Summer of Hope, Summer of Dreams

My Summer of Hope - Ebook Largelatest book, Summer of Hope, Summer of Dreams, was launched yesterday!  (see sidebar to the right to purchase–yes, a self-serving plug, there).  The book was just put out for public consumption, but it was a long time in the making–made even longer due to some delays beyond my control.  The title is a metaphor for the subject matter of the book, and is a play on a Springsteen song title, Land of Hope and Dreams–also in the book.

I grew up in a small steel town in West Virginia and was a rabid Bruce Springsteen fan (still am, of course).  A common theme running through almost every one of his songs is that of keeping hope and having faith.  Although confronted by what seems like a dead-end–in your hometown, or in your relationships, or in the despair of a post-9/11 America–Springsteen sings about the light at the end of the tunnel.  He reasons that in the most trying of times, even though despair threatens to overtake you,  keeping your dreams alive, and allowing yourself to hope and have faith that it will be so, will get you through your darkest of days.  As it is in Summer of Hope, Summer of Dreams.

Becoming an author is a dream come true for me.  Sheer blind faith led me to where I am in my writing today (see the connection?).   Summer of Hope, Summer of Dreams is my latest baby, and it was a true labor of love.  I hope you will read it.  I hope you will enjoy it.  And to that end, I hope that when you finish it, you will feel that sense, as I have since my childhood, that we can have faith in our dreams coming true.

“Once Upon a Time”

“Once upon a time, in a land far, far away …” Can you imagine opening a new book, turning to the first page, and reading those words?   Pick up any how-to book (do they still print those?) or go to any online forum, and you—the aspiring new author—are told to never, ever start a book with: “It was a dark and stormy night…” Or anything of that sort. Why not? Because any literary agent or publisher you are trying to woo won’t get past those first few words. Because, according to them, it’s wrong.

Someone needs to explain that to me. Isn’t writing a form of art? Since when was something artistic capable of being “wrong?” Was Monet wrong for breaking from tradition to help create impressionism? Was Picasso wrong for cubism? How about Tolstoy—War and Peace? Orwell? Kerouac? Salinger? Harper Lee? Tom Wolfe?

Art is like fashion: in today, out tomorrow. It is subject to the whims of society as it then exists. Van Gogh was hated in Arles and sold one painting during his life. Can you imagine if he listened to his critics and stopped painting his way? He may not have achieved fame and fortune during his lifetime, but his art is society’s treasure.

Not every budding author is going to find success or fame. In reality, very few will. But the problem in the literary world—the traditional literary world—is that it is all about the money and not enough about the art. Publishers and the literary agents who feed them their material are the traditional gatekeepers of the art. And they’re failing in that role. Who is to say there isn’t a brilliant author who purposely starts a story “once upon a time,” or “on a dark and stormy night,” who then spins a remarkable tale that is remarkable, in part, because the book began that way? Or is written in a unique voice, or with unique, convention-ignoring grammar? Is that wrong? Or is it art?


My Mother is a Candle

photo 1

My mother is a candle.

Losing a parent is not something that one can prepare for, no matter how long and hard the battle is that leads up to death. In my mother’s case, that battle was very long and very hard, the end-result of years and years of smoking, and one fatal decision to ignore a lump. Yet despite the months of deterioration that led up to her death, the end was a shock. People asked me if it was sudden, and I was surprised that I couldn’t find a right answer. Yes, it was sudden, as in the end game lasted only a couple of days. But it was more than the end game. It was a long, slow decline in physical and mental health. My mother, independent, smart, sharp, and loving in her own critical way, began to disappear long before she took her last breath.

I thought that the last dire diagnosis, which was unassailable, had put me in the mindset to prepare for her death. Only two weeks before she died, I told a friend that I was ready—that I knew it was coming and I was calm and at peace. My friend presciently told me that it wasn’t going to be so easy, and that it would be okay if I allowed myself to be emotional over her death. I thought a lot about that comment as I sat by my mother’s side during her last three days, and as her rhythmic breathing began to slow, then slow some more, I felt the fear begin to build in me.

When it finally happened, so surreal but so absolutely real, the tears came, as well as the guttural anguish that I thought I had been immunized from in the lead-up. It wasn’t about allowing myself to be emotional—the grief came in uncontrollable waves. And it still does…

In all honesty, my mother would be appalled that I am writing this. She was adamant that upon her death we were not to eulogize her. “Get on with your lives,” she commanded us, as if we could just move on from her. I can’t. I won’t. I don’t ever want to.

My mother is a candle. It will burn for seven days on my counter. Then it will go out. But it will burn forever in my heart.

Hello, I must be . . . Writing

Hello, I must be . . . Writing

So, it’s been a while since I’ve written on this blog.  Without getting into the gory details, I was too busy dealing with family illnesses to be able to write.  Actually, it wasn’t that I was too busy–it was that I couldn’t.  I couldn’t write–an act that to me is a joyful exercise–while I was in the midst of some not-so-joyful stuff.

My wife kept telling me that I should be writing.  She said that writers do their best work when under emotional strain.  That their writing under such conditions brings out their best, most pure feelings.  That some of the most famous novels were written by authors who were suffering.

Well, if that concept applies generally to all writers, I guess I am the exception to the rule.   I just couldn’t do it.  Not one word, for a long while.  Not here, not on my new book project.  But, as with all things, time acts as a salve (any fans recall where they read that line before?), and I feel capable of writing again.  Thank goodness!

I am busy finishing up the new book, but not quite ready to give any spoilers.  Umm, ok, a little spoiler:  If you grew up at or around a small steel town in the late 70s, the scenery will be very familiar to you.  ‘Nuff said (for now).

The most common question I’ve been asked by my readers is how I come up with ideas for my books.   The truth is that every day ideas pop into my head for a new book, and they just come from my observations.  What I read, what I watch, what I see.  A person walking alongside of a country road — there are a whole slew of potential stories there.   A story in the paper or on the web might trigger an idea, or even standing in line at a grocery store.  I see something or somebody, and nuances frolic through my mind.  The ideas are always there.  But, to state the obvious, it’s what you do with the ideas that matter.  A quirky thing that I do though, is avoid reading any book that I think might involve the same situation or general story line as one I’m working on, because I don’t want to risk that something I’ve read is going to find its way into my writing.   When I was writing Sandy Cove, I was watching television one night and a promotion for Nicholas Sparks’ Nights in Rodanthe came on and I had a mini panic attack.  I didn’t even know what that story was about, but I knew that Rodanthe is in the Outer Banks and that Sparks’ books are love stories, which was exactly what I was writing.  I did the “lalalalalalala” and put my hands over my ears.  Ok, it’s weird, but I wanted to be sure that I didn’t taint my writing with his story line.

Writing is such a personal thing.  It’s about what’s going on upstairs, in the author’s head, at any given time.  I couldn’t write like Stephen King, because I don’t think like Stephen King  (Who does?).  I hear it in my head and I write it (okay, that is a little freaky–like Stephen King).  And it’s revealing bits of yourself to the world, which is in itself a leap of faith that the world won’t think badly of you.  It’s fun and scary and exhilarating to know that people are out there in the world, reading your words.   But that means you have to write.   Which reminds me–back to work!




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.


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.

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