Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What Ever Happened To?

Perhaps it's holy week, or just my casual observations about writing today . . . but whatever happened to the obituary writer? Time was, the obituary writer was a staple on every newspaper staff . . . a creative writer who could make anyone's life sound interesting. I've got a couple of books of obituaries on my shelf at home . . . obits that were published in the New York Times some years ago, obits about ordinary yokels whose lives sound truly remarkable in the hands of an obit master.

I guess the obit writer has gone the way of the dinosaur, along with toothpaste without fluoride and chamber pots. Still, it would be an interesting profession, I think. Just look what I can do with my own death!

Some guy named Alleycat died this past week, and we hear tell he was a bit better than average. For example, he still had a full head of hair at the time of his death, although most of the males in his family passed away with cue-balls for brains. He could do ten and a half push ups and still had most of his teeth. His dress shirts were dry-cleaned once a year (and he saved enough money through this method to purchase two additional belts, including a yellow one). He drove junk cars and had fifteen at the time of his demise, including a 1991 Caprice wagon with 987,499 miles on it (the oil was last changed at 811,838 miles). He is survived by several people, none of whom are on solid food. Mr. Alleycat was laid to rest in a cardboard box, and, according to his wishes, his underwear was donated to Goodwill.

Reading Vs. Writing

Sooner or later I end up facing the conundrum: Do I read, or do I write? For the past month, writing has clearly won out. I've had far more sermons to write, first of all, and have also written a sizable stack of cards and letters, a string of emails, and a rather sumptuous blend of business correspondence. And I'm not even going to mention the essays, stories, and new book proposals that have spared for my attentions after the sun goes down.

Still, I miss my reading. I think I have replaced NCAA basketball for reading on some occasions, but I've also done both. (I can read while watching BB, but it's tough to write and watch BB at the same time.)

What I've learned through the years is that, when the writing muse is calling, better heed the song and write. And that's what I've done.

And my books? The unread stack in the office is larger now, thicker, wider. But I'll get to them. Some will wait a year or two, or more, but eventually they'll wind their way into my hands. And I've got some vacation coming up this summer, too. That's always good for a half dozen books.

Until then . . . back to the writing corner. I'm going to knock someone's block off.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Nothing But Gray Skies

One thing about living in Indiana . . . it ain't home on the range, "where the skies are not sunny all day." Heck no! Indiana should change its state motto from "Crossroads of America" to "That small depressing state of affairs where the sun never shines!"

My wife and I have been talking about moving for years . . . and there's no doubt that our retirement years will be spent in a sunnier and more uplifting location. But our whole family seems to have gotten in on the act of late. Our daughter (God bless her) wants to get a teaching job anyplace, anywhere other than Indiana. Go for it! And our son has asked us numerous times, "Why do we live here?"

It's difficult to explain to a sixteen year old that there is lots of ministry and teaching to be had in a gray state like Indiana. Since 25% of Hoosier teens smoke, and depression and alcoholism ranks high in this state, and Indiana ranks near the bottom of educational benchmarks and half of Hoosier students don't graduate from high school . . . heck, Becky and I will always have a job! I keep reminding myself: This state needs ME!

And as for writing . . . it's much easier to write in a gray state. Sunny states . . . in other places where there are beaches and water and recreation . . . heck, there are too many distractions. I wouldn't write, I'd be out soaking up sun and overcoming my depression. No, the best writers live in Indiana, where there's nothing better to do but sit at a desk hunched over a twenty-five watt bulb and write about existential angst and the dreams one has for the kingdom of God (or Palm Springs, which is the next best thing).

But I am ready for a little sun, too. A little sun in Indiana is never taken for granted. People kill for it. They'll maim each other clamoring to catch a ray.

And me? I'll be right here. Behind the closed curtains of my office, rain or shine. I'll have the blinds pulled tight, regardless. And I'll be writing . . . dreaming of Acapulco and lying on the beach trying to dodge bullets shot from the pistols of drug lords . . . dreaming of the far shores of Italy and mafia hit men . . . hoping that some day, before I die, I might get to snooze on a tropical beach and drink coconut juice while my wife rubs my nude body with Wesson oil.

Ahhhh, but all good dreams must some day come to an end. Especially in Indiana.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Right to Write

Some months ago there was a class action lawsuit against Amazon, aimed at gaining royalties for authors whose works had been published and sold electronically via the internet. I didn't join in the suit, but I was one of those writers invited to join in the fun. For years, Amazon sold copies of my book, A Christmas For Joey, but I've never seen a single royalty payment for any of these electronic sales. I'm sure the sales were small, and the royalty payments minuscule, but that's not the point.

These days, there is a growing trend against paying writers to write. There are those who say that writers don't have any rights to their work--work which writers produced (like me) in the wee hours of the morning or while slaving away in anonymity in some back room or basement and living on coffee and Kraft dinner. And there are even some who are trying to horn in on the writer's work and eat his bread by saying, "The writing you've produced belongs to me just as much as it belongs to you . . . even though I didn't write a word of the work and can't write a coherent sentence . . . you have no rights to your writing."

These are odd times. Somehow, I know it will all get worked out by the legal eagles, the publishing gurus, and the various writers unions in New York and Los Angeles . . . but in the meantime, it is essential that writers keep writing. Heck, I have "sold" so much free material, I might as well call my writing a hobby. After thirty years in the "business" I have yet to see a profit from any words I've placed on a page or website or file. It's not about the money. And besides, I've given all of my royalties away when I do receive a check. I can safely say I have not profited in any substantial way from my royalties. Not only are they paltry, but they are scarcely worth keeping, and certainly not life-changing. That's true or most writers, I'm afraid.

Just like being a pastor, few people actually earn anything of substance from writing. But again, that's not the point. The right to write is the point. The right to write anything one wants to write. And if, by some miracle of chance, people actually want to pay for the words or buy the books. . . the writer deserves the right to make a profit. The profits do not belong to the masses who had nothing to do with the work.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Insult

When I was a kid, there was a frequent full-page, color ad which appeared in the back of most comic books entitled, "The Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac." This ad told the story of a skinny geek who visited the beach with his girl friend, had sand kicked in his face, and then, after taking Charles Atlas's crash bodybuilding course, returned to beat up the bullies.

This ad never did much for me as a kid . . . I never had any girls who liked me anyway (and when a girl did like me, she was the one who usually kicked sand in my face, not the bullies). But back then, the implications of working out in the gym were much more geared toward the idea of self-preservation and protection of the women-folk. Now, it's all about health . . . and fitness

Nearly ten years ago, as I was approaching my fortieth birthday, I began having conversations with Becky about my long years in the gym. I weighed 240 pounds, was VERY STRONG, but had always maintained that I could get in tip-top shape in four months and compete in a competition. Becky said prove it. So I did. Four months later, soon after my fortieth birthday, I weighed in at 200 pounds and was in the best condition of my life.

Following, I wrote several articles for various health and fitness magazines about men's conditioning in midlife, how to exercise, and how to get a six pack of abdominals while eating Krispy Kreme donuts and flat bread pizzas. Anyway, I had fun writing it all.

Now, as I approach fifty, things are a bit tougher. I have two bad knees, I'm not nearly as strong as I used to be, and I've been training for six months with a torn rotator cuff in one shoulder. My hope is that I can once again get into top condition when I turn fifty (though I'll never step onto a stage in front of five hundred people in a G-string again). This time, I'll be doing it for my son, not my wife. I think my son needs some inspiration from old dad. He needs to understand that goals are important, and that reaching for a goal can often be painful and difficult. But nothing in life worth achieving comes easily. He doesn't think I can get in top condition at age fifty. He said, "Prove it." And I will. For him.

By January 2011 I hope to write some articles for health and fitness magazines about exercises and health and diet for the over 50 crowd. I'll have my AARP card by then, will be eligible for senior citizens' discounts, and hope to save a lot of money on my car insurance by switching to GEICO. It's so easy, even a fifty-year old can do it!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Weight of Words

A few days ago I attended a continuing education seminar and found myself embroiled in a couple of interesting conversations. One of these conversations was with a pastor who just couldn't understand how I had time to write books. "So," he asked, "Don't you find it difficult to write during the day with all of your other responsibilities?"

He was disbelieving when I told him I don't write during the day (except on my day off) but typically write early of a morning or late at night. "I usually write for an hour or two when I get back from my early morning workout at the gym," I said. "I work up a lather and then write for an hour or two . . . makes me feel like I've worked up a sweat at the keyboard."

"What? You work out in the gym every morning also?"

"Only for the past thirty-five years," I told him. "It's now routine."

The guy seemed miffed.

I didn't have the heart to tell him that, last week, I had worked my way back up to some rather impressive feats of strength. And this from a guy who turns fifty this year. But I've been working hard, am frequently the first person in the gym (sometimes arriving before the manager opens up), and I've set a goal to get into top condition later this year when I have birthday number 50. I'm doing it for my son . . . who needs the inspiration of an older dad who can still kick his scrawly little butt.

Last week I bench pressed 225 pounds for ten reps, and leg pressed 700 pounds for ten reps (try it some time!) and I have worked my way back to two hundred sit ups and scissor-kicks in under seven minutes. I'm hauling.

And better yet, I've discovered that all of this hard work at the gym is paying dividends at the keyboard too. I don't get tired as easily, and my mind is focused and alert. (The pot of coffee helps.)

The old adage still holds true: if you are getting low on energy, make your body work harder. All of those muscle fibers do respond, and the synapses fire more quickly in the brain.

At least it works for me.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Great Book

One of the books my wife completed a few weeks ago was The Leadership Challenge, by Kouzes and Posner . . . an iconic book among leadership gurus and certainly one of the best books on the subject that I have read. I might even say it's the best book on Leadership ever written, but I don't want to get too mushy!

It's fun reading books I didn't buy. But come to think of it, I actually did buy this one, since that's one of the joys of marriage . . . sharing.

Yeah, we share a lot of things around here. Food. Water. I sometimes use the same razors my wife uses on her legs. (But naturally, I don't shave my legs nearly as often as she does.)

Kouzes and Posner really know their stuff. And I think my wife's stack of textbooks offer two or three of their other titles. I'll get to these next time I shower and shave.

Sunday Writing Club

Sunday afternoon and evening was all about writing. After a lunch prepared by a teenager (chicken nuggets and fries from a Mrs. Paul's frozen dinner bag), and a few phone calls to family and friends, Becky and I settled in at our various stations for a long haul of writing . . . she working on a term paper on Leadership in Schools and me on an eclectic blend of essays, articles, and a new novel that finally consumed enough of my imaginative energies that I had to get jiggy-wid-it.

My son even got into the act, prepping his writing desk in the loft (a new space that he has stolen from his sister while she is absent at Ball State). His new room is now a veritable cornucopia of Colts posters. Every now and again he would holler down from his lofty perch with questions like, "How do you spell 'concussion?'" or "What's that smell?"

Me? I completed my fourth, and I hope, final draft of an essay and then began the heavy lifting of a new novel.

Eventually, as the twilight rolled in, Becky asked me, "Would you mind reading my paper on Leadership and giving me your opinion for improvement?"

"No," I hollered back from my corner before we completed our little foray at 10:45 p.m. "But that means you'll have to read my 1500-word essay."

"No way. I have a headache!"

Love is great ain't it?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Made for Aid

In the past two weeks I've read a series of books and articles about Africa and Haiti and other impoverished areas of our world, and how foreign aid (including, of course, U.S. aid) is actually holding developing nations back and is the key factor in perpetuating the cycle of generational poverty and is the primary factor in political corruptions of every assortment.

The best of these books, and the most compelling, has been Dambisa Moyo's book, Dead Aid, a national bestselling book that not only points out the mistakes of foreign aid to Africa, but also offers compelling solutions to the problem. Moyo has many credentials to her credit, including growing up in Africa, a Harvard and Oxford education, and work as an international economist. What she says about Africa is not only troubling, but is sure to raise the hackles of those who see more aid as the key to solving Africa's problems.

The book also troubled me, as it helped me to see the many mistakes that the church in America has made (and continues to make) in our mission and activities on that continent. In essence, it is time for other nations to get out of Africa so that they can get out of the way and allow African nations to rise and walk, to develop their own economic futures, and find the solutions that will lift a people out of the dirt and into a new life.

This is an oversimplified response, of course, but it can be accomplished in a relatively short period of time if the world was willing to stop the cycle of aid ("free stuff").

Not much to laugh about here, but reading these books and articles reminded me of what my grandfather used to tell me, "Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get on with it." Perhaps entire nations need to hear this word too.

Friday, March 19, 2010

First Fire

Good day. Thursday.

It was a great day to work on a sermon, to call my mother, to read The New Yorker magazine, to finish a book, to take a late afternoon walk with Becky and then, after returning home where we made our first bonfire of the new year, to nestle together into the Adirondack chair and make passionate love under a canopy of stars.

(Actually, this last part in the Adirondack chair never happened, but since I do write the occasional romance story or novel, I still have to practice writing romance. How do you like the "canopy of stars" thing? It has chutzpah, don't it? And even though two people of our heft and body-fat ratios could probably give an Adirondack chair a go, if I were writing realistically, I'd probably throw a footstool and a stack of National Geographic magazines into the love scene to give it more potential and diversity . . . but hey, that's just me.)

But back to Thursday. Great day. And the evening was rounded out with some writing, including broadening an outline for a book I hope to work on this spring.

I hoped to read the newspaper before midnight, too. But then I realized this was the same newspaper I had used to start the bonfire. All those words . . . up in smoke.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

My Rhyming Dictionary

The other day I discovered an antiquated rhyming dictionary that I've had since college. Brought me back to some old poetry, too, including this one that I discovered in a file. It's an old poem, but quite timely for many of the contemporary conversations I overhear. Good thing I wrote this one when I was just a newlywed, broke, and starving. The philosophy has served me well through the years.

When It's Time to Pay the Bill

There are many who fly
Through the month of July
Taking in every rapture and thrill
Without stopping to think
Of the possible link
Between the high cost and the bill.

And others live plush
In their myopic rush
To fly to the top of the hill
Without sober light
That there may come a night
When the charge catches up to the bill.

There are those who go far
On fine caviar
And the choisest of cuts for their fill,
But there then comes a day
When they, too, have to pay.
And that's when they get the big bill.

And some will take loan
To buy a big home
And will live like a king until
The bank comes to call
And they then lose it all
When there's no way to mortgage the bill.

Yes, the morals run deep
For the many who keep
Saying, "Charge it" and "Live for the thrill."
As time always dooms
Those living on fumes
When it's time to pay the bill.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Book Questions

I always get a kick out of the questions people ask whenever I have a new book published. Here are the top questions people ask . . . these are all legitimate. But please disregard my responses if they come off sounding flippant. But really, think about the answers, they are quite profound and philosophical!

Q: Where can I find your book?
A: In bookstores.

Q: What's in your book?
A: Words, paragraphs and ideas.

Q: Did you really write this?
A: No, they just put my name on the front cover for the heck of it.

Q: How do you find time to write books?
A: How does a person find time to watch Dancing With the Stars and American Idol and David Letterman and the NCAA Basketball Tournament?

Q: How long did it take you to write this book?
A: It took hours, days, weeks, years, and decades.

Q: When did you start writing this book?
A: I started writing it the moment I learned how to write in the first grade.

Q: Why are you such a smart ass?
A: I was born this way.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Another 2010 Census

Last night I completed my 2010 Census . . . but I had the feeling there were a few things missing. So let me here complete the questions the government REALLY wants to know about our household.

You've provided names, but what are your real names and your alleged sexes?
Okay, you caught me. I'm Ralph. My wife is Louise. And my son is a wolverine formerly known as Willie the Weasel. Ralph and Louise did have sex sixteen years ago to produce the wolverine boy. This was the last alleged coupling in this household.

You seem to have a daughter you are not counting in this census . . . is she in college?
That's what she tells us. Otherwise, she's using thousands of dollars to live in a cubicle and eat sandwiches that cost $18.95 a pop.

Okay, let's get down to the basics of this census. Have you ever blown anything up?
So far I've destroyed a lawn mower and one chain saw. My son has destroyed a basement.

Have you ever, are you now currently, or do you ever plan to live in Saudi Arabia?
I only travel there to get a tan when I'm not wearing my Burka.

Are you a voting member of the Communist Party?
My uncle Wang was a card-carrying member in the Teamsters. What are you asking here?

Would you like to help tally this census?
You don't have enough money to secure my mathematical skills. I'm great at subtraction.

What suggestions do you have for improving this census?
Oh, my. How about questions concerning people's library habits? Could you do anything with coffee and donuts? And oh, yeah, I'd really like to know what other kinds of problems people have with sixteen year olds. Is it okay to use a muzzle and cage system to control them?

Thank you for completing this census. As long as we receive your reply before Christmas, you (or more likely, your wife, Louise) will not go to prison.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Writing Letters

Lately I've been writing a copious amount of notes, cards and letters. This isn't as easy as it sounds. After all, penmanship suffers the more one uses the keyboard, the keypad or the thumbs to Twitter. Sometimes, after I've handwritten on paper, I have to ask myself, "What did I write?"

Recently, I left some handwritten instructions on the dining room table. It was a note that read: "I won't be home until later. Fix your own dinner."

I must have scrawled the message. My son thought the message said: "I want a large fillet mignon for dinner". And my wife interpreted the message to read: "I really want you after dinner."

I had neither, of course . . . although my son did pull four pounds of steak from the freezer that night and, when I returned home my wife, for some reason, was a bit frisky.

As a dad, I was always telling my kids, "Watch what you say."

Now I have to remind myself, "Watch what you write."

Incidentally, how do you spell "Porterhouse" and "Teddy Bear Nightie"?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Wild Thing . . . I Think I Love You

Since January 1 I've written a number of essays about wildlife, including the pileated woodpecker, the raccoon, road kill, and more. Writing about beavers is next on my list. Or, as my wife asked me last night, "Why in the world would you write about beavers?"

My answer, "Because I can."

I also finished reading Beavers: A Wildlife Handbook, by Kim Long. I love these critters. Beavers are large rodents, and they fascinate me . . . due, in part, to the fact that they continue to chew down trees along the edge of our property along Whitelick Creek. Over the past three years they've felled over 40 trees. So, they've been busy. And after kayaking down the creek a few times and discovering where these beavers live (behind Maplehurst Bakery) I'm all the more determined to write about them.

Beavers have so much to teach us. Including:
* Even if you're ugly, or have large front teeth, you can be successful.
* There is no job too large for an industrious person.
* Beavers eat their own poop (well, let's skip this one).
* The family that works together can build a magnificent lodge.
* If you have webbed feet you can swim a lot faster.
* Always chew your food twice before swallowing.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Coffee Conversation

During a recent afternoon coffee stop at Starbucks, I happened to overhear snippets of the following conversation:

Guy #1: I sent my book manuscript to publishers, but it was like they could care less about my idea. No one even responded.

Guy# 2: Wouldn't you have to know someone to get your foot in the door? Maybe you should call and talk to someone.

Surprisingly, I overhear many conversations like this (I must have writer's antennas). Rarely, if ever, do I interrupt and interject my own thoughts (well-meaning and helpful). Why? Because I've learned to mind my own business, and secondly, most folks (especially Hoosiers) don't appreciate help from a wise guy who says he actually works with publishers every day. They assume I'm one nut shy of a full can of cashews.

Still, I know rookie mistakes when I overhear them. And there are many. These are the mistakes that keep most writers unpublished (if they want to be published) and drive publishers crazy (as most writers do, because they don't know protocol).

I could talk long on these mistakes, but the largest mistake most writers make is simply this: they don't write enough. Publishers will say it. Editors lament it. Sloppy manuscripts, typos, wrong manuscript style, and bad protocol toward an editor or a publishing house always tops the list of pet peeves among the people who make decisions. And most of these could be corrected if the writer took the time to read and research "how", "why" and "when" . . .and then spent a lot more time casting words onto the page. A lot more time. A LOT MORE TIME!

Once, I recall another writer telling me, "You have to get your work copyrighted before you send it to a publisher, or someone can steal it!" Another writer I know puts a copyright mark on the bottom of a every page submitted. Huge mistakes. But I could never convince these writers that their lack of success was tied to these rookie practices.
Of course it really helps to talk to a writer who has been around the block a time or two. Every time I meet a writer who is more successful than I am, I don't want to talk about my work and the beautiful gems I'm creating (who cares?), I want to ask "how", "why", and "when" questions. And I'm all ears. I want to learn. I'm there to learn.

And then I go home and write until my fingers bleed.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Press Release

With every new book comes a press release. Though, it would be nice if authors didn't have to help write a new release for each book published. How about going with something generic and exciting? You know, a real pack of lies? In my case, I'd be perfectly fine with circulating this one to the New York Times Book Review.

Have you ever wanted to read a book written by a Hoosier author? (Okay, of course not, but bear with us here while we try to market this baby.) Well, but you will want to read Mr. Allycat's newest book. This book contains two covers and about 300 pages. There are words in there. And if you can still read this press release . . . if you are tired of Twitter and texting and really want to get back to some good old-fashioned paragraphs . . . well, then, you'll want to hustle on down to your local bookstore and buy a gross. Ask for your readers discount (most stores will give 10% off to people who can still read)! You'll want to give copies to your coworkers, your ex, hey, even your Aunt Matilda. You gotta see this book to believe it. And if for any reason you discover that you have the reading attention-span of a gnat or the reading comprehension of a mildly-trained Pomeranian, well . . . you can always use Mr. Allycat's books to light your fireplace. And listen, it really helps if, after you purchase Mr. Allyecat's book, you stop by your local pharmacy and pick up your prescription meds. Prozac goes well with Mr. Alleycat's books. But listen, don't let us talk you into shelling out $14.95 for this puppy. Here's what others have to say about this new book:

If you're only going to read one book in your lifetime, make it this one!
(Elmira Hornswaller, Outback, Indiana)

All my husband used to think about was his chain saw, and then he read Alleycat's book. He's a new man now, and two of his fingers are healing up nicely.
(Mrs. Ralph Money, Aspen, Indiana)

I never thought a book could be so beautifully written . . . and you should see the photo of the author!
(Todd's mom)

It's like March Madness, BABY! This is a real PTP'er of a book, BABY!
(Dick Vitale)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Catching Cold

A few weeks ago, after reclusive author J.D. Salinger died, I decided to re-read The Catcher in the Rye. I had read this book in my early twenties (and then thought it was okay). Now, reading the book at the midpoint of my life, I can see that this novel would likely never find a publisher today. The novel is definitely a coming-of-age story, and since I've already come of age (and then some) I found nothing delightful, insightful, or even likable about this narrative. There was not a single character that grabbed me.

I have a feeling that Catcher caught on simply because it was one of the first books (published in the 1950s) that challenged many of the literary taboos of that era--namely, certain four-letter words that were not deemed acceptable by socialites. Well, the book has pages filled with four-letter words, even some that are six or seven letters, and the story deals with many other taboo subjects. Hence, it's popularity and classic status. Kids wanted to read what they were forbidden to read. All of it is TAME, however, by today's standards.

But as far as novels go . . . man, this is a snoozer. I hate to bash Salinger's grave, and yes, the guy sold sixty million copies, but the book will now go back onto my shelf and stay there.
And now, since I finished reading a cold book, I'm planning to warm things up with Timothy Egan's, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire That Saved America. Show begins later tonight.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Live Long . . . And Prosper

Questionnaires have been completed. Books, postcards, and letters have been mailed. The news-release is being sent to infinity and beyond! (No wait, that's another movie.)

Still, the publisher is pushing me and my piggy bank very hard this first week, as The Ultimate Christian Living hits store shelves and reviewers' "in boxes". And already, I've been getting calls. (I usually hang up.)

I did, however, get a call from a small town newspaper in my old stomping grounds and, for some reason, the reporter seemed fixated on what he called, "my output." (My wife thinks I don't put out enough, so what does he know?) It took me a few minutes to realize he was talking about writing.

"I see you've written twenty books in twelve years. That's sort of prolific isn't it?" he asked.

"Oh, I'm not sure," I answered. "I'm not complaining. But I really haven't pushed that hard, since I don't write twelve hours a day, six days a week. I still work long hours as a pastor, so writing is a late-night and early-morning activity for me."

"How many books do you think you can write in the next ten years?" he wanted to know. "Another twenty?"

"Well, I'm a much better writer now than I was ten years ago, and I have many more connections, and as I think about the twenty books I wrote over the past twelve years, I wrote at least that many books that were not published."

"So . . . forty, then? You think you can write forty more books in ten years? Couldcha write forty?" The guy seemed to be daring me, pushing me even, like Danny Tarr used to taunt me in the alley between the Dime Store and Littlejohn's Pharmacy before I knocked his puny little block off.

I puffed up my chest and tried to sound tough on the phone. But I pulled my hamstring. Still, I shot back, confidently, "Yeah, I think I can write forty books in ten years. What's it to ya? You gotta problem with that?"

"No, no!" he said, backing down (the little punk). "Whatever you say, Mr. Alleycat. I don't doubt you for a minute. Write on!"

"Yeah," I said. "Live long and prosper."

Monday, March 8, 2010

Saintly Book

Some months back a friend recommended that I read My Life With the Saints, by James Martin, SJ. At first I thought the book was about Drew Brees and the New Orleans football team, but then I realized that the guy who wrote this book was a priest who wore a collar and everything, and he was writing about how the saints had influenced his life and faith.

Okay, I can take the latter, too. It's a wonderful book and deftly written. And I certainly learned a great deal about the saints and how they have influenced my life, too!

Not being catholic, however, I don't see the saints in the same light as Fr. Martin does, but I truly appreciate the way he writes about their humanity. I felt like I actually wanted to know some of these people. They were not just stained glass. I had read the works of many of these modern saints like Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Mother Teresa . . . but some of the oldies surprised me. Too bad most of them died young or were burned at stakes. Ouch.

As for saints in my life, however, I'd have to go with the following as being the most influential to me:

Saint Bernard--patron saint of large dogs and pooper-scoopers
Saint Helen--patron saint of wives who have volcanic tempers
Saint Elsewhere--patron saint of really bad television dramas
Saint Martin--patron saint of beautiful Caribbean beaches

Friday, March 5, 2010

Media Blitz

This time, when I got the phone call, I was ready for it. "Good afternoon, Mr. Alleycat . . . I'm your publicist and I'll be marketing your book from Timbuktu to the shores of Tripoli. Are you ready to do some radio and TV?"

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Heard it all before, buddy.

"I'll need your contact information," the voice said. "You'll be getting calls in the middle of the night, doing radio shows at three a.m., and we might even be able to fly you to some exotic places, like New Jersey or the Gobi desert, for some TV shows."

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

"I'll be sending you a list of questions that producers will most likely ask about your new book, Mr. Alleycat, so you be ready for an interview all hours of the day and night."

Oh, I'll be ready, buckaroo!

"Have a got a nice suit?"

Oh, man, got me a real humdinger hanging in the basement closet. I was married in that suit. And my son is, even as we speak, making me another suit out of white duct tape.

"Well, that's the berries, Mr. Alleycat. You can bet the calls will be coming in very soon. Reviewers, producers, talk show hosts . . . get your game face on."

Sure, I'll even shave in the morning, buckaroo. I'll buy me some of that manly face cream that removes wrinkles and makes me look like Ricardo Montelban. Heck, I might even shoot for George Clooney!

"That's the spirit, Mr. Alleycat. I'll be in touch very soon. You get some beauty sleep. You've got to look good on radio."

Thursday, March 4, 2010


This week I have returned to my freshman year of high school. Or, at least, it feels that way. The mailbox, the FedEx delivery, the telephone, the email filter . . . all have served to remind me how painful rejection can be. Just like my freshman year in high school, I've been rejected for any number of reasons when I have suggested a writing date.

Of course, the first date I ever had as a freshman was with Becky--and any fool can see where that's taken me. I'm sure there are days when she wishes she could FedEx a response like I've been getting this week:

Dear Todd:
You ain't bad . . . but then, we have really high standards around here. That's why it's so painful for us to tell you that your writing stinks. In fact, you stink, too. What made you think we would ever, in a million years, want to work with someone like you? But hey, thanks for sending this in. Your material just served to remind us how blessed we are to be working with real talent.
The Editorial Team (and Your Wife)

See what I mean about rejection? I've been rejected this week by book publishers, magazines, journals, and web sites. Sort of like, in the 9th grade, when I was rejected by Sally, Mary, Alice and Bertha and ended up with Becky as a first date. Sometimes, you just have to settle in and accept your losses.

Still, I did receive one rejection that has kept me going. (There is always ONE, dear writer, just like in golf, that keeps you coming back!) It came in the form of a phone call:

"Todd, I don't know quite how to say this," SHE TOLD ME (I'm not lying here!). "I was sitting at home reading the work you'd sent me, and I told my husband, 'You know, he's just a great writer. Why doesn't anyone know about him?' I see a lot of writing, and most can't write. But you . . . easy on the eye."

Later in the day, I told Becky about my phone conversation. "Who was she, a hooker?" Becky said. "You didn't believe her, did you?"

"Well, I certainly want to," I said. "Maybe she sees something others don't see."

"No, she sees less, sweetie."

Which leads me, of course, to ask Becky the obvious question: Exactly why did she go out with me on that first date? Was she cutting her losses with me, too?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Lighten Up

Since I had ten minutes before bedtime last night (after my Andy Griffith Show Bible Study) and before getting up early to write . . . I thought I'd compose a poem. Enjoy.

Lighten Up

Sometimes when life gets serious
And there's not a laugh to be found
Well it's then, my friend,
You expose your end
By yanking your drawers to the ground.

Some people might shriek from the horror
And others might yelp like a pup,
But when serious stuff
Has gone far enough
Then it's time to lighten up.

When the boss is all gruff with instruction
And the workers are low on morale
You can bring a swift end
If you fart in the wind
And watch how they're laughing now.

Or when your domestic affairs
Have grown quite cold and corrupt
Stop talking of money
And go goose your honey
And tell her to lighten up.

In times of distress or confusion
When the whole world is talking THE END,
You can bring a swift fate
To depression and hate
By giving a wedgie, my friend.

So if by some irony dark
After drinking my very last cup
While my funeral is heard
I'll still have the last word
When I tell them to lighten up.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Going to the Dogs

For over two years I've been working on a memoir containing some convoluted memories of my childhood dog, and every now and again I'll get another flashback and take to the project. This happened again last night. I was looking at a box of cereal sitting on the kitchen table and then it hit me: Holy Cow, I've got some rib-tickling memories about cereal prizes and gag gifts.

Yes, when I was a kid many cereal boxes contained either small "prizes" or coupons that a kid could send in, along with a buck or two, and in a few weeks receive a small package in the mail. There were many times when I recall asking my mother for a particular box of cereal (Honey Comb comes to mind). Later, she would find me elbow-deep inside the box, raking around in the bottom looking for the prize.

My parents never touched the cereal after that, and I didn't eat it either. When my mom asked me why I wasn't eating certain cereals, I was always honest: I just wanted it for the prize. Or sometimes I'd be more direct: "You don't think anyone actually eats Count Chocula do you?" And I never even bothered to comment on Frankenberry. The dog ended up eating most of this cereal, and he would later barf it up in the yard.

These little prizes and gags were the staple of my elementary and middle school existence. The joy buzzer. The whoopie cushion. The squirting ink bottle. The fuzzy soap. Wow--why don't they make cereal like they used to?

Of course my all-time favorite was the Vomit Mat. Sprinkle a little drinking fountain water on it before class, drop it in front of the teacher's desk, and then I could sit back and watch half the class scramble for the doors when the bell rang. My favorite Vomit Mat had a copious amount of creamed corn in it and looked like the real deal.

I'm not sure why Vomit Mat memories are so strong and vivid, but they are wholly intact. Some day, when I can no longer remember my name, when I'm sitting in the corner waiting for my next intravenous meal, I'll still be discussing my Vomit Mat with my other nonagenarian friends.

And who knows, I might even show it to the nurses.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Larry & Magic & Me

I read When the Game Was Ours in one day. This book--written by ESPN and Boston sports writer Jackie McMullen--just brought back too many memories of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. I couldn't put this book down.

Early in the book, I read about the first nationally televised ISU game against Wichita St. (January 1979). The game was played during a blizzard, and many roads were closed. And I had tickets. I remember that Saturday morning, telling my mother that my best friend, Bryan, and I were still driving 25 miles to Terre Haute to see the game. "You're not going," mom told us, "have you looked outside? They've got the highways closed."

My car was an Oldsmobile Toronado, the first front-wheel drive car that was manufactured, and my dad intervened and said, "Oh, Pauline, let 'em go see Larry! The front wheel drive will cut through this! Let the boys have their fun! This is Larry Bird we're talking about!"

On our way to the game we were stopped by one police officer who asked us, "Where the hell are you boys headed? This highway is closed!"

"We've got tickets to the ISU game," I said proudly.

"Lucky SOBs! Get the hell out of here!" he said, waving us through a foot of snow.

What a game. Larry scorched WS for something like 45 points, 17 rebounds, and 10 assists--all in an era when triple-doubles in college were unheard of. Larry did it all. So did Magic.

The championship NCAA game in 1979 between ISU and Michigan State? My memories are whole and intact . . . I watched the game on the TV in our basement with family and some friends, along with millions of other Americans who wanted to see Larry and Magic.

But oddly enough, throughout my childhood I'd always been a Laker fan. I'd grown up watching Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich, Elgin Baylor and Happy Hairston. And even though Larry was in Boston, I still loved the Lakers and rooted for them whenever they played Boston.

This rivalry in the 80s and early 1990s between the Lakers and Boston, and more specifically between Larry and Magic, is what made the NBA. I didn't know much, but there was no doubt that both of these guys were light-years ahead of other college players and they both carried their respective teams in the NBA. I read box scores daily in college keeping up with both of these guys.

I really liked this book, but it is obvious that there are few professional players in any sport who now play the game like Larry and Magic did some years back. Their life was the game. Period. And I found it amazing that Larry Bird forfeited $5 million from his contract to the Celtics when he retired because he felt he "hadn't earned it." It would have been the largest payday of his life, and he just gave it back. "I don't keep what I don't earn," he said.