looking for, and where you look.

A Terrific Book

My family knows me.

My Christmas presents included four books. They all look good, but there was no question which one I was going to dive into first – head first. It was Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, “Born to Run.” In fact, I started reading it as soon as I opened it. I was hooked immediately.

My god! The man can write!

It’s not a surprise, of course, because he’s written some of the best songs of the last 40 years. But this is so much more – deeply personal, wry, open and often self-deprecating, colorful, sometimes hilarious. The words crackle and dance off the page. I’m still only about 80 pages in, he’s a teenager forming his first band. After teaching himself to play guitar, he started a band and, after their first disastrous gig, his fellow bandmates voted him out. Wouldn’t you love to find those guys now and ask them how they feel about being the guys who fired Bruce Springsteen from his own band?

“Writing about yourself is a funny business,” Springsteen says. “But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise, to show the reader his mind. In these pages, I’ve tried to do this.” Oh boy, does he! There are moments so poignant, so steeped in personal triumph and tragedy, longing and regret, that they cut right through the bone and into your soul.

In reviewing Springsteen’s first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” rock critic William Ruhlmann said the album “painted a portrait of teenagers cocksure of themselves, yet bowled over by their discovery of the world. It was saved from pretentiousness … by its sense of humor and by the careful eye for detail … that kept even the most high-flown language rooted.”

And that absolutely describes the book as well, at least as far as I’ve read so far. Since I started writing this I have gotten to the point where he’s given up on community college and is now a 19-year-old, on his own in the world and burning with a passion to make it in music. (Gosh, he’s such a likable character, I sure hope he makes it.)

As I said, I got four books for Christmas, and I will certainly be reading and enjoying the others. But “Born to Run” is the best book I’ve read in years.

The Hat Makes the Man

stingy-brim
Me in my leather coat and felt hat, which now has a new name.

The weather was cool as I entered an office building last week, so I was wearing my leather jacket and my black felt hat. As I walked past the lobby desk toward the elevators, the older gentleman at the desk called to me. I wasn’t sure what he said, so I stopped and asked him to repeat himself.

“I like your stingy brim!” he said.

I still didn’t get it, really. And asked him one more time.

“Your hat! We used to call that a stingy brim! You’re rockin’ that stingy brim!”

I’ve never heard that name, but I like it a lot. And it’s the sort of detail that, as a writer, you want to store away. A character of a certain age in a certain time and place – an older black man in New Orleans – might make a passing reference to “a stingy brim,” adding verisimilitude to a character and scene.

It’s the details that make the difference, that separate a generic scene to one that comes alive. And as a writer, you’ve got to be a sponge for them. The way kids talk today, the way your parents talked 30 years ago. You might wash your laundry in Tide. Your grandparents might have used Fels-Naptha. It’s a hundred different, little things, what James Kilpatrick called “the telling details,” the fix your story in a specific place and time. (And the fact that I referenced James Kilpatrick instead of “Grammar Girl” fixes me at a certain age, place and time.)

Most people, when they see you wearing a felt hat – any felt hat, as opposed to a sports cap – say, “I like your fedora!” That’s because fedora is the only word they know. But it’s only one style.

bogart
Bogart in his fedora.

Fedoras have a wide brim (usually turned down in front, up in back) and a pointed or tear-drop-shaped crease in the crown. It’s the go-to hat of film noir. You see Bogart wearing a fedora in “The Maltese Falcon” (one of my favorite movies) and a host of other films. You’ll see it on Richard Widmark and Robert Mitchum in all of those classics.

THE GODFATHER, Al Pacino, 1972 godfather1-fsc48(godfather1-fsc48)
Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in “The Godfather.”

But though the fedora is closely tied to our image of gangsters, the hat Al Pacino wears in the first “Godfather” is NOT a fedora. It’s a Homburg.

The Homburg has a narrowed brim (one might call it a “stingy brim.) The crown usually has a crease straight across, from front to back. It’s called a gutter crease. In the mid-20th century, the Homburg was the hat of politicians and statesmen and the upper class. You can see photos of Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, Konrad Adenauer and lots of others statesman wearing it.

I have two hats, the Homburg and my Panama. They’re my fall/winter hat and my spring summer hat. I particularly love my Homburg.

But of course, from now on, it’s my Stingy Brim.

Happy Pie Day, Everyone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Night of Theater at the Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When You Work the Fair – You Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You do what it takes.

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

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

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

But a fun wash.