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.

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.

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.

We Need Baseball More Than Ever

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.

Can I Call My Team The Redskins?

1113161412aI’m an ardent sports fan, so it’s hardly surprising that three of the four novels I’ve self-published so far deal with sports teams and their fans. It’s challenging, to say the least, to describe the drama and excitement that live games can produce. My attempts along these lines are based, somewhat loosely, on actual DC-based baseball and football teams that I have known and loved over the years. Accordingly, the question has arisen: how permissible is it to use actual names of sports teams in a fictional work?

Most legal experts who give advice on this subject seem to think it isn’t a big deal, unless one of two situations applies: you’re a famous author whose use of the name is likely to attract widespread attention, or you have a beef with the organization and are attempting to sully its reputation. Neither of these situations is all that likely to come up in a self-published novel, or at least to be noticed by many readers. In any event, there are far too many books published each year for the legal profession to monitor.

Nevertheless, this issue is getting more attention in the self-publishing industry than it used to. In my 2003 novel Secretarial Wars, football is a peripheral part of the story, merely a stimulant to the secretaries who follow the team as fans and cherish hopes of meeting the players. My editors back then made no objections to my using the actual names of longtime divisional rivals, the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys. I didn’t use real names for my star players, although I suspect their real-life counterparts would have been easily identifiable to a long-time fan.

Fast forward a few years, and it seems the self-publishing industry has advanced far enough to take the trademark and libel issues almost as seriously as traditional publishers do. So by the time I published my third novel, Let’s Play Ball in 2010, I was advised to change the names of the baseball teams I had referred to in the original manuscript. Thus, the Washington Nationals became the Washington Filibusters, and the Miami Marlins became the Florida Keys. The story includes a well-traveled player who managed to wear the uniforms of both New York teams in the same year. They were supposed to be the Yankees and the Mets, separated only by a long subway ride, but they were called something else.

1019041330Now I have a novel-in-progress, tentatively entitled “Sycophants,” in which football is a more integral part of the story. It revolves around a movie producer operating in Washington, DC, who is married to a star football player for the Redskins. The success of her current film-making endeavor depends at least partly on the fortunes of his playoff-bound team.

By the way, I’m sidestepping the entirely separate debate currently raging about the name “Redskins,” a team moniker which has been in use in Washington since 1937, and four years before that in Boston. It seems likely that modern racial sensitivities would prevent a new team from receiving that nickname today, and would also preclude many other team names and mascots that are still in use. I sympathize with those sensitivities, up to a point. I’m a progressive when it comes to politics, but I’m not a big fan of political correctness. In cases like long-enduring nicknames, I feel that context is everything. These names have sentimental associations and historical significance to fans. By some accounts, the original Redskins nickname was intended to honor a member of the Sioux tribe who coached the team during its Boston days. Further, polls have shown that Native Americans, who presumably have the most at stake in this debate and the most reason to be offended, actually care very little.

That leaves me with a nagging temptation to call my fictional team by a genuine, 84-year-old name. Somehow, it makes the team I’m writing about more real to me. It also complicates matters by being set in a past, around 1990, that many fans can remember. How confounding would it be to give them an altogether different past from the real one? Since it’s fiction, I can theoretically do anything I choose. Still, an author depends on the willing suspension of disbelief, and messing with that can be dangerous.

The Baby Boom Still Roars

images (4)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.

Are You Writing A Saga?

Secretarial Wars still shotWhen I self-published my first novel, Secretarial Wars, in 2003, the industry was less advanced than it is now, and both readers and reviewers were hard to find. Only a few were willing to take on my fairly long and complicated tale, inspired by my own secretarial experiences, friendships, and romances when I was a twenty-something in Washington, DC. The story focuses on three women, aged 24 to 35, with 27-year-old Miriam as the viewpoint character. There are numerous secondary characters, especially gossipy office colleagues and troublesome boyfriends.

I was fortunate enough to attract a thoughtful, if rather brutal review from a reader based in England. She did say, encouragingly, that she “enjoyed the banter between the three friends and wanted to know what would happen to them.” But that was somewhat negated by “lack of pace and over-complexity of plot.” In short, I was accused of writing a saga when the chicklit-style story didn’t support it.

The three friends, I must admit, are rather bumbling, as the reviewer said. She complained of too many details about “American football matches” that the girls take in, mostly for the purpose of trying to meet players after the games. Nobody can say the women aren’t ambitious in their own ways, yet the reviewer accused them of lacking “gumption.” Miriam, for example, wants to write an exposé that would blow her own government agency out of the water, yet fails for months to uncover the corruption simmering at her workplace. Perhaps overly cautious, she can’t afford to lose her job for the sake of investigative journalism.

The reviewer complains that “there are far too many characters for a story that is neither a saga nor a blockbuster.” But how, exactly, does a story qualify as a saga? Does it have to be multi-generational, like The Forsyte Saga, or about a family caught up in historic conflicts, like War And Peace? Can’t my story be a mini-saga, since the girls do manage to shake up their own little corners of the nation’s capital?

Maybe the places where they hang out are just too seedy. At their favorite night club, which one of the girls co-manages, they get to hobnob with a second-tier elite, including a faded football star and an underground newspaper editor. The climactic scene of the story features a fundraiser held at the club for a long-shot Mayoral candidate. Things get out of hand, and the girls end up spending the night in jail. Through all their tribulations, they don’t really resolve anything, except to grow up a bit. So how often do we start out writing stories that feel like epics/sagas/blockbusters at first, only to fall a little short?