Friday, April 30, 2010

My New Blog Ratings

In an effort to make this blog more accessible to the masses, we here at the institute are now initiating the following rating system for this blog. Readers will know immediately, from glancing at the rating, how deep the do-do is before they read the blog. The following rating system will be used herein.

G [General Audience]
This rating will be given to those blog postings that I would have no trouble sharing with my ninety-year-old grandmother. Sure, grandma can't remember me now, although she still has the ability to make vivid sexual references that can make me blush . . . but by and large, the G rating is for kids of all ages and for teenagers who don't watch The Family Guy or who have yet to venture outside of their plastic bubbles.

PG [Parental Guidance Suggested]
The PG rating will be given to blog postings that might contain references to drugs like Advil, Aspirin, or any of the various so-called sexual performance drugs like caffeine, or any risque wallet photo images of the author's wife that have been taken by Olan Mills. Parents should use their own discretion before allowing a child under the age of 13 to read these blogs as these may contain references to certain banned books, National Geographic photos of the naked Pygmies of Bantu Besh, or any of a variety of literary allusions that the author dreams in his sleep.

TW [Totally Warped]
The Totally Warped rating is reserved for those blog postings that cause someone in your household scream, "He wrote that?!" These blog postings may also cause insomnia, or prompt you to call child protective services anonymously and say, "Were you aware that this guy still has a minor living in his home?" The TW rating might also contain references to one or more of the following disturbing subject matter: odd thoughts, cute-little sexual references that the author thinks are funny but which are not really, double-entendre essays, photos lifted from the author's honeymoon album, references to filthy lucre, poems that the author has written after midnight when he should be upstairs attempting to make love to his wife. A blog in this category will also receive the TW rating if it contains any reference to J. Edgar Hoover during his cross-dressing years, any political innuendo, or references to Ralph Nader or Ethel Kennedy. Parents should use extreme caution if this rating shows up, and should not even read this blog themselves, much less expose their progeny to this guy's lunacy. Likewise, these blogs should not be read by bishops, lumberjacks, or anyone who suffers from high blood pressure or heart palpitations. The author also reserves the right to edit the TW blog and can remove disturbing elements, thereby tossing that particular blog back into the PG category so it can be read by any girl who hasn't yet gone wild or by the author's sixteen year-old-son while he is drinking his vitamin-fortified chocolate milk.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

For our ARE YOU KIDDING ME dept . . .

Here are a few reading and writing tidbits I heard just this week that made scream, "Are You Kidding Me?"

Recently a United Methodist Bishop (who shall remain unnamed . . . but YOU know I'm writing about YOU Mr. Bishop) was given an 8-week vacation from his bishopin' duties so he would have the time and attention necessary to write a 120 page book that would, supposedly, have a deep impact on the church as we know it. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Next time, Mr. Bishop, give me a call. I'll ghost write the darn thing for you in 48 hours and you won't even have to skip your ecclesiastical shower or miss any of those lively, non-boring meetings with your attentive cabinet.

On another front, last week I had an "offer" from a publisher who told me he would be interested in my new book if I shifted the focus from people to themes and rewrote the 60-page proposal from top-to-bottom a third time so he could "have a look at it again." ARE YOU KIDDING ME? No thank you, Mr. Publisher . . . I've known offers before and believe me sir, that's no offer. Your idea is like telling a candy maker that he needs to take the nugget and peanuts out of his PAYDAY and put in more brown sugar and syrup and call his concoction a MILKY WAY. No thanks. I like PAYDAY and I'm sticking with it, even if no one takes a bite.

And now that I'm getting old and crotchety and hair is sprouting from my ears like tufts of everglade grass, I also noted that the New Yorker has published several pieces of humor that aren't nearly as funny as the stuff I've sent 'em of late . . . ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Okay, so humor and satire are according to taste, and I know the competition is in the tens of thousands, but next time I send along a nice piece of my tail to New York, someone could at least take a peek at me. After all, my wife doesn't, and I went to all the trouble of fixing myself up and double-spacing the manuscript. Really, Ms. Editor, call me. I'm available on Saturdays after 6 p.m.

Until next blog . . . .

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Me? Sad?

It is widely known that I'm not a real chipper guy when it comes to the themes of annual conference and spending time with other clergy. (That's why I sit on the back row and read books.) However, I do think our grand Ol' United Methodist Church still does some great work for God, even though we also mess things up from time to time.

And speaking of messes . . . here's one that deeply saddened me. As of today (yes, the date of this blog!) our Cokesbury bookstore in Fischers, Indiana is closed. No more running up north for me (or anyone) to look at books, clergy attire, music, or inventory. But it's not just my personal loss that bothers me, but the fact that the bookstore was closed and sold out to a liquor store.

Now, anyone who knows me well knows that I'm no prude nor a teetotaler . . . but I guess I am having difficulty understanding the rationale behind trading God's Spirit for spirits. I didn't drive up north all that often to buy Cokesbury material, but it was great knowing that it was there. But I can say with certainty that I won't be driving to that location to buy a bottle of wine.

Of course, I'm sure that bottom line in our decision to sell out was dictated by the economics of situation. Believe me, I do understand how difficult it is to make a buck off a book. Books are low-demand items, and the margin for profit is slim. Hence, Cokesbury just couldn't make it work. But I also know there's no lack of demand for liquor . . . but do we really need another store? There's practically a liquor store on every corner as it is. But books . . . ?

Okay, that's enough preaching for now. But I'm redoubling my efforts to buy, buy, buy books. I'm going to support publishing over distilling any day.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Decisions . . . Decisions

Last night I finished reading Jonah Lehrer's bestselling book, How We Decide. Essentially, it is a book about how we make choices. Three weeks ago, I made the decision to buy this book . . . and I'm semi-glad that I did. It was a decent book, filled with some insights about brain activity and emotions, and how the balance of thought and feeling is brought into play whenever we make a decision. The chapter I enjoyed most was the one on Poker--a game I have never played, but a game that is certainly a balance between pure logic and raw psychology.

There are many decisions, however, that are already made for us. For example, we don't get to decide how tall or short we are, what color our hair is (okay, so maybe that's why women color) or if we do or do not have a certain illness. But what Lehrer is getting at are the daily decisions we do make, even simple ones, like choosing off a menu or selecting an ice cream flavor. Why do we do what we do?

I've also made my own decisions of late.

For example, I've decided that people don't like my books. I'm not sure why editors decide to publish me. Why do you, Mr. Editor?

I've decided that I don't like pastors' conferences. Heck, I can barely tolerate myself, why would I try to tolerate a room full of other nincompoops?

I've decided that I won't drink 12 cups of coffee in a single day every again. (This was my way of self-medicating through the pastors' conference and trying to stay awake through the boredom of it all.)

I've decided that I don't like boredom. From now on, I'm sticking to things I enjoy. Like writing this blog.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Last week I was invited by my former literary agent to submit a resume and personal vitae. She now deals exclusively with ghostwriting, which is one of the fastest growing publishing ventures. Who uses ghostwriters? More people than you can imagine. Nearly all political autobiographies, celebrity books, and high-profile television and movie personalities (and now high-profile pastors and religious leaders) use ghostwriters to produce their wares. Few could write a coherent sentence, I'm sure . . . and others simply don't have the time or the talent to produce anything with the written word. Hence, other people write their books, but they get to have their names plastered on the cover.

I'm not knocking this growth trend . . . as my former agent said, "You'd be surprised at what a ghostwriter can make from producing a sappy book for a celebrity or a politician. And all you have to do is churn out some drivel in a week and then keep your mouth shut."

Where do I sign up?

Based on her assessment and expertise in this field, I have a feeling I would make an excellent ghostwriter. After all, I know how to keep a confidence (I know thousands of secrets), and I have been turning out my own drivel for decades. Any celebrity or politician or big-name pastor out there who needs a 300 page book written in a week . . . I'm your man! I've read my share of these titles, and I know I can write that well!

But, just in case there are some celebrities out there who might need a jump start on a title, let me suggest a few I've been working on. Select from the following and I can have the book delivered to your door in ten days, tops . . . and I'll even spellcheck the darn thing for you!

You Ain't Much Now, But You Can Be Really Great Tomorrow

Butterfly Kisses . . . and Ten Other Methods Of Showing Your Appreciation to Your Boss

I Pastor A Really Large Church . . . And Have the Following Ideas I'd Like You to Read but Don't Have Time to Write

Just Another Vampire Book

Another Zombie Book

Mowing Three Acres With a Push Mower . . . and 101 Other Ways to Burn 1000 Calories

The Big Fancy Church Donut Book . . . Which Ones to Grab When Worship Lets Out

Kayaking in Three Inches of Water . . . and Other Dumb Things I Have Attempted

Ten Ways to Tell Your Wife You Won't Read Her Dumb Termpaper

Ghostwriting Made Easy

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Discovery

In the past year, I've read a number of books about book-collecting, bibliophiles, bibliophilia, and rare first-editions. Many years ago, I eschewed the insatiable desire for rare books and decided, instead, that I would spend my money on necessities like black licorice, donuts, and used underwear from Goodwill. I am so glad I made this decision, as it has saved me much heartache and actually given me enough money in the bank to repair junk cars.

Nevertheless, I do have a rather extensive library now, and sometimes I make discoveries among the old, dusty shelves. Not long ago, when I began reading again about the collecting of first-editions, I happened to peek inside one shelf where I have books double and triple stacked, and I discovered a first-edition of William Saroyan's, My Name is Aram.

I first read Saroyan in college, in a literature class, and perhaps I had purchased the book years ago, but I don't recall when or where or how I ended up with this copy, and a very good one at that. In most of the rare book websites I've visited I've noted that few of these first-editions come with the original dust jackets, and my jacket is pristine.

How much is this baby worth? Don't know. Don't care. I'll just reshelve it and keep on looking for other rare gems. I'll save the first for another day.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Going Nuts

It happened last night. My mind shut down.

This happens now and again when I have been writing like a crazy man. I have so many projects going at once, and more than enough requests and deadlines, that I have to take a break and sort my nuts.

For the past two months, I've been writing from a large can of assorted/mixed nuts that are, in essence, making me crazy. I wake in the middle of the night to fix a paragraph in a story. I scribble a note on the dashboard dust while driving down the road at sixty miles per hour. I stuff my wallet full of tiny slips of paper containing inane and incoherent phrases and ideas that pop into my head for various essays, articles and proposals.


I've taken a break the last two evenings to get my mind in order, and also to create order out of nutty chaos. For example, I realized that every night for the past week I have written all or bits-and-pieces of the following:
* A sermon
* Dozens of emails and letters to various editors, agents, archivists, and (fans?)
* A track for a CD
* Huge chunks of a novel that I hope to complete by month's end
* A full book proposal that I sent to a senior editor at Abingdon Press
* A column for Together magazine
* A piece of humor that I sent to the New Yorker
* A cover letter and a book to an award winner from a youth ministry web site
* Many blog entries

And for good measure, I also read and proofed Becky's final exam powerpoint presentation, one of her reflection papers, two Atlantic monthly magazines, a New Yorker magazine, and read two books rather lengthy books. No TV for me since the Duke/Butler game. Zippo.

But tonight . . . perhaps a movie after the finance meeting. Perhaps an Andy Griffith Show rerun (with Earnest T. Bass). Or, if the wife is in the mood . . . heck, I'll even . . . clean the shower!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Larry & Magic

After reading When the Game Was Ours, by Larry Bird & Magic Johnson (but not really . . . as the book was written by Jackie McMillan) I had to read Seth Davis's fascinating look at the 1979 season and NCAA finals game between Indiana State University and Michigan State. When March Went Mad is a great book, full of sub plots and personal drama.

I watched most of the ISU games that year, and attended the first nationally televised game when ISU played Witchita State on a Saturday afternoon during a blinding snow storm. And I do remember specifically where I was, and whom I was with, when I watched the final NCAA game that Saturday afternoon in 1979 . . . a game that sported a nearly 25% Nielson rating (meaning that almost 1/4 of all American homes were watching the game). I was at home in our Shelburn basement, watching the game on an RCA color TV that was held together with rubber bands. My folks were there, as was my best friend, Bryan.

The championship game between ISU and Michican State is still the most highly-rated (per Nielson %) of any televised sporting event in history. Nothing else (no Super Bowl, no other NCAA final, no Stanley Cup final, no World Series game) has even come close to matching it.

The fact is, there have been no other college basketball players since who have matched the hype and the talent of Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. Not even close. And since Larry Bird, there has been no college player who has come close to matching the amazing scoring, rebounding, and assists totals of his senior season. (Again, not even close. I thought, surely there's been someone since, so I looked it up. But no one . . . absolutely no player since 1979, is even on the same planet as Larry was.) Larry the Legend was head and shoulders above his peers in 1979, and Magic Johnson was a phenom, too.

When March Went Mad was one of those books that brought back a great many memories, but also reminded me of how much college sports has changed in 30 years. Perhaps it's just nostalgia talking, but now it's all money. But I realize that ISU has changed, too.

When I took Chelsey to tour ISU her junior year of high school, she looked at me after walking around the campus for 30 minutes and said, "Dad, there's no way I'd attend here!"

Not even Larry could change her mind.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

From the Mailbox of T. Outcalt

They're arriving. They're here. Cards, letters, voice mail, emails. Fan mail?

Today I received six or seven.

The most interesting seemed to be a voice mail from a woman in Africa (or perhaps a fortune cookie factory in China). No, I'm not making this up! Her message was something like, "Hello, Mr. Alleycat, I familiar with you book Ultimate Christian Living and I wish to discuss great and glorious opportunity to share your book with thousands. If only I reach you, then you give me credit card number to set in motion fantastic opportunity to sell books. Yes, and I try to reach you later with golden chance to create rainbow vision of wonderful success. May God bless you with success until I reach you later with golden opportunity to give me credit card number to set wheels in motion. Amen."

So glad I have caller ID. My phone has been ringing off the hook today and most of the calls have been coming in from "very strange golden prefix with Mickey Mouse number like 555".

I'm also being very careful when I open my mail. I'm particularly wary of odd shaped envelopes with anthrax-like powders lurking inside. "Yes, golden opportunity to die horrendous rainbow death in excruciating hellish pain."

And as for emails, I'm not opening any of the ones that read:
"Beautiful maidens help you sell books with golden opportunity to do even more!" or
"Rainbow drugs give your book golden success and enlarge your library."

Yes, I'm getting these . . . and I'm a writer who has had no success at all in the publishing department. The only golden success my books have enjoyed is the rainbow experience of draining my bank account. And this without giving a credit card number to anyone!

I can't imagine the emails, voice mails and mail that Sandra Bullock receives on a daily basis . . . and I'm the one who's sending them to her!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Book Signings

This past week I had three book signings . . . including one at Walden's in the mall at Terre Haute on Friday night. I did happen to see a few old friends (emphasis here on "few") and I signed even fewer books.

Book signings in malls are always strange (at least mine are). And the conversations are even stranger. One guy dropped by the book table to ask, "Does your church practice holiness?"

"Sure," I said (knowing full well that what he meant by "holiness" was not what I meant by "holiness", but by God I was gonna play with his mind . . . after all, I had to justify spending $20 in gasoline in order to earn $1.40 in royalties from signing two books).

"So," he continued, "you preach that women should keep silent and that women should only wear dresses, and that men shouldn't wear short pants, right?"

He seemed immensely pleased with his brand of holiness.

I blew his mind by telling him that the only woman I could ever silence was my wife (and only when I took her out to dinner and stuffed her mouth full of crab cakes and lasagna) and that if I weren't doing this really boring book signing in the armpit of Indiana I'd be sitting at home on a Friday night in my really short wedgie-style underwear eating popcorn out of an old Charlie's Angels lunchbox shaped like a tushie and listening to my wife talk about her education classes and the top ten reasons why her IQ is superior to mine.

Naturally he didn't buy a book. Thank God!

Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of hosts.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Friedman Fiction

Long weekend . . . nice, but long. Lots of work, visits, and late night writing, but I also found snippets of time to do a bit of reading. I read the bulk of The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman.

Friedman is an eclectic writer who has cut his teeth as a humorist, essayist, and a Hollywood screenwriter and NY playwright . . . so he's done it all. I've been meaning to get to his books for a long time, and I finally managed to crack open this thick volume of his collected works. Great stuff here.

What I really enjoy about Friedman is that he doesn't take himself too seriously. He's able to wallow in self-deprecation and doesn't go after the easy laugh in his humor. He's smart and snappy and his short fiction here gives me something to shoot for.

He even claims his mother dropped him on his head as an infant, and this explains his bizarre and warped sense of himself. The same thing happened to me too, but my mother also gave me Castor oil and insisted that suppositories were superior to the chewable form of Flintstone vitamins. Most of my childhood was spent bending over the bathroom sink for my daily allowance of nourishment. Mom doesn't remember it this way, but believe me, a straight guy never forgets.

How do you like them apples, Mr. Friedman? And you think you're warped?

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Jewish Me, Part 2

It's an oddity really, but I have written quite a number of "Jewish" stories through the years. Most of these have struck a chord or two with editors (and a few published).

One of my wittiest (if I do say so myself) was a story about a priest who goes to a rabbi, rather than his superior, to make his personal confession. I really had to work on this one (I titled it: "The Final Confession of Father John"). One Jewish editor wrote me: "This would never happen . . . a priest confessing to a rabbi? I guess that's why I like it so much."

My best Jewish story, by far, is "Steiner the Violinist". I've worked on this story for over twenty years and have continued to polish it to a high-gloss. It's a fantastic tale, and I'm not giving it away (someone has to buy it, preferably for a lot of cash!). Here, a hard-working musician and family man labors in a butcher shop with a wise-cracking Jewish boss, but continues to dream of one day playing in the symphony. I re-read this story again this week, and it's a good'n. It's got everything a great story should have . . . chutzpah, kosher, existential angst, Jewish culture and inflection, and movement in plot and pace . . . ANYBODY OUT THERE WANNA BUY IT??

Of course, one of the reasons I've written so much about Jews through the years is because I have read THE JEWISH BOOK . . . The Bible. One can't beat the stories in Genesis or St. John, or Acts of the Apostles. The themes here are timeless, ageless. And they are revisited over and over again by writers.

That's why I always tell young literature majors: If you want to understand literature (even modern day) better become intimately familiar with the Bible . . . it's still the one guide that all writers, even heathens, continue to explore.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Jewish Me, Part 1

While I was in theological cemetery . . . er, seminary, at Duke U., I enrolled in a copious number of classes in the department of religion, rather than the div. school. In fact, about a third of my course work was completed alongside older idiots who were completing their Ph.Ds. That's what I thought I wanted to do, too, and so I took courses in Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, and Talmud. A great number of those students were Jewish as well . . . and I got to know the Jewish me in the process.

It was during this time that I discovered great Jewish writers as well, including Bernard Malamud (that's his photo), Chaim Potok, and Isaac B. Singer (who wrote in Yiddish). I loved these Jewish writers for their wit and theological acumen.

I also began writing Jewish stories, or, I should say, stories about Jews. Interestingly enough, I wrote some rather good stories, I felt, and it was these early stories (mid to late 80s) about Jewish situations, Jewish widowers, and Jewish martyrs, that helped me develop some skill.

This past week, I decided to rewrite a couple of my Jewish stories and send them along the submission trail again. Back in the 1980s, I had some great back-and-forth correspondence with the editor of Tikkun magazine (back when editors would actually try to make comment for writers) and Karamu (which ended up publishing my very first story, actually).

Becky would often ask when she read these early stories (and she never reads my stories now . . . she's learned to ignore everything I write): " What do you know about keeping a kosher kitchen?"

"Nothing," I would tell her. "But I love the taste of a kosher hot dog. Isn't that enough?"

Baruk atah adonai elohanu!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Fan Spam

I'm not sure there is such a concept, but I'm coining the phrase, "Fan Spam", to describe a few voice messages that I've received lately. These messages are from folks who call to tell me they are enjoying a book, an article or an essay I've written. All of them come from people I don't know . . . and how they get my number, only God can say.

I don't want to denigrate the Fan Spam (in fact, some of them are quite touching) and I have no idea how to respond to the Fan Spam either. Most people don't leave a call back number, and my caller ID is broken right now (thank God!).

But a couple of the Fan Spam messages have been rather confessional. They come from people who seem to want to unburden themselves on a voice mail, and they relate their struggles and pain, often with tears. I'm not sure why some folks want to talk to a voice mail prompt, but it's amazing what people will confess.

But I'm worried, too. What if someone leaves a message that says, "Hey, good buddy, I just killed my wife and wanted you to know I stuffed her into freezer bags," or "Yeah, just called to tell you I really enjoyed your essay on pileated woodpeckers . . . I saw one the other day while I was making a new batch of meth!"

I mean, what happens then? Am I bound to keep a secret because of the pastor/voice mail confidentiality code that I signed back in seminary? Or do I call the police and say, "Hey, officer, I have a secret that I'm dying to tell someone. Bet you can't guess what it is? Let's play twenty questions!"

That's why I don't like voice mail. I'd rather stick with my tin cans.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Post Office

Many people bash the post office these days, but as for my experience, the post office does a great job delivering manuscripts and packages to the various editors who say, "Sure, send me your odd little ideas and your paltry work, you hack."

The post office stays in business, due in large part, to my support. I buy stamps every week. Lots of em. Piles of em. I have rapport with the post office staff. I waltz in and say, "Give me the usual." I get a roll of stamps and two eggs over easy. I ask for "the works" and the post office staff gives me a sheet of one dollar stamps and fifty post card stamps. I ask for "the Alleycat" and they give me three padded mailers and a roll of seventeen centers.

Although I use the post office every week, I would, of course, much rather hand-deliver my work to editors. I'd much rather meet with them face-to-face so that they could see that I'm just a normal idiot who has a writing problem.

One of these days I'm going to order a post office uniform from a uniform shop. I'm going to gather my best work and track down those unsuspecting editors who could use my work, and I'm going to visit them in their offices. I'll walk in and say, "Delivery for Mr. Editor!"

And then I can add, "Of course, I'm just a postman, but I've read the contents of this envelope, and you'd be an idiot if you didn't publish this stuff."

That's the real benefit of the post office. Literary clout.

Monday, April 12, 2010

It's a Mystery

A few months back--during those winter days wedged between Christmas and New Year's Day--I recall writing a copious amount of material. Although everyone was at home, inside the walls of the Alleycat house, most everything was shagged with ice and not even my own family had any use for me. And so I wrote to keep warm.

On January 3 I sent out a gigantic pile of material (some via snailmail, some via email, some via other vias). And I'm just now hearing back from some of these editors.

Over this past weekend (who's dumb enough to work weekends besides pastors?) I did receive word from one publisher regarding interest in a book proposal, and another editor sent me word that he had accepted one of my mystery stories.

If you're interested, this is one you can actually read online. You can find my story, "The Palm Reader" at It's fiction (and I love the twist ending in this one).

Who knows what this week will bring? Rejection from another editor? Rejection from Becky? Or maybe somebody, somewhere saying, "Hey, I gotta have 'ya!" Might even be my wife saying it on some enchanted evening.

But then, stranger things have happened. Right, Mr. Poe?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

E.L. Doctorow Collection

Last week I found a first edition of City of God, written by E.L. Doctorow, at Goodwill. I paid a $1.99 for this great find, but only God knows how the book found its way to Goodwill. That, as they say, is another mystery.

Back in the early 1990s, I began reading and collecting books written by E.L. Doctorow (Edgar Lawrence)--a writer who is largely considered one of the best American novelists of the last century. Less a few titles, I do have most of his work on my shelves, including two of his works that are often placed in the top 100 novels of the past 100 years: Ragtime and The Book of Daniel. I have also read The Waterworks, Loon Lake, and Lives of the Poets (a short story collection).

Doctorow has slowed in his writing as he's entered his latter years, but anything he publishes commands attention and usually wins an honor or two.

Along with John Updike, Bernard Malamud, John Irving, David Sedaris, and Barbara Kingsolver--E.L., like them, occupies a copious amount of my shelf space, and I have their various titles stacked up like chord wood in the library.

Now and again, whenever Becky complains about the books, I just remind her that I do dust them every decade (and do, sometimes, downsize the stacks by selling to Half-Priced Books). "Still," she says, "you usually buy more books with the money you get from the sales."

I'm not sure that's the objective, but I did read this week in The New Yorker about Otto Penzler (series editor of The Best American Mystery Stories each year) and a guy who owns The Mysterious Bookshop in New York. After nearly sixty years of collecting books, he eventually added on to his house. He lives in one room, and the rest of his space, thousands of square feet, is filled to the brim with volumes. Every morning, when he rises, he says to himself, "Good Lord! I actually live here!"

"You see," I tell the good wife, "I have a long way to go before I get that bad!"

Friday, April 9, 2010

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

A few weeks ago I "rediscovered" a magazine that I remember reading as a teenager: MAD. I thought this mag had gone the way of the dinosaur long ago. I picked up a copy and read it, and then realized that it was not a kid's magazine at all--but a smartly-written and sharply-satirical magazine on political, religious, and popular culture. And I said to myself, "Hey, I should be writing for this magazine!" And so . . .

This week I received my first copy of the magazine in the mail. I proceeded to read it from cover-to-cover, and then on Wednesday night, I cranked out eight pages of MAD magazine material which I promptly mailed on its mad and merry way.

Later that night, my son noted the magazine sitting next to the computer and asked, "What's this? Are you reading comic books now?"

"I just started reading it again," I told him, "and I've written some material that I hope they might publish."

"You write for magazines?" he asked.

I rolled my eyes and tried not to send him sailing to the moon with a swift uppercut. "I have written for a lot of magazines," I said.

"How long have you written for magazines? When did this start?"

"Thirty years ago," I said. "Have you been living in a cave? What do you think I'm doing every night sitting here typing until my fingers bleed?"

"Oh, that," he said, "I thought you were working on some of your crazy books. I didn't realize you could write for magazines. Could I write for a magazine, too?"

"Sure," I said, "In fact . . . I insist on it. All you have to do is finish your homework and then learn how to string a noun and a verb together."

A parent doesn't have to look far for MAD material.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


So far, a fun and fascinating week off. I've kayaked, hiked, read, and written lots of new material. And I've also given some telephone interviews.

My favorite was an interview with a journalist in L.A. who called to tell me how much she enjoyed my blog (this one!). "It's unique. Not like any other. Kind of warped."

"That's good," I said. "I hate stereotypes. But since the blog is warped, I'll try harder to move into the insane category."

She then proceeded to ask me some stereotypical questions and I gave stereotypical answers for the stereotypical article in the stereotypical magazine. The only thing was, when she called, she told me she wanted to do the interview because she needed some "quotes from an expert!"

Me? An expert? In what? Still . . . I hope I gave her some great insights. I did tell her:

"You know, nostalgia was so much better years ago."
"I only pay with cash . . . which is just as good as real money."
"Are you taping this interview? I hate the sound of my own voice when it shows up in print."

I'm not sure she got me at all. She didn't even laugh.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Book Lovers

Here's an intriguing book: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much--The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession. Written by Allison Hoover Bartlett, this fascinating true-story reads like a detective novel and relates the cat-and-mouse story of a famous book thief, John Gilkey, and the Book Detective, Ken Sanders, who follows him around the world trying to catch the guy who uses phony identities, credit card numbers, and stories to get his hands on valuable first-edition books.

Reading Bartlett's journalistic foray into the obsessive world of book collectors helped me to realize that it would be so easy for me to fall headlong into this obsession, too. But my collecting fever was cooled early by the poverties of being a seminary student. Thank God.

I do remember one lapse, however. It was in the summer of 1983, and I frequently drove to downtown Asheville, N.C. in the evenings to visit the incredible array of used and rare bookshops that littered the town. What little money I was making through my Duke Summer Internship I was spending on books. I hunted for rare first-editions that I could afford (and bought a few I could not afford), but in the end I realized that book collecting was for wealthy folks who also had money for food, clothing, and other assorted necessities. My obsession ended abruptly when I found that I could not afford a hot dog one afternoon. And if a seminary student can't live on wieners . . . heck, what's he gonna eat?

I went cold turkey and steered clear of the old bookshops after that. No more 1873 editions of Aesop's Fables; no more 1895 editions of Uncle Tom's Cabin; no more Romantic Poetry Collections . . . though I still have all of these on my shelves, along with dozens of other first-edition prizes that I will never relinquish to Half Priced Books.

Sure, I still collect . . . and from time to time I do find and purchase some incredible volumes. But I'm not obsessive about it. I save my obsessions for other things these days: writing late at night, drinking protein shakes, making love to my wife twice a year.

Some things you just gotta have.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Books, Boats, Barbells & Basketball

I took a day of vacation Monday and found myself enjoying as many "Bs" as possible. First, I enjoyed a long relaxing morning coffee on the back deck, with newspaper and books. After reading for an hour or so, it was on to the Whitelick creek, where Becky and I kayaked a couple of miles, ending up back in our front yard in the afternoon. It was a great two hour trip.

Then, to the gym, where I hit the barbells hard and tried to shed a pound of Easter candy. Not many in the gym yesterday, so I had the whole place, practically, to myself.

Then, to Goodwill, where I managed to locate two excellent first-editions for a song ($1.99 each). I found E.L. Doctorow's, City of God, and Calvin Trillin's, Deadline Poet. As for Trillin, I've read a fair number of his books and always enjoy his New Yorker writing. And E.L. Doctorow is certainly regarded as one of the best American writers, and two of his books, Ragtime and The Book of Daniel, are regarded as two of the top 100 American novels of the past century. I have read most of Doctorow's books through the years and he's one of my favorites.

By the time I settled in to watch the NCAA basketball final, I had read a short stack of books and had another smaller stack next to the chair. During the game I managed to swallow Raymond Carver's 2nd collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, during the time outs and commercial breaks leading up to another Duke championship. This book was timely, as Becky and I never talk about love when we talk about love, and, in fact, I'm not sure what we talked about yesterday come to think of it.

The only thing I can remember saying to her all day was, "Look out for that rock up ahead!"

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Pile

Yes, I have a pile at home. It's in my office . . . growing, multiplying, expanding. It's a pile of files (research), essays and stories and proposals (various stages of revision) and book manuscripts (fat ones, skinny ones, even books with chicken pox).

Naturally, Becky doesn't like my pile. "When are you going to clean this up?" she asks.

"Never," I tell her. "Everything is just where I can reach it."

"How do you know where to find what you're looking for?"

"Ask me for something," I answer, "and I can reach in and pull it out. I know where everything is located, right down to the last centimeter. Or, I can just sense it."

"Are you sensing what I'm feeling right now?"

Of course, I would never dream of trying to interpret a woman's feelings and thoughts. That would be miraculous. Wouldn't it?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Happy Birthday Jesus . . . and Becky

In many respects we might consider Easter to be the real birthday of Jesus. Starting a new eternal life after death is truly a birth. Easter also happens to be my wife's birthday. I've written her a few poems to celebrate the 49th occasion, but here's one I can actually place on the blog . . . perhaps others can identify with this one.

Waking Up

One day a guy like me wakes up
And finds he's sleeping with a dame
Who still can make his heart rate jump
(But, Lord, he can't recall her name).

She looks familiar, so he asks
If she was with him through the night.
She's looking older, though the masks
She plasters on give him a fright.

And he reminds her of a man
She used to know, and made her leap,
And gave her children, passions, and
Some lovely moments in her sleep.

And by and by, as life goes on,
The man accepts this oddity
And she accepts what's come and gone
And they, in forgetfulness, agree.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Big Burn

After several weeks I finally finished reading Tim Eagan's account of the largest fire in American history: The Big Burn. The Burn destroyed 3.2 million acres of forest in the U.S. (not including Canadian forest figures), leveled towns, killed hundreds, and changed the face of America when Teddy Roosevelt was president.

For all of the hype around the book, and in spite of Tim Eagan's Pulitzer Prize-National Book Award Style Writing, I just found the narrative a bit soggy and slow. But otherwise the guy did a commendable job of telling the story of those who committed their lives and futures to fighting the Big Burn. The aftermath was harrowing, and it's a wonder more towns and lives weren't lost to such catastrophic winds of heat and fate.

I'm not much on fires. About the biggest fire I've seen are some I have started in the front yard, but then, only to roast wieners.

I'll slip The Big Burn back on the shelf and maybe read a book about water next. This one made me thirsty.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

We Need to Talk

Sometimes, in the midst of the craziness, we learn things about ourselves . . . and others. It happened to me the other night.

I had been writing for several hours, churning out great material, work that, I knew, was some of the best writing I'd done in years. It was writing so astounding that any editor would swoon over it and write me a check on the spot. But it was approaching midnight, and my wife was also bringing her eighteen hour work day to a close.

"Hey," I yelled from my office, "we need talk. Are you going to finish that term paper you wanted me to read? I've got some time now."

Becky screamed back. "I know I need to write it, but I can't seem to get motivated," she said. "I'm not like you. I can't just plop down in a chair and crank out twenty pages a night."

"But you're a good writer," I hollered back. "Your term papers are always insightful."

"Listen," Becky said, "You're a writer. But I'm just a person who can write."

Bazinga! Wow, I'd never heard it said that way before, but the old lady is probably onto something here. Writers . . . and people who can write. That's a rather insightful distinction, I think. Most people can write (at least something, or some of the time) but not all people are writers.

In fact, I think it was Truman Capote who once remarked that writing could not be taught, and that writers were not made, but born. He made the bold assertion that writers were those whose essence, whose being, was centered in the production and constant outpouring of words on the page. He may have been onto something, too.

In the broadest definition of my life, I guess that's who I am. I can't recall a time since learning how to write, when I haven't been engaged in writing. Even as a "hobby writer" I've found that I out-write most full-time writers (those who are blessed with being able to write during the daylight hours when the sun is shining).

But who knows . . . some day I might be able join the ranks of these full-timers and actually be able to write ten, twelve, sixteen, even twenty hours a day . . . even if that's in retirement. And I know I'll be called a writer then.