Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Hungry Patriot?

I grew up in southeastern Michigan; left the state at 22; and haven't really been back in a while. So this is the first time in years I've spent a significant amount of time in Michigan, and we ended up driving all over the state, from Detroit to Lake Michigan (and even to Indiana). At one point, driving down one of those two-lane, country highways, I had this funny image that we were traveling along a buffet table ...

Frankly, I'd forgotten how much FOOD you're surrounded by in the Midwest in July. It's everywhere. Fields of corn, row after row after row. Soybeans. Strawberry and blueberry farms. Asparagus. Farmers stands with tables groaning under the weight of fresh-picked tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash. Almost every house we visited had a little vegetable patch out back.

Then there's the lakes. We did a little salmon fishing last week and, in two hours, caught two 14 lb. salmon. Back at the dock, we cleaned 'em, filleted 'em, and then I treated myself to the best sashimi I've ever had—salmon so fresh it was still cold from the lake water. The next day, we went to throw the fish guts away in the woods and stumbled on a freaking wild turkey in the woods, just hanging out, waiting to get basted.

The deer in Michigan want to get eaten so badly they regularly jump at cars.

It's just amazing. The lakes and fields and woods are literally teeming with things people can eat. I know this just sounds like I haven't had breakfast yet (and I haven't), but the sheer abundance really did strike me. It made me wonder how anybody in this country can be allowed to go hungry when there's so MUCH. And I'm not exactly sure this will make sense, but it made me really grateful to be an American. I know we're working on a few things nationally at the moment, and nowhere is this more obvious than Michigan. The state is really hurting—a real estate market that has lost 10 or 15 years of value; among the highest unemployment in the country; a major city that is literally emptying out and decaying before everybody's eyes; auto companies that are pulling back and ripping the heart from the state's economy. But even with all this, underneath all this, it's hard not to marvel at this country. You get the feeling—or at least I did—that we're all going to be OK in the long run.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Sexy Beast

So we've been traveling in July, and you know what that means: sleeping in a different place every night, including a top bunk belonging to an 8-year-old little girl who was away for the weekend. It raised a lot of issues.

First, there was the issue that I hadn't slept in a top bunk in about 15 years. I'm laying there thinking, "I better not fall off this damn thing. I'll kill myself." I fell off a top bunk once in college, and I woke up on the way to the ground. Believe me, of all the horrible ways to wake up, waking up in midair a split second before you land on a hard tile floor has got to rank somewhere near the top. I barely had time to squawk.

After the fear subsided, I started to worry what this poor little girl would think if she knew that some giant, gross dad had slept in her bed. I just imagined her squealing and running away from sheets that were totally infected with some cootie-type parasite. But, I figured, her mom was the one who put me here, so maybe the cootie problem was well in hand.

Third came my wife, who was sleeping on the bottom bunk and who didn't really appreciate my thrashing around awkwardly on the top bunk. Apparently, I was shaking the whole set-up. So I tried to stop moving.

After I settled in, I started to pay attention and found myself smack in the childhood of an interesting little girl. It's funny what you can tell about people, even kids, from their spaces. Of course, Hannah Montana was looking down at me, microphone in hand, hip-cocked and smiling. Hi, Hannah, wait till you see what happens after you become Miley.

The bed's owner had also taped a piece of notebook paper on the wall where she could see it. On it, she had carefully written a long title and drawn two columns. The title was "The DIFFERENCE between insects and bugs." In the bugs column, she had written, "They have a triangle on their back." In the insects column, she had written, "All insects are bugs, but not all bugs are insects."

In a weird sort of way, I think I understood exactly what she meant.

And then I got sucked into the Strawberry Shortcake poster, and that was where I got seriously unhinged. I remembered Strawberry Shortcake as a cute little thing with freckles and pigtails. But, my oh my, Strawberry has certainly changed since I was a kid. Now she's a full-on Japanimation wonder, with huge blue eyes, a tiny nose and rosebud mouth, and lustrous hair. In the poster, Strawberry was braiding her pony's hair, and no little girl could ask for more than this pony. It pranced on three hooves, with its head cocked coquettishly, its back delightfully rounded. The pony's mane had been transformed into a cascade of golden locks and its giant, melting eyes were half-closed, its tiny pink mouth half open.

The pony was pitched perfectly at eye level, so you could lay in the top bunk and stare and stare, imagining your fingers intertwined in the pony's luxuriant hair, caring for and pampering the sexy little beast.

I had one of those moments. I could actually feel the longing of a little girl studying her poster, wishing for all the chocolate kisses in the world that she could just crawl into that land where houses are made from cupcakes and love that little pony with all of my heart. Later, I'm sure Strawberry Shortcake will come down and Justin Bieber (or whoever will play his part in the future) will go up, but the effect will be exactly the same: it will be one of those empty canvases upon which little girls draw imaginary sketches of love, of barely understood lust and longing, and a future where they aren't little girls anymore but lovers and brides and wives and mothers.

After I got through thinking all this (and by now was truly getting tired), I wondered if, later on, there would still be room in her life for worrying about the difference between bugs and insects. I hoped so.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Writerly Fantasies

I've always had a lot of writerly fantasies, but they're probably not the kind you're thinking of.

Or that kind either.

I'm not talking about the kind where I see my name atop the New York Times bestseller list or take a podium before an adoring crowd to accept the Newberry. Or even the kind where normal folks line up fifteen deep, waiting for me to autograph books and body parts. I mean weird fantasies about the actual act of writing itself.

These often involve me with a pen and notebook (for some reason, my writerly fantasies are always low-tech) in some ridiculously windswept setting, scribbling furiously. I stop every few minutes to look out onto the wonder of the world. I sob. I laugh. I pace angrily and tear at my hair, then run back to the notebook and write some more. The words are always there, and before long, crinkled pages are filled with paragraph after paragraph of prose. You can always tell just from looking at the pages how much it cost to write them, how dramatic the view was. Words are crossed out angrily. Things like "MORE! MORE! YES!" and "WHY WON'T YOU DIE, YOU BASTARD!" are written in the margins.

It's a masterpiece.

The most intense of my writerly fantasies always seem connected to travel. Me and the notebook on a train rolling across the Midwest. In a jet cabin with lightning on the horizon. On a bridge in Spain (seriously, wtf, Spain?). Naturally, this means that every time I travel, I dutifully pack my spiral notebook and pen and look forward to those moments on Lake Michigan.

Reality sets in later. I've never written a single word in a notebook while I'm traveling, except once and it was complete crap. Mostly, I just carry the notebook around and feel guilty every time I have to shuffle past it to get fresh socks. But the truth is, I'd feel a little naked without that notebook, without at least the glimmer of a possibility that a bout of shaggy brilliance might break out at any time.

Later today, we're leaving for a weeklong vacation, and you can rest assured that my notebook will be in my bag. But I'm pretty sure this time will be different.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Dad, What Are You Hiding?

Growing up, I spent a lot of time huddled behind garages, hanging out of open windows in the middle of the night, and learning how to open doors without making a single sound. If you have to ask "Why would you do any that stuff?" then you were probably a good kid and your parents would likely have banned you from hanging out with me.

Fast forward twenty years or so, and one of life's great ironies hit me last night when I was tagged in a Facebook photo by someone who knew me back then: I think I have more to hide from my 15-year-old son than he does from me. I opened the email, checked out the tag and then reflexively looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was behind me (in fact, I just did it again—some old habits die hard).

This was not the case with parents in my dad's generation. My dad grew up just after World War II and was in the service during the Korean War (safely stationed in Canada and New Orleans). Then he went to work and spent the next 47 years or whatever working for the same corporation.

I grew up in Reagan's America, and I was in college in the early 1990s—right around the time of Woodstock Redux and grunge music. So yeah, I've been in a few student riots; I've seen cars flipped and lit on fire; I've had friends make pilgrimages to Amsterdam; and I know a few guys who have things tattooed on their bodies that qualify for protection under the Fifth Amendment.

It seems like everybody's always bitching about kids today, and their computer time and rainbow parties and sexting and prescription drugs, but from where I'm sitting, I just don't see it. To me, it seems like kids today are, well, pretty good kids. They're tech-savvy, they are creative and funny, and they're focused in a way that makes my generation look like a bunch of slackers.

Sure, it's possible my oldest son is hiding all kinds of stuff from me. Maybe he does have a mini-hydroponics grow operation in his closet (like some people I have known). But I kind of doubt it. That's another kids today do: they live almost entirely in public.

But then in the midst of all this, I had another, somewhat unsettling thought. I was talking to my dad not too long ago about smoking—a habit he never started and one I gave up years ago. And he kind of grinned and said, "If it could burn, I probably tried smoking it when I was younger." To say I was shocked would be a HUGE understatement. Then I remembered another thing he said ... something about living just a few doors down from Pat O'Brien's in the French Quarter.

Huh. Now I'm beginning to wonder ... maybe the world is actually the REVERSE of what I thought growing up. Maybe the only reason kids have to go to extraordinary lengths to hide their bad behavior is because, when you're an adult, you own the garage your kid might be hiding behind. You don't have to bother with any spy craft or sneakery.

You can just lock the door.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I Write LIke ...

J.K. Rowling.

In case you haven't seen this website yet, check it out. Paste in a little text and it analyzes it based on a whole bunch of criteria, then says who you write like.

Click on I Write Like for the link.

And no, I wasn't bummed with my results.

Resetting Yourself

I just got back an hour or so ago from my weekly guest appearance on a local morning show. We were shooting outside today, and just my luck, it started pouring about 15 seconds before we went live. Fortunately, the spot was shot under a covered walkway at the base of a building—and we were talking about growing things in wet spots—so it was kind of fitting. Anyway, the unexpected makes for good TV.

Those two-and-a-half minutes on air are easily the fastest two and a half minutes of my week. Afterward, I'm usually on a little high that lasts for about an hour or so ... that's how I know I like these things. It takes me a day to get psyched up to do it, then it's two intense minutes of live TV, and then another hour to come down off the rush.

Not all of my segments go perfectly. I did one a little while back that still gives me shivers. I was going along fine, but then for some reason, my mind just went utterly blank. When I watched the playback, I could see the exact moment the contents of my brain emptied out onto the floor. I kept talking for a while after that, sort of babbling, but I knew I was in deep shit. Then I just ran out of stuff to say and I kind petered to a halt, mumbling something about how sorry I was. Ouch.

The host—thank God—had lots of experience with guests who choke, so she recognized it, reset the conversation, and gave me a few seconds to find my center. Then we finished the segment and they "cut to the couch" (the on-set hosts) and finally to commercial. The whole thing took about 30 seconds, but man, those were looong seconds. I felt every one of them.

I haven't choked since. It's like I had to get that out of my system. Now, when I feel myself start to drift or freeze up, I know it and I can reset myself before it gets out of hand. Now, you wouldn't even know that I just experienced a split second of sheer panic and had to quickly refocus before I went gibbering off the deep end.

I think writing is the same way, but much slower. It happens in geological time. Your highs stretch out over weeks, maybe months. But you choke too, when the words just vanish, and those are pretty awful days and sometimes weeks. So you tell me ... how do you reset when you can feel it all spinning out of control?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I don't want to get into name-calling, but I'm thinking of a certain movie director I'm fascinated by. This director is a "type" of artist you'll probably recognize. He's not that good, but he thinks he is. And he's not ashamed of telling people how good he is. It seems half his career is self-promotion.

I find this kind of self-confidence magnetic, intoxicating and compelling beyond belief. Reality TV is full of people like this, and I think explains why I like some reality TV. I have this endless fascination with people who put it out there aggressively, who are loud in support in themselves, and who attract other people by sheer force of their own will power, whether or not they're actually any good at what they do.

If you ask me, Sarah Palin is the quintessence of this personality type. She exudes confidence in herself; she can command an entire audience—and yet when you break down what she says on a sentence-by-sentence basis, it's often actual gibberish. And when it's not gibberish, it's usually content free. She just did a campaign style commercial asking conservative women to rise up and ... what? She said they're mama grizzlies who ... what again? But see, that's the thing. With Palin, the "what" is never important. It's always the "who." It's always about her and her bottomless well of moxie.

I think moxie is a great thing, especially as a spectator sport. I think most writers, including me, could use a little more moxie.

Except for those who could use a little less.

I would say you know who you are, except you don't ... and I kind of respect that.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Down the (Not-So-Evil) Rat Hole

You know what's annoying? When questions lead to questions ...

Example. I'm working on a book on monsters right now—it's MG, a kid's book, and the main character is part-human, part-monster; his dad is a monsterologist. The last few books I've written, there has been this tipping point right about 15,000 words. I kind of monkey around and go slow, then I hit that point and I get into a groove and the book goes quick from there. Same thing here—it's been rolling out pretty well lately.

I was brainstorming recently, thinking about Sam's dad, the monsterologist. This time around, I've been writing all the characters in first person to get a sense of their voice and who they are, and I ran into an awkward question in my brainstorming.


What to do about Evil? When it comes to monsters, I think you can make a pretty good case that, say, zombies aren't really Evil. They're just zombies, doing what zombies do. When you reanimate a piece of dead flesh and give it a hunger for brains, it might not be pretty and it might even be life-threatening, but it's not necessarily Evil. I think the same thing applies to most "monsters." Dragons, werewolves, trolls, ogres, even most ghosts. Big Foot. The Lochness monster. These things aren't really capital-E evil as much as they are dangerous by nature.

It might be just me, but I think true Evil has to have a purpose. It has to have Evil agency. True Evil isn't a hungry animal or a weather pattern. True Evil is a deliberate choice made in the face of alternatives. Calling zombies Evil would be like saying the AIDS virus is Evil, or mosquitoes or Evil, or in a way, Glenn Beck is Evil (I'm kidding about that last one—he really is Evil).

But then in the world of monsters there are clearly some pretty Evil bastards out there. You can make a case for vampires, of course (although, again, they're parasites so it's back to mosquitoes once more). Demons are clearly evil. And unfortunately, people are frequently Evil.

So I'm sitting there with my notebook, pen poised over the page, and thinking, "Oh shit. Now what?" I have no interest in getting all wrapped up in a philosophical tar pit about the nature of evil and how it affects my little story. I just want to crack a few jokes. But then, the story is looking me in the face and nagging me: "Please, you HAVE to know this, or I'll lack any sort of authentic emotional depth. You've got to figure this out."

Grrr. When was the last time a purely philosophical question hung up your book? What'd you do?

Friday, July 2, 2010

BBQ Milkshakes

I've never been particularly good at remembering the past. I'm sure it drives everyone I know crazy, but I can never remember when things happened, who I was with when they happened, or sometimes really what happened. A lot of times, it sort of feels life is this giant, not-so-connected jumble of anecdotes, floating around the mist of memory. I know some people who have these razor-sharp memories of everything that ever happened to them, and I kind of envy it. It's kind of helpful for writers to actually remember stuff.

I'm also ... ha ha ... not particularly good at living in the here and now. I would make a lousy Buddhist. I rarely know where I am when driving, unless I've been on that road a billion times.

I am, however, VERY good at living in the future. This is my chosen time-space. I love anticipating what's next. I can literally spend all week excited about a dinner on Saturday or a certain day when fireworks will be lit. Sometimes, when we have an open day, I like anticipating the day almost as much as living it. "I know! We can go to the park! No wait, to the movies! Forget that, let's drive to Miami and get Cuban food! The beach! Let's rent a boat! Parasailing anyone! Better yet, let's go fishing! Or maybe I should learn how to play taiko drums!"

I see life as a rolling crescendo ... always progress, each thing building upon the last, always heading toward something, some distant shining goal or city on the hill. I'm almost 40 years old now, and I STILL wonder what I'll be doing when I grow up, even though I'm pretty much already doing what I'll be doing when I grow up because I'm pretty much already grown up.

If aging freaks me out at all, this is why. I can't really imagine a time when the focus shifts from what will happen, from the delicious possibilities of tomorrow, to what has already happened. I can't imagine a time when the future loses its potency because it has already been lived. I don't know how I'll cope with such a thing—and as much as anything about aging, this really scares me. I hate the idea that I'll have to look back to find something to look forward to.

My secret hope is that when that time comes, I'll rescale my anticipation to fit into whatever assisted-living facility my children have stuck us (me and wife) in, or whatever room I find myself lodged in as a codger. Jell-O later? Or wait ... chocolate pudding! Forget that ... I want graham crackers soaked in milk! Wait, wait, wait ... doesn't McDonald's have BBQ-flavored milkshakes now? Let's have somebody get those!

I don't think enthusiasm is much to ask for out of life.