Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Marriage Made In Common-Cold Heaven

I’ve come to the conclusion that Wal-Marts and video arcades can be hazardous to your health.

On Saturday night (11/7), in an effort to escape the confines of my house for a few hours (and to search for some writing inspiration), I picked up a few household essentials from my neighborhood overseas factory outlet store which took perhaps a half-hour at most.  Maybe it was just my imagination (sounds like a great song title, doesn’t it?), but the store seemed unusually crowded for a Saturday night.  I then proceeded to a local video arcade/sports bar for an hour or two of gaming, watching assorted sporting events on their billboard-sized televisions, and indulging in a couple of glasses of wine.

Everything was good.

The room is nicely equipped with an assortment of old- and new-school games: skee-ball, basketball, auto racing, kill-everything-in-sight video games, a variety of “ball-toss” contests, TV-game-show-based challenges, trivia contests, air hockey, horse-racing, and those impossible-to-win pick-a-prize-and-retrieve-it-if-you-can rip-off machines.

Like the Wal-Mart, the arcade was much more crowded than usual for a Saturday night, and the gaming room was literally wall-to-wall people.  Still, I had a good time, enjoyed a couple of hours of inexpensive fun, and even won a handful of cheapie prizes.  I returned home feeling tired but content.

Fast forward to Tuesday morning: I woke up with the sensation that my throat was on fire.  Knowing most colds require approximately 48 hours to incubate after infection, I didn’t need Marcus Welby to trace the origins of this nightmare-in-the-making back to somebody either at Wal-Mart or the arcade.  Rest assured, I devote several minutes of each day to cursing his/her existence and placing exotic poxes upon his/her house.

It started out as a small spot of inflammation; but by the end of the day, the entire back of my throat cried out for the services of Hook and Ladder Company #1.

By Wednesday, my head felt like a throbbing balloon filled and stretched to the breaking point with scalding hot water.

By Thursday, the invader had marched its way down into my chest, swelling and inflaming everything in its path.  My voice now sounds two octaves lower; my lungs are irritated from intermittent fits of sneezing and coughing; I can’t stay out of bed for more than 20 minutes at a time; my nose bears a striking resemblance to that of a certain legendary reindeer (how appropriate, given the season!); and even brushing my teeth requires a major effort.

What hurts?:
  • Sinuses
  • Head
  • Eyes
  • Teeth
  • Chest
  • Limbs
  • Fingernails
  • Gums
  • Nose
  • Ears (20% of my hearing is gone)
  • Every muscle
  • Hair

As I write this, what I’m dreading the most is the frightening possibility of this malevolent invasion force—bent on occupation and destruction--marauding its way down into my lower GI tract.  I’m already anticipating mass evacuations of the existing population, if you catch my drift.

Oh, the humanity!

But I’m prepared for the worst.  I have a full bottle of Kaopectate at the ready.  However, I’m really hoping that all-out warfare can be averted.  I’m open to a negotiated settlement.  Is Henry Kissinger still around?  Hello, Hilary?  Is John Kerry looking for some side work? 

Thankfully, I have two sources of comfort available to me in this time of trial: chicken soup and tea.

My mother—may she rest in peace—was a lifelong believer in the supernatural healing qualities of chicken soup.  I think she could easily convince even the most hard-boiled scientist that this folksy, old-school elixir was a sure cure for many ailments.

While not exactly the preferred fate of the world’s chickens, they could draw at least some minimal satisfaction in knowing that they sacrificed their lives for the cause of comfort and healing rather than ending up unceremoniously surrounded by biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy, and Cole slaw in some brightly-colored cardboard bucket.

‘Tis a much higher calling, in my humble opinion.

A huge pot of simmering chicken soup was a ubiquitous sight on our kitchen stove.  On those days when she had the time and the energy (or when someone in the family was sick), Mom would boil chicken parts, peel off the meat and painstakingly cut it into bite-sized chunks, slice and add a variety of veggies and produce, add her own special formula of secret herbs and spices (take THAT, Colonel Sanders!), fill it out with two packages of fine egg noodles, and slow-simmer it all for hours. 

That, dear reader, was chicken soup

If homemade was not an option for some reason, the only store-bought alternative she ever served in her kitchen was Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup.  Period.  For some reason—which went to the grave with her—other brands apparently failed to meet her time-tested, old-world standards.

Good for you, Mom.

Tea with lemon and honey was another “comfort food” that dominated my Google search results for cold remedies.  I’ll admit to being an infrequent tea drinker in recent years … and the tea was iced on a majority of those occasions.  While I don’t normally keep honey or lemon on hand, I was relieved to remember that I’d recently bought a box of Lipton Tea Bags for my writing sessions.  I apologize in advance to tea purists everywhere who cringe at the very idea of Lipton Tea.  In my defense, I’d seriously considered Earl Grey as well (as a retired Trekker, I considered that moment of good taste very Jean-Luc Picard of me); but I ultimately decided to go instead with a household name with which I was more familiar.

I thanked the fates for prompting me to pick up those teabags during one of my late-night shopping excursions  

After three minutes in my ancient microwave, the tea was ready for sipping.  The steaming vapors instantly soothed the raw, inflamed flesh at the back of my throat.  I cannot begin to describe the feeling of relief as the mellow, aromatic liquid cascaded down my throat spreading warmth and comfort to those tormented tissues that have been irritated for the better part of a week.

Those precious sips of tea felt sooooooooooooo good! 

For a few wonderful moments, the pain was nearly gone … and the humble cup of hot tea had found itself another fan on this side of the Atlantic.  The relief, of course, was temporary but most welcomed.

I found myself profoundly grateful to the wonderful people of the United Kingdom who—even in their darkest hours—have always steadfastly maintained that any time was a good time for a nice cuppa.

You are so right, my friends.

My eyes are beginning to hurt again from staring at the computer monitor for too long.  I feel a compelling need to get back into bed.  My writing and networking activities will be somewhat curtailed until I finally get this viral monster off my back (and out of my system).  But, first on my agenda will be a hot bowl of chicken soup.  Some time afterward, I’ll again pamper myself with the simple luxury of a soothing cup of tea.

Maybe I’m on to something good here…. 

Ahhh … ahhh … ahhhhhh … ahhhhh … AH CHOO!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What Was The World Coming To?

I was shopping in my local grocery emporium the other day—emptying my wallet in exchange for an armful of unhealthy food—when a near, dear, and familiar sound started to drift amongst the vegetables (no, I'm not referring to myself and the other shoppers; I mean the green stuff they grow on huge farms).

The melancholy, heart-tugging tones of Glen Campbell’s By The Time I Get To Phoenix softly echoed through the store and momentarily brought me back to one of the most turbulent and pivotal times in American history: the late1960s and early1970s.  I chuckled softly to think that the supermarket surrounding me was still a farmer’s field back then. Those days found me easing my way out of grammar school and heading for the “big time” of high school.  Many of the older kids in my neighborhood were heading for Viet Nam and an uncertain fate.

But, many grownups—known collectively then as The Establishment--feared that the country was headed for hell in a hand basket.

As I glanced around the modern, brightly-lit market, it struck me as unbelievable that nearly a half-century had passed since those Days of Rage. 

That’s what truly defined those years: rage. There was plenty to go around.

By the time I got home, my brief stroll down memory lane had taken hold of me.  Although I had planned on spending a few hours getting some productive writing done, my concentration simply wasn’t there.  I meekly surrendered to the urge to drift back through time and space and return (at least in my mind) to those apocalyptic days.  I consoled myself with the possibility that this sojourn might result in an interesting blog post. (I’m still uncertain about that!)

I settled into my comfy old writing chair, opened a bottle of wine, and selected several CDs from my collection.  A Glen Campbell disk was first into the player.

To the plaintive tones of Wichita Lineman, I immediately drifted back to the days of the Goodtime Hour, Campbell’s summer replacement series which later became a hit on its own.  As a teenager, I enjoyed watching him jamming with musical cronies like John Hartford (who wrote Gentle on My Mind and was an accomplished musician in his own right), Mel Tillis, and Jerry Reed.

Most people don’t know that Campbell was a highly-successful session guitarist in Los Angeles before he started singing.

I’m glad he decided to try his hand at vocalizing.

It’s so sad to hear that he is now in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease.  The latest media reports I’ve read indicate that his family has moved him back home from an inpatient care facility.  I don’t expect him to be with us too much longer.  That saddens me tremendously.

His voice--so strong, clean, and expressive in his prime years--poured through my headphones.  The memories of that time so long ago cascaded across my mind like scenes from a treasured old movie.

To the strains of Galveston, I recalled the flood of songs that mirrored the unrest that had been building ever since the first wave of Marines landed on the beach at Da Nang, South Vietnam, in 1965.  President Lyndon Johnson and his supporters blithely labeled them as “military advisers.”

America’s post-World War II optimism was nearly gone.  It had been an era of blind trust and obedience toward so-called “authority figures.”  We readily accepted and embraced the words of the leaders older, better educated, more experienced, and wiser than the rest of us.  After the years of agony and pain of World War II and Korea, our country’s leaders wouldn’t dream of embroiling us in yet another war. 

Would they?

But the times, they were a-changin’.

Plainly, the dark clouds were gathering.  Americans were taking sides—dividing ourselves against ourselves--over this mushrooming conflict in a little-known, obscure little country called Viet Nam.

Optimism was being replaced by fear; trust clouded by doubt; and blind faith supplanted by growing suspicion.

Our music reflected the mounting uneasiness festering on Main Streets in every hamlet of the country and in every American home.  The happy, upbeat bobby-socks-and-malt-shops rock and roll songs of the '50s and '60s were being increasingly overshadowed by protest songs and anti-war anthems.

I listened to Campbell giving such eloquent voice to the thoughts of a soldier serving his tour of duty thousands of miles away: remembering his hometown and his family; remembering the girl he left behind and whether or not she would wait for him; wondering if his next jungle firefight would be his last; and admitting to himself his fear of dying.

The music is perhaps my most vivid memory of that time.  The national unrest—amply fueled by the war and the civil rights movement--provided the singers and songwriters of the era with a mother lode of material.  Many folkies rode the wave of anti-war sentiment to successful careers.  Artists such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, CSNY, Pete Seeger, Jimi Hendrix, CCR, and Peter, Paul, and Mary became household names through their repertoires of protest songs.  To this day, PP&M’s Blowin’ In The Wind and Where Have All The Flowers Gone can still bring back those images of tens of thousands of heartbroken families tearfully gathered at the new gravesides of their fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons who had been killed in jungles on the other side of the world.

Even Kenny Rogers made his feelings known with Ruby, an inconsolable song about a young married veteran returning home to his wife and facing the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Television played an epic role in the national debate as well.  Viet Nam was the first war to be brought directly into the nation’s living rooms in bright, pastel living color.  Daily and weekly body counts became staples of the evening network newscasts as anchors like Walter Cronkite withheld few details about what was happening on the other side of the world.

Advocates of both hawk and dove ideologies waved bombs and olive branches as they exhorted Americans to support either President Lyndon Johnson or the cause for peace.  You were left with little choice but to take sides; there was little room in the middle.

The war, the generals, the politicians, the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, and those who supported them were lampooned weekly by television shows such as Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  The network censors probably lost their collective sanity in struggling to sanitize the program content sufficiently for prime-time audiences.  These shows—and others like them—made for great nighttime entertainment, but only masked the contradiction, heartache, tragedy, loss, and rage that blew in the wind down every street in America like the answer nobody seemed capable of finding. 

Everybody was angry … and that rage manifested itself in a million obvious and subtle ways.

Many of the nation’s young men were angry (and terrified) at the specter of being drafted and shipped off to Viet Nam to become fodder for the meat-grinder that grew more insatiable with each passing month.  Economically-disadvantaged inner city neighborhoods seethed—and then burned—with anger over the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The entire nation—continuing to bleed from the wounds inflicted by the still-unresolved events of November 22nd, 1963--joined them in retching over the televised, senseless murder of Robert Kennedy. 

Serenaded by chants of “the whole world is watching,” the entire world indeed witnessed the hand-to-hand combat between anti-war/anti-politician protesters and the overwhelmed Chicago police that took place on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.  Gasps of horror could be heard as the street warfare abruptly shoved the convention into the background and took center stage before the eyes of the world.  As a result, decades would pass before the Windy City would again be entrusted with a major political convention.

The politicians stood indignantly before the television cameras and blamed the protesters; the protesters stood indignantly before the television cameras and blamed the politicians.  Nobody won.  Stalemate.  Meanwhile, the American tapestry was being publicly torn apart.

Strolling past the area nearly fifty years later, one is hard-pressed to even envision the mayhem that rocked a now pastoral and peaceful Grant Park.

But the times, they were a-changin’.

My thoughts drifted back to my childhood friends from the old neighborhood.  Back in those days, everybody on the block knew everybody else, and all the neighborhood kids played together freely.  One of my closest friends had an older brother—a “hoodlum” was the term they used back then—who was of prime draft age.  Recalling him now, he reminds me a great deal of Fonzie, the black-leather-jacket-tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold from TV’s Happy Days.  I poured another glass of wine and bid him a whispered tribute.  He now rests in a soldier’s grave, just another kid who got sent to ‘Nam and didn’t make it back alive.  Unfortunately, he had plenty of company.

The next CD in the player was a Peter, Paul, and Mary collection. 

Overwhelmed by the opposing forces battering him on all sides, the Johnson Presidency finally limped to a merciful conclusion.  In many quarters, his departure from the highest office in the land was celebrated as George W. Bush’s would be in 2008.

America had had enough of Lyndon Johnson … and Viet Nam. 

Americans embraced the slender ribbon of hope embodied by Richard Nixon.  But that delicate fabric was ripped apart in 1970 when the new President announced the invasion of Cambodia and the resulting call-up of tens of thousands of additional soldiers.  Mere weeks later, a confrontation between student protesters and Ohio National Guard troops at Kent State University resulted in the appalling shooting of several students.  The resulting photograph has become an icon of the fury and horror that marked that era.

The war’s death toll continued to escalate.  The anti-war protests and demonstrations continued to escalate.  Popular opposition to Nixon’s policies continued to escalate.  The tornado of public animosity caused Richard Nixon’s paranoia to escalate as well.  He publicly railed at a perceived lack of popular support and of being pushed into a political corner.  But the American people were weary and angrily demanding a path out of the national darkness. 

Quietly, behind the scenes, a few delicate rays of light began to part the clouds.

I remember my parents and I gathering around the small television in our living room and watching the draft lottery decide the fate (mine included) of thousands of young men one fateful evening.  The sigh of relief that rose between the three of us was clearly audible when my birthday was selected just high enough to likely spare me from Viet Nam.

The words, “Peace is at hand,” began to appear in the newspapers and on the evening newscasts.

The final CD of this nostalgic afternoon was a 1970s rock and roll anthology.

By then, music had become firmly entrenched in its psychedelic phase, spearheaded by the Beatles and their assorted dabblings.  John, Paul, Ringo, and George were strictly verboten in my father’s house for he despised them with every fiber of his being.  It wouldn’t surprise me if similar prohibitions had been imposed by other bewildered parents as well.

Very few rock and roll bands managed to evoke parental disgust like the Beatles.  What the hell was this world coming to?  Millions of American parents were horrified to find their kids mesmerized by four English guys with electric guitars, drums, drugs, long, bushy hair, mustaches, screaming vocals, and lyrics like yeah, yeah, yeah.  To The Establishment (and when was the last time you heard that word?), the Fab Four must’ve seemed akin to outer space aliens.  As a result, any phonograph or tape deck I purchased would feature a headphone jack enabling me to enjoy my music fix in enemy territory.

After all, when you need to listen to Let It Be or The Long and Winding Road or I Wanna Hold Your Hand or Twist and Shout or I Saw Her Standing There, you need to listen.  Period.  There are certain inalienable rights.

(Trivia questions: what the hell was a phonograph? What the hell was a tape deck?)

I recall my parents visibly convulsing at the music produced by bands with names they considered nothing short of insane: Zombies, Kinks, Blue Magoos, Rolling Stones, Troggs, Steppenwolf, Grand Funk Railroad, Hollies, Grass Roots, Cryin’ Shames, Procol Harum, Lovin’ Spoonful, Three Dog Night, Vanilla Fudge, etc.

Yeah, the times they were a-changin’.

The last CD having been played, I drank one wistful final toast to that brief moment in history and switched the player off.  It was time to return to November of 2015.

It disturbs me to realize that—for many of today’s Americans—this moment in time is nothing more than a footnote or perhaps a chapter in a history book.  For those of us who were there and lived through it, it was significant; it was major; it was a cataclysmic moment in American history.  However, I also sincerely hope that we will never pass that way again.

I do find it somewhat amusing that many of the '60s protest leaders have ultimately embraced very conventional and capitalistic careers.  Perhaps a philosophy of “Now that you’ve beaten ‘em, it's okay to join ‘em” has prevailed.  Perhaps protest marches and demonstrations simply don’t pay the bills these days.

There is still an ample supply of societal issues to protest as we approach 2016: global warming, corporate corruption, pollution, taxes, animal abuse, domestic violence, gun control, child abuse, police and community relations (shades of 1968!), political corruption, privacy, human trafficking, and the list goes on ad nauseam.  There are, of course, demonstrations taking place these days, but they pale by comparison to the coast-to-coast passion and rage that filled the air (along with tear gas) in the late 1960s.

Are we all getting older?  Wiser?  Maybe a bit complacent? 


Would you mind if I considered those profound possibilities AFTER I check my email and run out for a cup of coffee?


Sunday, November 1, 2015

What Are You Doing Here?

Whether I’m writing a full-length novel, a short story, or any other work of fiction, there’s a question I ask of every character I introduce: What are you doing here?

If your characters don’t “earn their keep” on the pages, then they have no business being there in the first place.  They’re occupying valuable words and page space that could otherwise be devoted to additional dialogue, narrative, action, or more deserving characters.

And what does “earn their keep” entail?  That can be answered several ways.

Within the realm of principal characters (in “Child of Privilege,” that would include Dana, Richard, Maggie, Angelo, and Reavis), this judgment is a no-brainer.  Can they carry their weight?  Do they possess the depth of character, the personality, the strength, and the literary texture to carry their assigned story elements and retain the reader’s interest?  Do they have the flexibility to go with the flow and evolve along with the storyline and the suspense arc? (No suspense arc in your story?  You’ve got REAL trouble.)   Do they have literary muscle?  And most importantly: Do they have the legs to run the marathon that is a full-length novel?

If not, the author has a problem ... a major one.

A writer’s lifeline to the audience is the emotional tie that develops between characters and readers.  That lifeline doesn’t necessarily need to be amiable either.  Remember the worldwide buzz created by the late Larry Hagman’s skin-crawling portrayal of the psychotic oil baron J.R. Ewing on the Dallas primetime soap?  There isn’t a villain in the history of literature that wouldn’t be tickled pink to command the kind of following that ol’ J.R. enjoyed.

It is critically important that each principal character develop some sort of emotional relationship with readers.  The basis of that relationship can run the gamut of human feelings: sympathy (Dana), anger (Maggie), hatred (Richard), encouragement (Greg), disgust (Reavis), and perhaps forgiveness (Angelo).  Whatever the nature of that connection, it must be strong, evolving, and palpable to the reader.  Otherwise, that character comes across as hollow, unsatisfying, and shallow.  Every other element of your novel—no matter how well-crafted—will suffer by association.

And the author has some work to do.

In my humble opinion, dear reader, two factors keep the downloads downloading, the pages turning, and the books moving off the shelf: relatable characters (in a lovable OR detestable sense), and a plot with more unexpected twists and turns than a politician’s opinions during an election year.

If your characters don’t cut the emotional mustard with the readers, the most dizzying storyline in literary history won’t propel your novel to success.  There will always be something lacking.  It’s like trying to drive a Rolls-Royce with a lawnmower engine; it just ain’t gonna happen.

Plus, your reviewers will slice-and-dice you more effectively than a Veg-O-Matic ever could.

For a novel of its length (approximately 96,000 words), Child of Privilege is fairly well-populated.  Aside from the principal players, the supporting cast is considerable:

·        Wanda (the vulgar woman on the bus);

·        Red, the lecherous good ol' boy club owner;

·        Deputy Sheriff Barnett;

·        The deputy at the Summertree County Jail;

·        The abusive woman (and her battered child) at the carnival;

·        Annie the waitress at the Junction Cafe;

·        Greg Parmenter;

·        And the other detectives who relentlessly hound Dana.

As you read the book (and I really hope you will), you’ll find the supporting players—regardless of their roles’ importance--adding his/her own unique flavor to the stew.  Each is important; each contributes to the reader’s pleasure (hopefully) in reading the novel.  Each has proven to me that he or she belongs there and is necessary for the effective telling of the story.  If not, trust me, they would’ve been cut long before the novel ever appeared on Amazon’s digital bookshelf.

For example, the “Wanda” character has significant action and dialogue for only a single chapter.  Yet, SHE altered our heroine’s trajectory in the overall storyline.  It was HER evil deed that compelled Dana to appear in the wet t-shirt contest at Red’s honky-tonk. 

(I’m intentionally omitting something here to pique your curiosity a little.)

THAT, as a result, got Dana arrested and unceremoniously ushered into a County Jail cell.

THAT, in turn, caused her to be turned over to the reptilian detective Reavis Macklin.

(I’m intentionally omitting something else here to pique your curiosity a little more.)

THAT eventually resulted in Dana’s arrival in Beckett Junction and her less-than-fairytale introduction to Greg Parmenter.

(I’m intentionally omitting a lot more here to pique your curiosity even further.  Read the book to find out what!)

Think about the wide-ranging chain of events triggered by one minor character with a one-chapter role.  Your supporting cast--if they are well-developed and strong enough to convincingly execute their individual subplots--can add incredible depth and richness to your novel.  Their effectiveness can add additional layers of believability and connection to themselves, the main characters, and the story as a whole.  Don’t hesitate to carefully formulate them and include them in the story ... but always use wisdom and good judgment.

I’ve always believed that characters are introduced into a novel to serve one of two purposes: to interact with a situation; or to interact with another character.  If they do neither, ask yourself why they’re there at all.  The more the merrier shouldn’t apply to the business of characters in fiction writing.  Too many actors clutter the stage and distract audience attention from those who are truly earning their keep and deepening your story’s reader connection.  Perhaps less is more would be a more beneficial guideline.

I use a standard series of questions to guide me when dealing with the sticky issue of character creation.

Does a character deliver meaningful dialogue or perform a critical action at a decisive juncture of the story?  Does he/she assist another actor in terms of plot movement or character development?  Does he/she harm, injure, or impair another actor?  Is he/she a danger to him/herself ... or to another?  Or is he/she perhaps a savior or benefactor to another?

Finally, the DECIDING question: Would the work be as effective without this character?

The answers to these questions usually decide the character’s fate for me: either doomed to the netherworld of my word processor’s CUT function; or included in the manuscript file to live another day ... or at least until the next editing pass.

But don’t spend too much time mourning for the dearly-departed actor.  You’ll probably write many other novels needing other characters for other purposes.  Besides, coming back from the dead is always an option.  In the limitless dream-world of entertainment, resurrection is neither impossible nor uncommon.

It worked for Bobby Ewing on Dallas, didn’t it?