Monday, June 24, 2013

The Crossword Connection

I've come to enjoy Father's Day in the ten years it has pertained specifically to me.  My wife does her best to spoil me (though, to be honest, I feel spoiled on most days), and this year was no different.  The kids always scrawl me out a couple of loving cards, and I get one big, pampering gift, and one small, tongue-in-cheek gift.

This year it was a 90-minute massage and a nose hair trimmer, respectively.  In addition, however, Jeanette got me The New York Times Will Shortz Presents Every Day with Crosswords: 365 Days of Easy to Hard Puzzles.   She got me this particular gift, because she remembers a time, early in our relationship, where crossword puzzles, from the New York Times could often be found on the various night-stands and coffee tables of our world.

My wife also knows that crossword puzzles -- like chess, which I've described in a previous post -- hold a special place in my family history, because my father was a prodigious puzzler himself.  In fact, when I picture him, I see him sitting in a golden yellow upholstered easy chair, with the Times on a clipboard in one hand, and a pen (always a pen and NEVER a pencil, which I still adhere to) in the other, his scotch and water sweating in a glass on the side table.

He's looking over his reading glasses when I picture him this way, smiling, the lines above his cheekbones deepening, as they always did.  He'd probably rather be working on the puzzle than entertaining whatever it is I've interrupted him for, but he rarely, if ever, expressed any exasperation about having to put the clipboard down in his lap to address my issue.

I can't remember whether or not I was resentful of the time my dad spent with his crossword puzzles.  To be fair, he was quick -- much quicker than I -- in solving them, so that time was probably negligible.  Because I myself enjoy puzzling now, I of course get that this was his private time when he could tune us and our constant squabbles out and just enjoy his puzzle.  (Not to mention his cocktail.)  Like Hanno, I am a hard-working father of two energetic and mostly happy boys, doing my best to help them along.  I now understand that means that my father, like me, and like every parent who fits the description, actually worked two jobs, and the one for which he got paid was definitely the easier of the two.

So this break, this brief respite or reprieve from the job of being a parent, is something my father appreciated deeply.  I appreciate it, too, and this gift from my wife, shows her appreciation of it, as well.  For this I thank her, more, probably, than she'll ever know.
The author getting ready to delve into a morning crossword.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Heft is a Novel That Lingers

HeftHeft by Liz Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You know you're in the middle of a good book when you find yourself wondering about the characters when you're not reading it.  I did this constantly with Heft.  Just as you think of a friend or lover who has left you after a pleasant evening of the kind of togetherness that reminds you of why they are special, and that makes you feel blessed, this book lingers.

One could argue Heft is a story about loss, despair, and sadness. Undeniably, these are central aspects to the novel.  However, I came away feeling a wonderful lightness -- ironic, when you look at the title.  It's an extremely hopeful book, in the end, about all the ways we continue to live and to love, even in the face of gut-wrenching loss.

There's some lovely writing by Liz Moore, who has managed, at a tender age, to speak in the voices of not one but two flawed and believable characters.  Here, Arthur Opp, over 500 pounds, and lonely in the Park Slope brownstone where he grew up and now lives by himself, at age 59, describes a very particular brand of empathy:

"Here is what I have always thought:  that people, when they eat, are very dear.  The eager lips, the flapping jaws, the trembling release of control -- the guilty glances at one's companions or at strangers.  The focus, the great focus of eating.  The pleasure in it."

Not only is the writing simple and sharp, but the thought is unique, and helps us know Arthur deeply.

The other narrator is an 18 year-old baseball player who is struggling with a loss that fills him with ambivalent emotions.  He comes to a realization that frankly stunned me.  He is 18 and the author who created him is not much older; together, they express an understanding that I came to only recently at a slightly more advanced age.  (Let's just leave it at that.)

"I feel like people are only really dead once you stop learning about them.  This is why it is important to me to keep learning about my mother, and what she wanted, and what her life meant, what she meant by the life she led.  Then she will be alive, somehow, and her wish for me will have come true.  My vow is to learn more about her.  To see her as she saw herself."

I'm excited about Liz Moore.  Hers is the kind of writing that endures, because it is straightforward and moves us, because its characters, and the lives they lead, the emotions they feel, go directly to our hearts, with a pinpoint accuracy that astonishes.  To say I look forward to her next effort is putting it (pardon the pun) lightly.

View all my reviews

Thursday, June 20, 2013

I've Got An Eight-Track Mind

Smells trigger memory.  So does the weather.  In my case, as I've discussed in a previous post, dull, repetitive menial tasks do it, too.  I'd call the phenomenon "Proustian," but that would be pretentious and would suggest that I have managed to get through Remembrances of Times Past, something I have not been able to do up to this point in my life. 

One of the greatest memory triggers for me, and for many, I've heard, is music.  Anything by Paul McCartney and Wings, for example, takes me right back to Rocky Ledge, the swim club where we spent our summer days when I was a pre-teen, and where I fell in love on a daily basis, with girls in bikinis who never even knew I was there. 

I've taken to using the Shazam app when I am driving to and from work, in order to capture songs I either like or connect with, for whatever reason.  Okay, it's also to show off, since I know the songs I tag will automatically post on my Facebook page.  I like to imagine people seeing what I'm listening to and thinking, "Wow, that Dan sure does have an eclectic music sense!" 

The other day Dionne Warwick's rendition of Burt Bacharach and Hal Davis's "Walk on By" came on KUTX -- our public radio station here in Austin.  It hit me like the proverbial bullet in the brain, and I was in our living room on Hartford Lane, dozing in my father's lap, staring out the pre-dawn bay window, hearing the "Ca-CHUNK-click" of the eight-track stereo cassette player, switching tracks. 

I'm sure my dad had lots of 8 track tapes, but the three I remember best are Dionne Warwick, A Partridge Family Christmas, and Simon and Garfunkel.  The latter is the only one of these three that I currently own on MP3.  Everyone I know who remembers 8 track, does so fondly, with a glint in their eye.  It's so archaic now, of course, along the same lines as the CB radio.  But for me, it's a joyful, warm memory, and I may very well have to get myself some Dionne Warwick/Burt Bacharach for my iPod some time soon.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Little Big Chat

A recent staring contest between the author (left) and young Jackson Fuchs, age 8.  Winner uncertain.
I'm not a big fan of the "Kids-say-the-darnedest-things" branch of literature.  It gives rise to, in my opinion, the precious and smarmy.  Despite my feelings on the genre, however, there are times that one or the other of my sons come out with things that I must make sure and write down.  This is one of those times.

"Daddy?" Jackson said, the ellipsis hanging invisibly in the air between us.

"Yes, son?"

"Will I look very different when I'm a grown-up?"  He was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, and had just finished brushing his teeth before bed.

"You will," I answered definitively.  "You'll certainly always recognize yourself, but you'll change, too.  You'll get a lot hairier, for one thing."

He then ran to where I was waiting for him in the hallway and threw his arms around me.

"Oh, Daddy," he said, full of emotion.  "I wish you could live forever."

I realized then, returning his embrace, that this was more a conversation about mortality than appearance.  We have these little big chats every now and again.  I've come to accept that when you've got a grandfather you've never met, you are going to have these questions.  He must empathize with me on some level.

"I'll always be with you, son," I tell him.

"I know, Daddy.  Right here," he says, touching his chest where he thinks his heart is.  It's what we always say -- the classic Mufasa-Simba conversation.

But I can tell it's not the same.  He'd like us to be together forever.  I know that in a few years he'll feel differently, so I soak in this unabashed love.

As Jerry Seinfeld said in a recent stand-up routine, "Our children are here for one basic purpose:  to replace us."  All I can do is continue to shower these two people with all the love I can.  In this way, I'll "replace" myself with two young people who know how important it is to be kind and to love, and to leave the world a better place for your having lived in it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Great Day for Frogs

Our backyard play scape in the morning rain
"Look at that rain!" I say, noticing it after helping the boys get dressed for their second day of Raider Baseball Camp.  "Oh well, it's a great day for frogs."

It's one of those things I say a lot.  One of those Dad Things.  I'm not sure where I got the phrase; must've heard it somewhere.  It's one of those things the boys roll their eyes at -- like when we're at our favorite Chinese restaurant, Happy Dragon in Round Rock, and I draw their attention to the string-heavy traditional music playing on a loop and say, "Hey, do you guys like this song?  I wrote this."  They pretend to be pained by my corny jokes, but their vague smiles suggest they will one day be nostalgic about it, just as I am with my own brother about the many, many phrases, quips and bad jokes our father repeated through the years.

Any way you classify this weather, it signifies a rain out -- a re-thinking of plans.  A re-boot of our day.  Jeanette has already left for work, and it is a Guys' Day.  The boys immediately go for their Nooks, and begin constructing houses that will keep them safe from the zombies who creep around the perimeters of their virtual homesteads.

Jackson and Diego playing Minecraft on a rainy morning in June
I grab my tablet and get back into the novel I'm currently reading, until I feel a pleasant sleepiness come over me.  I put the device face down on my chest, the way I used to leave an open book there when I'd get drowsy.  Then I nap, until one of the boys comes in to show me the houseboat they've been working on, and ask me about going to the movies.

I get on the computer and buy e-tickets for the 11 o'clock matinee of Man of Steel.

It's all great stuff.  I'm not a troglodyte who pines for the days before there was this level of technology. I will say, though, that I grew up in a place and time that found me often out in the rain.  My friends and I were explorers, and we were lucky to be surrounded by acres of relatively pristine land.  When I think back on childhood rainy days, I feel the cool droplets on my skin, and I smell the earth, replete with wildlife.  Earthworms were the most obvious, but we also saw salamanders, moles, chipmunks, and yes, frogs.  Lots of them.

Maybe that's where I got that from.  Hmm.  I am feeling somewhat inspired to take the boys out on a nature walk somewhere.  Perhaps I'll do that.  After the movie.  Go out on a trail, in search of some frogs.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The New Gorilla: How to Make a Feature Film for Under 25K by James Savoca: An Intimate Sit-down with (and Kick in the Ass from) One Who Knows

I really could’ve used this book.  Back when I was a young man who entertained that glimmer of a thought to be the Next Big Thing in Filmmaking.  Like Savoca, I am a lover of film; we share many of the same influences – Cassavetes, Scorsese, The French New Wave. 

Unlike Savoca, I failed to do the work necessary to make a film happen.  And that’s essentially what The New Gorilla is about:  the WORK.  Yes, the title does suggest a “bottom-line” financial approach, and Savoca does discuss the ins and outs of the business side of making your first film.  I’d argue, however, that the real message to be taken away here is simple (“keep it simple, stupid,” as he says on numerous occasions):  DO THE WORK.

Savoca himself is very much present in the book.  He is the voice in the reader’s ear, reminding him or her, again and again, to stick with it, to keep going.  I had the impression at one point that Savoca was in the room with me, encouraging me and not letting me settle for mediocrity.  In this way, The New Gorilla is intimate.  Yes, the conversation is one-way, but Savoca has been there, and he knows the questions that dog the mind of aspiring filmmakers who fight that nagging voice inside their heads. 

A play, I’m guessing, on the French word guerilla (warrior), the “Gorilla” of the title is that unstoppable force that will get this film made by doing the work and never veering from the path set out by Savoca.  The author goes to great pains never to be the distant intellectual.  His voice is real; he’s your uncle, not the Dean of the Visual Arts department at your university.  He is nudging you – not always gently.

In one interesting turn, Savoca acknowledges that filmmaking has become totally and completely democratic.  You, the reader, the prospective filmmaker, have every right – even, he suggests, the right to suck, as he defends his argument about the importance of going step by step when laying the foundations of your film.  Here, he responds to that imaginary impatient reader, who’d rather just skip the preliminary steps and jump right into writing the screenplay: 

You can just begin to write your awful script at your desk anytime you like.  I say awful because it will be complete garbage if this is the route you decide to take.

The New Gorilla is not for the faint of heart.  You’ll get no-nonsense advice like this throughout.  But if you’re someone who is serious about breaking into film in this world of sometimes confusing new media, it’s worth it.  Savoca’s experience as both a filmmaker and teacher of filmmaking give him the authority to kick his readers in the pants now and again.  He’s been through the fires and has come out with films that are uniquely his and true to his vision. 

If being able to make films that are uniquely yours, true to your vision and cost-effective is an idea that appeals to you, then this is the book for you, as they say.  Just be ready for the occasional good kick in the ass and constant reminders to do the work it takes to get there.

In Savoca’s own words, “Don’t just try.  Succeed.”  Buying The New Gorilla would be an excellent first step towards that success.  

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Twenty Years

Twenty years ago, I made a choice to become a long-term substitute teacher at Satellite Academy High School, where my college friend, Sonia Murrow, taught at the time.  In making the decision to accept that job, I sent my life on a certain trajectory, moving away from the path of material wealth, and towards a more modest existence.

But I also joined the ranks of the Truly Fulfilled.  We walk with a lighter step, and we sleep a more peaceful sleep.  You can see it in our faces; when we come home at night, after a difficult day at work, there's a "lightness" about us that comes from knowing we've helped another person, despite the sometimes considerable challenges it may have entailed.

I tried my hand at a potentially more lucrative position, in a different line of work, just about midway through my career.  That lasted all of about two weeks, I'd say.  I knew almost immediately that selling things to other people was something I wouldn't be very good at, and I couldn't get used to the heaviness I felt at the end of the day -- a weight to which I was unaccustomed.

I'm a buttoned-down administrator now, bald and gray-bearded.  "Seasoned" is the euphemism we tend to use in education.  I've landed at a school I love, and although the days are sometimes stressful, and people, being people, are imperfect and annoying at times, I've finished my twentieth school year filled with the same sense of purpose, and the same lightness, as ever.

To all those of you who read this with whom I've crossed paths in those twenty years -- as your teacher, co-worker, supervisor, teacher of your kid, or friend -- thank you.  Thank you for being a part of my life, and for making these twenty years so special.

Here's to the next twenty!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Reports of Reading's Death Have Been Highly Exaggerated

Years ago, as I was having lunch with one of those few elders who I consider my true "mentors," she made what I thought was an unexpected observation.  She was in New York only briefly, stopping to work with a set of schools in peril, before moving on to Philadelphia or Jerusalem, or wherever her next gig was.  

"I love riding the subway when I come to New York," she said, her eyes wide with wonder, "because it restores my faith in humanity!"

"Really?" I said, nearly choking on my salad.  "I can't say I've ever heard anyone say that before."

"Because there's so much reading going on!  Despite what all the spoiled-sports are saying about the so-called 'death' of reading."

Pleased with her observation, she chortled her rather awkward giggle and went about eating her meal.  

It was one of those observations that stuck with me.  On my way home to Brooklyn that afternoon, I did my usual people-watching, this time with the specific purpose of verifying, or debunking, my friend's thesis regarding reading.  There were the usual sleepers, bee-boppers and gamers.  But there were, indeed, a good number of people with their noses pressed into books, newspapers and Kindles.  They were reading a great variety of materials -- from the Bible to comic books --  and I have to admit that, like my mentor, I was heartened by the realization that reading was in fact alive and well and living underground in New York City.

That subway ride occurred back in the days when you knew a Kindle when you saw one, and you knew that a Kindle meant the person was reading something.  I'm sure that if I visited the F train today, I'd see fewer print and more devices.  The Kindles might be playing music or movies, and people might be reading books on their iPhones.  The data might be more difficult to gather now, but I'll bet you dollars to donuts, or iBooks to Tablets, that many of them are indeed reading something.

Now I am about 1,800 miles away from the nearest New York subway station, but if I want to be reminded of the fact that reading is alive and well, I need only open my gmail account and look at all the updates Goodreads automatically sends me, via Facebook.  Many of my Facebook friends are voracious readers (you know who you are) and this app makes me instantaneously aware that they have read, made progress in, or reviewed a new book.  

Now I know there's someone out there reading this blogpost (reading again) who knows a lot more about publishing than I do.  If you've got your eye on the balance sheet and are watching for industry numbers, then you could probably tell me that Publishing (capital P) is in the red.  

Be that as it may, Sally Brown (as another mentor used to say), I am, as always, an optimist, and yes there really is "a lot of reading going on."  And to my English teacher friends whose hearts drop every time a young person groans at the novels you assign -- do what I used to do:  Put your hands in the air like an orchestra conductor and make a big show of it.  Here's the script: (don't forget the hands in the air part) 

Ah, yes.  Because you are teenagers, you must groan at the prospect of reading a WHOLE BOOK.  But that was some of the most pathetic groaning I've ever heard.  Now when I give you the signal, I want you to groan so loudly that the principal will hear you in his office.  Ready?  1, 2, 3, [conductor hands for duration of groaning; then "cut" groaning with conductor hands.]

Much better.  And now that you've got that out of your system . . . START READING.

They're teenagers and it's their job to resist stuff like reading.  Once you give them the right to have the reaction, they can actually read (and ENJOY) great literature.  Just be that crazy lover of words.  They'll thank you for it one day.  And they may even read your book on the subway.  And post their review on Goodreads.  

Who knows?

Friday, June 7, 2013

Getting the Call-Up

For whatever the reason, Jeanette and I were slow in getting our boys signed up for Little League baseball this year.  By the time we finally got it together and made our way over to East Metro Park in our town of Manor, we had missed one practice.  Not so bad.  Unfortunately, the "kid pitch" team of kids Diego's age had already filled up, so his only option was to be on the same team with his little brother, Jackson.  "Coach pitch" was a step down for Diego, but, to his credit, he took it in stride.

Needless to say, I benefited from the arrangement -- in my role as chauffeur, I had only one stop to make on game and practice days.  Last year, when Diego was on the Manor Red Sox, and Jackson was a Manor Hellcat, it was not unusual for me to be expected to be in two places at once.  Somehow my wife and I made it work, but it wasn't easy.  So for Mom and Dad, this new deal was a cake-walk.

Statistically, Diego thrived among the younger kids.  He hit the ball hard, and ran fast, and he made some good plays in the field.  Sitting on the sidelines in my folding chair, my heart always swelled when my son came up and I heard the opposing coaches yell to their fielders, "Move back! Big hitter! Look alive!"

As for Diego, he was his usual nonchalant self, playing off the cheers and pats on the helmet as he made his way back into the dugout after hitting a home run.  He never got too up when he did well, and he tried to hide his disappointment when he didn't.

After the last game of the season, one of his coaches asked me if Diego would be interested in playing in a post-season tournament with other boys his age.  His eyes lit up, and he said "Kid pitch?"

Now we're back to two separate schedules, as Jackson is also playing the tournament for his age group.  It's worked out well so far, with their practices being at the same time, on adjacent fields.  I'll spend some time watching and encouraging one boy, then swiveling over to do the same for the other.

Suddenly, Diego is no longer the biggest or most confident boy on his team.  The coaches are more seasoned and work them harder than he's been used to.  As always, he's taking it in stride, and I'm careful to check in with him, and make sure he's still feeling good about baseball.  So far, he's playing his cards close to his vest, which is kind of how he lives his life as a whole.  He says it's fine, and that he's getting used to it.

My tendency is to want to protect him, but I have to remind myself that life is a series of challenges.  Sports mirrors life in this way.  There is no greater feeling than thinking you can't accomplish something when you first look at it, and then going ahead and overcoming what you thought you couldn't overcome.

Whether Diego puts up good numbers or not, he'll learn something about himself as he faces the challenge of this call-up.  I suppose that as his father, it falls on me to be there for him, in whatever way he needs me to be, regardless of how he does -- in this circumstance, and all others.