Dictator In Pantyhose

I’ve never been able to resist inserting politics into my stories. I know I’m not unusual in that respect. Political apocalypses have always been popular in fiction, and the farther out they get, the better. But I sometimes ask myself how far authors can reasonably take their nightmare scenarios. For example, how evil can a leader be and still remain plausible?

Try to imagine a President of the United States who exemplifies everything the founding fathers tried to prevent when they established the emoluments clause to the Constitution and other safeguards. In their eighteenth-century wisdom, they foresaw that a sociopath might someday attain the highest office in the land, and turn it into a private fiefdom for his own political and financial benefit. Such a scenario would only be possible if that person corralled a once-respected political party to elevate him, whitewash his flaws, and do his bidding.

Such a president would treat the rule of law as an inconvenience, resist any efforts by the other branches of government to conduct oversight, and fire anybody who dared to tell him anything he didn’t want to hear. He would sell out allies and coddle dictators according to his whims. He would be a pathological liar, given to childish tantrums. Worst of all, when faced with a genuine emergency, he would continue to lie to cover up his own incompetence and inadequacy, even if his lies endangered the health and safety of the citizenry. Pretty wild, right? Couldn’t possibly happen here, could it?

Oh, wait …

An alarming realization has struck. There are limits to the effectiveness of speculative fiction if the worst has already happened, or is about to happen. What will possibly be left for us amateur politicos to cook up? Luckily, brave people who resist authoritarianism have always made good heroes and heroines. In the present circumstances, things could definitely get worse, and soon. If Trump is re-elected, he’ll anoint himself dictator, if not emperor of the universe. His corruption will become even more unapologetic than it is now. If he’s defeated, he may well scream “false news” and refuse to leave. His implacable base, many of whom have guns and nothing much to lose, will support him no matter what, perhaps even to the point of civil war.

I’m currently trying to draft yet another novel that features corrupt leaders. Tentatively entitled Gilded Prisons, this one is a sequel to Let’s Play Ball (2010). The first story featured a monstrous president, Jeremiah Smith, who facilitates the kidnapping of a major league ballplayer for his own benefit. His actions are covered up by his enablers, enough to maintain plausible deniability, although almost every thinking person knows or suspects that he’s guiltier than sin. He foregoes running for reelection, citing health concerns. He and his supporters are fine with this because his daughter, Deirdre Smith Gordon, is prepared to succeed him.

In Gilded Prisons, Deirdre proves not only as corrupt and venal as her father, but much smarter, which increases the danger. (Think Ivanka in a few years). Deirdre is a lawyer who never practiced law, having chosen to please her father’s conservative base by representing herself as a stay-at-home mom while her children were young. That was always a bit of a ruse, since she has been the driving force behind her husband’s rise to leadership posts in Congress. And now that she has attained the highest office herself, thanks to daddy’s legacy, she plans to change everything about the government that doesn’t directly serve her and her family. As if to prove that no one ever learns from past mistakes or pays for them, the baseball kidnapping caper is repeated. Did she instigate the crime, or merely exploit it after the fact? That has yet to be determined.

I picture Deirdre as a woman with a sweet, flirtatious veneer, who looks especially good in short skirts. This enables her to hoodwink people more efficiently than an equally evil man would. In some ways, she’s Trump in pantyhose. It doesn’t seem so long ago that Trump was an obnoxious but fairly benign reality-show host. Despite his long previous history of business fraud and con-artistry, he didn’t seem that threatening. He lacked a firm ideology when it came to politics, bending whichever way best served his purposes. Had it suited his ego and ambition to come down to the left of Bernie Sanders, he would have done so without a second thought.

My presidential anti-heroine has a similar lack of true convictions apart from her own self-interest. Accordingly, she forms unholy alliances with odd political bedfellows, including right-wing militias at home and Communists abroad, and anyone in between who has the potential to serve her goals. Inevitably, a movement to resist this soulless form of government takes shape. I’m not sure yet whether to plunge my fictional United States into a second civil war, this time perhaps leading to permanent division. Sometimes I feel that the old Confederacy might just as well have won the first Civil War, and saved us all the trouble of trying to build a democracy based at least on the ideals of freedom.

Is this a reasonably original plot, or merely a prediction? What if it really happens, and soon? What’s a writer of political fiction to do?

My Novels Are Comics (Part 2)

With the world so out of whack at the moment, it’s difficult to know what to say to friends, much less strangers, other than “Stay safe.” At a time like this, the normal author-like pursuits of writing and blogging seem irrelevant on one level, although comforting on another. I’ve been trying to draft a new novel, a sequel to a previous one, but conjuring up the comparatively normal world where they unfold feels disorienting, if not a tad self-indulgent.

Accordingly, this could be an ideal time to revisit old stories instead. The problems and traumas we wrote about months and years ago were comparatively normal and recognizable, even if our characters were weeping and moaning over them as if the world had ended. Who doesn’t yearn for the good old overwrought themes of unreliable boyfriends, love triangles, jealousy and revenge, bad bosses and soul-sucking jobs, social awkwardness, and all the rest of it?

I’m also renewing my ongoing effort to envision a few of those old stories as movies. Obviously, there are no production companies or crews available right now to make them spring to life on video, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be envisioned graphically. If my novels aren’t yet movies, at least they can be comics. Trying to encapsulate them in one panel proved to be a challenging exercise, like trying to spit out one of those hyper-streamlined elevator pitches. Of course they don’t look terribly professional, and melding them into social media is a skill I don’t yet have. Enlarging them for better readability tends to make them too humongous. But what does it matter if they’re comical-looking? I guess you could say they are comedies.

 

 

 

 

In The Rock Star’s Homecoming, college senior Imogene has hit on a unique topic for her English honors thesis. Ignoring her advisor’s advice to choose a more traditional subject, she is determined to concoct a theory about the influence of poetry on rock music. Her research will consist of critiquing her favorite band and its lead singer, Jake, who have returned to the campus where they originated for a special Homecoming weekend. She lures the musician to her father’s nearby farm, where the inevitable seduction occurs. Will this help or hurt her academic efforts?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Play Ball features fraternal twin sisters Miranda and Jessica, always close but competitive. They are pursuing opposite theories about who plotted the kidnapping of Jessica’s fiancé, Major League ballplayer Manny Chavez. The crime took place just prior to Manny’s scheduled Congressional testimony about steroid use in baseball, which would have implicated several teammates of his. Jessica’s main suspect is Petie Jansen, Manny’s fiercest rival on the team, and inconveniently, a close friend of Miranda’s. Miranda is determined to clear Petie, and to pursue her own suspect. Choosing the most public place available, she confronts Madeline, the daughter of the team’s owner, with the incriminating evidence she’s compiled. Incidentally, she also confirms her suspicion that Madeline has been sleeping with her husband, Tommy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Handmaidens of Rock unfolds during the wild early 1970s. Aspiring college journalist Candy has attached herself to a campus rock band. Not caring to be regarded as a mere groupie, she has fulfilled her wildest dream by marrying the flashy guitarist who fronts the group. Then, shortly after discovering she’s pregnant, she catches her roommate in bed with her husband. She vows to take revenge by writing investigative articles that will implicate her former best friend in a plot to fire-bomb the campus theater, and her husband’s band for inciting a riot at a festival.

There Is Crying In Baseball

Now that the world has fallen off its axis, and we’re whirling into some unknown void, it’s time to take stock. Most of us, barring the experts who are paid to anticipate disasters, have been shaken out of the complacency of our daily lives. I suppose everyone has a moment when something like this hits home. If we’re lucky, it’s not that we’re actually sick with the virus, or know someone who is, or are faced with job or wage loss because of it. The absence of some of our favorite pastimes doesn’t compare in importance, yet it produces a punch in the gut just the same. It’s that moment when you realize this is going to be more than a temporary glitch.

I guess we all have selfish moments when it’s all about us and our loss. On March 12, I had casually tuned in a spring training match-up between the New York Yankees and my world champion Washington Nationals. The game meant nothing in terms of results, but afforded an opportunity to glimpse the sport after the winter layoff and watch the players prepare for the upcoming season. It’s a rite of spring as dependable as the crocuses coming out. Gradually, I realized that I might be watching the last game that would be played before a silent spring set in. Then confirmation came from Major League Baseball’s front office, like a lightning bolt, that all baseball operations would be suspended as of 4 p.m. that afternoon. It was 3:55 p.m. when the game I was watching finished. I couldn’t help letting out a sob.

The greatest thing about the 2019 Washington Nationals was their joyfulness. The dancing, the silly shark song, the champagne and beer flying during five clubhouse celebrations, each more raucous than the last. As often happens to teams that hit the pinnacle of success, there would likely have been a “World Series hangover.” That might have undercut the hunger and intensity of their play, but would have allowed the joy to continue. Now, that feeling is only a memory. I remember hugging strangers at the ballpark watch party on the night they won it all. On the subway train afterward, there was a communal rendering of “We Are The Champions.” I wonder how much longer it will be before anyone is comfortable with hugging friends, much less strangers. Close contact and shared emotions are an essential part of the ballpark experience. There is no way for us to get our sport back until the crisis has passed.

The Nats proved you can win it all without having the most talent, or intensity, or fire in your belly. You can do it with pure love of the sport and camaraderie with your teammates. That feeling would have lingered well into the new season, even if they didn’t repeat their championship run. Now, during what should be Opening Week, I can’t help letting out another private sob. I long for the time when comparatively trivial things like baseball begin to matter again. When that happens, we’ll have overcome the disaster.

Baseball Is Unreal

The baseball off-season has flown by, and soon it will be time for my Washington Nationals to begin defending their 2019 World Series title. I’ve enjoyed my past few months of resting on their laurels. Defending a title is a difficult task, even when the victory is less of a surprise (actually, a shock) than theirs was. Some pundits are even calling that recent triumph something of a fluke. If so, that’s a good thing. Without the high expectations of previous seasons, it seemed there was less pressure to choke them in the stretch run. Instead of taking “fluke” as an insult, why not revel in the magic of it?

Since my early childhood, the local ballpark has been a special place. Going there always felt like crossing the threshold to a different world. The stadium was part of its surrounding community, yet the dissension that wracked the city seemed to be left at the door. It was a safe space where fantasy could flourish. That happened in spite of, or maybe because of, the constant losing of my teams in years past. Both joy and sorrow were amplified.

Baseball is the greatest of the outdoor games, intimately entwined with all kinds of weather. The sport seems to embrace the changing seasons. There’s the promise of an often cold, early springtime Opening Day; the dog days of summer, a  sweaty grind that tests the mettle of players and fans alike; the crisp air and renewed excitement that a fall pennant race brings. Patience is needed to sit through rain delays that can last for hours, in some cases only to have the game postponed. The comparatively slow pace of the sport requires patient fans. It’s no longer the most popular pastime in the country, but it’s the most enduring. It has been providing metaphors for life for close to 170 years.

Looking back on the Nats’ World Series triumph, the culmination of many unlikely, come-from-behind victories, I wonder how a team in such an angry, polarized country came to be so joyous. It seemed they were always singing and dancing, celebrating individual as well as team triumphs. Some players were more demonstrative than others, but the spirit caught on. It was hilarious to see non-dancers, such as the rather straight-laced pitcher Stephen Strasburg, forced to join the communal dance because he’d just hit a rare home run. The young Dominican stars Juan Soto and Victor Robles must have relished demonstrating native dances such as the merengue. With a team as diverse as these Nationals, many different types of dance moves got air time. The crowds watching them provided a similar mix. How can things go so swimmingly in a ballpark, when the country’s political life is in the gutter? Maybe it’s because baseball is unreal.

Thomas Boswell wrote an in-season article about the team’s turnaround from a dispiriting first third of the season. Ultimate success was not yet in sight when his article appeared, but he recognized that a new spirit had come about when Gerardo Parra, a live wire from Venezuela but a mere journeyman let loose from his previous team, not only rejuvenated his career with the Nats, but introduced line-dancing to the dugout. Boswell wrote,  “Right now, from his role as team dance maestro and source of joy to his infrequent but valuable time on the field, Parra is the off-the-junk-heap symbol of a Nats team that thinks baseball is the jubilant, carefree, jump-up-and-dance game in the world … Yes, the worry-fee, high-flying, giddy-happy Nats.” Just as importantly, Parra introduced the Shark Song as the team’s unofficial theme song. It was his two-year-old daughter’s favorite, and a tune that inspired us all to act that age for a while.

The only sour note, in my eyes, occurred shortly after the season, when the World Series winners were invited to  hobnob with the president. To those few who declined the invitation, and especially to relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, who explained his reasons so eloquently, I say: Bravo! To those who partied at the White House, I say: I forgive you. Nobody hired you to be political pundits. Nobody expected you to be on the lookout for poison in high places. You demonstrated, by your own example, that a better spirit can prevail.

Lady Macbeth As Heroine

My 2010 novel, Let’s Play Ball, features a villainess named Guadalupe. She’s an American-born woman of Cuban descent, who throws away a marriage to a Cuban-born major league ballplayer that could have ensured a prosperous life in the United States. She believes she was meant for greater things on a wider stage. She grabs at that more meaningful life by catching the eye of the heir apparent to the presidency of Cuba during a rare state visit. She follows him back to the island to assume the role of first-lady-in-waiting, taking her young son without his father’s permission.

My villainess is not the type to sit back and watch from afar as her ex-husband, Manny, finds happiness with his second wife, Jessica, a glamorous sportswriter, and maneuvers to get his son back. She suffers international humiliation when the child is snatched from his nanny in a daring raid, and returned to the U.S. In revenge, she plots Manny’s kidnapping, bringing in a wide range of accomplices.

Guadalupe is far from the only evil character in the story, since it takes a rather large conspiracy to pull off the kidnapping of a major league ballplayer from his own ballpark. Is she worse than all the others, being the ultimate instigator of a crime against the man she once professed to love? Is she not only un-womanly but un-maternal, since the revenge factor seems to play a bigger role in her plotting than the custody issue?

Certain critics have pointed out that my other female characters don’t come off so great, either. Jessica and her fraternal twin sister Miranda, a homeland security bureaucrat, are the ostensible heroines as they set out to investigate the kidnapping. Although they make progress, their contentious relationship threatens to derail their efforts. They disagree, argue, and snipe at each other a lot along the way. In fact, catfights are a motif in this story. Certain powerful women come to the twins’ attention as suspects, and they, in turn, are fighting with each other. Come to think of it, catfights pop up fairly often in all of my stories. Don’t I like my own sex?

Guadalupe proves to be the lead villainess, the undeniable catalyst of all the mischief. Now I’m writing a sequel in which she becomes something of a heroine, at least in her own mind. Her evil ways continue as she instigates yet another kidnapping of a ballplayer, with less personal justification than before. Yet she feels driven by a higher purpose, a long-range goal that even she can’t define at first. She may be delusional, but she may be onto something.

Can an unapologetic villain possibly be sympathetic? And can people who seem to entertain grandiose ideas make themselves understood by rational minds? For that matter, is it necessary as authors to root for our viewpoint characters every minute?

While researching the subject of sympathetic villainesses, I came across an alternative take on Lady Macbeth. In Susan Fraser King’s Lady Macbeth: A Novel (2009), Shakespeare’s most wicked woman is given a rich backstory that helps to explain, if not justify, her wickedness. She was widowed while pregnant, and forced to marry the Scottish warlord Macbeth, her husband’s murderer. Although she initially despises this unnatural partner, the brutal world she inhabits forces her to join with him and share his plans. There are threats coming at the uneasy couple from all directions, including Vikings, Saxons, and competing warlords. Her own royal blood has given Lady Macbeth an imperious bearing and an awareness of her special destiny. Her twin goals of advancing her son and forging a united Scotland are not for the weak-hearted.

To find a more modern villain-hero, we can turn to the Star Wars universe. It seems that Kylo Ren, son of the original icons Hans Solo and Leia Organa, somehow turned evil. Given his parentage, he must have felt pressured from childhood to become the very embodiment of Jedi righteousness. Instead, in an extreme case of adolescent rebellion, he ends up leading an army against his heroic parents, even killing his dad. A analysis in Rolling Stone of the final Star Wars installment seems to relate this angst to modern times: “A confused, angry man-boy radicalized by powerful forces whispering in his ear, an heir to generational trauma raised in an era of endless war, is an all-too-believable threat.”

Adam Driver, who portrays Kylo Ren, explains the nuances of his role: “There’s something in having an antagonist who is a little more vulnerable That seems to be more relatable and human than just someone who is a psychopath.” He goes on to explain further that although his character is the villain “in some ways,” his actions can also be seen as heroic. This is one mixed-up universe, where a mass murderer is deemed “vulnerable” because he hesitated a moment, with pain in his eyes, before he wiped out an entire regiment of righteous warriors.

I haven’t seen “The Rise of Skywalker,” but it was widely speculated in advance that Ren must be headed toward some sort of redemption. That would seem to be necessary if the chemistry between him and Rey, his warrior-heroine opponent, is ever to develop. That would be the most predictable plot arc, although writers of sagas have been known to surprise us.

So that brings me back to my own Guadalupe, who will not live “happily ever after,” no matter where she ends up. She has never found contentment, either as a baseball wife in the U.S. or in her “Cuban first lady” pose. Nor will she ever settle for being a mere decoration, when she “knows” she’s destined to make her own unique mark on history. Is she a little bit crazy? No doubt, but she may just prove to be a little bit right.

We Are Un-Cursed

The unthinkable has happened. My town, surely the most beleaguered and unlucky locality on the face of the earth when it comes to my favorite sport, has delivered us a World Series championship. Much like the experts, I didn’t see it coming. During the first 50 games of the 2019 season, the Washington Nationals looked like an epic fail, and their manager’s head was on the block. Digging themselves out of that hole was a slow process. Unable to catch up to the division-leading Atlanta Braves, they had to settle for a “wild card” berth at season’s end. Three weeks before their great triumph, it still appeared that there were too many obstacles in their path, as in too many teams with superior talent contending in the playoffs. Two weeks before, it looked like a “nice try, but not quite enough” situation.  Even a week before, when they had made it to the mountain, it seemed doubtful that they could reach the summit. Going into the World Series, the Houston Astros, champions in 2017, were prohibitive favorites.

History was never on the Nats’ side. They had suffered four previous playoff failures in the first round, when they were the presumed favorites. That “Oh, no, not again” feeling reared its head many times during the 2019 playoffs, since they trailed in so many elimination games. The difference this time, I’m convinced, was that none of the most renowned “experts” expected them to win. They derived a weird magic, a defiant attitude, from that underdog status. It was more a question of chemistry than talent. Winning games you aren’t “supposed” to win must be the strongest tonic available.

I’ve written about baseball often on this blog, usually from a position of frustration and futility. My previous ranting on the subject reeks of heartache and longing. I managed to tap almost all of the metaphors for life situations that the sport seems to provide in abundance. I lectured myself incessantly about taking mere games too seriously. But it was difficult not to feel snake-bit. This is the town of two departed Washington Senators teams within my memory, following the 1960 and 1971 seasons. Then there were the 33 blank years between the departure of the second team and the arrival of the Nationals, a transfer from Montreal, where they’d been “owned” collectively by all the other Major League teams, and consequently allowed to die on the vine.

The new Nats, from 2005 on, toted up a list of failures that in some cases were so bizarre that they seemed to have the makings of a curse. When these things keep repeating, year after year, there doesn’t seem to be any rational explanation. So we resort to blaming those implacable baseball gods, as did Chicago Cubs fans, with their Curse of the Billy Goat, and Boston Red Sox fans, with their Curse of the Bambino. It required a World Series championship to un-jinx those franchises.

Through the years the Nats have had many players who through bad luck, or incompetence at just the wrong time, became associated with a particular brand of failure. They became our special punching bags, despite being talented players. To name only a few: Drew Storen, the closer who couldn’t get the umpire to call that last strike that would have won the 2012 divisional series; Cristian Guzman, a natural shortstop who owing to a personnel shortage one night, was tapped to play out of position in right field, where he famously lost what would have been a final out in the lights; Nook Logan, picked off third base for a final out, the type of boner even a Little League coach wouldn’t tolerate; Matt Wieters, whose brain was rocked by a follow-through swing, causing him to make an errant throw that lost the 2017 divisional series. These players would have been perfectly capable of contributing to a championship team, but they also demonstrated how easy it is to grab defeat from the jaws of victory.

Somehow, our luck changed. Someone on the opposing team had a “Bill Buckner moment” (that is, a ball through the legs in front of a nationwide audience). The weird stuff that had always happened to the Nats started happening to others. Assuming no one in our fan base made a pact with the devil, I suppose we were just overdue for some good luck. Still, this was supposed to be the place where it just couldn’t happen. We’ve been told time and again that our capital city is not a baseball town, and never can be. It’s too transient and bureaucratic. The ballpark on any given afternoon is full of spectators working on their laptops and tablets, who can’t bear to be unplugged from the office for a minute. But my own family history belies that.

My brother and I were raised on baseball. It was part of our parents’ dating life. The little girl still lurking in me associates the sport with warm summer days and nights, and brawny guys in white uniforms. RFK Stadium, where we spent most of our baseball time, was a rickety building by today’s standards, but to me it was a place of magic. Even televised baseball on the local level was fairly rare back then, so seeing it live was special. At World Series time, I used to rush home from school on those crisp October afternoons to see great players on television that I never glimpsed otherwise. Those games were taking place so far away, both in distance and aspiration, since the Senators never had a ghost of a chance. I suppose the futility stimulated my imagination. The Cordovox that played “You Gotta Have Heart” at every Senators home game underlined the dilemma: “heart” was all we had.

Is there a chance that when baseball resumes next season, I’ll be nostalgic for failure? On rereading parts of the baseball novel I published in 2010, Let’s Play Ball, and working on its sequel (Let’s Play Two, maybe), I sense a thread of longing running through the plots, a need to invent a team that enjoys ultimate success. I thought it would always be a mere fantasy. We indie writers know what it’s like to grasp at pipe dreams. If we should catch lightning in a bottle someday, as the Nats seem to have done, how would we deal with that jolt of good fortune? Some writers who break through that way actually handle it rather badly. Likewise, no baseball team is exactly the same season to season. Chemistry can’t be preserved in a jar, to be replicated like an experiment. Players leave via free agency or other means, often because it’s in their personal interest, or the team might let some of its older or more expensive stars go, judging it to be in their long-term interest. Repeating a championship seems to be one of the most difficult challenges in sports.

Ah, the perils of success. What a nice, unexpected problem to have.

My Novels Are Comics

Let’s Play Ball

Has there ever been a novelist, whether traditional, self-published, or in between, who didn’t envision his or her story made into a hit movie? With the avalanche of new books apparently hitting the market daily, that would be the best way to stand out–or ultimately, perhaps, the only way. It’s a worthy goal, but unfortunately, Hollywood is unlikely to come knocking on our doors unless we’re already renowned writers, or famous for something else.

Fortunately, there are mini-Hollywoods sprouting up everywhere these days. We live in an era when independent film-making is becoming a major thing. That means it’s at least possible to contemplate turning our written masterpieces into cinematic ones. But novel-writing and script-writing are distinct skills. Knowing nothing about the latter, I hired professionals to turn my first four novels into presentable scripts. I thought they all did a more than presentable job, and that all four would make decent feature films. The scripts are on display at sites like Inktip and Simplyscripts, and get a fair number of looks, but no producer with deep pockets has been wowed as yet.

If someone with only moderately deep pockets ever showed an interest, crowd sourcing would be one way of obtaining whatever additional funding was necessary. Another option might be to extract a few representative scenes from the feature script and make a short film. That would still require locating or organizing a temporary production company. I have succeeded in doing this once. In 2017, I extracted a short script called “Secretarial Spy” from a feature script called “Secretarial Wars,” based on my 2003 novel of the same name. A local film-making group turned this into a 13-minute piece called “The Investigation.” Although many changes were made to my original script, it was gratifying to see at least a germ of the original story survive. And it gave me an incentive to try to repeat that feat for the other three stories.

The Rock Star’s Homecoming

While waiting for a production company to materialize, another option is story-boarding.  This basically involves making comics, or graphic narratives, out of your proposed movies. I signed up with a website called Storyboard That, and gave it a try. It’s not quite like having real people recite your dialogue and enact your ideas, but it’s a start. To storyboard an entire feature film, which might require 100 or more panels, proved a little beyond the website’s present capability, so I tried to boil the strips down to a more manageable size.

It can be fun to illustrate a story this way, although it has its limitations. The characters that the website offers in similar age groups tend to look alike, although some of the women are more hefty or hip-looking than others (and at least one that I used is obviously pregnant). The men are either bearded or not, or dressed in business attire or not. The expressions, physical stances, and clothing color can be altered. You can also use your own pictures as backdrops or props. Captions are useful to set the scene, as a narrator or voice-over would.

Handmaidens of Rock

Sizing things correctly is probably the greatest challenge, and is part of what makes this style of comics truly comical. The Rock Star’s Homecoming features two college roommates who drive to New York to pick up the rock band that has agreed, despite its expulsion from the school two years before, to appear at the annual Homecoming dance. Placing the two girls inside a moving car was challenging, to say the least, since the steering wheel alone turned out too humongous for any reasonably sized driver to handle. In Let’s Play Ball, a young sportswriter, engaged to a star baseball player, is appointed to throw out the first ball at a championship game. It proved difficult to confine her to the pitcher’s mound, as she dominates the entire field, literally. For Handmaidens of Rock,  I tried to depict a young, nervous girl appearing onstage to sing lyrics she wrote herself, alongside the guitarist she loves. He backs her up admirably, taking up the whole backdrop, in fact.

Well, it’s better than nothing. Until that day when your story excites some hot-shot director or producer, here is a way to force your narratives, kicking and screaming, into life.

Anger Trumps Everything

I wake up most mornings in a decent mood, but things often go downhill within minutes.  Despite having retired from the Federal government over five years ago, I still get my wake-up call from Federal News Radio. Sometimes it’s nice to snuggle in bed and listen to reports of office struggles and piles of work that no longer concern me. That part is nice, although it tends to remind me of the way I used to have loads of stuff piled on me, often while certain pampered prima donnas were off on taxpayer-funded junkets or “retreats” (Retreat from what? I used to ask myself). As if that weren’t perfect for getting me off on the wrong foot, the Federal news is usually followed by the latest presidential twitter outburst, yet another ignorant rant or blatant lie from that twisted mind. Despite the current impeachment talk, I know in my heart that Trump will never be held accountable for anything, because he never has been, despite a lifetime of personal and business sleaze, followed by a corrupt-to-the bones presidency.

Naturally, that leads to a host of other annoyances, until I find myself mad at the entire country. How could the electorate let this happen? It must be a failure of the educational system. I see evidence of that every day. I don’t like to flaunt too much baby boomer superiority, but I gotta ask, when did they stop teaching history and civics in schools? I couldn’t have gotten out of high school without knowing something about the history of my country and the form of government I live under. Are these subjects too controversial these days? Are teachers being instructed to avoid any topics touching on politics for fear of offending somebody?  How, then, is a student ever going to be intellectually challenged? When a large part of the electorate appears to embrace a wannabe dictator, it points to a lack of both critical thinking ability and historical perspective.

This is not strictly the fault of right-wingers, in my opinion. So-called progressives are often guilty of closed-mindedness. For example, there have been battles in local school districts over Huckleberry Finn, arguably the greatest classic of American literature. Some authorities would like to sanitize it, if not ban it entirely, because some of the language is rough on delicate sensibilities. Today’s snowflakes cringe at anything that sounds racist to the modern ear, so they miss the point of the story, which is an eloquent indictment of racism. This inability to put things in context is both startling and alarming.

I also rail against the general loosening of grammatical rules, as if it foretold a barbarian invasion. Not that I’m grammatically perfect myself, but I have particular trouble with the current fad for disguising gender by using a plural pronoun. Something like this often pops up in popular advice columns: “After my partner had tried to find out what was going on with me, I told them how deeply hurt I was.” Unless the writer is actually dealing with multiple partners, this is simply incorrect. I want to shout out: For the love of the English language, people, pick a gender and stick to it. It’s not going to blow your cover. So what if you happen to reveal that your spouse is a man? The world is full of male spouses.

I realize, of course, that there are times when the plural pronoun is being used to make a political point, especially when the subject’s gender is undetermined or in transition. Still, in most instances, that person identifies as either male or female, or closer to one gender than the other. Why not use the preferred gender pronoun, even if a transition is underway and is not yet complete? The Washington Post recently published an intriguing article entitled “A Mother, But Not A Woman.” The subject of the article intended to become male, yet didn’t want to lose the chance to give birth. The sentence “He is a mother” might sound peculiar, but it would underscore that such things are possible in this day and age. And while I’m at it, I’d like to squelch the indiscriminate use of apostrophes when a possessive is not involved, as in “To all artists and writer’s, welcome.” And please, let’s deep-six  “alright” for good.

When anger intrudes on our entertainment, it’s time to chill. For me, baseball has long provided an escape from more serious worries, but sometimes it makes for more aggravation. Sports fans, by definition, are unreasonable, and even those rooting for the same team fight like cats and dogs over every point of strategy. I belong to a Facebook group devoted to my team, the Washington Nationals, that regularly turns into a battle ground. If the team loses, it has to be someone’s fault; it can’t just be that the other team was better or luckier that day.

The group’s primary punching bag is the beleaguered second-year manager, Davey Martinez. This Davey-hatred has abated a little recently, in view of the team’s recent success, but I have no doubt it will rev up again as soon as the Nats fail to win the World Series. Many fans declare that the wins come about in spite of Davey’s stupidity, not because he could possibly have done something right for a change. There is a serious lack of perspective whenever one game goes wrong. In the course of a 162-game regular season, they demand that the manager go for broke and fire all his bullets every time out. That simply isn’t possible, unless it really is an elimination game and there’s no tomorrow to consider.

This strikes me as another form of Trumpism, which boils down to overly simplistic thinking. Second-guessing fans tend to forget that they have the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, which the manager didn’t have when he made whatever decision blew up in his face. I’ve given up trying to convince some people that a bad play, or a blown save, or a missed offensive opportunity could be the result of a player’s failure to execute. Maybe it looks like Martinez put the wrong guy in the wrong situation, but it’s not like he had a ton of better options. Since managers and coaches don’t rise to the level of hero worship that players do, it’s easier to call for their heads. We’d all like to think that if the decision-makers could be replaced, every player would instantly find his inner Babe Ruth or Walter Johnson, and joy would reign throughout Nats Land. I don’t claim to be a fount of wisdom all the time, but I do value reason and intellect, even as a fan. It may take me twenty-four hours or so after a painful loss, but at some point I try to develop some perspective, remind myself it’s just a game, and stop cursing the baseball gods.

Another bad trend I’ve noticed lately is that everyday unpleasantness is getting worse. For the most part, I’ve learned to walk away from rude people, rather than to let a situation escalate. Similarly, I scroll through screeds from Facebook “friends” that I know are full of right-wing nonsense and crazy conspiracy conspiracies. I haven’t “un-friended” anybody over that; I simply refuse to engage.

Still, I don’t think it’s advisable to zone out entirely. Anger can certainly motivate a writer. Looking back, I find that my novels are full of scenes plucked from real life, many of which gave me serious heartburn at the time. My stories deal with turbulent marriages, clueless bosses, workplace cliques, snobbish schoolmates, jealousy, desire for revenge, and many bad situations I’ve dealt with at some time or other. I also like to write about politics, and have always been most roused by politicians I find abhorrent. Now I’m being treated to a daily smorgasbord of stupidity, corruption, incompetence, and cruelty, all wrapped up in one person. I say, don’t sanitize it. Use it.

The Game Of Thrones Effect

I  experienced the “Game of Thrones” phenomenon, much like the earlier “Harry Potter” fad, by sticking my toes in tentatively rather than immersing myself in the lengthy narrative. I read the first book in the series, A Song of Ice and Fire, watched the first season videos, and dipped in occasionally thereafter, to get an idea of what the excitement was about. As with Harry and his cohorts, I definitely got it, and I was curious about how it would end, but that was all I needed. To experience it in its entirety would take years.

I find that “Games of Thrones” can influence my writing without my fully comprehending it. George R. R. Martin has created an alternate universe, one that is medieval, brutal, and warlike. It’s a place where you don’t reason with your enemies. You behead them, throw them off a cliff, or poison them. If for some reason you prefer to keep them alive to prolong their suffering, dismemberment is the method of choice. There are no real consequences for violent behavior, other than the certainty of making more enemies. Warriors fight to advance their respective kingdoms, with one overriding throne in contention. There are no nations, and no seasons as we know them on earth. It has been summer for ages, but everyone can sense the approach of winter, which will seem never-ending and make for an even harsher world.

This sort of reality-altering creation has somehow freed up my own imagination. I feel just a tad better about what my critique group sometimes calls my “plausibility issues.” I suspect many of us genteel fiction writers might get a boost from tales like GoT. It seems to make honesty and rawness more possible for every writer. For example, I’ve always been squeamish about sex scenes, but I recently attempted one that is downright kinky. It involves a powerful woman taking advantage of a vulnerable man. I gave it a fairy tale sheen, comparing it to a popular story in which an evil witch kidnaps a handsome prince.

Now I can admit that my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball, and its intended sequel with the working title Let’s Play Two, really do inhabit an alternate world. I invented a new Cuba, an island south of Florida that is more brazen and more of a player on the world stage than the real Cuba ever was or probably will be. Council meetings at the presidential palace resemble the mad hatter’s tea party. This country keeps acting up and committing outrages against the United States, mostly by making use of its baseball connections. American leaders not only tolerate these shenanigans, but sometimes subtly encourage them for their own purposes. One of my critique group members complained, “I don’t believe all this presidential stuff!” I didn’t totally believe it myself, but I couldn’t help liking the “presidential stuff.” In fact, I’m beginning to think “Games of Thrones” may have inspired aspects of Trump World, or maybe vice versa. The one adviser to the original King Robert who was a true friend of his, and had enough courage and integrity to tell him the truth, was beheaded for his efforts. The beheadings in Trump World may be symbolic, but truth and integrity lose out just the same.

Similarly, this is a world totally devoid of political correctness. The dwarf Tyrion Lannister, despite being high-born, witty, and suave, is referred to as the “imp” or “half-man.” He is defined by his most obvious physical attribute, until he manages to push himself onto the field of battle, the only way a man can earn respect in this world. Jon Snow is forever “the bastard,” as if the circumstances of his birth were his own fault. Luckily for him, he’s a born fighter. The story’s treatment of women is also dicey. They are roughly divided into prostitutes, wenches, and high-born women, with very little in the way of normal housewives. Cersei, Robert’s unfaithful wife, is pure evil, producing prospective heirs not only by adultery but by incest. “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” she pronounces, and she should know. The wives of powerful men are mostly heir-producers, and no matter how grand and beautiful, can be silenced at any time by their husbands with a sharp “Enough, woman!” This is true until Daenerys Targaryen comes into her own with an inherited title and dragons to help her conquer all … and unfortunately, a perpetual target on her back.

My favorite characters in the first season were the two battling sisters, Sansa and Arya Stark, daughters of the beheaded adviser and therefore always in mortal trouble themselves. They remind me of my close but competitive fraternal twins in Let’s Play Ball.  One of the twins is having an affair with a ballplayer whom the other twin suspects of participating in a kidnapping plot against a teammate of his, who happens to be her own fiancé. That makes for an awkward family dynamic, but they have nothing on the Stark sisters. Sansa, the oldest, is expected to marry the creepy heir to the throne who oversaw her father’s execution without a shimmer of remorse. Arya, refreshingly, saw through the loathsome fiancé long before her sister did. She trains to fight back as a warrior, although there is the drawback of being mistaken constantly for a boy.

“Game of Thrones” can be taken as a delightful vacation from reality, one that encourages us all to take similar flights. The only trouble with this formula is that the real world keeps getting weirder. Somehow, the wildest fantasies don’t seem so implausible anymore.

Rewriting Tragedy

I get frustrated easily. It’s a flaw I keep trying to work on, but it’s been a lifelong battle. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for anger, but there are also many “small stuff” things that you’re not supposed to sweat so much. Those include slights and conflicts far in the past that can’t be altered now, but that continue to generate grudges. Add to that the trivial day-to-day things that I take too seriously, and can do very little to alleviate, like the bumbling of my incompetent sports teams, and the inevitable stupidity of politicians. These feelings are silly, self-destructive, useless … unless you happen to be a writer.

Writers can make use of everything. We have our best fun re-imagining things that went sour and turning them into something quite the opposite. Almost anything can be rewritten to give it a satisfactory resolution. A sports fan like me can transform disappointments into triumphs like magic. I can make my team win, even if their real-life performance fell short. Baseball is my favorite sport, not only because of the athleticism and skill it requires to play at a high level, but because each individual game is full of mini-dramas and seemingly little things that can turn a result around. Games lost in this way are no tragedy for a fan, but sometimes a capricious turn of events can shadow an individual career forever after.

As a Washington Nationals fan, I’ve never quite recovered from the “tragedy” of Drew Storen, the one-time closer who “should” have salted away a victory in the National League divisional playoff series against the St. Louis Cardinals in 2012. He would have done so, if he had gotten the benefit of the doubt on two borderline pitches that could have been called third strikes in the ninth inning of Game 5. After failing to get the calls, he went on to lose the game, and the Nats lost the series in a year when they were arguably the best team in baseball, all primed to win a championship. The shadow of that loss seemed to stay with Storen, and history repeated itself eerily in another divisional series two years later. I’m convinced his whole career, at least in DC, would have taken a different course if he hadn’t been “cheated” in 2012 by an umpire who inexplicably narrowed his strike zone at the end of the game. As it is, Storen became a something of a punching bag, a symbol of failure in local sports lore. He was cut loose from the Nationals, and has been mostly wandering around in the wilderness ever since. The Nationals lost two more divisional series after his departure, and some of us still find a way to blame him, as if the stench of failure he left behind still hangs over us.

That sports tragedy is nothing compared to that perpetrated by (and on) Bill Buckner, who played for five Major League teams from 1969 to 1990, won a batting title in 1980, was named to the National League All-Star team in 1981, yet continues to be a national joke owing to a single fielding error he made while playing for the Boston Red Sox. Unfortunately, he picked the worst possible time to commit that outrage. According to Wikipedia, Buckner is “best remembered for a ground ball fielding error in the tenth inning that ended Game 6 of the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets, a play that has since become prominently entrenched in American baseball lore. Buckner’s error epitomized the ‘Curse of the Bambino’ of Red Sox fans, and he soon became the scapegoat for a frustrated fan base.”

Overall in his career, Buckner was a reliable contact hitter and wasn’t prone to making fielding errors. The importance of his mistake was exaggerated; it did not, in fact, cost the Red Sox the World Series that year, although many fans believe to this day that it did. Buckner’s chronic ankle problems might have hindered him in getting to the ball in question, and the fast runner who had hit it might have beaten it out anyway. Untimely injuries, and opponents who happen to be a little luckier or better at a given time, are frequent hazards in baseball. It should also be noted that the Red Sox went on to blow a lead in game 7 of that World Series, so there should have been enough blame to spread around.

Buckner didn’t last much longer in Boston, as the fans continued to act ugly in 1987 although he was playing well. He and his family were harassed with death threats, and the news media was making too much hay from the incident to let it go. It took years for the fans and Buckner himself to develop some perspective on it. When he returned to Boston’s Fenway Park as a free agent near the end of his career, most fans seemed ready to “forgive” him. After his playing days ended, he involved himself in several businesses, did some coaching, and made television appearances in which he willingly remained the butt of that eternal joke. It seems that one fluky error defines him more than a respectable major league career spanning 22 years.

Baseball fans are particularly prone to heartache, since there are so many close-call losses. Sometimes the loss is so gut-wrenching, a matter of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory at the last second, that it seems impossible to move on. We declare that this is the worst defeat ever, that we’ll never recover, that we must shun our favorite players until they rouse themselves and give us a reason to watch again. Luckily, unless the fan in question is the kind of nut case who spews death threats, perspective tends to return by the next day. That’s fortunate, since it gives us time to prepare for the next heartbreak that is no doubt just around the corner.

So why do I stick with something that causes so much “pain”? Well, the wins can be euphoric, and the losses can be rewritten. I attempted something like this in my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball, in which the long-awaited championship run of the local baseball team parallels the blossoming lives and loves of the fraternal twin sisters whose fortunes are entwined with the team’s.

How I wish political realities could be rewritten as easily. The results of the 2016 US presidential election are difficult to put into perspective as yet. Rewriting the results seems next to impossible while we’re still experiencing the tumultuous aftermath, and have no way of knowing how much stranger it might get in the next two years. But as the lies and outrages multiply daily, some form of escape seems necessary. I long to see a work of fiction that portrays a Trump-like figure and his abhorrent enablers finally plummeting to the humiliating defeat that they so richly deserve. In fact, I’m half inclined to give it a try.