November 5, 2013
The Beach Boys, that goodtime band of my youth that always seemed to personify Fun, Fun, Fun, have devolved into quite a mess. The tragic part of the story began many years ago with the loss of the two younger Wilson brothers, Dennis and Carl. The band survived, with the help of talented replacements, but it was wracked by dissention. These days, first cousins Brian Wilson and Mike Love are leading separate factions. Love has been suing Wilson regularly since 1989. He’s won most of the legal battles, including the right to call his version of the group The Beach Boys. After pursuing separate paths for many years, the two combatants tantalized their fans with a 50th Anniversary Reunion in 2012, only to break up again.
Is the divorce final this time? Two versions of the band are now touring the country, playing some of the same locations and many of the same songs but also presenting distinctly different visions of what the brand has come to mean. I saw both versions, Parts One and Two, in Atlantic City about two months apart. Despite their differences, they both tapped into that crowd-pleasing sense of fun, reeling off many of their biggest hits. Both bands feature longtime members of the group: Wilson has Al Jardine and David Marks in his lineup, while Love has Bruce Johnston.
Brian is forbidden to call his outfit the Beach Boys. There’s some justification for this, as he’s clearly the one who has strayed from the original model, having sequestered himself in recording studios for long periods to experiment with new sounds. He also works somewhat incongruously with classic rockers such as Jeff Beck, who couldn’t be farther from the surfer mold. Mike, by contrast, has never stopped trying to be a teenager. During his show, which is especially heavy on the old car tunes, he flashes pictures of his first wreck of an automobile (Little Deuce Coup) and then his current flashy one. When he relives high school with songs like “Be True To Your School,” cheerleaders join him onstage.
Both of the shows are heavy on nostalgia and evoke the good old days, but I wonder: can’t these two just get along before it’s too late? They are family, after all, and they’re both in their seventies. More importantly, they represent two distinct but equally important aspects of the band, both of which were essential to their original success: the creative genius represented by shy and reticent Wilson, and the promoter’s instinct personified by outgoing, flamboyant Love. Why not celebrate them both … together?
October 13, 2013
The haters knew it all along: this team was destined to fold. Last year, my Washington Nationals captured the National League East championship and made the playoffs for the first time in their eight-year history, but they went no farther. That was evidently because they offended too many self-proclaimed baseball pundits with their “arrogance,” the worst sin there is in the eyes of the baseball gods.
What the experts howled about most was the untimely shutdown of ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg, which took place before the playoffs began. The Nationals chose to follow the widely recognized medical protocol for pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery. They did this with the approval of Strasburg’s surgeon, one of the world’s leading experts on the treatment of pitchers’ elbow injuries. The decision was based not only on medical theory, but empirical evidence that Strasburg’s effectiveness was declining late in the season.
You would think from listening to the baseball pundits that the Nationals had deliberately torpedoed the kid’s career by considering his long-term health. They accuse the Nats of figuring they’d easily return to the playoffs the following year, and all subsequent years when they’d have Strasburg’s services for the entire season. Now the geniuses can gloat, because the upstart team failed to make the playoffs in 2013. According to the common pundit wisdom, the Nats probably blew their one and only chance to make it to the World Series!
Clearly, the team was felled by high expectations. The players were accused of complacency, or maybe they lacked confidence in crucial situations. These reasons seem contradictory, so which was it? The experts can’t quite decide, but either way, they know they were right all along. The Nats were arrogant, and that brings about deadly baseball curses. Why don’t we fans just accept the mystical explanation, and never mind extraneous nonsense like scientific data and medical protocols?
September 10, 2013
A few weeks ago I read a letter to a popular advice columnist from a married woman who confessed to harboring an obsession for an unidentified public figure with a less than sterling image. The comments section went wild with speculation about who the object of her obsession might be. Some commenters were sure they had identified the man, and berated the woman accordingly. Others belittled her for endangering her marriage over a fantasy.
What brought out the sharpest knives, however, was her confession that she was a writer who had been in an artistic drought for a while. It seemed she had gotten a spark from these illicit feelings, and was writing a novel with this person as a central character. Most of the commenters tore apart her project without knowing any more than that. They insisted that there could be nothing worthwhile about a story conceived in such a manner. Without a doubt, it would be a self-indulgent piece of crap. She was assured that “it will never be published” by some literary expert who apparently never heard of self-publishing. Others were sure if it ever saw the light of day, it would merit one star from every reviewer who came across it.
This barrage made me wonder how many of these premature critics ever felt a creative impulse themselves. If they had ever attempted something as complicated as a novel, I would think they’d realize there are many possible sources of inspiration. At least the advice columnist, who teaches creative writing on the side, showed some sympathy, offering advice on techniques the aspiring novelist could use to disguise and fictionalize her subject. My guess is that most writers of fiction, famous or not, get at least an occasional boost from obsessive thoughts that they would never reveal in polite company. The trick is to acknowledge these dark feelings and use them creatively instead of destructively.
On the other hand, obsession is never healthy if it leads someone to confront the real-life object of her passion. A while ago I blogged about the near-fatal shooting of baseball player Eddie Waitkus in 1949 by a deranged fan, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, who lured him to a hotel room. What if Steinhagen had been a writer? It’s possible that her murderous impulse would have remained safely in the realm of fiction. It took Bernard Malamud to transform the real-life tragedy to art in his 1952 novel The Natural.
July 28, 2013
I’m a feminist who believes with all her heart that women can be anything they choose to be. I grew up in an era when most mothers, including mine, gave up their careers to be full-time housewives. Were those the good old days, and if so, for whom? I can’t deny it was reassuring to have my mom at home all the time. Whether or not she was happy with her life is another question. She never said she wasn’t, in so many words. But I suspect she and many other full-time moms of that era suffered a fair amount of frustration and resentment.
That said, I’m not sure the present-day determination of women to do and be everything is totally wonderful. Is it really possible to “have it all”? I would have loved the freedom and wherewithal to write novels to my heart’s content while also nurturing a family. But it didn’t happen, and not because of any conscious decision I made. A long series of separate choices led me to where I am today. I know if I were trying to do everything, I’d be doing a half-assed job at everything. I spend half my time earning a living, and the other half in a fictional cloud, manipulating imaginary friends. Where would a real child fit in?
Women who manage this balancing act may be paying a heavier price than they’re willing to admit. Many years ago I knew a local politician and housewife who wrote poems on the back of a shopping list while waiting in the checkout line at the supermarket. Kudos to her. In college I became fascinated with Sylvia Plath, who literally went crazy trying to find this balance. She described childbirth as an incomparably wonderful experience. Yet in her final, poetically creative days, close friends of hers had to intervene when they realized she had lost the ability or desire to care for her two small children.
Lately we’ve been hearing from female CEOs like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer who declare to the world that they’ve conquered this conundrum. “Having it all” for them is defined as being a hot-shot executive on call 24 hours a day while fitting in some parenting. How useful is their advice to the rest of us, when we all know it’s their tremendous wealth and connections that make this perfect lifestyle possible? Sandberg blithely tells women to “lean in” at the conference table as she did, but she runs no real risk to her job security in doing so. For my money, it’s Mayer who hits true heights of arrogance by building a nursery at the worksite just for her own baby and nanny, while refusing to provide daycare and telework options for her employees. There’s also her presumption that she would have a perfectly normal child with no particular needs that the onsite nanny couldn’t fulfill. I certainly don’t wish her any ill luck, but birth defects and developmental problems are no respecters of class and wealth.
I’ll go even farther out on a limb and suggest that the heavily maligned Paul Tudor Jones had a point when he questioned the suitability of mothers for top Wall Street jobs. He didn’t state it very delicately, and it isn’t for him or for me the declare that a woman shouldn’t try to do both. But if a baby suckling at the breast isn’t a major distraction, I can’t help thinking something is wrong.
June 9, 2013
I’ve never been a fan of crime mysteries in books or movies. All the shootings, blown up buildings, and car chases are plenty exciting but don’t lend themselves to the kind of character development I like. However, since I’m always looking for ways to expand the scope of both my reading and writing, I recently downloaded two classic examples of film noir on Kindle HD, “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Big Sleep.” I’m trying to see how much I can sympathize with detectives Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe, both portrayed memorably by Humphrey Bogart.
How good are these stories at character development? It seems to me that the detective game forces the crime-solvers to be as diabolically clever and immoral as the crooks they chase, until the two are barely distinguishable. Spade and Marlowe fool around with attractive women clients and are at various times being investigated by the conventional police for the very crimes they’re trying to solve. For my money, neither cops nor crooks are particularly believable. Still, they can be intriguing in their mysteriousness. It’s the acting that brings the characters to life.
What’s astounding to me is that these two classics have many of the same flaws that we self-published novelists are constantly criticized for. The plots are complicated and full of exposition-spouting characters who act foolishly and whose motivations aren’t always clear. “The Big Sleep” in particular seems intent on driving its viewers crazy, dropping red herrings and murdered bodies all over the place. The main plot line involves a chauffeur to a rich family who is in love with the younger of two wild and beautiful daughters. He has apparently (although we can’t be sure of anything) murdered the blackmailer who holds her gambling debts, and then apparently ends up getting murdered himself. Then his murderer is murdered, and so on, except that in a few of these incidents it’s possible the wrong guy got murdered.
So if classic mysteries aren’t all that perfect, why can’t we self-published authors catch a break from reviewers when we try something similar? I made somewhat of an attempt at a crime story in my novel Let’s Play Ball, published in 2010. It has a kidnapping at the heart of it, but the real story is about the relationship between fraternal twin sisters who are buffeted by this event. The “whodunit,” if you can call it that, ultimately involves nefarious doings in high government places. It evolves into a political scandal that takes a long time getting resolved, and imperfectly at that. The main point is that the sisters, after enduring a rough patch, rebuild their relationship and incidentally, their marriages. Thus the book turns into the same old chicklit, which is what I like. I believe in the book, but it gets mostly scorned by reviewers. I can hear them asking: where’s the mystery?
May 9, 2013
Fantasy and science fiction are riding high these days in both books and movies. These genres seem to be outselling most others by a fair amount, and leaving mainstream works totally in the dust. Even though escapism is all the rage, I’ve never really gone for it much since outgrowing Grimm’s fairy tales and Disney cartoons. I get how tempting it is to take a break from real-world problems, but if I’m going to immerse myself in an alternate world, I prefer it to be recognizable. I guess my daily habit of perusing The Washington Post keeps me too grounded in reality. Most of the inspiration for my own writing comes from the news and my own experiences in workplaces and social settings.
So how can I embrace the unrealism that seems to give others so much pleasure … and incidentally, sells a lot of books and movies? Unfortunately, vampires and werewolves leave me cold, despite being proven gold mines and the quickest way for self-published authors to get through the traditional gates. I’d like my magic to be light and fun, not ghoulish.
Witness Pictures, the independent film company that has produced three book trailers for me, is currently churning out a fantasy web series called “Freelancers.” It claims to have a little bit of everything in the fantasy line: “a timeless realm full of magic and monsters, wizards, warriors, dungeons and dragons.” Yet it maintains some of the real-world familiarity I prefer by presenting its characters as flawed personalities who may have extraordinary talents but still need to pay their bills and get along in the workaday world.
The heroines that populate my novels don’t have much in common with the character played by young actress Caitlin Geier: “a fiery, rapier-wielding cat burglar, on the run from … well, just about everyone after stealing a mysterious artifact from a powerful sorcerer.” Compare that to my cast of office workers, aspiring journalists, sports groupies, and college students. But who knows: maybe one day I’ll figure out a way to throw a few wizards, sorceresses, and assorted monsters into my mixes. Expanding my horizons could be fun.
April 9, 2013
In 1946, Major League ballplayer Eddie Waitkus was lured to a hotel room and shot by a deranged fan. He recovered rather miraculously, and resumed playing within a few months. Still, the long-term physical and emotional consequences of the attack interfered with his progress as a ballplayer and impacted his personal life. The incident also had literary consequences, inspiring the shooting scene in Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural. Waitkus died relatively young, while his assailant, Ruth Ann Steinhagen, died just recently, having lived in obscurity for many years after a brief stint in a mental hospital. Apparently Waitkus declined to press criminal charges against her.
Steinhagen had become obsessed with Waitkus when he played for her favorite team, the Chicago Cubs. The obsession apparently tipped into something more lethal when he was traded to another team. She must have felt that he “deserted” her. The story makes me cringe a little. I’ve been a sports fan from a young age, and have developed occasional crushes on baseball and football players. I know I’m not unusual in that respect. In fact, local sports machines and related industries thrive on hero worship. I’ve never built a shrine to a particular player in my home, as Steinhagen reportedly did, but I’ve certainly collected clippings. I’m generally too shy to pursue autographs or to try to meet my heroes, probably for fear of finding out they’re jerks. (I witnessed this once, many years ago, when a girlfriend of mine was snubbed outside RFK Stadium). And yes, I’ll even admit to feeling somewhat “deserted” when certain players get traded away, especially if they badmouth my teams when they depart.
Obviously, most fans don’t go to Steinhagen-like lengths to impress their heroes. Even when an innocent crush becomes an obsession, it rarely tips into insanity. Yet there have been enough incidents of obsessed behavior to convince sports leagues to beef up security and limit fan access at ballparks. Probably every popular player in every sport has encountered a fan or two who skirts uncomfortably close to the edge.
How can a fan ensure that this hero worship remains sane? I have an outlet for it, since I’m a writer. I get “revenge” for my unrequited love by using select players in stories. Certain readers who are familiar with my local teams have been able to identify the battling quarterbacks in Secretarial Wars, the burly, curly-haired running back in The Rock Star’s Homecoming, and the proud “rednecks” who clash with immigrant teammates in Let’s Play Ball. Nowadays many fans vent their emotions in numerous chat rooms where they can praise or bash athletes anonymously. Outlets like these presumably help to keep us from flipping out. Still, the Waitkus-Steinhagen tragedy reminds us that hero worship isn’t always fun or innocent.
March 12, 2013
Remember the line in “Moneyball” about romance being an essential part of baseball? Well, so is hatred. You can’t be a good fan (a good “fanatic”) unless you are prepared to both love and hate passionately.
My love interest is the Washington Nationals. There are deep psychological reasons for this unshakable love that I’ve explored previously in this blog. My main hate interest is the New York Yankees. Not that I hate the Yanks’ players, coaches, or managers per se. What I hate is their business model, which boils down to buying everything they need the second they need it, out-bidding everyone else, and planning for years ahead to grab everyone else’s best players.
I’ve had other pet hatreds. I never hated the Phillies because they dominated the National League East for five years. What I hated was the horde of Phillies fans who invaded our ballpark in order to raise drunkenness and obnoxiousness to an art form. Additionally, I’ve started to hate my former love interest, the Baltimore Orioles. Again, it’s not the players or coaches; it’s the way their owner does business. Having lost his crusade to keep baseball out of D. C., he is now doing his best to deprive the Nationals of their fair share of the regional pie.
Widespread hatred for the Nationals is a new thing, but it’s growing. How have they sinned? I guess any bad team that improves faster than the experts predicted is bound to raise some ire. Two years of rock-bottom ineptitude enabled them to draft and sign two extraordinary players. Not only did the Nats improve with unseemly speed, they remained competitive in 2012 while shutting down their ace, Stephen Strasburg. This was a decision based on the best possible medical advice, as well as observations of his late-season struggles … a perfect no-brainer that for some reason arouses widespread outrage. How could a team be so brazen as to protect its future while playing in the present?
The rest of the league is detecting a fair amount of chutzpah among the Nationals. No question, last year’s rookie of the year, Bryce Harper, has a lot of it for a twenty-year old. Besides, manager Davey Johnson has declared that this season is his swan song, hinting that his players have extra motivation to send him off in glory.
The Nats were a sleeper team last year. After their first great season, largely unpredicted, since moving to D. C. eight years ago, the rest of Major League Baseball is gunning for them in underhanded ways. Predictions for their 2013 season are so overblown that almost any result short of a World Series championship will be declared a disappointment. The baseball gods will surely punish the overconfidence that everyone else attributes to this team. Who knows, maybe we’ll acquire our very own curse, more persistent than the one the Bambino inflicted on Boston for so long. That would amuse baseball fans everywhere … but not us.
January 22, 2013
I must have written the most preposterous novel ever unleashed on the reading public of the Western World. Okay, there’s a chance I’m being a tad over-sensitive, but that’s what some reviewers seem to be saying about my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball. Even paying for reviews doesn’t guarantee the reviewer will get it. And I do shamelessly pay for a few of them, because I need an occasional word of praise or at least less of a pummeling now and then. That doesn’t always work: one of my worst reviews came from an expensive service with a reputation for dishing out tough love to self-published authors.
I’ll concede that even the meanest reviewers are capable of making fair points, as long as they actually bother to read the book. It’s true that my story maintains a first-person viewpoint although most of the action happens to other people. Of course there are limitations to that approach, but it suited my goal for the story. My heroine has a fraternal twin sister with whom she is close but competitive. Their rivalry drives the plot. She’s an ordinary bureaucrat with a lawyer husband, while her sister is a sportswriter, engaged to a major league ballplayer. When the fiancé is kidnapped, it’s the sister’s idyllic life that is torn apart.
My heroine tries not to get involved, but she’s inevitably drawn in for various reasons: her husband is having an affair with a possible suspect; she retaliates by sleeping with a teammate of the kidnapped player; through a comedy of errors, she briefly becomes a suspect herself. While her sister’s life is in the spotlight, hers is shaken up too. Does that make her too weak to be a heroine?
I’m also guilty of combining all sorts of genres, including sports, politics, crime, and chicklit. Two baseball teams, in the course of executive-level wheeling and dealing, encounter meddlesome politicians and their equally devious women. A scandal erupts that eventually threatens to bring down a President. Plausible or not? I guess that’s why they call it fiction. I love baseball, political scandals, and catfights, so my readers get all of that.
I still stubbornly believe in this novel. It’s the story of a woman who’s peripheral and minimized and resents it, yet stumbles on the answers. It was my vision, and it endures. In my fevered imagination the story continues, with sleazy politicians and even foreign dictators continuing to meddle with professional sports teams, and gossipy women still churning up even more trouble behind the scenes. The reviewer says these threads are “promising,” but need to be fleshed out with stronger characters and action. I get it, but it’s only a 250-page novel. Is the reviewer perhaps encouraging me to write a sequel? How about Let’s Play Two?