Monday, August 31, 2009

Highlights, Day One in Flushing

Shotmaster Roger Federer easily advanced to the second round with a straight set victory over American Devin Britton. Wimbledon finalist Tommy Haas made it through to the second round as did James Blake, Robin Soderling, and Tommy Robredo. In terms of excitement Turkey’s Marsel Ilhan put on a show on court 6 squeaking past stalwart journeyman Christophe Rochus 7-5 in the fifth set. The match of the day goes to Germany’s Simon Greul who outgunned qualifier Giovanni Lapenti (brother of Nicholas). Greul showed a lot of heart, but will have to pull off a miracle in his next match. He will face the world’s number one Roger Federer.

The bottom half of the draw looks menacing in terms of firepower. There’s Andy Murray, Raphael Nadal, Marin Cilic, Fernando Gonzalez, and Juan Martin Del Potro. Look for a Murray to square off with Nadal in the semis. Federer owns the top half. His main challenge will come from Roddick in the semis, but Roger will most likely draw Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals. The Swede will look to avenge his French Open loss. The edge goes to the all-time champ.

As for sentimental picks, I’d love to see Haas go the distance. Federer has already made history so each cup he claims now is merely gravy. Haas has never fully reached his potential what with all the injuries he has been nagged by his whole career, but this season he has been fantastic. It may be his last shot at capturing a slam.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tipping My Hat to Prez

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Lester Young’s birth. He’s already been gone for 50 years, but his mellifluous saxophonic recordings jazz on. Known as Prez to fans, players, friends, and family a young Lester got his big break playing with Count Basie in 1934. He transformed the brash hard line of sax into something sexy, softer, bluer. Some have credited him with taking Jimmy Dorsey’s mellow sound and perfecting it into a counterpoint of the brassy pomp of Coleman Hawkins. Prez’s music would go on to influence Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and many others; his quirky style of dress would inspire Charlie Mingus to write “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”. Above all else Prez was an innovator he didn’t hold the sax the customary way those before him had. He held it at 45 degree angle rather than vertically. He was notorious for his verbal coloratura and coinages. He is credited with using the word bread in reference to money and the ubiquitous “cool”. When he was enamored by something he said he had “big eyes” for it. He gave Billie Holiday her nickname “Lady Day” and in turn she christened him Prez.

Young was born in Woodville, Mississippi on August 27, 1909. He’d cut his teeth in Kansas City where he’d meet Count Basie and later go on to replace, the imminent tenor sax of the time, Coleman Hawkins, and played for Fletcher Henderson. He collaborated with Billie Holliday, Benny Goodman, many stars.

From 1946 onward he would play with the Philharmonic, opening the door wider for jazz to put it closer into the loftier European musical sphere. He preferred the intimacy of smaller groups than the big bands of Basie. His great short-coming was his seemingly unquenchable desire for drink. Still, even with fighting on and off these demons he produced a stunning oeuvre. Prez in Europe recorded in 1956, three years before he died, remains one of his best.

Two of my personal favorites of his are “Blue Lester” and “She’s Funny That Way”.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Just Sneakers

It seems to me that some men spend as much, maybe even more, on their footgear than women. Air Force 1 ring any bells? It’s the Jimmy Choos of sneakers and Sneakerheads from Syracuse to Seattle covet them with all their fashion-conscious zeal. They’re growing in number. And many of them are ten, eleven, and twelve-year olds dipping into their piggy banks to splurge, in some cases, upwards of $700 for the hottest new releases.

Every boy has a right of passing. He takes a pilgrimage to Niketown and there before his callow eyeballs are the most spectacular shades of lust— electric blue, fire engine red, barbecue brown, radioactive green, and titanium. Some of the sneakers have copies of precious diamonds embedded in the rubber bottoms, others are proffered in attaché cases— gimmicks aplenty. A lucky few get the royal treatment and head back in a private lounge replete with leather sofas that could give the swankiest gentlemen’s clubs a run for their money. Those lucky few can have a custom-made pair.

For those that don’t quite have deep enough pockets for custom design the crème de la crème available to the public will still impress savvy cognoscenti. The lines have names like Vandal, Cortez, Power Max TB, HyperDunk Supreme, Zoom Sharkalaid, Blazer, and the elusive Dunk SB, to the more casual Retro Lifestyle. There’s the Air Jordan Sixty Plus signature series that pays tribute to master of dunk, Michael, the year he racked in sixty plus points. The very styles Jordan wore that historic season.

Yes, a lot has changed since I once sported Air Pegasus and Rebook tennis classics, but then again I was never a Sneakerhead. I did go through the fat laces stage, but not for long. And that’s another story. Any mentioning of this to a bona fide Sneakerhead would get nothing but chuckles. There’s a fine line between true aficionados who wear their wears and the posers who buy for quick profits selling to the bigger fanatics. It’s big business and the Nikes, Pumas, K-Swiss, Adidas, and Timberlands bank on the obsessions of these young men who have to grab the newest styles. The entrepreneurs buy in bulk and sell their premium edition quintuplicates.

Nike Air Force 1s have been around since ’82 although they were discontinued the following year and didn’t come back until ’86. They were designed by Bruce Kilgore who is considered the Leonardo Da Vinci of sneaker design. He’s also responsible for the Dunks Series, Air Jordan 2, and the Shox. Air Force 1 was Nike’s first basketball shoe packed with Air cushioning, the cutting edge of its time. They’re named after the plane that carries the president to his doings— the idea that wearing these shoes puts you in a luxury state of mind. They’ve been released in over a thousand different color combos.

The 25th anniversary of Air Force 1 saw limited editions. The hottest of which is Lux 07 affectionately referred to as “Crocodile” that comes barbecue brown and barbeque brown-met gold with 24K gold-plated removable lace tip. There was also the Anaconda version in glistening white snakeskin. Both of these marvels of bipedal craftsmanship can be acquired at marked down for $1799. Certificate of authenticity comes along free of charge.

For the fashion-conscious with smaller purse-strings the Nike Blazer hightops vintage edition in blue suede would make Elvis smile. You can get those for under $70, a real steal.

There are sneaker swaps now throughout the country to police the abuse of counterfeiting and there are many young men who have so many pairs they can go 4 or 5 years without wearing the same pair two days in a row. Those that are devoted to their passion might camp out overnight to be the first in line for the special releases.

I know this is beside the point, but I have yet to buy a pair of Converse All Stars.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Call Me Crackerjack

In my rookie season of Fantasy League Baseball I won the batting crown. Not too shabby. But my team came in second to last. It seems I was lacking in the other nine statistical categories. I wasn’t getting enough runs scored, but I was doing OK in RBIs. Sounds a bit wonky. It was shocking to me that I could lead the league in batting average, do alright in RBIs, but have crappy runs scored production. Ah, baseball is sport riddled with anomalies, a game where failure is success. The best hitters only get aboard safely a third of the time.

Now my starting pitchers had some pretty good numbers in the ERA and WHIP departments, but I didn’t earn enough wins or saves. Even if your pitchers hold the other team at bay your team still needs to put runs on the board. This seems pretty basic, but I had 3 Cy Young pitchers on the same squad. I was proving Murphy’s Law.

Actually, I was adding weight to Bill James' controversial theories. You might have caught him on “Sixty Minutes” or read about him in Sports Illustrated. He claims there is no such thing as a clutch hitter. He also doesn’t believe in plunking down crazy coin on superstars.

I foolishly spent thinking I was paying for quality. Auction Teams bid real money on players and you only hope that there worth every penny. Turns out the dollar players I had, pound for pound, shined like Polaris. Jayson Werth and Ryan Ludwick, my key outfielders, posted my best numbers. And since I’m in a Keeper League these two are still my top stars. Werth is leading my team in homers. This year I wanted to beef up my team’s numbers so I laid out eighty bucks for Carlos Beltron and Hanley Ramirez, almost a third of the team’s salary and well Beltron is done for the season with nagging injuries. So my gamble really didn’t pay off. If I had 3 mediocre outfielders I would be adding to my production.

For the second season in row I’m doing better in my mixed league. My Yahoo sponsored team is supposed to be laid back, practice. I find myself painstakingly examining lineups and scouting free agents. You can change the players on a daily basis so there are many more permutations to go through whereas, in my Auction League, I am only allowed to make roster moves on a weekly basis. Tight parameters, such as these, really force you to think critically like a professional manager. Moneyball.

Because I’m still riding high in first place with my Yahoo team, I’ve put a little more pressure on myself. I’d like to take home the pennant this year. The interesting thing to note is that I am well ahead in my standings [combined point total] and yet my team keeps dropping in batting average. What’s up with that? A few theories I’d like to toss out 1) high average means bupkis unless the aforementioned player’s teammates drive him in. In other words, you need to know how good the players hitting behind him are and what changes may have come about that could make your player a run-scoring liability. 2) A trade to a new ballpark can be a boon or a bust for a player. 3) If your star happens to advance runners it’s a good thing, but fielder’s choices and fly outs might bring down average yet still drives runners in.

Basically, it all comes down to numbers and a little bit of luck. Fantasy Baseball is without a doubt lots of fun, but it can be just as grueling as playing for real. Word of advice, start your spring training as early as possible and don’t be afraid to gamble on future stars.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ariba Argentina

The Argentines have always seemed to dominate their continent in tennis. With a few exceptions, most notably a few Chileans and the occasional Ecuadorian or Peruvian, South America is soccerland. Tell that to the Argentines. They already have 7 spots secured in this year’s US Open main draw, including last year’s quarterfinalist Juan Martin Del Potro who is one of the hardest hitters on the tour and without a doubt a favorite to make it back to the quarters and avenge his heartbreaking loss to last year’s finalist, the number 2 ranked player in the world, Andy Murray.

Del Potro will have to face Juan Monaco, a countryman, in his first round match. For the second year in a row, their names will be next to each other in the draw, but last year Del Potro faced another Argentine, Guillermo Canas. When you have so many co-patriots in the same event this likelihood inevitably increases. Last year they had 10 players in the main draw, but Argentina is still looking to fill open spots. They have 2 more players still alive in the qualifying.

As for the other South American countries Brazil has 2 players Thiago Alves and Marcos Daniel returning from '08 and Ecuador is looking to add its favorite son’s brother. Yes, Giovanni Lapentti may be joining brother Nicholas in the Open this year. And as dumb luck would have it, the 2 Chileans Fernando Gonzalez and Nicholas Massu will battle it out in the first matchup.

Today I had the good fortune of watching a rising star from Columbia, Santiago Giraldo, who was actually the number 11 seeded qualifier. Being a seeded qualifier is a dubious honor. It means you’re good enough to be recognized as somebody who should make it into the main draw where all the top-ranked players are vying for one million dollars and a golden cup, but you still need to win 3 straight matches to get there.

The 21-year-old Giraldo had to face an Argentine by the name of Juan Pablo Brzezicki. It was a heated contest and the fans really got into it chanting “Vamos Colombia” and “Vamos Argentina" as though it were a World Cup Soccer match. Had it been a soccer match there definitely would’ve been a brouhaha. In fact, a Columbian woman almost got ejected for harassing the Argentine. The chair umpire, who spoke Spanish, had to admonish some muchachos seated behind her because they kept insulting Giraldo. It was a tense match to say the least. But both players kept their heads on the match and let the fans engage in the verbal slugfest. So far, out of all the qualies I’ve seen, these two guys held the longest rallies, a few of which lasted thirty or thirty-five strokes. Nowadays, that’s a rarity unless the match is played on red clay.

Giraldo had excellent preparation from both sides, perfect balance, and, in my humble opinion, prettier strokes. His elbow stayed tight to his hip through the hitting zone, a textbook swing. The grace of the game is only one small factor. Anybody who has roughed it out through the Futures and Challenger Circuit can attest to that. Brzezicki had the mental edge even as he was being lambasted by errant courtside comments. His deep drives pinned Giraldo way into the backcourt and when the opportunity presented itself he carved out sharp angles; he kept Giraldo on a string and pulled him farther and farther off the court.

Brzezicki won in straight sets and will next square off against Michael Lammer from Switzerland. Carlos Salamanca, another Columbian, already lost his second match. The last hope for Columbia rides on the 24-year-old Alejandro Falla’s shoulders. He beat Jesse Witten pretty handily 6-1, 6-4 at Legg Mason before falling to Fernando Gonzalez in a tight 7-5, 7-5 loss. Last week he made it to the second round of the Rogers Cup in Canada pushing Gilles Simon to a third set. Falla has now advanced to the 3rd round of qualifying. His final challenge is against the number 8 seeded Croatian Roko Karanusic.

In addition to Brzezicki, the Argentines have Horacio Zeballos, the number 2 seeded qualifier. I think both of these guys can make it into the Open and then Argentina will have a total of nine players in the mix. Quite impressive except for the fact that Spain has 14 top-notch racquet-swinging matadors, and oh yes, that guy named Nadal.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

US Open Qualies

Yesterday kicked off the US Open Qualifying rounds, the gateway into the American tennis classic. The qualifying rounds are not as well attended as the main draw, but a number of diehards show up to witness the great depths of the sport. The players are just as hungry, maybe even more sanguineous, than the lucky one-hundred who get an instant birth into this last leg of the Grand Slams. The qualifiers are a mix of up-and-comers, college players, journeyman, and even some former stars who need to schlep through the preliminaries before getting back onto the main stage.

This year there are of few of those former stars who are retuning their strings, but with so much hot new blood out there the stakes are higher. Xavier Malisse got dumped in his first round match, as did the Argentine, Gaston Gaudio. Today I watched veteran Frenchman Arnaud Clement. He looked snazzy as usual in his classic country club attire complete with his white bandana keeping his floppy golden locks away from his trademark shades, but his strokes were a far cry from his A-form.

Tim Smyczek, the American, took the first set tiebreaker from the 2007 Wimbledon Doubles Champ. Impressive indeed for the wildcard who had to win another tournament just to squeak into this event. Smyczek didn’t seem intimated by the Frenchman who in previous years had been ranked as high as #8 in the world. In two short weeks from June 22nd to the first week of July Clement’s singles ranking dropped from 53 to 128. This put him in his current predicament of needing to qualify to get into the main draw of the US Open. The ATP Tour is a grueling schedule and many players fall from grace never making it back.

Early into the second set, Clement cracked an easy forehand twenty feet over the fence and probably onto court 9. Two games later, and down love fifteen on his serve, Clement locked into a long corner to corner rally only to get blasted by Smyczek’s blistering down-the-line forehand winner. Behind 3-1 in the second set, and already down a set, things weren’t looking so hot for the Frenchman. The heat index on the court rose to one hundred degrees. My heart really went out to the guy. It always seems a bit hotter when you have to come from behind.

I thought back to another US Open qualifying round back in 2002 when low and behold another once great Frenchman Cedric Pioline, a US Open and Wimbledon Finalist, was ousted before he could gain entry into the main draw. Could Clement be on his final fade?

The seventh game of any set is important, but when you’re 2 games from elimination it’s critical. The veteran switched into another gear, letting loose on a couple of overhead smashes, an ace and a backhand rip. Smyczek answered back and went up 5-3, one game from the match. Clement may have been on the ropes, but he stayed pesky and kept clawing away. Smyczek got to match point on his opponent’s serve and Clement hung tough throwing in a service winner then followed it up on the next point with a rush to the net and a sweet jab volley.

It went to another tiebreak and Clement kept attacking the net. His touch was excellent. The American flubbed an important point and it seemed, for the moment, there’d be a third set. Smyczek broadcasted a few telltale choking signs. The crowd pulled for the American and he started to go for broke. Why not? He could blow the set and still come back in the third. He painted lines with his passing shots and just wouldn’t let the Frenchman find his groove.

Smyczek prevailed and let out an ebullient cry of joy.

I also had the pleasure of watching another promising American, Donald Young, who has a wicked lefty forehand. The whipping motion helps disguise his placement and causes havoc for his opponents guessing its direction. Young played a hard-hitting Italian, Marco Crugnola, who wore a retro outfit topped off by a glowing orange headband ala Aaron Krickstein.

After Young won the first set in a tiebreaker there was a mass exodus of spectators. I chilled out for a while not wanting to write off this Mediterranean Aaron Krickstein Doppelganger with a one-handed backhand. He looked like he had another tank left in him and he grinded out the points and made some clean winners. Time would tell if this guy had heart.

Then there was Young who needed to slam the door on Crugnola. The 2007 Wimbledon Juniors Champ is a rising star, but still hasn’t proved himself. You might recall he made it into the third round of the 2007 US Open and he went five sets with James Blake in the first round of last year’s event, but this year he didn’t even qualify at Wimbledon.

Donald made some great angles and kept the Italian on the run, but Crugnola blasted some tremendous backhands. I give the American a lot of credit for mixing up the pace. There were a couple of rallies that truly reminded me of the moonballers I suffered against in the juniors. The slow, lofty pokes that sent you back to fence sometimes scraping the Kevlar off the top of your frame— a battered racquet was the least of your worries because you’d end up losing a slew of cheesy points. Donald blooped some hits over the net as if he had a volleyball target instead of a three-foot tennis net to clear. Effective, you bet.

Crugnola pulled the old injury time-out and waited for the trainer. Not a bad move for a rookie. Didn’t matter because once the players resumed Young took care of business and breezed through to the second round of qualies. On a funny note though, during the penultimate point of the match, Young flubbed an overhead but the ball landed good and Crugnola couldn’t get his strings on it. The Italian mocked his opponent by replaying the same goofy swing. Young obviously had the last laugh though.

Tennis is such a mental game that weekend warriors from all over the country, all over the globe, will be returning tomorrow to see how the next great armada of talent will deal with the trials and tribulations of this old gentleman’s game.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Obama’s Reading List

I don’t know about you, but I’m curious to know what the president reads. I’m sure whatever book titles have been relayed to the media are PR-approved. What isn’t? And I’m also sure Obama’s authored books [plural] were ghostwritten so therefore they are merely an approximation of his character. He is the most highly scrutinized main-man, in this great country of ours, so his staffers can’t just let his bibliophilic whims slide.

I truly believe Obama is an intellectual: a well-dressed, well-spoken, cool-as-a-cucumber nerd with an overextended social schedule. He’s probably read Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Machiavelli, Proust, maybe even Nabokov’s “Lolita”, but could he honestly tell the press he’s boning up on the world’s most famous pedophile. Be serious. What if he was reading “Animal Farm” or “Mein Kampf” or “Huckleberry Finn”? Wouldn’t politically correct zealots have a shitfit?

John Dickerson of Slate astutely noted that Obama’s reading list was not poll-tested— no female authors on it and the writers selected all appear to be white males from a certain generation. I wonder what happened to the copy of “Open Veins of Latin America” by Eduardo Galeano that Hugo Chavez recently gave the President.

His five hand-picked books for his weekend peregrination to Martha’s Vineyard are: “The Way Home” by George Pelecanos, “The Lush Life” by Richard Price, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded” by Tom Friedman, “John Adams” by David McCullough, and “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf. Stylistically, it’s a mix of sorts: crime thriller, social novel, founding father tribute, a cry for environmental justice, and one regional lit book.

From a literary standpoint, I enjoyed Haruf’s “Plainsong” myself. Several months ago I had had some time to kill at the B & N by Union Square and was very impressed with Haruf’s prose. Interestingly enough though the title of the book is a reference to the traditional songs used in the liturgies of the Roman Catholic Church. A subtle ploy for Bible Thumper support, perhaps.

I’m wondering about his plan of attack. Does he have an order preference? Will he read straight through until each book is finished? Does he jump around, speedread or does he lull through each and every syllable and imagine morphing into the characters he meets along the way? A vicarious vacation, a Walter Mitty sojourn.

I’d hate to think he’s going to finish his list because he thinks he’s expected to, an extension of his presidential briefings. In that case, he might as well quit while he’s ahead. Given my druthers, I’d read “Plainsong”, McCullough’s “John Adams”, but I’d also recommend Matthew Crawford’s “Shop Class as Soulcraft” because I think it so perfectly describes what went wrong with our once fine country and how we detoured into a ferocious drive to make mullah anyway possible at the expense of our passion. Crawford, who has a PhD in political philosophy, left a DC think tank to start his own motorcycle shop because the honest work rang true for him plus he now gets to flex his synaptic noodles more so then by pushing paper and sending a gazillion pointless emails to middle manager nimrods.

Obama should consider David Eggers’s “Zeitoun” a non-fiction book by the agile-scribbler and creator of McSweeney’s. This might shake up his reprieve, but we all know presidents don’t really get to have vacations. “Zeitoun” sheds new light on the atrocities of Hurricane Katrina for a Syrian family in New Orleans. It’s such a visceral tour-de-force you’d wish it were fiction rather than the harsh, unmitigated truth.

Aside from my suggestions and knowing what is on his list, I am only curious about one more salient point. Will Mr. President be reading paperback, hardback, or Kindle?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Atlanta International, My Way Station

If you want to claim to have visited a city you need to have seen a monument, a church, or even a trendy restaurant. Pictures not required, but a plus. Time really isn’t a make or break factor. Whether it’s a few hours or a few days, a visit is a visit. But, what is a visit? What’s the minimum required criteria to count a city visited as a visit? For example, if I have a business trip to Vegas and I spend the whole time, scout’s honor, in the convention center then does that not count as a legitimate visit? Maybe it makes me a dork for not checking out a casino, but I can still mark Vegas off on my log of cities visited right?

Doesn’t meeting natives matter? I mean, if you want the true flavor of a place you better get to know its people. What’s that corny old cliché “do as the cannibals do”. I’m about to make a plea for counting Atlanta International Airport as a city visited because of extenuating circumstances. Now, a savvy globetrotter wouldn’t let me get away with marking this off as a city visited. And I certainly wouldn’t consider it either except for what happened.

Two years ago, I was off to Oregon on a sunny Thursday afternoon. Forecast was grand and I figured I would arrive at Portland PDX by nightfall. When I got to LaGuardia Airport there were some rather long lines at Continental’s terminals. No biggie. Been through that before. But, when I had been bumped from 3 flights I was beginning to get a little miffed. You can only stand so many of those crummy Duty Frees. After much whining and anxious pacing my flight finally took off. They showed “Nacho Libre” for entertainment and I must say Nacho needed more salsa. I leafed through the Op-Eds, a really snazzy short story collection by Pete Fromm called “Night Swimming”, and once in a while plugged in my free headphones [they were gratis back then can you believe it] and breezed through the crappy stations by my armrest, settling on one-hit wonders from the 80’s.

Despite the fact that we were making headway through the relatively cloudless sky I had the unsettling feeling we might miss the connecting flight. I needed to be fresh the next morning so I hoped if we did have to catch a later one it wouldn’t be, you know, too late. I snapped my finger to Human League. I think I was pissing off my seatmate whose pores were emanating some really yucky herbal stuff. Tit for tat. By that point, it was also occurring to me the idiocy of flying a plane Southeast to eventually circumnavigate it Pacific Northwest. But, did I bitch about logistics? Not a chance. I munched on my pretzel nubs, sipped ginger ale and slipped back to an eighth grade dance where I was “Walking on Sunshine”.

When we touched down in Atlanta I was feeling like a little bit of Mylanta. I decided against picking up any; didn’t want to waste any time scoping it out at the gift shops so I grabbed my carry-on and trekked it over to the connecting terminal. There was a huge line and it didn’t take long before it snapped into a hullabaloo.

“What the hell are you saying?” a hefty, flat-topped woman said.

The cute customer service rep splayed her palms out as if prepping for a born-again benediction. I sort of wanly smiled at her. She licked her fuchsia lip gloss and the hefty woman caught a glimpse and punched the counter. She left her bags on the floor and I think went for the ladies room. Who knows?

When I got to the counter the cute customer service rep swung open the side door and made an early exit. A lanky ruddy-complexioned fellow handled my gripe. He seemed rather blasé, picking at his fingernail.

“Don’t you have any deals worked out with the other airlines?” I said.

“No more flights until tomorrow.”

“Get me on the earliest.”

“Six forty-five.”

“Whatever? We’ll do what we got to do. Where will you put me up for the night?”

“There’s a few decent motels nearby. Shouldn’t run you more than $150, $185 tops.”

“Say what?”

“Travelodge is close enough.”

“Wait a second, you botched my flight and I have to pay for my room?”

That was the deal all right. Not all right. My lanky pal scratched down a phone number to get me out of his hair. The number looked like Sanskrit. I called from cell and was put on hold twice.

“Can anybody help me?” I said.

“We can offer you a seven-dollar meal coupon.”

“Great. That should get me a MoonPie and a coke.”

I didn’t want to tell the gal on the phone that I’d learned the expression from a cheesy article I read in the flight magazine— locals said it when they called somebody a cheap date. She wasn’t tickled by my brand of humor.

“For crying out loud, I’ve wasted all day,” I said. “What if I cancel my trip and go right back home?”

“That’ll be a seventy-five-dollar cancellation charge.”

“Isn’t that nice.”

“But, wait a second. I’m checking into something.”

I heard her plick-a-placking at her keyboard.

“You were stalled at LaGuardia yes?”


“Well, actually there appeared to have been some mechanical failure.”

“Frankly, I could care less what the problem was.”

“But it matters in this case.”

“How so?”

“Mechanical failures are the airline’s obligation. Cancelled flights no.”

“So what are you telling me?”

“How’s one-hundred dollars for your troubles?”

“Not too shabby. But, I think the motel will cost me a bit more.”

“Can’t do anything about that, but I can credit the money into your next Continental flight.”

I took her up on her generosity. Really, I was only waiting for somebody to own up to this snafu. I had no intention of setting one foot out of the airport. I took my one-hundred dollar voucher and my seven-dollar meal ticket and searched for some grub. Pretty much everything was shut down by then, almost midnight.

I bought a lukewarm roast beef sandwich and a watery fountain coke and ended up forking over three of my own dollars. I had ample reading material and a brand new marble notebook to get me through the long haul. My eyes fluttered a bit, but I only dosed for five minutes.

Six-forty-five I boarded my flight for Portland, on one of those small planes that lets you feel all the turbulence with an exponentially-heightened jolt. I looked around for any of the familiar faces from the day before to share in the misery. No luck.

To date, I still technically haven’t seen Atlanta aside from the airport, but I’ve recapitulated this story too many times now, more than any mentionings of Cleveland, Evansville, St. Louis, and Fort Lauderdale which I’ve actually set foot in, beyond the airports. Nothing memorable happened to me in those places so they have almost crept out of my memory.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Smokescreen Clears

Why wear nicotine patches if you’re trying to kick the habit? Electronic cigarettes are so much sexier. Oh, you haven’t tried one? Think of them as those candy cigarettes from way back you might recall those sorry ass excuse for smokes you practiced on before you puffed the real thing in the school bathroom.

E-cigs, as they are sometimes called, run on rechargeable batteries. They have a vaporizer which draws a smoky simulacrum from a cartridge built into the mouthpiece. Loaded into the cartridge is a chemical cocktail that mimics the nicotine. Some products are really low-dose nicotine, but others aren’t. Puff till your heart’s content without the harmful effects. Also, you won’t have to worry about pissing off those sitting around you— there’s no smell.

Smoke one while you practice flight simulator or advance to the next stage of Second Life. Go ahead and take a puff in the office. Companies like Smoking Everywhere offer cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and they offer them with various levels of potency. Blu offers a thirty-day money-back guarantee. They have the traditional flavor for the tough-to-wean-offers, Java for the coffee smoke fiends, menthol for the jazzy traditionalists, cherry crush and vivid vanilla.

The other added benefit is that aside from the upfront outlay of $60 bucks or so you will save ducats in the long run. Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just piping what I’ve been told. Only time will really tell with this new trend, but it does seem to fit into this virtual reality, eco-friendly world we are wrapped in.

Somebody I know who recently had one said, I kid you not, smoking them was almost as much fun as toking on cannabis— “Man, it makes you feel aerodynamic.”

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Fort Greene Park Summer Litfest

Today was the Fort Greene Park Summer Lit Festival. For five years this event has been attracting some top caliber writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Sonia Sanchez, Jennifer Egan, and Chris Abani. But, the neighborhood has always had its share of great scribblers. Ever heard of Walt Whitman and Richard Wright?

Indeed, it’s a historic site and the event is performed on stage behind the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, a reminder of the 11,000 men who died like dogs aboard the British prison ships during the Revolutionary War. The beautiful throng of gingko trees let your thoughts drift away from the solemn monument.

Colson Whitehead was this year’s featured writer and read from his newly published novel “Sag Harbor”. Although he’s a lively reader and many attendees stayed to hear him wrap-up the day, the star of the event is clearly the elementary school kids who have been taking writing workshops all summer— in the park. The baton passed to the new generation of poets and story-tellers. They shared their poems and prose with an eager audience, the kids divided into age categories. The youngest voices had first ups and the teens got last licks.

Picnic blankets trumped folding chairs. This was a laidback crowd demanding top-notch lit. A limited edition Dennis Lehane autographed “Boston Noir” was available for collectors.

Malika, a local poet, has attended four out of the last five events. She wouldn’t tell me which year she missed or why, but she had her journal tucked to her hip. I asked her if she enjoyed Sapphire’s past reading. She nodded. Ah, so Malika had attended the event in ’06. She was on to me at that point and left me to check out the chapbooks by the table.

Rumor had it a few blocks away from the festivities were Japanese Rastafarians. I’d been given the tipoff by a reliable source, a buddy of mine Tom— resident, expert on all things Japanese, and sometimes Rastafarian. And the beat goes on.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Books A Million

Last August the friendly neighborhood Bookmobile was supersized from an already healthy 32 foot-long mobile library, of some 6000 plus books, into a 74 foot-long, 18-wheeler-behemoth. I’m not sure if it required a tractor trailer license to man the thing, the Digital Bookmobile as it was affectionately dubbed, is nothing compared to the machine called Espresso put out by On Demand Books. Their slogan is “What Gutenberg’s press did for Europe in the 15th century digitization and the Espresso Book Machine will do for the world tomorrow.” That’s a pretty tall order. They also consider themselves an ATM for books, which frankly, doesn’t sound so sexy to me. Essentially they make whatever book you want right before your very eyes on library quality paper. A bookshop that endorses this tool gains leverage. What they don’t have in stock can be fabricated on the cheap. And it creates buzz.

What really is at stake however, is On Demand Books’ attempt to stymie the traditional centralized supply chain for book distribution. They are going right after the customer. Whatever his or her whim at the moment might be that book can be built immediately and carried off. The little juggernaut for this quaint co. is their max page limit of 550 pages. So any tomes larger than that have to use the old-fashioned means, unless you don’t mind snagging a copy of “Infinite Jest” in near-invisible-sized font.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, but doesn’t Kindle already quell that instant gratification reader? And yes, they do, but remember Kindle is downloaded like music onto your device. The Espresso Machine is taking care of your reading urge but spitting out a paper copy.

I think this is a fascinating attempt to utilize technology to give us back our roots— bound books— which many of us are afraid are going the way of the Pterodactyl.

Novel Idea Vending has a more traditional vending machine concept. Their books are prepackaged, but you can browse their LCD screen to see ads, synopses, and what the authors might be up to. They are available 24/7 and provide the same literary rush that Kindle or the Espresso Machine would rather than binging on late-night empty calories. The catch with them is you’re stuck with whatever is wedged between their 6 by 10 foot frame.

Cool as all these machines are they owe their debt of gratitude to the granddaddy of the invention Prof. Richard Carlisle, who, in 1882 invented the first book-vending machine as a novelty for his London bookshop.

I still prefer the Bookmobile. I guess it’s the adult in me who still loves chasing after the Good Humor truck.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


I’m in a living situation now that requires me to look after a miniature Chihuahua named Spike. He bears a closer resemblance to a prosimian. The landlord’s son calls the dog Murciélago which means bat in Spanish. I guess he’s onto something because my little balding friend has pinkish pointy ears and isn’t much of a barker either. He’s a squeaker. To assuage his finicky appetite I toss a few bits of E.L Stripes into his bowl. He prefers these to rubber bones and Tostitos.

Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m embarrassed to take him out for walks because he’s so tiny that pulling him along by leash seems vaudevillian— the skits I imagine my grandfather enjoyed during The Great Depression.

One thing is for sure. Since I’ve hooked up with Spike I’ve had my share of strange interludes. Shopping for groceries last week, an old lady scolded me, outside Trade Fair, for starving the dog. I told her it wasn’t mine and that miniature Chihuahuas had equally miniature appetites. She told me not to be a wiseass and to take responsibility for my actions. This is, by the way, was why I’ve been offering him burger bites, Ring Dings, and other savory snacks, in addition to his Alpo.

Two days ago, a Doberman tried to bite Spike’s head off. I snagged the little guy just in time, like I’d recovered a fumbled Nerf ball, tucked him under arm and went home.

Today I took a break from the pooch and played racquetball. Would you believe a gargantuan golden retriever found its way onto my court and pilfered my ball during a particularly strenuous rally? I gazed at the mottled wall, ascertained that there were no holes in the back fence and then was greeted by a familiar old lady in a lilywhite sun bonnet. She and her flushed cheeks loped after the estranged animal.

She clapped a few times, but the dog galloped around the court mocking me with his new toy, my ball, clenched between his teeth.

“Foxy, come here,” she said.

I kept my composure. Silly names give me the giggles. I squeezed my racquet by its neck, eyed my bag resting upside down against the fence, then set my legs apart, bending at the knees.

“She gets loopy when she sees a ball,” she said.

“Who doesn’t?” I said.

“Come on Foxy, cough it up.”

“No, no,” I said. “It’s okay, I’ve got another.
Foxy dropped the ball, his slobber glistening in the noon beams.

I waved it off.

“I feel so bad,” the old lady said, adjusting the brim of her bonnet.

“No worries,” I said. “Just keep him on a leash.”

“I will,” she said.

I didn’t bother to mention that we’d bumped into each other before. She probably didn’t recognize me since I was clean-shaven this time, but it felt good to get in the reprimanding.

They skedaddled and I went back to my solo game against the wall. After the next missed backhand, I saw Foxy zeroing in on the softball field. The first rip to left center she dropped my rubber-blue Bodega-bought spaldeen and scurried after the grapefruit-sized softball. She raised her furry head like a Westminster Kennel Show Champ.

I took a deep breath of muggy air and consigned myself to the hardscrabble fact that if I planned to take Spike on any more long walks he was going to have to load up on protein shakes or take steroids.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What's in Bloom?

“What Youth deemed crystal, Age finds out was dew.”
Robert Browning

Last fall Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece in The Annals of Culture section of The New Yorker describing “Late Bloomers.” The gist of the article suggests that we humans seem to associate genius with precocity. Gladwell does a good job of arguing case and point that in many artistic fields: film, writing, painting this is not always the case. Picasso is the young genius whereas Cezanne is a late bloomer. Orson Wells hits it big before he’s twenty-five while Hitchcock, like a great First growth Bordeaux, improves with age.

If there appear to be just as many geniuses on both sides of the chronological spectrum then why are we so hung up on precocity? It seems to be beside the point. Genius is genius. The body of work, the oeuvre should hold more weight than any one in particular. If the breakthrough happens early on great, if it comes later fine.

I think it all boils down to our inherent preoccupation with youth— and perhaps a fear of our own mortality. If you make it young, at least you’ve done something with your life.

Our ubber youth-driven culture gets worse and worse each year and seems to push the old cliché “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse” which of course, usually is misappropriated to be the words of Jimmy Dean— though his actions certainly personified it. The line actually comes from the 1949 film “Knock on Any Door” starring Humphrey Bogart and first-timer John Derrick. The real quote said by Pretty Boy Romano (Derek) was “I wanna live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse.”

Does any of this have anything to do with genius? Nope. I’m just pouncing on the absurdity of the proposition that precocity implies genius. Returning to Picasso for moment, he often lamented that the trouble with adults is that they don’t explore their inner child. I couldn’t agree more. To that, I add youth is wasted on the young. Youth also waste their youths— that’s a parental faux pas.

There’s a rush for babies to speak their first words, bat their first tee balls, complete their first sonatas, squeeze quiddity out of a table-top science project. But, every kid doesn’t grow up to be Jean Paul Sartre, Ken Griffey Jr., Glenn Gould, or Osamu Shimomura.

In terms of development, in terms of education, a child moves at his own pace. Reading, math, and cognitive test scores are marked on the percentile level. We constantly rank peer groups. Competitive sports rank by age categories. Competition is so fierce in Little Leagues these days that younger and younger kids are going through all kinds of arthroscopic surgery hoping to make it to the Majors. That’s the price paid for precocity.

If no names, faces, were attached to our talent pool we’d have an indubitably different view. We’d judge based on the work itself. Check out Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” in which the Handicapper General pulls the plug on aesthetics. Mellifluous sounds are squelched by clamorous horns, bags are literally dropped over pretty faces. There’s a limit to this, but Old Wise Man Kurt hammered home a marvelous point on society, aesthetics, and the true essence of things.

Naturally, we all shouldn’t be equal in our respective talents, but there needs to be a spot set aside for timeless greatness.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Who Wants to be a Celebrity?

“It's all fleeting. As fame is fleeting, so are all the trappings of fame fleeting. The money, the clothes, the furniture.”
Johnny Cash

Is anybody bothered by the fact that Tom Delay is going to be on Dancing With The Stars? I keep returning to the battle cry of red states a few elections ago— “Give a president I can have a beer with.” This seems ludicrous. Presidents are supposed to be presidential whatever that means, but I certainly am not thinking of a barstool buddy.

Now nobody thinks Tom “The Hammer” Delay has any higher political aspirations. But, maybe he can have a reality show career. After all, isn’t that what reality shows are for to give the washed up second winds? Look, what it did for Scott Baio, Christopher Knight, Flava Flav, Brigit Nielson, and let’s not forget Donald Trump. He sort have became the poster boy for this never-ending craze.

Here’s my point. Celebrity is a relative word nowadays. Nebulous too. Going back to politics for a moment, John McCain accused Barack Obama of being a celebrity, but wasn’t McCain’s running mate, the Tina Fey lookalike, the classic celebrity— the rags to riches kind. Nonetheless, it’s par for the course nowadays. No press is bad press right? But, who’s judging?

What would the founding fathers think of elected officials and former politicos jockeying to get on SNL or Survivor? Ben Franklin might very well have been on board, but come on now— Adams, Lincoln, Madison, Polk, Ulysses S. Grant. I tried very hard to keep my blog from going political because that’s the stuff that seems to drive these things. Wasn’t it Dr. Howard Dean who put blogs on the map, way back before his famous Dean Scream?

Honestly, it doesn’t really bug me that Tom Delay is going to be on Dancing with the Stars. It’s not something I will watch. I’m more of a Project Runway man myself, I‘m just quibbling about the minutia that’s posing as news. If Chris Matthews on Hardball has an opinion on it well then, divvy up. It’s news my friend.

Walter Cronkite must be shaking his cherubic head now. But, he’d seen what was going on, all the outrageous hoopla. Today news is all about soundbites, a quick buzz. Our elected officials want to be more and more like us. They want to be more like celebrities, and we want to be more like celebrities (Facebook, Myspace, Twitter).
It’s all so confusing. The boundaries are blurring.

Celebrity’s root comes from the Middle English celebrite, fame. In Latin, celeber means famous.

If it used be fifteen minutes of fame that everybody was entitled to. Are we all going to get a half hour before long? Or is it likely to shrink because of our lack of attention span? Our overzealous egos pushing aside other megalomaniac egos so everybody gets the smaller share.

Whatever it may bode for us, for our future I will leave you this quote from Spinoza. “Fame has also this great drawback, that if we pursue it, we must direct our lives so as to please the fancy of men.”

Monday, August 17, 2009

Bon Appetit

“Julie & Julia” is the Boeuf Bourguignon of summer films. A must see. I love food movies: “Like Water For Chocolate”, “The Big Night”, “Babette’s Feast.” Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci are reunited again after “The Devil Wears Prada.” They have amazing repartee (kudos Nora Ephron) and are the perfect party hosts. Tucci pours a glass of champagne like a four-star sommelier then glides into effortless witticism. Amy Adams and Chris Messina, as Julie and Eric Powell, also make a splendid couple.

High points include segues between savage bites. Sure fine cuisine ought to be savored, but the unwavering, ravenous zeal Eric and Paul show for their respective wives’ culinary gifts make their characters so real. Close-ups of the Parisian food markets put our own Whole Food stores to shame. Equally delightful are shots of the exquisite cafes, but Stephen Goldblatt’s cinematography also works wonders on the Long Island Cityscape, which provides counterpoint to the Parisian allure. I especially liked the upper-level chug of the 7 train, the smoke stacks behind Con Ed, and the Pepisco sign.

Split between present-day New York and Paris in the ‘40s and 50’s the two interconnected stories could easily be the same Anachronistic thread. Opening with the sprightly grunt-worker, Julie Powell, needing more stimulation than her dead-end job can afford she challenges herself to cook her way through Julia Child’s "Mastering the Art of French Cooking". Now on its own this might seem trite, but this is so much more of a story about finding one’s passion, dedicating oneself to it and sharing it with the world. Child herself, had no idea how she was going to change the world. Both women find themselves in roughly the same flavorless point in their lives and want to sink their teeth into something that matters. Even before Powell starts her blog you can see how much she wants to help the victims of 9/11 and yet seems to get browbeaten day after day. She isn’t bitter, but determined to make a difference.

In one scene, when the Powells are in bed they discuss what might happen if Julie didn’t post for a day. Eric jibes his wife that her followers might kill themselves then he swallows a Tums tablet. In another bed scene, forty-some-odd years earlier, the Childs are chatting. Paul is lamenting that his life doesn’t seem to matter, but at least Julia has her book— that’s something to live for.

So we keep coming back to this theme of what to live for. What gratifies? Yes, there’s gluttony, a sprig of solipsism. And there’s lots of butter. Paul says of Julia that she is the butter on his bread and the breath in his life.

Let’s be grateful Child preferred whisking away her afternoon hours scrutinizing and sampling fresh fish, bread, cheese, fruits, and vegetables. If she hadn’t we Americanos might still be defrosting TV dinners.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Woodstock was once a Spirit of its Times, a stint of Utopia. Whether it was the event, the movie, or the yarn of nostalgia that followed like the rings of Saturn, it made history. Personally, I think the best way to honor it would be to let the memory stand rather than turn it into dull sequels. The ten-year anniversary took place in Madison Square Garden and was more of a jam session than its predecessor. The ’89 Woodstock hooked its amps to Jimi Hendrix’s dad Al, Wavy Gravy, and a bunch of B-listers.

Woodstock ’94 was a grand affair, probably the only one able to rival the original for its position in the Annals of Rock History. Greenday, Candlebox, Deee-Lite, Metalica, Nine Inch Nails, Cypress Hill, Aerosmith, Bob Dylan, Shaba Ranks, and many many others played in a tour-de-force. Red Hot Chili Peppers paid tribute to Jimi Hendrix. Off course, Nirvana graciously bowed out on account that Kurt Cobain had passed on. But, Bob Dylan finally appeared on stage. That’s right, he didn’t show up at the first one— he’d been injured and out-of-commission in ’69.

Maybe I’m the wrong person to spout on this. I really am not into live music. Love music. But, I’ve usually been disappointed when I have come face and ear to crowd and stage. Although, I’ll admit to having seen awesome performances of Aerosmith— Joe Perry’s kickass drum solo still thrums in my inner ear and a stellar Santana in Saratoga— outdoors no less. Acoustically, it was eh, but the vibe and the song compendium was well worth the sprawl in the grass.

Theodor Gracyk described the magic of Rock & Roll as being attributable to the recording. A fascinating concept when you think about this never-ending flux of concerts that Botox-pumped icons still need to pull off. This regeneration has much to do with the genesis of shareware and the hard fact that the Twitter Generation isn’t willing to drop coin for CDs. So what’s a rocker to do but offer his music for free? Radiohead tried their “Pay what you will” experiment and it catapulted them to the top of the US charts for the first time. Nine Inch Nails got onboard in the online direct distribution game. And the beat goes on.

Rockers need to perform more than ever now, with bigger paying audiences in mega-stadiums like the one built in Barcelona where U2 flaunted the four-legged “spaceship” the biggest stage ever built for a rock tour— 90,000 fans screaming over the Edge.

Woodstock was rumored to have been today, but somehow it got suspended. One concert in the old stead the other set for Berlin airport linked via satellite. Maybe Michael Lang decided to do it on the down-low. I dunno. At least you’ll be able to catch Ang Lee’s new flick on Woodstock due out in less than two weeks.

One thing is for sure. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary is the bigger news, carrying today’s flicker of light. Oh yeah, and that light no longer glints from a cigarette lighter, but a beaming cell phone.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

TV Time

Since I did a bit player bit yesterday I thought I might consider another. I do, after all, have great respect and affection for thespians who take minor parts. The truth is this mentioning has less to do with bit players and more to do with my recognizing them.

You might have heard of Larry David, creator of Seinfeld. In addition to his writing, he also did the voiceover of George Steinbrenner on the show and intoned a minor character’s part in the “Wig Master” episode. Yesterday, I noticed him in “The Gum” episode rejecting George’s lipstick smeared twenty-dollar bill. Actually, this was Larry David’s last on-screen cameo. He’s standing behind a street kiosk and George, garbed in a Henry the VIII costume, galumphs over to the newsstand to buy a pack of gum. George hands over the money and Larry David who is playing the kiosk vendor says, ““I beg your pardon, your majesty, but we don't accept bills with lipstick on the president.” Great line.

In the wee hours of the night, I also noticed in the “Bully For Martin” episode of Frasier, the guy who played Coach Cutlip on “The Wonder Years”— Robert Picardo. This was a more majestic discovery. Larry David I have seen on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” a number of times. I spotted him right away. But, recognizing Coach Cutlip (Robert Picardo) was somehow riveting. I really loved his character on the “Wonder Years”, but it was awesome seeing him arguing with Frasier in Café Nervosa about whose dad was bullying whom.

Maybe you think I’m a bit nuts, but I’m a product of the TV generation, okay maybe a bit of a boob tube junkie, but I love making these discoveries. It makes me feel like a TV Archaeologist discovering a lost nugget of pop culture.

Where else can I can in the present day TV dynamics that are chockablock with Reality TV shows? Some of them are passable at best, but there’s no reason to watch a second time. The more TV I watch the more I go back and search for bit players who I might have missed the first time through. I return again and again for good old, sitcoms because I was bred on them. I even like the canny laughter from the big oldies like “The Honeymooners.” I’ll have to save a page for them at another date.

Sitcoms are kind of a dying breed nowadays. They will soon grow extinct. God bless the reruns

Friday, August 14, 2009


Snaggletooth is Star Wars answer to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You pick the player. Actually, the cantina lizard never spoke a line so he wasn’t even SAG-eligible. I mention this because a buddy of mine and I were rehashing about our old action figure collection. He recently nabbed the coveted Blue Snaggletooth from Ebay. Paid a pretty penny for it too— 40000 of them to be exact— pennies that is.

Now I preened over my collection for years, still do, but never put the Brobdingnagian Blue Snaggletooth into my Darth Vader Helmet-shaped carry case. I own the red runt version. What’s the big deal with all of this anyway? Well, if you go back to the original 1977 Star Wars flick you might recall him lurking in the cantina although he was not as prominent as Greedo who got wasted by Han Solo.

Back in the late 70’s, Sears had some special offerings, one of which was a cardboard cutout cantina set that fit into a cheesy plastic base. I got mine at the now defunct Alexander’s which didn’t come with the freebie figures (Blue Snaggletooth included). My buddy never even had the set. His collection was puny in comparison: no AT-AT, Ton-ton, or Dagobah (Home of Master Yoda).

I remember how happy I was the morning I woke up to find Snaggletooth resting on the kitchen table behind his clear plastic sheet. My dad watched me push aside my bowl of Cheerios and rip open my newfangled figure. The last one I needed to complete my collection. Kenner unloaded a new batch after the release of Empire Strikes Back. But, for the moment, I hadn't the foggiest clue a spinoff was lurking out there. I didn’t give a hoot about pedigree. I felt butterflies rustling in my stomach. I was inching closer to my Jedi dreams.

Today, I still carry the same Jedi spirit. I don’t crave things for their long-term profitability. It’s funny when I think of it now I realize all the marketing ploys used to get me hooked on the coolest toys when I was a kid. Sure I fell for some of them. But, I’ve built a lot of sentimentality to the little men I played with who helped me grow up.

Snaggletooth isn’t going onto Ebay. He is going to be my son’s first figure some day.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

On Becoming A Writer

Back in my senior year of high school, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I had lots of ideas and they seemed to rumble for attention. I had trouble staying with one and polishing a good story. What I did have though, was a good teacher who encouraged us. We wrote stories. Usually, Mr. Sheehan gave us a writing prompt. From there we crafted stories.

I went to an all boy school so many of the pieces were charged with adolescent bravado. There were knockoffs of “A Clockwork Orange,” “Fists of Fury,” an homage to Conroy’s “The Great Santini.” Of course, there were the deeper, more introspective stories that harkened the voice of Virginia Woolf, James Thurber, Sylvia Plath. This is before Gender Studies I might add.

Unfortunately, I was a poor reader. I’ll admit I took care of the required reading lists, but I didn’t delve much further. I did have an appetite for the pen. I say this because I wasn’t yet punching away at a computer or word processor. That meant I had a supreme tactile experience when writing my stories and essays. I even loved scribbling with pencil and seeing the trails of smudge. It made me feel like an artist.

I was one of the bold ones who read his work aloud. I was a glutton for punishment, a little bit of a showoff, but I also wanted feedback. I scouted the classroom as I read. There were the nappers, the space cadets, the doodlers, the disinterested, and the dorks— every so often I stumbled upon a curious, gentle listener, it was like discovering the original sheet music of a great Bop era trumpet player.

The comments on my papers were another story. They were scratched in red ink. It wasn’t only the grammatical tics, but also the clichés, the unconnected story threads, the boring sentences that got speared.

Since then, I have learned great writing is not a gift for prodigies or serendipity. It’s a heartbreaking, monotonous process— it’s a lot like love. I’ve passed the stage of addiction, crossed the Rubicon of chore, and now I’ve adopted it as my honorary religion.

I’m always curious about other writers’ processes. I read an article on Stephen Dixon in Poets and Writers a couple years ago. His process seems a bit maddening. He toils over each sentence until he gets it right. Then he scratches out another. When that’s right he carries on. Get it. Sort of that old Hemingway mantra— “All you have to do is write one true sentence.”

I’ve gone through my own stages. Once upon a time, I thought writing equaled free-writing. I didn’t feel good unless I churned out lots of fuzzy, hand-scripted sentences. I tried the one true sentence thing, but I’m convinced it leads to writer’s block. Think about it, one true sentence. As if Sisyphus doesn’t already sit on my shoulder.

Word counts are another plausible tool for getting the creative juices going. I think it’s Stephen King who recommends logging in 2000 words a day. That’s a mighty number, but doable. I think quantifying the writing experience sours some writers, especially teachers who are hellbent on revision. No question revision, re-envisioning is the key, but sometimes setting reachable daily goals pins the process down to a true craft, one that is constantly evolving.

There is nothing wrong with striving for better discipline. Know that everything written shouldn’t see the light of day. If you can accept that and commit yourself to the process you will fail better each time.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Murakami's Sleeper

Have you been getting into Murakami too? I’ve been into him for a while now and want to read and reread his works. Eight years ago, some students of mine gave me copies of “Elephant Vanishes” and “South of the Border” after I was recovering from a freak tennis accident. I was immediately drawn into Haruki’s quirky, deeply heartfelt narratives. Whenever I meet a person who loves his writing I get an electric shock, a soul bond pulsing. I won’t brush off somebody who doesn’t like his style or who spurns a story or two.

I’ll admit, I got to this one later than his other works, but frankly I’ve been reading a lot of other writers many of whom I have picked up for the first time. There’s a connection I’m getting at.
“After Dark” is a new style for this cat-loving, marathoner. It’s a fable wrapped into a metafictional world. It’s bold, though I believe many of his disciples are a bit shocked with this experiment.

Here’s my take. Murakami’s “After Dark” borrows the oft-quoted “Sleep per chance to dream” maxim and spins it on its head. The whimsy of the subconscious is traded for a voyeuristic eye. The tone is set from the odd third-person plural POV as Eri Asai is described in what appears as a blissless slumber. Her supine body is alternately viewed as a real image and that of her being viewed from a television monitor. This adds a “Truman Show” effect or perhaps, better still, a “Harrison Bergeron” sensibility.

This is the first time I have noticed a metafictional tone in Murakami’s narrative. He uses it to draw attention to the passive state of Eri Asai. There is the risk of making the passive scenes flat, almost like a writing workshop exercise, but Murakami wisely draws attention to the viewers POV. We see Eri Asai splayed out on the bed, but we don’t slip into her thoughts. There are a few instances of speculated thoughts, but for the most part the descriptions are strictly visual.

These chapters are brief, written like sketches. The meat of the text comes from Eri Asai’s younger sister Mari who is suffering from insomnia. She has veered away from home because she cannot deal with her sister’s bizarre condition and yet Mari is not hyperactive, if anything she is quite pensive. She’s been trying to read her book at an all night Denny’s but keeps getting hassled by Takahashi a young musician who takes time out from his jam session at a nearby basement.

So what’s mondo interesting about all this? Let’s return to the idea of fable for a moment. This is a post modern take on “Sleeping Beauty,” sans all that Disney crap. And who is waiting for this beauty? Has she been violated? Will she be saved? There’s no prince in this picture, but rather a brooding, cockeyed optimist, Mari who wants to snuggle with her sister– as if that will make it all better.

Experimental yes, but a necessary read to get inside Murakami’s head and figure out where he might venture off to next.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hold That Tiger

Sometimes you get in a grove and everything you do seems somehow related. I found this to be the case after I finished Aravind Adiga’s novel “The White Tiger” about an ambitious entrepreneur from the lowest Indian caste. Now, I’m not saying I know where the protagonist, Balram, is coming from, but the more I get involved in my own book’s marketing platform I can’t help but think I’m getting a little more of that entrepreneurial spirit.

Set in India, the book provides a wonderful texture, a brilliant balance of anecdote, poetry, and interwoven backstories. Balram narrates in an epistolary-style trying to coax the Emperor of China to meet him, and become his benefactor. Balram goes by many names and alludes to himself with self-deprecation as the White Tiger. Indeed, he is a rare an elusive animal.

Our hero is also an escaped murderer who feels compelled to prove to the Chinese Emperor he is a worthy man, a parvenu rising above his blighted birthright. Adiga’s writing style approximates spoken voice, and yet he avoids the lazy tics that infect dialect-inspired fiction.

There is plenty of poetry in the imagery he creates, ribbons of colors and a myriad of wafting scents. He has a lighthearted way of describing the gross inequities of being set in an Indian caste system.

Adiga employs flashbacks to show scenes where the young Balram grows aware of his unmitigated destiny. He is sensitive to the fact that his father was a rickshaw puller though he has determination and a bit of chutzpah to climb from his feeble past.

Adiga sets an energized pace when describing his potential, but when Balram reflects upon his family’s hardships he slows the pace down demonstrating rumination and introspection. His mood doesn’t slide into melancholy he welcomes the bustling spirit of a city where monkeys roam streets with fruit vendors, rickshaws, and cricket players. In one instance, he meditates on the grave sorrow of his mother’s death and then shortly afterwards is filled with wonder peering at the soggy head of a water buffalo rising from the river.

Balram switches between playfulness and earnestness. He has so many great ideas he should be giving panel discussions. I am passing the word onto Mediabistro.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Snag Me A Spot

There’s a great big intimidating blogosphere out there and, as usual, I’m late to the ballgame. But, sometimes tardiness brings its own fuzzy glow. For too long, I’ve been hibernating in my own hermetically sealed cocoon. Now I’m ready to spread the word. I feel like a modern day Town Crier couched in cyberspace. All I need to do is upload a bell to my Windows Media Player and let it ring.

So here’s the deal. I feel it’s my duty to build a community. I’m not exactly handy so I figure the best way to make my contribution is to share my random musings. Mostly, my musings will revolve around literature, art, and God help me for using this filthy word – Culture. It’s capped because it’s not to be confused with its lower case cousin. That other culture, if pigeonholed, can be defined as the sum of shared rituals, experiences, kinship arrangements, blah, blah, blah. I’ll try to sneak in some nifty topics too, but mainly, I plan to flex my bookish muscles.

Stick around for more goodies.