April 2, 2017
I fell in love with baseball as a child. It’s been an enduring if uneasy relationship. My early associations with the sport were mostly joyful, win or lose … a good thing, since it was mostly about losing for my Washington Senators. Low expectations can make life easier sometimes. Even the Senators had their memorable moments, enough to provide an occasional lift for their long-suffering fans. But like most other relationships, my bond with baseball became more complicated as I grew up. When did I allow the love of the game to become sullied by anger and disappointment? Why did I begin to take losing too seriously? Was it because my new team, the Washington Nationals, has managed to raise expectations without totally fulfilling them?
The start of a new baseball season, being nearly synonymous with the beginning of spring, always brings an easing of the heart. I recall those Sunday mornings during the warm weather months when the anticipation of seeing a baseball game was as exciting as the reality. My dad often played golf on Sunday mornings, and I would get down in the dumps if it looked like he wouldn’t get back in time to go to the ballpark. But he usually did, and I was ecstatic. If it rained on a day when we had planned to go, I was inconsolable. My parents tried to dream up distractions, but nothing could really replace the game.
Maybe losses didn’t linger as much then because everything apart from the win-loss record fascinated me. I loved the ballpark atmosphere … and in those days, they were just ballparks, not amusement parks. That’s not to say I don’t think the Nationals are smart to try to draw in young fans by creating a carnival atmosphere on the ground floor of Nationals Park. Petco Park in San Diego, which I visited last summer, also features something of an amusement park, although it’s mainly outside the stadium. Still, I miss the simplicity of earlier times, when the green glow of an outfield underneath stadium lights had its own allure. Some of the vendors were entertainers who developed their own shtick. The phrases they used to pitch ice cream and peanuts would become so familiar that kids would start chanting the words as soon as the guys approached.
The capricious weather of spring and summer adds excitement, at least when the game is played outdoors as the baseball gods intended. Nowadays, teams can’t really afford to cancel games, so they play through or around bad weather as best they can. Rain delays must be handled strategically, since pitchers’ arms are particularly sensitive to being shut down and started up again. On summer evenings lightning often crackles in the distance, and the sound of thunder adds a sense of urgency. Certain cloud formations seem to occur only over a ballpark. And there are those sublime moments when a rainbow signals the resumption of play.
The romantic feelings I harbored as a child centered more strongly on some players than others. There was something mesmerizing about the look of strong, healthy young men in uniforms performing athletic feats. I wanted to know more about them, but there wasn’t much to know. In those days before social media exposed everything, often spreading tall tales in the process, the private lives of athletes weren’t discussed beyond the few basic facts they chose to reveal. Besides that, baseball used to be more of a radio than a TV game, which required fans to exercise more imagination. Even games that were televised didn’t reveal every facial expression and nuance, with replays from every possible angle, the way they do now.
Maybe that’s what got me started making up baseball stories. My imagination concocted pennant races that never happened in real life. Nowadays, some of the romance disappears when you can plainly see the grimaces, pain, and occasional temper tantrums that the game brings about. Nationals fans knew that their fortunes were about to plummet when their young ace Stephen Strasburg blew out his elbow in 2010. His agony, matched by the genuine grief on the face of his pitching coach, was unforgettable. Toward the end of the Nationals’ disappointing 2015 campaign, their fans were treated to the sight of hotheaded closer Jonathan Papelbon losing his temper and putting a choke move on the equally hotheaded star Bryce Harper, who had objected to being criticized by the older player. Our dysfunctional baseball family was exposed in all its warts.
I’d like to reignite some of the old-time joy, if only because the current national mood is so grim, tense, and angry. We need distractions more than ever, and we need to genuinely enjoy them. We don’t need more anger and angst from sports, which are supposed to entertain us. If Nats fans must “hate” Mets fans, or vice versa, it should be a fun kind of hate. Sometimes I allow my dismay about other things, like the state of the country, to muddy life’s simpler pleasures, like watching a competitive game. But if we’re determined to take it seriously, we might as well learn one of the main lessons of baseball: it’s more real life than fantasy. It brings lots of pain to those who care. There is no time clock, which means that anything can happen in any given contest. You can lose a game that you led by ten runs. You can lose that game even if there were two outs in the ninth. These are not tragedies, although they sometimes feel like it.
Thomas Boswell, the superb columnist for the Washington Post, often lectures Nationals fans who devalue the team’s sustained excellence over the past several regular seasons because of their flame-outs in the playoffs. During a recent chat on the Post website, he wrote, “The first responsibility of a sports fan is to figure out: How can I get the most pleasure, the most fun, the most laughs and relaxation for my time and my dollar, for myself, my family and my friends as I possibly can while also being mature enough not to be bothered a great deal — or at least not for very long — by anything that goes wrong.” He sees this as a lack of perspective: “a kind of willful illness, a lack of basic wisdom and judgment about how to weigh our relative experiences, that troubles me and makes me wonder if we are seeing some distortion that is a characteristic of contemporary times.” Words to live by, from April to October.
December 5, 2015
These days I feel an urge to occupy something. As a progressive from the school of aging baby boomers, I find the current political climate and level of discourse in the US increasingly scary. As far back as I can remember, political institutions have never been as dysfunctional as they are now. We baby boomers have a tendency to exaggerate our exploits and insist that we used to be more astute and involved than today’s kids. Back in our day, we stopped the Vietnam War, invented civil rights and women’s liberation, pulled off Woodstock, and accomplished much of this while half-stoned. My Republican parents tried to steer my brother and me toward their brand of conservatism, but it didn’t work. The “Greatest Generation” and its values were just too different.
My parents’ party has now gone off the rails, as they would agree if they were still around. The two front runners for the 2016 presidential nomination as of this date are astoundingly unqualified for high office. The more childish and bizarre their pronouncements, the more their fan base cheers. Worse, they’ve managed to intimidate more mainstream Republican candidates into adopting equally crazy or demagogic positions. Listening to these gentlemen debate, I wait in vain for the rare reasonable statement based on verifiable facts, or a policy proposal that could actually be implemented, or even a message that isn’t hate-filled venom. That is a very low bar for our national politics.
It’s a relief to have a forum where I can state my beliefs plainly, but it’s not a good technique for writing fiction. Since my stories tend to harken back to my youth, politics has a way of sneaking into them. Critics justifiably warn us of the dangers of turning what should be entertaining stories into polemics. Two of my novels feature fictional presidents who are corrupt and bellicose, and are obviously Republicans. Still, they don’t hold a candle to the real-life buffoons of this day and age. You couldn’t make up candidates like Trump and Carson. It’s even getting difficult for comedians to satirize them, as the reality almost matches the caricature. My writing inevitably reflects my beliefs and career experiences from over 40 years in government and quasi-government, but it’s best to keep these things understated while telling a story. I prefer to think I’m standing up not for a particular candidate or platform, but for reason and compassion.
My 2003 novel, Secretarial Wars, was inspired by my first permanent job after college. I spent more than five years during the 1970s at the Fulbright grants program, an international exchange program for scholars. My novel describes an agency called, somewhat ironically, the Peace Council. It’s an organization that awards grants to send professors and researchers overseas to disseminate American values. My heroine, Miriam, is a secretary at the Council and an aspiring investigative journalist on the side. She suspects that the program is serving to mask a corrupt administration’s interference with the political and economic systems of certain vulnerable nations.
Nothing like this ever happened in real life, to my knowledge. But it could have, if an evil deputy director got into bed, literally and politically, with an evil President. Miriam tries to gather enough evidence to write an explosive article for an underground rag, but she is hampered by her conflicting desire to advance in the organization, as well as her unhealthy attraction to the lecherous newspaper editor. One reader who critiqued Secretarial Wars thought the corrupt president was inspired by George W. Bush. It’s true the book was published during W’s term, but it took so long to write that the era it depicts more closely resembles his dad’s.
In Let’s Play Ball (2010), I mixed up sports and politics, to the confusion and disapproval of some critics. The story centers on fraternal twin sisters Jessica and Miranda, baseball fans since childhood, close but competitive in their personal relationship. Jessica is the founder and editor of an innovative sports magazine, while Miranda has a more traditional but important job as a bureaucrat in the Department of Homeland Security. While they share a liberal outlook, Miranda accuses Jessica of taking her beliefs to an extreme, especially when the intense reporter sets out to investigate her suspicions of racism on the local baseball team. Jessica’s Cuban-born fiancé, the right fielder, is soon to be a free agent, and she fears he won’t get the contract offer he deserves from the biased owners. Then her world blows apart when he is kidnapped from his own ballpark after a season-ending game. Now she envisions a vast criminal conspiracy in which the team owner and his daughter are complicit.
My astute critique group accused me of using Jessica to lecture my readers about the insidiousness of racism. I was preaching to the choir in that group anyway, they pointed out. But how can that be, I protested, when Miranda is the viewpoint character, and she rolls her eyes whenever Jessica gets too strident for her? Furthermore, Miranda is friendly with a few of the teammates whom Jessica has pegged as racists, and is having an affair with one of them. Even so, my friendly readers insisted, we can hear your political voice bellowing through.
Politics turned out to be unavoidable in Handmaidens of Rock (2014), my tale of a young musical trio and its groupies. I tried to recreate the turbulent era of my high school and college days, the late 1960s and early 1970s. Wherever their budding careers take them, the musicians can’t escape the threat of a military draft. Scared and confused, they write and perform both peace-and-love and militant songs. The threat of violence follows them, and real bombs go off around them. This was an era when radical leftists co-opted the antiwar movement with their bombings and crime sprees, giving all of us who protested the war a bad name.
I recently finished reading Days of Rage (2015), Bryan Burrough’s fascinating account of the political violence that permeated that era. He quoted at length Joseph Conner, whose father Frank, a 33-year-old banker, was killed in the infamous Fraunces Tavern bombing by Puerto Rican radicals. The younger Conner deplores current efforts to rehabilitate some of the self-styled revolutionaries of that era on the grounds that they’ve lived exemplary lives since then. “To think that America thinks none of this ever happened, that it’s not even remembered, it’s astounding to me. You know, I blame the media. The media was more than happy to let all this go. These were not the kinds of terrorists the liberal media wanted us to remember, because they share a lot of the same values. They were terrorists. They were just the wrong brand. My father was murdered by the wrong politics. By leftists. So they were let off the hook.”
I agree with Joseph Conner up to a point. The bombers and bank robbers of that era were indeed terrorists. But I disagree with his assertion that liberals are incapable of calling these criminals by their right name, when I know many of us do. I’d like to see more right-wingers who are equally capable of condemning the bombers of abortion clinics. Political messages delivered with hate lose any high ground they ever had, and become more pernicious than the wrongs they claim to be fighting.
December 8, 2014
I’m trying to circulate three screenplays based on my novels, and Hollywood has yet to start knocking down my doors. So I thought I’d try posting one of them, Let’s Play Ball, on the Amazon Studios site. The response there hasn’t exactly been overwhelming either, but the site does give aspiring moviemakers the chance to have a little fun. By uploading your script and converting it to Rich Text Format (RTF), you have the capacity to turn the story into a series of storyboards via a new application called Amazon Storyteller.
This is an innovation that allows the aspiring filmmaker to choose from a stock supply of backgrounds, characters, and props to visualize scenes from a script. Each board has a caption which sets the scene and contains dialogue. You can also use backgrounds of your own, which I needed to do in order to get ballpark scenes into my story. The result is more like a graphic novel or a cartoon than a movie. Amazon is reportedly working to add to its stock of graphics–maybe robots and spaceships some day, they say.
The fun part is learning, mostly by trial and error, how to manipulate the scenes to make them halfway realistic. You can move around characters, scale them to size, change their clothes and facial expressions, give them props, whatever it takes to make them do whatever they’re supposed to be doing. But because of the limitations of this brand-new application, what you get sometimes resembles a frustration dream rather than a narrative. For example, I’ve been struggling to get a group of diners to sit at a table instead of standing around it, staring at a bottle of wine. I’d like my heroine to be able to hold a cell phone in her hand instead of making it levitate in front of her. There’s also the challenge of clothing the characters appropriately.
Who knows, maybe I’m conjuring up actual nightmares that ballplayers have about showing up on the diamond out of uniform, or missing the game because they got stuck in the bleachers. Certainly all of us office drones have had dreams about showing up at work wearing safari or beach clothing, or something even more revealing. During one intense scene between an employee and her boss, I experimented with various gestures, including one in which she appeared to give him the finger. She actually looked happy when he suspended her, so a facial expression adjustment was necessary. I’ve also accidentally created a floating microphone at a press conference, and floating sandwiches that literally flew off a shelf.
But perhaps the main thing for achieving realism in a movie: how do you force these stock characters to get intimate with each other? They don’t seem disposed to embrace or to sit down together, much less to lie down. So far, Amazon Storyteller doesn’t appear to lend itself to hot and heavy lovemaking.
June 15, 2014
I’ve avoided reading bad reviews for a while now. I’ve heard too many cruel jibes about my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball, which admittedly has a complicated plot. Recently, via Google, I discovered a couple of not-so-bad reviews. A few readers have had the patience to stay with the story until it resolved itself. At least they admit there is a story. But I recognize that complex plots, with lots of characters, need simplifying if we want them to be made into movies … and who doesn’t?
I submitted all three of my novels to professional screenwriters who attempted to transform them into cinematic products. I was warned in advance that large portions of the original stories would likely end up on the cutting room floor, as movies require a more streamlined plot and cast of characters than novels do. So how much do I miss the parts that had to go?
There was no getting around the fact that Let’s Play Ball needed simplification, although the basics were spared. It’s about a Cuban-born Major League ballplayer who is kidnapped from his own ballpark and transported back to his homeland. His sportswriter fiancée and her fraternal twin sister, sometimes assisted and sometimes impeded by the police, set out to discover who did it, and why. My story involves collusion between two filthy-rich and powerful owners with political connections that reach as far as the White House and the Cuban government. A militia movement assists with the kidnapping for its own racist reasons. The smoking gun is revealed via an Oval Office tape, secretly recorded by the President’s girlfriend as punishment for his perceived betrayal of her. Along the way, there are plenty of other sexual hi-jinks.
The screenplay, by contrast, boils down the evil governments and militias to single individuals with simpler motives than world domination. For example, a mechanic named Ricky tampers with a player’s motorcycle. He has no notion of trying to expose Oval Office chicanery. He’s merely working for a baseball owner whose motive is preventing an embarrassing revelation about steroid use on his team. The evil owner, whose son-in-law is a U. S. Senator, isn’t exposed via secret tapes. Instead, his daughter confronts one of the avenging twins, who possesses damning evidence against her, in the bathroom at a political fundraiser. This leads to the arrest of both owner and daughter in front of a roomful of supporters.
I’m not saying a book should try to be a movie, as they are vastly different animals. But my story became more cinematic by acquiring visual settings: a Congressional hearing room, a press conference, a raucous fundraiser. Eye-catching images were added: a smashed vehicle, a woman throwing out a first pitch, a car alarm that creates a distraction outside a ballroom. Not to mention the hot lovemaking, which I suspect would come across even hotter on the screen than it does in the pages of the novel.
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.
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.
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?
January 1, 2013
I’ve been giving my three novels away. They are free in digital form, and as cheap as I can make them in print form. And when I say free, I mean totally and sincerely and forever, not just temporarily free as part of a promotion.
Why do I give away my work? After all, it is hard work, even if it’s fun. I do it because writing is a hobby, a passion, a diversion from real life. I never planned to make spare change from it, much less a living.
It’s not because I don’t believe in these stories, in spite of what certain one-star trolls posing as “reviewers” have suggested. My only purpose is to increase readership (and I do have a few thousand downloads). Believe me, I worked just as hard on these books as if I’d planned on charging $10.
That’s not to say a little money and recognition wouldn’t be nice. It’d be great if my hobby turned into a semi-hobby some day, but it’s not essential. I do have a day job that pays the bills, although retirement looms in the not too distant future, and there are numerous threats to Federal employment and pensions looming on the horizon.
How do other authors feel about charging or not charging for their writing? Are you okay with getting little out of your work other than the joy to be found in the process itself, and the satisfaction of perhaps having entertained a few readers along the way?