Friday, March 28, 2014

The Ageing Game

Evidently, according to the latest trending stats and social media conversations, no one under the age of twenty-five uses Facebook.  This social media site has now become associated with "old folks", has an "old" look, and, according to the word on the street, is on its way out.  This could be the case.  Nothing lasts forever (not even Mark Zuckerberg) and as younger generations take the reigns of conversation, they are bound to be doing it through different forums.

But hey, you're talking to a guy who still walks 120 yards each morning to stoop on cracking knees to pick up a newspaper along the road.  (I did this in snow, ice, sleet and rain this winter . . . and I cursed every step of the way.)

And now that another study revealed that nearly 50% of people (but more women than men) would answer a text/twitter while in the throes of sexual passion, I realize that I'm not really connected at all.  I mean, if my mother were to call me some evening (I do have caller ID and ignore most) I would simply call her back the next morning and ask, "What's wrong? You gotta problem?"

I'm not connected.  And if there's one thing I've learned in 53 years of life and 30+ years of pastoral work it's this:  Emergencies are rare.  Most phone calls, twitters, emails, voicemails, and text messages are just that . . . messages.

Picking up a loaf of bread is not an emergency (not even if a foot of snow is predicted).  A flat tire is not an emergency.  Heck, if I had a phone call informing me that my wife was in jail, that wouldn't be an emergency either.  If I had a deadline to meet and words to write, I know this:  She's gonna spend one night in the slammer and I would be there the next morning with bail.  What's the rush?  (I hear these jail accommodations can be rather swanky.)

In all honesty, I can say this, too.  My age belies the fact that I really don't care if Facebook makes it or not.  I don't tweet, and by the time I would learn how, something else will be "in" and twitter will be "out".  I don't care if WalMart goes the way of the DoDo bird, either.  

My age belies the fact that someday, one of my highest aspirations is actually to become dis-connected.  Someday, I hope to toss my cell phone in the river, my computer in the lake, and my television over the cliff.  (My wife and I are almost TV-free now, so the latter portion of the triad isn't so far-fetched.)

Some day I hope that my social connections will be good friends sitting on the back porch with a glass of wine, a book in hand, and a dirty pair of hiking boots.  I can holler out the window if I need help.  And I hear that they still make postage stamps.     

Thursday, March 27, 2014


Important to have goals.  I set goals every year:  marks I will measure and set out to achieve.  Some of these goals are lofty and very likely unreachable, while others are benchmarks that prop up other goals.

At the beginning of the year I had set a goal to have 150 essays and/or stories published by year end.  I am making progress, but I will have to pick up the pace in order to achieve that benchmark.  To date:  19 essays in three months.  (And this doesn't include guest blog posts that I have written for other bloggers.)

More recently I have undertaken pursuit of another goal:  losing the ten pounds of winter weight I seem to pack on every year between Thanksgiving and New Year.  All of that pie and cake and ice cream and heaping bowls of spaghetti tasted great during those twenty-below evenings, but now it's time to shed it.  I feel like a bear coming out of hibernation.

Three months into 2014 those goals loom large.  

I will soon be tightening my belt another notch (or two) and will be looking to discover new ways to write smarter and faster.  And as I think about it--perhaps the two are inter-related. 


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

My Passwords

If you are reading this blog, it is the result of some sweat and tears.  Yesterday, after beginning some work on a new Google account, I inadvertently shifted my blogger dashboard to this new account.  It has taken me hours to figure out that I actually have several Google accounts and, subsequently, several passwords (most of which I had forgotten).

I know we live in a digital age when online piracy and identity theft are rampant, but personally, I can't remember most of the passwords I establish.  (It's one of the reasons I am a Luddite and still write checks instead of banking online.)  I do have a book with these passwords listed inside, but I can't remember where I put the book.  Every now and again I find this book that contains the passwords, but I can't remember what the passwords are for.  It's a quandary.

Passwords show up in some odd places, too.

Last week, when I leaned over to kiss my wife, she asked me for a password.  I gave her one, but she said it was invalid, as it did not contain at least one number and a symbol.  I remembered the number, but the symbol eluded me:  Was it $ or @ or %?  

Soon, I have a feeling that we will go to open a box of Hamburger Helper but will have to enter a password to turn on the stove. When the stove doesn't work, we will have to call the gas company and someone will ask, "Can I have your password please?"  

I have actually spent more time trying to recover passwords than I have creating them.  Most of the time, when I have forgotten my password, I am asked to provide the answer to several questions such as:  "What is your mother's maiden name?" or "What was your nickname as a child?"  It takes me more time to dredge up this information, as I always have to call my mother and ask her to explain her virginity to me.

I wish that these password prompts would be more transparent.  Why can't the prompt ask questions like:  "Are you wearing boxers or briefs?" or "How many cups of coffee have you had today?"  These I can remember . . . and if not, I can always peek inside my pants and remind myself to put on underwear (why I often forget this step is beyond my comprehension). 

The password police are everywhere.  A friend recently told me about a new safety feature on his car that disables the engine whenever he parks it, and it can only be activated by a voice password.  Good Lord . . . if I had that feature, I'm sure I would never leave the parking lot. 


Monday, March 24, 2014

What I Did On My Spring Break

First, I'm not taking a spring break.  Those days (with younger children released from school and old Dad taking a vacation) are long gone. 

Currently, I'm still saddled to the keyboard, hunched over a myriad of deadlines.  I've started these writing forays at 3 a.m. on several days in the past week and have even taken to giving my wife a full report every night.  One of my biggest projects, a planned 90,000 word title that I will be completing by November 1, is already nearing the half-way mark.  Last Monday night I informed my wife that I had reached the 40,000 word mark, and this weekend I wrote another seven-thousand words and plan to stretch to 60,000 words before month's end.  Her response:  "You are crazy."

I like spring break.  I no longer have to worry about orchestrating a road trip with children crying in the backseat.  I no longer have to say, "Don't make me stop this car!" or "If I have to get out of this beach lounger!" or "Don't make me come over there and eat your snow cone!"

Now, when spring break rolls around, I only have to worry about the triad: 
1. Me
2. The keyboard
3. And scheduling one romantic outing with my wife (this year, White Castle ought to do it)

Now that spring breaks are two weeks in duration instead of one, I really don't know how many words I can produce, how many deadlines I can meet.  While the world is vacationing in exotic locations like Bora Bora or Cancun or Akron, Ohio, I'll be burning the break in Brownsburg, ever moving my word-count upward, writing book reviews, talking to editors. 

Things could be worse.  My wife could expect two nights or romance.  But I'm running out of ideas.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Put Up Your Dukes

Now that the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is in full swing, I thought I'd share a few disconnected memories of my three years on the Duke campus.

When I arrived at Duke in the fall of 1982 I walked up to the ticket window at Cameron Indoor Stadium, slid $80 through the window, and walked away an all-sports pass for the full academic year.  Duke won only 8 basketball games that year, but I did get to see future stars like Michael Jordan (North Carolina).  Cameron Indoor was not filled to capacity.  As a sidebar . . . the Duke football team that year was superb and their quarterback, Ben Bennet, set the all-time NCAA passing record.  The team went to a bowl game.

My first year at Duke (tuition and housing) cost more than my entire degree (B.A. English) from Indiana State.

My years at Duke were a mixed blessing.  One the one hand I struggled emotionally because I could not write what I wanted to write (but instead was forced to write papers on such illustrious names as Zwingli, Anselm, and Julia of Norwich).  But Becky and I were married the summer before my final year, and having her with me in North Carolina was my saving grace.

We were poor. Becky lost her job during my final semester and at one point I was taking a full load of classes, serving as a full time chaplain, serving two congregations and working a campus job.  I've been keeping this same pace ever since and being poor that early on taught me how to survive on $5 a week.  I can still do it (have you priced Ramen noodles, lately?).

One of the happiest days of my life was the day following graduation (a Monday).  I found a ream of yellow paper, two ink pens, and sat on a blanket outside the apartment complex in a full May sun in my underwear and began writing what I wanted to write.  I have never relented, and thirty years later I'm at 30 books and counting . . . and have also published hundreds of essays, stories and poems.

While at Duke, I had a professor who wrote the following comment on one of my papers:  "You can't write!"  These three words set me afire (not in a negative way) and I made a commitment to myself that I would never again submit work that was below my own standards.  I still have that paper . . . and some day I hope to frame those words!

I have a piece of the floor (from Indianapolis) where Duke won their first NCAA championship--beating Kansas.   

Thursday, March 20, 2014

To Ireland

This summer Becky and I will be in Europe celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary . . . well, I'll be celebrating, she may be lamenting.  But we will be in Ireland, London, Paris, Rome, Florence and Venice. 

In preparation for our Ireland leg of the excursion I've been brushing up on my  pub jokes (most of them clean) and my Irish accent.  And this week I've also been visiting Ireland to obtain permissions for an upcoming book title that is scheduled for publication in October.

Obtaining these permissions (I find) is never an easy task, and I imagine certain conversations going like this:

Hello, this is Todd Alleycat, calling from America!  Top of the mornin' to ya!

Well, Mr. Alleycat, we've been expectin' ya to callous and we cain't wait 'till yer book is published.  We expect it to be a real wingdinger.  October, ya don't say?  Well, yes-sir-ee well be a gettin' those permissions to ya justa soon as we hear from hour permissions department.  Can we fax it to ya now?  Do ya have a fax over your way or is the carrier pigeon still a viable option fer ya?  You Americans . . . always in a hurry fer yer permissions, huh?  Well, we'll be gettin' right on it and tell us, what's the best way to be reachin' ya if'n we to ask a question er two?  Shall we give ya a jingle at this number or would you like fer us to call yer publisher direct?  Ahh, yes, that's a swell idea, Mr. Alleycat.  And bein' one of those authors we've never heard of, we'll just assume if it doesn't work out, ye might have to include a quote from Yeats or Thomas . . . we've got plenty of those boys a floatin' around the offices here in Dublin ya know.  Swell talkin' to ye, Mr. Alleycat.  Bless ye, me boy!  Bless ye!  And may the wind rise up to greet ye!  

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Seasoned Writer's Conference

According to a recent advertisement for my May 8th Writer's Seminar (9-3 p.m.) I am a "seasoned author" who will provide insights into the art and business of writing.  I like that word "seasoned" . . . it reminds me that I need to sweat more (salty), cook more (paprika), and often roll myself in butter (along with basil and garlic).  Still, if there are those who want to bring their own seasoning to this writer's conference, I promise to make it worth your while.

People often ask me:  What will happen at your writer's conference?


1. We will have a good thyme.
    Participants will smell the aroma of fresh-baked words while they are cooking up their essays and chapters.

2. The recipe for the Colonel's 7-Secret Herbs and Spices will be revealed.
    So, don't be a chicken and opt-out.  Plan to participate.  Wing on down to the conference offices. Break a leg.  You'll learn that you must have a thick skin to be a writer.  And if you are looking toward publication (and how-to) I'll provide a big bucket of information.

3. You'll learn how to spice up your writing.
    In other words, you will learn how to take your writing up a notch, how to keep the writing simmering. 

Other questions and answers include:
Q: Will a meal be provided with my registration fee ($20)?
A:  Yes, you can even have a chicken sandwich.

Q: Do you really know what you are doing when it comes to writing?
A:  No.

Q:  Is there anything you can teach me?
A:  Yes, if you are teachable. 

Q:  Will I be the only person taking this seminar?
A:  Perhaps, but won't it be delightful if it's just you and me?  Think of all that food!

Q: Can I bring some of my writing for you to look at?
A:  Absolutely!  Bring some Italian herbs for the sandwiches, too.

Q: Will taking this seminar turn me into a best-selling author, whereby I can retire from my job as a sausage-stuffer, move to the Caribbean, and produce rave-reviewed books while sipping Margaritas on the beach?
A:  Hey, what do you think?  Look at what writing and publishing 30 books has done for me! 


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Play Day

Leonard Sweet's latest book, The Well-Played Life, is a marvel and a delight.  As the title would suggest, Sweet's principal theme here is that we have forgotten about the role of Sabbath re-creation, about child-like wonder and evocative play, in the walk of faith.  As Sweet so eloquently relates in this book about life-stages (and faith-stages), we all need to do a better job of recreating if we want to be re-created.

He's right, of course . . . on many levels.

Most of faith today--at least the variety lived and expressed by the bulk of Americans--is shot through with a hardened work ethic and a hardened heart.  Faith in America is now more argumentative and crass than it is joyous and playful.  Faith is now an in-your-face, blunt-force trauma . . . and the idea of entering the kingdom as a child (playful and filled with wonder) is a far cry from where most experience the shock and awe of a faith that kills the spirit rather than enlivens it.

What Sweet invites us to do is get out of our business suits and stuffy churches and take to the playground.  He invites us to experience the wonder of faith expressed in playdough and journaling, in hiking and exploration, in skydiving and bunji-jumping.

Personally, I'm too old for some of these forms of play . . . but I understand Sweet's point.  If we really want to understand the divine heart, we have to be willing to play, and play-well together.  Anything else just lands us in the principal's office.  We need a lot more of others and a lot less of ourselves.  Too much work makes Jack a dull boy.

Maybe it's time to read those nursery rhymes again!

Friday, March 14, 2014


Elated to be included in Reckless Writing 2013--a new poetry anthology published by Chatter House Press.  (Thanks, Penny!)


Thursday, March 13, 2014


There's an old adage:  "It is easier to be forgiven than to get permission."  Some truth there, for sure.  But when it comes to gathering permissions for a book, this is certainly the case.

At present I am engaged in the arduous task of wading through this permission-gathering process.  This involves forms, phone calls, and cover letters along with legal documentation (some to other countries).  It is all quite involved and time-consuming.  That's why writing fiction is generally a more relaxing state of affairs.  With a novel, one can simply write.  Non-fiction often involves carefully-crafted paragraphs and tons of Alka-Seltzer tablets. 

I am, by now, and old hat at gaining permission, however.  My wife has taught me this art.

I generally ask permission to use the toilet, for example.  (This goes back to my childhood, when I also asked my mother.)  I also ask my wife if I can go outside to play and, if I'm going to be staying up past my bed-time, I ask permission to write for another four hours while she hibernates.  I ask permission to leave the table, often using the phrase, "May I be excused from this smorgasbord so that I can retire to my study with a cigar and brandy and write for five hours?"

My wife always points out that I don't smoke cigars and I don't drink brandy and I answer, "Well, I guess that just leaves the writing, then."

Permission is usually obtained unless my wife just has to have me for other rewards of marital bliss (this can include cleaning the dinner plates, wiping down the microwave, or sweeping the floor). 

In the morning, before I get out of bed, I usually begin with the phrase, "Permission to rise, ma'am!"  This can be as early as 3 a.m. and my wife generally doesn't answer.  I always take her silence as an affirmation.

I have a lot of these affirmations in marriage.  And I have learned to abide by them.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Writing Letters

Recently I wrote a column about the impact of a handwritten letter.  Now that everything is facebook, email or twitter, it's quite impactful to receive a handwritten note . . . or to send one.  I still create these dinosaurs myself.  In the past two weeks I've written letters to:

* A publisher in New York, thanking the firm for agreeing to publish my next book (likely in 2015) and informing the editorial team that I plan to hand-deliver my manuscript to their offices in October.

* An editor, thanking her for giving me an opportunity to write for her magazine.

* Several letters to my wife.

These latter letters, of course, are part and parcel of what I hope to collect in my epistolary anthology before I die.  I think people would love to read these personal letters that I leave on the kitchen cabinet or send back to my wife (who is usually the first one to address to dire food supply in the house, or writes, wondering why there is a thin film on the kitchen floor that resembles pea soup).  Some of the letters I hope to collect are superb examples of the fine domestic tradition of exchange, as you can see:

Yes, I do plan to cook dinner on Wednesday night, but will not be able to eat until much later.  Please enjoy your defrosted chicken gizzards and succotash without me.  Naturally, I will be thinking of you every minute I am away and will count the moments until we see each other a week from next Tuesday, at which time I would like for you to review a bank statement and sign two documents (in triplicate) that grants permission for me to make health-initiative decisions on your behalf, should you become incapacitated or lapse into dementia or worse.  Thank you for marking this date on your already-full calendar.  Perhaps, after we decide your fate, we can pick up some ice cream afterwards.  Do you still like butter-pecan?
More hugs than kisses,

Dear Becky,
It is with a full heart and deep gratitude that I accept your invitation to dine with you a week from Friday.  I am, indeed, honored.  Please know that I weighed your invitation against many others but, quite frankly, I'm just not that popular and I don't typically do much on Friday nights anyway except a bit of personal grooming.  I hope you will forgive me when I say that, all things considered, you look ravishing and I have truly enjoyed our many conversations over the past thirty years, especially those conversations that have touched upon more intimate matters such as laminate flooring and making paint selections based on the color chips from Sherman Williams.  Rest assured I will bring along notes that will guide our dinner conversation and keep things focused on the issues that matter (this will include an Excel spreadsheet that I have created of certain high-moments in the marriage, including one childbirth--with accompanying photos.) Also, please excuse the formality of receiving this hand-written letter through your office courier (I folded it twice and smeared spaghetti sauce on it to ensure confidentiality). If you are offended by this, perhaps we can add this to the discussion list when we meet, and we could also add any other bullet points of improvement that you'd like to interject into the mix.  At any rate, have a great week.  I look forward to our meeting and promise to address your question:  "Why don't you get more jiggy wid' it?"  
Your comrade,

Friday, March 7, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman & Truman Capote

A few days back, soon after the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I began taking mental snapshots of the actor's movie roles, or at least the movies I had seen.  Hoffman, much like Meryl Streep, was a brilliant character who could assume accents, facial tics, even mannerisms of the persons he was portraying on film.

He also portrayed Truman Capote, a writer who, for his time and a time, was the most famous writer in America--especially following the publication of his "non-fiction novel", In Cold Blood.  Writing this book about the Kansas family who were murdered in their home for $50 and change sent Capote into a death spiral of his own.  He never wrote another book after In Cold Blood, and for the rest of his life he lived off of the fumes of that work and the high-octane lifestyle of sex, drugs and alcohol . . . the latter of which eventually took his life.

Hoffman did a superb job of playing Capote, a writer whom many described as an average writer, but a writer who was famous for simply being famous.  Capote had a way of manufacturing his fame, and he was enamored of movie stars and the Hollywood lifestyle that eventually led to his demise.

I know I have read every published piece written by Capote, including his incompleted works.  He was an interesting writer, but his lifetime output was relatively small, though of certain quality and clout . . . and hence his place in American letters.

Now, when I think of Capote, I see Hoffman, too.  Some tragedies are two-fold.  I just wish both men had found a better way to deal with their inner demons.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The New Orleans Public Library

Yesterday, upon my return home, I discovered a small box on the front porch.  It contained a hardback copy of my book, Candles in the Dark: A Treasury of the World's Most Inspiring Parables (John Wiley & Sons, NY, 2002).  This gift was surprising on two counts:  first, that this was the first hardback copy of the book I have owned (it was only published in trade paper), and secondly, that the book had been sitting on the shelves of the New Orleans Public Library for more than a decade.  Now, the book only exists in digital format (or as a remaindered title).

I have never been to New Orleans, but do plan to visit.  And now that the public library has gifted me with this book, I know I'm going to visit soon. 

The hardback copy of the book also arrives at a significant time, as I just signed a contract to write a new book about parables and teaching stories for another New York publisher--a book that will be published in hardback and, hopefully, translated into several languages.  I'm already nearly 30,000 words into this manuscript and writing F A S T.

Actually, I regard Candles in the Dark as my best book to date, so I'm eager to write a new book in a similar vein.  It's fun, and I now have more than enough to keep me up late and rising early.

Don't know when this new book will be published, but I don't worry about such matters.  Others can make those decisions.  I'll just make sure I deliver the goods.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Tribute to Dr. Seuss

Beloved writer Dr. Seuss died a few days ago, and I thought I'd take some space here to pay tribute.  He was certainly one of the best-selling (if not the best-selling writer for children) of the 21st century.  Most Americans can recall either having read Dr. Seuss books as a child, or reading his books to children or grandchildren. I suppose the most well-known of his books was The Cat in the Hat

No doubt Dr. Seuss has been parodied to death, too.  His verse lends itself to all manner of humor, which is another tribute to greatness.

Some years back I wrote my own modern-day version of his book Hop On Pop, and I thought I'd offer it again here.  Anyway, just my way of saying "Dr. Seuss, you shall be missed!"

Hop on Pop

The bills keep coming
They won't stop
Hop on Pop

The wife likes spending
Loves to shop
But she never
Hops on Pop

The college calls
They want a drop
I write a check
They Hop on Pop

The teenage son
Thinks he's Aesop
Believes he's wiser
Than his Pop

The daugher's wedding
The cake top
And all expenses
Hop on Pop

Daddy feels
Like a bellhop
Taking orders
But he's Pop

Sometimes he cooks
The evening slop
But each complaint
Still Hops on Pop

Daddy cleans
He likes to mop
But still there's dirt
That Hops on Pop

The politicians
And their crop
Have a solution:
Hop on Pop!

Sometimes Pop dreams
He'd like to swap
His life insurance
Cash for Pop

But life keeps coming
It won't stop
Hop on Pop!  

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Behind the Oscars

For the most part, the Oscars are a showcase of "outfront" personalities--the pretty faces and famous names in front of the camera.  But secretly I enjoy the Oscars for the small, but essential awards and accolades given to the writers.  After all, none of the acting can happen without the words.  And words come from writers . . . those men and women who slave away in anonymity (for the most part) and who produce all of the screenplays and treatments.  Everything celebrated at the Oscars first began on the page.

If one listens closely enough, some of the actors who receive their awards will thank their writers, and sometimes note them by name (usually the person no one has heard of).  But awards are also given to best original screenplay and best screenplay adaptation (meaning it is a screenplay written from another work, or based on a work such as a novel or other original concept).

So, I'll be listening for the writers.  These are also going to be the most shabbily-dressed people in the crowd.  The writers are the ones who come forward to receive their awards dressed in pajamas and bath robes, their usual writing attire. 

And the movie that will win best screenplay?  No sure.  But some writer our there will be smiling.