Come Fly the (Not so) Friendly Skies

I believe I have allowed myself the appropriate cool-down period before writing this post.  Over the past two days, at the hands of United Airlines, I have endured two plane cancellations,  as well as a total of six and a half hours of delays, including a brutal five hour stretch during which out of utter boredom I explored every store the Pittsburgh Airport has to offer.  But I did manage to resist those pinkish-red bucks the Johnston and Murphy clerk tried so hard to sell me.

My ordeal started on Thursday morning, when I had the (dis)pleasure of arriving at my gate to discover that my flight was cancelled.  Thanks for the email United–oh wait, you never sent me an email–or any notification–before I parked, went through security and trudged all the way through the airport to the gate.  The clerk was nice enough to re-book me on Friday morning, as no flights were available on Thursday.  She did this for me without ever laughing at any of my jokes.  Am I really not funny at all?  Some levity ma’am?

Friday morning, bright and early at 3:45 I again left my house for the airport, parked, went through security and trudged to the gate to see that the flight was not cancelled.  But it was delayed by fifty minutes.  Why?  Because the pilot wasn’t there.  The rest of the crew was present.  No pilot.  And just when I thought that maybe the pilot would show in time for me to make my connection, the rest of the crew stood up and walked away, muttering loud enough that the flight was showing as cancelled on United’s app, even though they hadn’t even been called by whomever at United was responsible for telling them.  So what was it United?  The pilot was hungover? Indisposed? In another city? Sleeping?

When I went up to the counter, to the same nice lady from the day before, she looked at me with no recollection of me whatsoever (Seinfeld?  Four?) and then told me that other people were ahead of me from a line across the room and refused to help me.  Off to another gate where a different United clerk, who had no reason to help me, did, and got me on a USAirways flight–the only available flight I could take to get to my destination–albeit with a four hour wait until that flight was set to leave.  To add final insult to injury, once I got on that plane, the pilot came on the intercom and told us that we would have to sit for forty minutes before pushing back because of delays in DC due to a storm.  Fortunately, he put on the afterburners once we took off and arrived in time for me to make my connection.

So, after my interminable travel day(s), I made it where I needed to go (twelve hours after I left for the airport for the second day), and tonight I get the reward of going to my favorite restaurant in the whole world–The Blue Point in Sandy Cove–I mean, Duck, NC.

As Frank Sinatra sang, “Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away.”   Hate to tell you United, I’m not flying your unfriendly skies ever again.

You Want Me To Do What?

One of the rituals of authorhood that has taken me by surprise (and feels really weird) is being asked to sign my readers’ books.  I never contemplated that anyone would ever want my signature–except on a check.  I suppose then that it was appropriate the other day when I walked into my bank, the same one that I have been going to for years, and was asked by two of the tellers to autograph their copies of Sandy Cove, and also to autograph the back of the Kindle upon which another of the tellers had downloaded the ebook.

Friends, co-workers–even relatives–have asked me to autograph their books, and they are serious!  Really?  I’m the same person today as I was just yesterday, before the tag “author” was attached to my resume.  By my estimation, I have signed thousands of documents and letters and miscellaneous things over the years, all the while  trying in vain for my signature to look nice and regal instead of the illegible scribble that it is.  But this autograph thing is something different, altogether.

Whomever has requested that I autograph my book, they have responded to my look of bewilderment with stone cold seriousness.   “Do it, author,”  they seem to command, the expectation being that I should know what it is I am supposed to do.    My face turns red, my head begins to pound.  What should I say?  Sound witty!  Be sincere.  DON’T mis-spell anything.  And no scratch-outs!

Writers’ forums offer thread after thread of how-to’s on how to do book signings, what to write, even what kind of pen to use (for me, a Sharpie).  Still, every time I am asked to sign, it comes as a complete shock, and I feel totally unprepared–and undeserving.  But maybe I can learn something from my readers, and gain some perspective.  So, to Donna and Karen and Judy at the bank, and to all of the others who have requested my signature–thank you for giving me the honor of autographing your books/kindles.  And thanks again for reading my book.

Tour de Hypocracy

In the ultimate fall from grace, Lance Armstrong was reduced in stature to the extent of sitting on Oprah Winfrey’s couch this week and confessing to using performance enhancing drugs for virtually his entire career.  Shockingly unshocking.  Is anyone really surprised that Lance Armstrong doped and doped and doped his way to seven Tour de France titles?  How about Barry Bonds hitting 73 home runs?  Or Roger Clemens winning seven Cy Young awards?  The common thread:  they all cheated–themselves and us and their sports.

Statistically speaking, history has a foolproof  way of validating the human element in sports. Rules changes aside (lowering the pitching mound, handcuffing football defenses, the three point shot), records spanning seventy-five or a hundred years are remarkably resilient.  We know that, all things being equal, a baseball player cannot hit more than 61 home runs in a 162 game season, a pitcher cannot win more than 30 games, a football running back cannot run for much more than 2000 yards in a season, and so on in swimming, track and field, cycling, etc.  Athletes today are bigger and stronger and faster than they were even twenty years ago, much less 50, 75 or 100 years ago.  And yet, records (other than those set by longevity) tend to stand.  Hard to believe, but maybe some of the players of yesteryear (Roger Maris, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Jim Brown and Jesse Owens) were better than anyone else, even compared to today’s athletes.

But at some point the athletes lost their way.  Sports moved from being about sport and became about something very different:  money.  And when sports became about money–mostly for the leagues and networks and advertisers, but also for the athletes, it began to corrupt everyone involved.  Of course, ego has a lot to do with it as well, but athletes have always been about ego.  When Alex Rodriguez wasn’t satisfied being considered the best player in his sport, he had to have the highest contract as well ($25 million per year), and then he was so egotistical that neither the ridiculous amount of money nor the statistics he was achieving without doping (if there ever were any) weren’t good enough either.  So he doped.  And he got caught.  And then he admitted it, because he was still so egotistical that he felt he had to rehabilitate his reputation.  Just like Lance Armstrong.

Some say that Armstrong did so much good, raised so much money for cancer research, that we should give him a break for cheating his way to seven titles.  Really?  Lance Armstrong purposefully ruined the lives of anyone who he ever imagined posed any threat to exposing him.   His ego was so big that he stopped at nothing–lawsuits, threats, financial ruin–to maintain his ruse.  And he should be forgiven because he also did good?  Well Bernie Madoff gave a lot of money to charity over the years, too.

Did anyone ever have to hear Lance Armstrong admit that he doped to really believe that he doped?  Or Barry Bonds?  Or Roger Clemens?  In my opinion, the enormity of the disparity in these athletes’ accomplishments versus the historical record was a tipoff to some fishy stuff going on.  Here’s my question, and I hope I’m wrong, but . . . can you look at any of the off-the-charts athletes these days and not think they must be on something?  If they are, and they get caught, at least they know that Oprah has a couch they can visit someday.

Surprise!

The other night I attended a surprise party.  My friend had been making plans for months to surprise his wife for her milestone birthday, texting and emailing the details to their friends, and ultimately, the party went off without a hitch.  This was the second surprise party I attended in the last few months, and both were successful in their purpose:  Each time the unknowing recipient was completely in the dark until the ruse was revealed (and was also obviously taken aback and somewhat unnerved).

Every time I attend a surprise party I think of Gomer Pyle saying, “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!” in his exaggerated Southern drawl.  He got it right:  once is not enough, three times is about right.   Adding the surprise to a birthday party gives it a little zest.  A party is just a party, but make it into a surprise party, and you’ve topped it off with an exclamation point.  And you’ve created a memory.

As we get older the years begin to slip by and birthdays begin to melt together.  They may mean less to us, but  sometimes we need to add that exclamation point to remind us that all of them are important.  They still mean something.

The other night, hours after we shouted “Surprise!” and after the husband read his wife a poem he had written, after the food and the drink and dessert , the party came to a close.  We started to say goodbye to our friends, and as we hugged each other, I saw the birthday girl wipe away a tear.  Exclamation point.

Birds of a Different Feather

Earlier this week I watched and listened in awe as New Jersey governor Chris Christie accompanied our President to view the destruction left behind by Hurricane Sandy, and then repeatedly praised the President in front of the assembled media.  Mr. Christie, who had spent a good part of this election cycle as the standard bearer for Mitt Romney, didn’t have to do what he did, and he certainly didn’t have to do it over and over again.  In public.  In front of the cameras.  So, why did he?

Over the years our society has shown an amazing cohesiveness when confronted with unthinkable adversity.  9/11.  Katrina. Joplin. And now, Sandy, to name just a few examples.  We circle the wagons and come together to provide support and aid to those around us who are suffering.  When our neighbor hurts, we hurt, and we want to help.   It is a humanistic response to a primal instinct.

When disaster strikes on the level of Seaside Park or Long Beach Island, one struggles to comprehend the utter destruction that our eyes take in.  In image after image, video after video, Governor Christie, at one destroyed community after another, looked shell-shocked, and broken.  His state — his home — was devastated.  And he clearly appreciated having the President there to lend him support–someone for him to lean on.

I remember reading once that comedian and political commentator  Al Franken, prior to becoming Senator Franken, attended a dinner function in Washington, DC, and when President George W. Bush entered the room, everyone rose and applauded, including Franken.  The man standing next to him, knowing of Franken’s outspoken criticism of President Bush, scoffed at Franken, to which Franken replied something along the lines of, “He is my President, and I will stand in salute of him when he enters the room.”

In this year of the corporate “personhood” of unrelenting, vile political advertisements, Chris Christie showed his humanity and his dignity in a time of crisis.  He put aside politics and stood by his President’s side as he struggled to keep his composure.  And then, when he stepped up to the microphone and spoke, he said what was in his heart.

Unfortunate Publicity

Having visited the beautiful seaside villages in Southern Maine this past summer, hearing the news of the Zumba teacher who allegedly ran a prostitution business on the side and the scandal it has caused in the Kennebunks was disheartening.  Our society feeds its voracious appetite for salacious news on the backs of good and decent people, who all too often get caught up in the dirty business of others (for example, all of the current and former students and faculty of Penn State).  And now, once again, our 24/7 media cycle is revved up into a frenzy to bring us all of the Zumba news that is unfit to print.

Kennebunkport is a beautiful, quaint village and its people could not be more down-to-earth or friendlier.  Although our trip was more of a gourmande adventure (we managed to spend most of our time eating and drinking our way up and down the coast), the area is pure small town Americana, and so are its people.  And thus, the public’s curiosity with the Zumba teacher/prostitute and her Johns.

Our society is obsessed with the rich and famous and the downtrodden (the middle seems to not garner much attention).  And when the spotlight shines on a sex scandal in a Mayberry-esque locale, those who think Judge Judy  and Dr. Phil represent anything resembling a real Judge or a real…whatever kind of “Dr.” he claims to be, pull up their chairs and break out the popcorn.

So, what about the other 99.999+% of the people from the Kennebunks?  They feel that they are under siege, and they feel that all the good they do is being lost amidst the prurient details.  The truth is that among the lobster shacks and the tourist stores, the fishing boats and the iconic Bush compound on Walker’s Point, there also exists a seedier element.  Which is the case in every village or town or city in America.  And it is unfortunate that all of the beauty and good gets overlooked due to the overwhelming tidal wave of focus on the bad.  I prefer to focus on the positive.

Labor of Love, Or Fool’s Errand?

What do you call something that is years in the making, gives you no immediate tangible reward, and  ultimately opens you up to widespread criticism?   Torture?  Or nirvana?  I call it doing what you were meant to do.

I once read about a math wiz, a savant, who didn’t know how he was able to do what he did–it was just a part of him.  To him, it was normal.  To everyone else, it was remarkable.

I can’t sing or write songs or draw or paint, and I’m smart enough to know not to even try.  But I can write.  Don’t get me wrong:  I’m no savant–at anything.  But I’ve always been complimented on my writing.  Whether a short story, a letter or a simple (to me) email, I’ve received unsolicited praise, but I’ve never really understood what the big deal is–it’s just me and it’s just writing.  So, I thought, maybe that’s my calling, and maybe I should do something with it–I’ll write a book.  I just didn’t realize the time and effort and sacrifice that writing a book would entail.

In hindsight, mine was a thoughtless leap of faith.  Just because you can string a couple of sentences together doesn’t mean you can make up a compelling story or write good dialogue.  And maybe I can’t, at least not well.  But I did enjoy the process.  Even though it took me years, without reward, and that now, it may open me up to ridicule.

My words are my brush, my keyboard my canvas.  Time to paint.

Write or Wrong

Can I start calling myself a writer?  Or an author?  Have I earned it yet?

Some background:  A long time ago, on an uneventful day at work, in the days of the poingo poingo of internet connections (read  as the internet was not readily accessible), I sat at my desk pondering a scene that had popped into my brain with complete clarity.  I mean, every sensory nuance of the scene, sights and sounds and smells, was fully developed.  And I didn’t know what to do with it.  So I started writing, evicting from my brain this complete thought that was almost painful to ignore until it was purged.  And what appeared on the screen in front of me was that scene, final draft, no additions, changes or rewriting necessary.

It was the opening scene for a story–a book–but I didn’t know where to go from there.  So I showed it to my wife, and after she read it (and initially looked at me as if I was from another planet), she told me to write the book.  She might as well have told me to jump off a bridge.  But naive person that I was, I tried, and it went fairly well–at first.   Then I got to that certain point in the story that I now know as the line in the sand.  That point in time where you think it’s all garbage and a waste of time and oh my God, what was I thinking?  And at that point you can either push through and have faith in your ability, or you can punt.  I punted.  I put what I had printed into a drawer, and moved on with my life.

Fast forward ten years and endless entreaties by my wife to start writing again, to not push aside those scenes of clarity that kept popping into my head.  And one day, once again, I just had to purge one of those scenes from my brain.  But this time, I decided that good or bad, I was going to finish what I had started, and the surprising thing was that each day that I sat down to write, new thoughts did come into my head, and new scenes and characters and new story lines developed from thin air (i.e. the recesses of my brain).

Everybody writes differently.  Someone once told me that I had to have the whole story outlined and every character’s profile fully developed before I could write the first paragraph.  Wrong advice for me.  Some people, like me, just sit down and start writing and somehow, a story begins to flow forth.  I may have some mis-steps, I may go down a path that ends with the worst thing ever–the delete button.  But that’s how it works for me.

So I’ve completed book one and I’m well into book two.  Book one is getting published–my way, which is the subject for another day.

Have I earned the title Writer?  Author?  Have I?

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