Friday, January 29, 2010

When you reach Palodes, take care to proclaim that the great god J. D. Salinger is dead

Reclusive author J.D. Salinger died this week at age 91.

I think I read Salinger's Catcher in the Rye when I was in junior high school. So my memory about the plot is dim at best. I know it involved a character named Holden Caulfield who was kicked out of prep school and then spends a few days wandering around New York City drinking and cavorting with hookers. I remember being impressed that our teachers were letting us read a book that had swear words and prostitutes in it. But that is about all.

Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, about 7 years before I was born. So I don't really remember relating to its reported themes of teenaged rebellion and alienation that has kept it a hot seller even now. And since I grew up in Boise, I also couldn't relate to the narrator's experience in New York City. The Big Apple and the Famous Potato have very little in common.

In one sense, I have always put Catcher in the Rye in the same category as Moby Dick. You read them because they are assigned by an English teacher rather than because you have a burning desire to immerse yourself in teenaged angst or religious allegory.

Though some people obviously are obsessed with Catcher in the Rye. Mark David Chapman (may he rot in hell) said the book contained the message that led him to murder John Lennon. John Hinckley, Jr. used it as one justification (in addition to trying to impress Jodi Foster) for shooting Ronald Reagan. And George Bush senior said the book was a major inspiration to him.

None of these testimonials really sell the book to me.

I think what fascinates me about J.D. Salinger is that he became an author boasting that he was going to write the great American novel and become famous. When he actually did, instead of basking in the limelight, he went "Oh, shit, what have I done." Then he bought a 90-acre estate, built a tall fence and spent the rest of his life peeking out from behind drawn shades.

I didn't even know J.D. Salinger was a recluse until I read the book, Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella. The book was made into the film, Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner. In both the book and the film, the main character hears voices telling him to build a baseball field in the corn field's of his Iowa farm. When he does, the ghosts of baseball greats including Shoeless Joe Jackson come to play every night. The voice then tells him to kidnap a reclusive writer in New York City and bring him to watch the games played in the ghostly ball field. The author kidnapped in the book version was J.D. Salinger. The movie version copped out and changed him to a fictional reclusive author played by the voice of Darth Vader, James Earl Jones. I assumed J.D. Salinger threatened a law suit if they portrayed him in the movie version.

I find it ironic that Salinger's obsessive desire to avoid media attention actually kept him elevated as someone the media wanted to focus on. If he had just been open to media attention, they probably would have forgotten him.

I too, used to boast that I was going to write the great American novel. Then life happened and here I am blogging with 10 million other invisible writer's trying to be heard. And from my perspective, achieving a little bit of Salinger's fame wouldn't have been such a bad thing. At least he could afford a 90-acre estate and sit back and survive on his book royalties.

At this point, I don't think I could pull off a novel that captured the teenaged angst market. And you can't swing a dead cat without hitting some plot that exploits middle-aged men lamenting some life path they wandered off from. So if I'm ever going to achieve any level of fame I'm going to have to hurry up and find a niche writing market that isn't oversaturated. And again, judging by the interest in my blog post about how happy clams really are, maybe I should crank out a novel about the Secret Life of Clams.

But I digress.

Anyway, regardless of his odd reclusive nature, J.D. Salinger sparked the imagination of millions of readers over the years. I hope that in the afterlife he finds himself in that field of rye playing life guard to keep children from falling over a cliff (you'd have to read Catcher in the Rye to get this reference). Rest in peace Mr. Salinger.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bow and arrow

I was sitting at our dining room table last weekend staring out the sliding glass door at our backyard when a very large crow flew down and began picking at god knows what. I was a bit annoyed because I'd noticed that the crows had been leaving droppings on the lawn. My one-year old son had tried picking one up the other day. For a instant, I toyed with opening the door and tossing a rock at the crow, but then I got a flashback to a moment out of my childhood that I was never proud of.

I grew up in Boise in a time and culture vastly different from the one my children are growing up in. My brother's and I were given pretty much free rein when we played. We climbed trees, threw rocks, had mock sword fights with ominously sharp wooden swords, plinked away with BB guns and even practiced archery with fairly blunt but deadline practise arrows.

I cannot even imagine a time that my wife would entertain the thought of turning either of our children lose with anything resembling a weapon let alone freely providing them with something as potentially lethal as a bow and arrows. Regardless I wiled away many a summer's day launching arrows at cardboard targets or stupidly pointing the bow skyward and marveling at how the arrows shrieked to the sky only to be seized by gravity and shriek equally as fast to the ground dangerously near my feet.

On one lazy summer day, I spied a flock of sparrow's dining innocently but noisily in our backyard on the seeds of crabgrass. And, as is the custom of young country boys and humans in general, I thought it would be funny to frighten the small creatures. I picked up my bow and arrow and sneaked up from the side of the house, notching an arrow onto the bow string. It never occurred to me that I would ever hit anything as small as a sparrow. After all, I rarely could hit a car tire sized cardboard target. My aim was to only plant the arrow into the ground near the sparrows and send them screeching off into the lilacs surrounding our yard.

I took aim and released the arrow. I flew true to the flock of sparrows and landed in their midst. As expected, they flew terrified from the spot. All, that is, except for the one I'd hit with my arrow.

I watched stunned as the bird lay at my foot gasping it's last breath as it stared at me with terror that glazed quickly over into death. The gravity of what I had done punched me in the stomach as I knelt to pick up the battered little body. I had taken a life.

Despite my fascination with BB guns and bows, I was not a hunter. I loved animals and birds. And even though I grew up in farm country, I had never developed the mindset that farmers and their children do about dispatching life stock in a matter of fact manner. Other than dispatching a few trash fish we caught while fishing in Lucky Peak Reservoir, I had never killed an animal or bird. And even killing the fish left me feeling hollow and guilty.

Being raised fairly religious, I tried praying over the dead bird, hoping that god would see fit to reverse my sin. The bird remained lifeless and glassy eyed in my cupped hands. It then dawned on me that I was the only one who knew about my assassination of the bird. I looked furtively over my should and then ran to my father's woodworking shed and hid the tiny corpse in a utility closet until I could figure out a way to cover up my crime.

I stood in the backyard biting my lip, my conscience doing flip flops in my brain. Then I notice the trash burner. Back then, much of our trash was disposed in a decidedly unenvironmentally sound way by burning it in a large metal barrel. One of my daily chores was emptying wastepaper baskets into the barrel and setting it on fire once the barrel was full. I dashed into the house and began hauling wastepaper out to the barrel. I grabbed an empty paper bag,slinked into the shed and dropped the dead bird into it. Then I carefully buried the bag under the rest of the paper in the barrel and lit it with a single match.

Within minutes, the sparrow was cremated. I remained and stirred the ashes with a stick to make sure there wasn't any remaining evidence of my crime. Then I went and put away my bow and arrow.

No one ever knew about the bird I'd killed that day. My 10-year old self thought by eliminating all traces of my mistake I could erase it. But in reality, my mind just kept repeating the moment over and over and permanently etched it on my brain. I never forgot the feelings of guilt and shame.

I'm not sure what the point of this story is. Maybe it is that the poor sparrow gave up its life to teach me a lesson about the importance of all life. To this day, I don't hunt and I can't stand to see any creature injured or abused.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I am older than bubble wrap and Pope John Paul II used belt to whip himself

That post title ought to get me a choice place in Google searches and bump my "Are clams really happy?" post out of the top searches that brings people to my blog. But other than a cheap attempt to boost blog traffic, I gleaned both of these tidbits from breaking news on msnbc.com.

Well, technically they were two different stories. One was a fascinating story about bubble wrap celebrating its 50th birthday this month. And another was a story about a book that was written trying to promote the Sainthood of Pope John Paul II by revealing that he liked to beat himself with a belt and sleep on the floor. Apparently these are prerequisites for becoming a saint. And if this is true, there are S&M clubs around that are cranking out saints left and right.

The book, Why He's a Saint was written by Monsignor Slawomir Oder to support his campaign to get Pope John Paul II canonized. The book proclaims, "'In his armoire, amid all the vestments and hanging on a hanger, was a belt which he used as a whip and which he always brought to Castel Gandolfo,' the papal retreat where John Paul vacationed each summer. "

Okay, I'm not trying to be judgemental or anything, but the Pope whacking himself with a belt and taking it on vacation may make him a bit kinky, but doesn't elevate him to sainthood status in my eyes.

But back to bubble wrap. The only reason the story jumped out at me was that it was making a big deal about the popular packing material reaching the half century mark. It hit me that I am 51 and am therefore a year older than bubble wrap. So instead of people saying that I am older than dirt, they can say I am older than bubble wrap and cushion the blow to my feelings.

That was a long way to go for that pun and I apologize. It just popped into my head.

Somebody should hit me with a belt. No wait, that would make me saint material. Which makes me wonder if any of the New Orleans Saints hit themselves with belts to make it into the Super Bowl.

The natural response to that question would be, "Is the Pope Catholic?"

And yes, I am going to hell.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The usual channels

I know it is fashionable to have as many channels as possible on your television, but I've finally reached the point where I have too many. My Verizon FIOS package provides me with hundreds of channels, including umpteen HD options and premium movie channels. To top it off, they also offer hundreds of on demand options that have my head spinning. Its a virtual (or digital) television all you can view buffet.

But the problem with buffets is that you want to sample everything for fear that you won't get your money's worth. Then you end up throwing up.

Okay, maybe not the prettiest analogy, but bottom line is that I have so many channels I don't end up watching anything. It's a paradox of sorts. Add to this that I like to surf the Web on my laptop while watching television during the one or two free hours I have after putting my children to sleep and you can guarantee that I'm not getting any quality viewing time in.

It was much simplier when I was a kid. We only had two channels growing up. Eventually they added a Public Broadcast Station, but as far as I was concerned, it was as entertaining as watching a test pattern on the tube. For anyone born after 1968, a test pattern was something television stations would run just before and just after the time they went on the air. And yes, believe it or not, there used to be a time when television didn't broad cast after midnight. They used to play the Star Spangled Banner and then switch to the test pattern.

I know I am sounding like a broken record, but it is sad to me that most of my popular culture references don't make sense to anyone under the age of 40. BTW, a record is what music used to be recorded on.

But I digress.

But back to my channel overload dilemma. I think it is pitiful that, despite having 500 or so viewing choses at any given moment, I can never find anything interesting to watch. And other than on demand programs, I can never seem to tune into any program that hasn't already started. I have this OCD thing about having to watch movies and television programs from the beginning. Back in the days when I used to go to movie theaters (before I had children), I hyperventilated at the thought of walking into a movie after it had begun. It ruined the whole willing suspension of disbelief thing I treasured about going to a movie in the first place. It's hard to lose yourself in a movie if you are begin watching it ten minutes into the thing and are lost as to what is going on.

Premium channels never seem to run movies on the hour. I swear they have some kind of built in mechanism that guarantees no matter when you tune into them the movie has already been playing for half an hour. Oh, DVRs help, but then you have to figure out the online channel guides and scroll through all the options to record the things and not accidently reset your entire system. Plus, once they are recorded, you've added yet another option to an already unmanageable selection of choices.

I have to say, the one thing I like about all of the new technologies surrounding television is the ability to pause live television. It is like something out of the Twilight Zone (see my above reference about popular cultural references specific to my age group). The ability to pause live programming has definitely altered my bathroom habits. I know longer have to choose between missing a crucial part of a program and bursting my bladder.

TMI, I know.

On Demand and DVRs have taken away some of the ritual excitement of watching your favorite programs any more. When I was a kid, I loved measuring life in what was on television on any given evening. The highlight of a Sunday was watching Disney's Wonderful World of Color following by Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins. Saturday night television was ruined by the Lawrence Welk Show, but redeemed by Gun Smoke.

I am indeed a child of television.

Oh well, this concludes today's blogcast.


Monday, January 11, 2010

Once upon a time

I used to think there was an art to writing children's books. I figured you had to a be trained in child psychology or education and have a crystal ball into the psyche of children before you could craft a book that would engage a kid. After reading god only knows how many bedtime stories to my daughter over the past three years, I am beginning to think that a majority of toddler books are authored by Washoe the Chimp.

My wife, a teacher with a master's degree in education, rolls her eyes when I complain about the books I have to read to my three-year old daughter.

"There's no plot development," I protest. "The characters are weak and unbelieveable."

"A three-year old doesn't understand plot," she explains. "The books just need to spark their imagination and hold there attention."

"What about my attention, " I ask.

"It isn't about you," she reminds me.

I grumble and read, wishing they'd come out with children's books that could entertain an adult as well as a child. Oh, I can tolerate Dr. Suess. At least they have some clever rhymes. And they have been around since I was a kid, so there is a bit of nostalgia in play when I read about Sam I am and Green Eggs and Ham.

But more often than not, my daughter doesn't want me to read Dr. Suess. She wants me to read one of the Disney Princess books which are basically Cliff Note versions of the Disney versions of classic fairy tales. And the marketing professional in me knows, just knows that these books are cranked out as part of a merchandizing effort to tap that multi-million dollar obsession toddler girls seem to have for the Disney Princesses.

I know all of the Disney Princesses by heart: Snow White, the 40s classic princess; Aurora, the 50s version of Sleeping Beauty who goes into the Fairy Godmother Witness protection program under the name of Briar Rose to protect her from the evil dark fairy Malficent; Belle of Beauty and the Beast; Ariel, the Little Mermaid princess (and Disney's only cross-species Princess); Arabic Princess Jasmine from Aladdin; Pocahontas, the Native American princess; Mulan, the Chinese princess and now Princess Tiana, Disney's first Black princess. My daughter has princess outfits, princess books, princess, princess pajamas and princess sheets. I sometimes don't know whether I'm putting my daughter to bed or Snow White, Belle, Jasmine or Ariel.

As mindnumbing as most of the Disney Princess books are, at least they are fairly short. If I have to read a book over and over a hundred or so times, I prefer it doesn't have more than one line per page. I dread it when my daughter asks me to read a Curious George book. Those suckers drone on forever. And talk about mundane plots, Curious Geoge adventures basically consist of spilling things, knocking things down and unwrapping things. And does it make me a bad person to wish that Curious George would be turned over to the zoo for biting the man with the yellow hat and kick the bucket in an unfortunate accident in the boa constrictor exhibit? And why does the man in the yellow hat always wear that stupid yellow hat? Hasn't anyone told him how stupid he looks? He lives in New York City for Christ's sake. You would think he would be hip to fashion.

But I digress.

Sometimes I try and amuse myself by turning storytime into a dramatic reading exercise and alter the voices. Unfortunately my daughter is much to young to appreciate that I do a pretty darned good impression of Richard Burton and Winston Churchell. She also doesn't have a high level of tolerance for change. If I get too carried away with my one-man stage productions of Socks for Supper or Mr. Dobb's Diner, she'll put her hand over my mouth and say, "Daddy, that's not the way it sounds."

Did I mention I have grown to despise Beatrix Potter's book Peter Rabbit? It violates my more than one line per page rule and has real stupid plot. A rabbit gets into a garden and eats vegetables. News at 11. Big woop. I'm tempted to change the ending so Mr. Macgregger catches the rodent and cooks up some nice Hassenfeffer.

I'm going to hell aren't I?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

My next of Kindle

I used to be a voracious reader of books. Shoot, my first job (other than delivering newspapers and mowing lawns) was working in a public library shelving books. I am pretty sure I became a writer because I loved to read. I pretty much blame technology for depriving me of the pleasure of reading. Once I got my first Blackberry I had difficulty picking up a book and focusing on the printed page. I was too obsessed with checking e-mail, playing Brickbreaker and eventually surfing the Web.

So I find it ironic that technology has brought me full circle back to reading books. Well, technically electronic books. For I now have a Kindle.

Actually the Kindle was my Christmas gift for my wife. She is still a voracious reader and is a member of a book club with several of her friends. I thought it would be a cool way for her to step into the 21st Century and still indulge in her passion for reading. Apparently she was of the same mind. Because when she opened the package she got this funny look on her face. I immediately sensed I hadn't made the best choice.

She liked it, she said, but it was the gift she had debated getting me for Christmas. She told me she'd been researching them for months and decided at the last minute not to get one for me. "But you love to read," I protested.

"I love to read 'books'," she explained. "I like to turn real pages and hold a real book in my hands. You on the other hand love technology." She went on to remind me that I had been talking for years about how books would eventually disappear to be replaced by their electronic and much more efficient counterparts.

She was right. I agreed to "share" the gift. Which translates that I essentially am the only one who will use it. Putting aside my guilt, it has turned out to be pretty darned cool. I have abandoned my Blackberry on my commute and now have actually begun reading again. I am able to get my high-tech fix and reunite with my literary roots. I have even discovered that you can download lots of free books so so far I'm indulging my reading without any additional costs.

I had forgotten how cool it is to escape into a good book. And for those purists out there who think you need printed page in front of you to actually be "reading" I'll remind you that it is the content that makes a book great, not the cover (though I have a nice leather cover for the Kindle on order).

I predict that printed books will go the way of vinyl records. Think of all the trees that will be saved. Think of all of the untapped talent of writers who can be published for pennies instead of depending upon the bottom line of a traditional publisher who won't front the printing cost on an unproven commodity.

Libraries can become become virtual clearing houses for electronic books that can instantly be transmitted to multiple book readers versus doled out in archaic hard copies that can be mutilated, lost or stolen. Text books can now be distributed to all children and instantly updated so that knowledge isn't reserved for only those who can afford it.

My Kindle has obviously ignited a visionary flame in me. Now they only have to come out with a color version and then one that plays a musical soundtrack as you read. Then maybe "scents"-er-round so you smell what the characters are smelling.

Okay maybe not the smell thing. But color would be nice.

Anyway, thank you to my lovely and selfless wife for being gracious and turning my gift to her into a return to reading for me.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Lack of resolutions



I have never been big on New Year's resolutions. Life is too full of guilt already without adding a list of new things to feel guilty about for not achieving them. As far as I'm concerned, every day is full of New Year resolutions and I try to keep the bar pretty low so I can achieve at least 50 percent of them. Getting out of bed each morning is on the list. It is challenging, but achievable most of the time.

The problem with resolutions is that they inevitably lead to excuses. And excuses seem to me simply rationalizations for failure. If you make a resolution and don't achieve it, it boils down to you not really wanting to achieve it in the first place. I tend to cater to the Yoda-like philosophy of not "trying" to do something. Either do it or don't do it. And don't make excuses.

Let's face it, you are in debt because you are spending more money than you make. You are fat because you eat too much and don't exercise enough. And you are rude and nasty to people in general because it takes a lot less energy than being polite and smiling alot. So rather than resolving to get out of debt, lose weight and be a nicer person, you need to ask yourself if you really want to stop buying things, eating fried foods and flipping people off when you drive.

If you want to change something about yourself (remember you can't change something about someone else), the first step is to really want to change it. Duh.

I thought about making a resolution here to write in my blog every day. My track record in 2009 was pretty spotty. But then I apply my own philosophy to it and realize I'll write more when I want to, not because I create an artificial resolution that I have to.

For now I'll just stick to getting out of bed each day. I've got toddlers that can help me achieve that one for sure.