My Dad’s Birthday

December 20, 2007

Today’s my Dad’s birthday.  He would have been 88.  It’s been eleven years since we lost him and I still think about him every day.  And each time I do, the memory of him brings a smile to my face.

He was an easy man to love — great sense of humor, terrific smile, infectious laugh.  He became friends with pretty much everyone he met.  He only got to know my older daughter briefly before he died; he never met the younger one.  He would have adored them both, though, and they would have been crazy about him.  He also never got to see any of my books in print, and I think he found it a bit strange that I wanted to spend my life writing what he thought of as fairy tales.  But he would have gotten a kick out of seeing my career progress.  I can see him shaking his head and saying, “They actually pay you to do this?”

He would have been fascinated by cell phones and mp3 players — he loved gadgets.  On the other hand, my siblings and I tried for years to get him to buy a computer and he always refused.  “When would I ever use it?” he’d ask.  To which we’d say, “All the time!”  But we never convinced him.  He would have been disappointed by the baseball steroid scandal.  He would have gotten a kick out of watching Tiger Woods play golf.  And he would have despised this President and his immoral, illegal war.

He worshipped my mother and spent the last few years of his life helping her cope with the illness that eventually claimed her life.  He stuck around for a while after she died, but his heart wasn’t in it.  His father lived to 103 — outlived him, actually.  His mother died at the age of 91.  But without my Mom, Dad barely made it to 77.  Love is a powerful force, and so is grief.

This post isn’t intended to elicit sympathy.  Far from it.  I miss my Dad a lot, but it’s been years since we lost him, and at this point my memories of him are joyous and fun.  Think of this more as a birthday card, and a way for me to tell you a bit about my father.

Happy Birthday, Pop.  I love you.

A Rejection

December 19, 2007

The story I sent out a few weeks ago came back the other day.  A rejection.  The turnaround — the time between when I sent the piece in and when I received the rejection — was mercifully short, and the editor’s note was polite, professional, and even helpful.  But, alas, it’s still a rejection.

When I go to conventions or workshops and I speak with young writers, they complain, understandably, of the rejections they’ve received.  But there’s an assumption in the way they speak to me that once an author is as established as I am, rejections become a thing of the past.  That’s simply not true, and I make a point of telling them so.  Rejected stories, rejected manuscripts — they’re a part of the business, a part of what it means to be a writer.  Sometimes the things we write work just as we had hoped; sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes two editors, both of them skilled readers, both of them experienced in the field, both of them successful, can look at a story or a book and have completely different reactions.

I’d even go so far as to say that rejection is good for us writers.  It forces us to take a second look at our work, to think about it critically, to put ourselves in the mind of that editor who said, “No,” and make ourselves see the story as he or she did.  Sometimes, even after looking at the story again, I might decide that it’s fine as it is, that the piece simply didn’t connect with this particular reader.  Other times — most often — I’ll find that the story still needs work.  Maybe I was too close to the piece when I first sent it out, and it took this rejection to make me see its flaws.  In this case, the editor has done me a great service by rejecting it and making me look at it again.  And, on occasion, it’s also possible I might come to see that a story can’t be salvaged, that there really wasn’t a story there after all.  Again, if this is the case, I owe the editor my thanks for not publishing it. 

So my story was rejected.  Now it’s up to me to decide which of these possibilities applies to this particular work.  Naturally, I’d like to think that it’s option one of the possibilities listed above.  Certainly I don’t think it’s option three.  Most likely the second one is the correct one.  The story still needs work.  And when next I see the editor who rejected it, I’ll have to remember to say thank you for helping me improve the piece.

Today’s music:  Strength in Numbers

For the Birds….

December 18, 2007

It’s gotten cold over the last week.  Winter cold.  Cars-covered-with-frost-in-the-mornings, heat-running-pretty-much-all-the-time, ice-covering-parts-of-the-beaver-pond cold.

So I’ve done the things that we generally do around the house when winter begins in earnest.  I closed the vents to the crawl-space under the house, I’ve opened up the fire place and stacked a bunch of wood, and I’ve filled the bird feeders.

For those of you who don’t know, I’m an avid birder — have been since I was seven years old.  The birds we attract to our feeders aren’t terribly exciting — no rarities or exotics.  But there’s something so satisfying about having even the most common birds come to the feeders and eat the food we put out.  Both my daughters love it, and the younger one delights in telling me which species she’s seen during breakfast.

This year’s most exciting feeder bird at our house is a hermit thrush.  He’s warm brown on the back, with a rust colored tail that he pumps up and down excitedly.  His breast is white, with a light sprinkle of black spots.  He never deigns to hop onto any of the feeders, but he’s there every day, roaming the ground beneath them, catching the seed and scraps of suet dropped by the chickadees, nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers.  As I say, hermit thrushes aren’t rare, but they’re not usually so conspicuous.  Normally one encounters them in the early spring, and even then one is more likely to hear their fluted song than to see one.

As the winter goes on more birds will find the feeders.  Tiny Carolina wrens, with their harsh scolding calls; pileated woodpeckers, as large as crows, their cackling cries making them sound slightly insane; huge, chattering flocks of goldfinches; the occasional reticent bluebird.  We’ll get hawks, too — sharp-shinned or Cooper’s — watchful and alert, eager to make a meal of one of the aforementioned visitors to my feeders.  A Goldfinch McNugget to go.  Yum.

If you don’t feed birds, you should.  It helps them through the winters, and it’s great fun.  You can find cheap feeders and decently priced food at most home supply stores. (Sunflower seed is best for attracting chickadees, nuthatches, and titmice; thistle seed works well for finches of all sorts; the so-called “wild bird seed”, which is a mix of millet and sunflower, will bring in mourning doves, sparrows and juncos; cardinals will eat both sunflower and millet, though they like safflower best; suet cakes are favored by woodpeckers.)  If you have questions, leave them below.  I’ll answer as quickly as I can.

Today’s music:  Bill Frisell (Good Dog, Happy Man)

For those of you who are growing weary of political campaigns and advertising, I offer this little gem sent to me recently by a good friend.

Less than three weeks until Iowa; just over three weeks until New Hampshire.  And yet the general election is still ten and half months away.  It seems like this campaign has already been going on for a year, which is probably because it has been.  What a ridiculous way to select a leader.  The recent elections in Australia that led to the election of Kevin Rudd took place after only a month or six weeks of active campaigning.  Can you imagine?  Wouldn’t it be amazing to live in a country where political leaders actually spent most of their time governing rather than campaigning?  I realize that comparing the U.S. political system to a parliamentary system like Australia’s is problematic, but still…. 

I’m a political junkie — always have been.  But this is too much.

Today’s music:  Sadao Watanabe (Remembrance)

A Bit of Snow

December 16, 2007

We’re actually getting snow today!  Yes, all you northerners and midwesterners, I know.  You don’t want to hear about it.   But down here snow has become so scarce that it’s always a treat when we get any at all.  This is a very light snowfall — a faint dusting on the leaf litter in the woods around our house; a thin coat on rooftops and cars and the swingset out back.  It looks beautiful.

Today’s music:  “Studio 360” on NPR

It’s been a dark couple of days for us baseball fans as the fallout from George Mitchell’s report on steroid use in the sport continues, and it promises to get worse before it gets better.  Players implicated in the report are starting to put out statements either accepting blame for what they’re said to have done, or, more likely, denying having ever taken steroids or HGH.  It won’t be long before the Players Union marshals its PR forces to fight the report, and the team owners and management look for ways to absolve themselves of culpability.  Congress intends to hold hearings.  This is going to be ugly.

Some thoughts:

Anyone who was surprised by the names on the list or the number of players involved hasn’t been paying attention for the past several years.  ESPN and the various news outlets made it seem that the inclusion of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte in the list was a shock.  Give me a break.  Does no one remember the news out of Houston last spring, when they were implicated in the Astros’ mini HGH scandal?  Did no one suspect anything when both players suddenly shaved their heads a few seasons back?  (Hair loss is often a symptom of HGH use and players often seek to hide this by shaving their heads — For more information, I refer you to the coifing histories of Bonds, Barry; McGwire, Mark; Palmeiro, Rafael.  Head shavers all.)  Did no one think it strange when, during the 2000 World Series on a routine broken bat groundout by Mike Piazza, Clemens inexplicably picked up the head of Piazza’s shattered bat and threw it at him?  Granted, Clemens has been a head case for a long time (For more information I refer you to the American League Playoff series of 1989, when Clemens had a now-infamous meltdown with the home plate umpire) but didn’t the bizarre incident in 2000 raise any eyebrows?  (Hyper-aggressive behavior is another HGH symptom.)

Staying with Clemens, and Bonds as well.  One of the really sad things about this is that it has called into question the careers of two players who were certain Hall-of-Famers before they ever picked up a needle.  Clemens was the dominant pitcher in baseball from 1986 through the late nineties.  He won three Cy Young Awards without using any performance enhancing drugs.  He was on track to strike out three thousand batters in his career; he might well have gotten to 300 career wins.  He would have been remembered as one of the ten greatest pitchers in baseball history.  And Bonds, for all the criticism he’s taken throughout his career for being an anti-social jerk, would quite likely have been remembered as one of the three greatest left-fielders ever to play the game, along with Ted Williams and Stan Musial.  He was on pace to hit 500 home runs (a number that once meant something), to steal five hundred bases, to score close to 2,000 runs and drive in 1,700.  He won three MVP awards early in his career, as well as eight gold gloves.  They were the best of the best — both of them.  They didn’t need to do anything to make themselves better.  But driven by ego and money and, in Bonds’ case, his jealousy of the adulation heaped on McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, they threw it all away.  Now they’ll be lucky to make the Hall of Fame.  And their names will be linked first and foremost with scandal, cheating, shame, rather than with baseball excellence.

Isn’t it interesting that Miguel Tejada, the Baltimore Orioles’ all-star shortstop, who was named in the report, was traded the day before it was issued?  Was it just coincidence that Andy Pettitte completed negotiations on a $16 million contract also the day before the report came out?  Doesn’t the trade of Jim Edmunds (another head shaver, and a player who has managed to recover with notable swiftness from injuries that might have ended the careers of other men) the day after the report came out raise red flags for anyone?  The team owners and general managers knew what was going on the whole time — any attempt on their part to claim ignorance or innocence is completely disingenuous.  This was a scandal in the deepest sense of the word.  500 foot home runs and 100 mph ratings on the radar machines gauging pitch speed were and are good for attendance.  Baseball, for all its recent problems, has never been more profitable for players and ownership alike.  The performances made possible by steroids and HGH are partially responsible for that.  So players juiced, and owners, GMs, and managers looked the other way.

Just in case people think that steroids automatically make you a great player, I refer you to the following players listed as users in Mitchell’s report:  Mark Carreon, Chuck Knoblauch (a once great player who couldn’t save his career, even with the drugs), Jeremy Giambi . . . .  The list goes on.  HGH was used by players to speed the healing process from injuries and surgeries.  And, yes, it was used to improved on-field performance.  But as Mark Carreon found out, it couldn’t help a player learn to hit a curve ball.  As Knoblauch learned, it couldn’t restore the confidence of a once decent second baseman in his ability to throw the ball to first.  It could make a decent hitter better by putting more pop in his bat.  Maybe it could make a good player great.  Certainly in Bonds’ case it made a great player into the greatest offensive force the game has ever seen.  But I would be willing to bet that for most, the on-field results were nowhere near the cost in terms of long-term health and damage to their reputations.

For me, the saddest thing in the report was what Mitchell had to say about the prevalence of drug use in the minor leagues.  These are basically kids, barely out of high school or college, who are destroying themselves for a shot at glory and huge amounts of money.  The game has been poisoned, the problem is systemic, and the healing process is going to take years.

Today’s music:  Mark O’Connor

Amid the Storms

December 13, 2007

I feel like I’m standing in the eye of a storm.  

As you grow older with your cohort of friends, you find that life events come in waves.  For a while, in the years after college, everyone was falling in love and getting married; in the year of our wedding, Nancy and I must have attended at least a dozen other weddings.  Then, a few years later, all of us started families.  Baby showers and birth announcements, brises and christenings.  And not long after, many of us began to lose our parents; sad, yes, but also to be expected.

We’ve reached a new phase now; this one’s darker, harder to accept.  All around us, it seems, couples are splitting up, and people our age are getting sick with the types of diseases that only older people are supposed to get.  It seems that now we’re older people.  And I feel like I should just keep my head down and hope that the gods take no notice of my family and me.  Is it tempting fate to acknowledge how fortunate we’ve been?  Just typing the words, I feel compelled to knock three times on my wood desk.

Within just a few years, Nancy and I, along with so many of our college and grad school friends will have kids going off to college.  Not long after that, those children will begin to marry and start families of their own.  Rites of passage; blessings to be celebrated.  But right now, at midlife, I feel like we’re just trying to weather the storms that rage all around us.

It’s grey outside, and turning colder.  And today I’m sad for my friends who are suffering.

Today’s music:  Steve Earle (Train a Comin’)

Kudos to newly elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who yesterday followed through on one of his main campaign promises.  Rudd, the leader of Australia’s Labour Party, which swept to power in November’s national elections, ousting the utterly misnamed “Liberal Party” and its leader, John Howard, vowed throughout the campaign to add Australia to the list of signatories of the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming.  Yesterday in Bali, at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, only a week after he took office, Rudd delivered the ratification papers.

In many ways, it was a symbolic act, since Australia was already basically in compliance with the Kyoto Protocol’s carbon emissions targets.  But it was a powerful statement nevertheless; an acknowledgment that the previous government had been wrong to keep Australia out of the agreement, and a none-too-subtle reproof of the Bush Administration’s continued refusal to sign on to Kyoto or to pledge support for the treaty that will eventually emerge from the current meetings.

Look, before my friends to the right jump all over me, let me say that Kyoto was not a perfect document.  Not by a long shot.  And we can only hope for the sake of the entire planet that whatever agreement comes out of Bali will recognize that China and India can no longer be considered “emerging nations” when it comes to manufacturing or carbon emissions caps.  But the failure of the current U.S. Administration to take the lead on global climate change should be an embarrassment to every American.  We are sacrificing the future of our children and grandchildren, and risking the survival of the entire planet, all out of concern for corporate profits and the preservation of un unsustainable way of life.  News flash:  if we continue to lay waste to the planet, corporate earnings and the price of the newest Hummer model will be the least of our concerns.

Today’s music:  Michael Hedges (Breakfast in the Field)


December 11, 2007

Ever go to  Great site.  It’s kind of a compendium of the daily posts from various left-leaning blogs (along with clips from The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, when they’re airing new segments).  Yesterday, there was a post from Jamie Holly lamenting the spate of deadly shootings we’ve seen in the States over the past week or so — the Omaha mall shooting, the Colorado church shootings.  It’s worth a read (as is today’s lead post, in which Tony Perkins, the leader of the far-right Family Research Council, is taken to task for blaming secularists for the church shootings).

Jamie raises the point that those on the right who seem all too willing to sacrifice our personal freedoms in the name of “Homeland Security” — the suspension of Habeas Corpus, the detention of suspects without trial, the illegal wiretapping of law-abiding American citizens, the use of torture against detainees — refuse to give an inch when the discussion turns to limitations on our Second Amendment right to bear arms.  Why is it that the Second Amendment is more important than the First (freedom of expression), or the Fourth (freedom from “unreasonable search and seizure”), or the Sixth (right to “a speedy and public trial”), or the Eighth (no “cruel and unusual punishments inflicted”)?  Why is it considered patriotic to allow the Federal Government to erode our personal liberties, but a crime against the intent of the Founders to enforce a ten day waiting period for the purchase of an automatic weapon?

Every year in this country, thirty thousand people die from wounds inflicted by firearms.  Every year!  That’s nine times the number of people who died on 9/11.  I offer that not to downplay the significance of the attacks on New York and Washington, but rather to point out the terrible cost of gun violence.  Even if we were to take out suicides and gun accidents, that would leave eleven thousand murders and cases of manslaughter involving guns.  Isn’t that too many?  Shouldn’t that be considered a matter of national security?  Weren’t last week’s shootings acts of terrorism?

Where are our national priorities?

Today’s music:  Sphere (Sphere)

Number Games

December 10, 2007

So, THE SORCERERS’ PLAGUE is now officially “out”.  It should be in bookstores by now, and it can be ordered from online sellers, including, of course,  

I have a confession to make:  I am an Amazon numbers junkie.  Whenever I have a new book out I return to the product page again and again to check my sales numbers and look for new reviews.  I know, I know.  The numbers mean next to nothing, and the reader reviews don’t count for much more.  But I can’t help myself.  It’s rather pathetic really.  I know this.  Yet I still do it.  And I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only writer who does. 

A little information can be a dangerous thing, and yet we writers get so little immediate feedback regarding how our books are doing that any information is welcome.  Then again, given how obsessive I can be about the Amazon numbers, I’m probably lucky that I don’t have access to more information.  I’d never get anything done….

Today’s music:  James Taylor (One Man Band)