Wednesday, March 4, 2020

How I Became An Overnight Success (In Just 35 Years)

They’ve started throwing curveballs.  Be home soon.
A telegram supposedly sent by Ted Williams in his rookie camp with the Boston Red Sox.

I remember thinking I wanted to write a book when I was in fifth grade.  I had just completed a ten-page (Ten!  Count ‘em, ten!) Geology report and I was so proud to have filled those pages with facts I had cribbed from encyclopedias.  I tried my first novel at twelve.  I wrote my first play when I was nineteen.  I published three plays (all co-written with Mike Davis) in my first three attempts before I was thirty.  Fate had chosen the theatre for me.

I had no complaints!  Thirty-two years old and six years married with two babies, life was a dizzying array of commitments and daily chores.  We moved into Ann Arbor in part because of the vibrant arts community.  In the meantime, I would get a check twice a year from my publisher, maybe enough to cover the gas bill for a winter month, which would remind me that I used to be a writer.  I hoped one day I would be again, but it would have to wait…quite a while, in fact.  

It was ten years later that I looked in the mirror and saw that almost all of my hair was gray.  My children, though not yet grown, no longer needed as much help with their homework and were self-sufficient human beings.  They were also a teen and a pre-teen, who scarcely noticed the old man pulling the levers. I asked my wife, “Do you think it might be time for me to go back to the theatre?” 

Going back to acting was key to starting the creative juices flowing again.  Because I had a very good experience with that first show back, I stuck with it.  In seven years, I appeared in five plays, published six and directed one.  I wrote songs, I wrote limericks, even my grocery lists seemed to have a strong narrative.

And as quickly as it started, it was over.  Now I know what it is like when a singer opens up their mouth and nothing comes out.  I would stare at my computer screen and…nothing came out.  I have been a writer for too long to accept that such a state is permanent.  But life had thrown me a curveball.  I was going to have to adapt like Teddy Ballgame did, or take my glove and go home.

There are some projects that, no matter how much you wish it wasn’t so, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.  I had written a novel a number of years earlier, three in fact.  The characters were sharp but my prose was, overall, unfocused.  When you are used to only writing the dialogue and leaving most of the details to a theatrical director, in my opinion you get to go the pay window earlier.

Yet I loved the novels so much.  In creating my detective character, Ted Winkle, I had dreamed up his back story and saw him through eighty years of his life and adventures.  I teared up when he lost loved ones.  I laughed when he laughed.  Ted and I had many drinks together and he was good company.  I decided it was worth another try to see if anyone else might enjoy knowing him as I did.  I had struck out with my preferred publisher(s) and at one time had a contract for all three books that just wasn’t the right fit.  I was depressed when I turned the offer down but it was for the best.
I sent the first novel to Fifth Avenue Press, an imprint begun right here in my hometown of Ann Arbor.  When an editor got back with me, signaling their interest, I was asked “I notice that the title says ‘Witness to Mystery # 1’…is this a series?”  I told her it was.  There were three books, a total of five adventures, taking place in 1932, 1942, 1950, 1962 and 1973.  “Send me all of them,” she said, certainly five of the sweetest words I had ever heard.

As of yesterday, with a contract signed, it was official.  All three novels will be published this November and a lifetime ambition is realized, the culmination of thirteen years I spent writing and revising the novels.  When I received the offer, I staggered into the living room glassy-eyed and told my wife, as Geppetto might, “Ted Winkle is going to be a real boy.”

So I close by reminding you that it is never too late to begin a new chapter in your life.  I am nearly fifty-six and a student again, learning at the knee of my editor, Lara Zielen, a tremendous writer in her own right.  You can go home when they start throwing curveballs or you can try to learn how to hit them.  Still, I won’t compare myself to Ted Williams.

After all, to make the Hall of Fame, he only had to have a hit once every three tries.

Monday, December 23, 2019

One More Visit With Santa

                                           Peppermint Sparkles and Santa Claus (above)

My brother Eric and I were both actors growing up. Though we were both paid to walk on stages at times (an accomplishment in itself!), as a lifelong career, it was not to be.  Life had different ideas for both of us.  

For me, it was a having a family.  Though I still performed occasionally when my kids were small, I knew it would go no further than an extended engagement.  My real vocation was writing for the stage, a craft that allows you to create from anywhere and send your work out to the wider world.  Still, if you’ve ever enjoyed performing for audiences, there are times when that little itch can become a downright irritating rash…that’s when I’ll tune my guitar and start looking for an open mic night.

It happened in a couple of stages for my brother too.  He made it much further than I ever did, actually supporting himself as an actor.  Blessed with a tenor voice that could’ve only come from the angels, he could work musicals or straight shows.  In a pinch a cabaret was fine.  He could do comedy and drama.  What he couldn’t do was keep going thinking that things were going to get easier as his thirties…and his knees…and his tired vocal cords…were slipping away.  

At that point, becoming a cruise director was a logical choice.  Never at a loss when it comes to pressing the flesh, that was half of a cruise director’s job and, oh!  Was he good at it!  You could tell that the vacationers believed that where Eric went was where the fun was.  The job even afforded him the opportunity to get up on stage and joke with the audience as he introduced activities or entertainers.  Occasionally, he would hit it off with a fellow performer and they would work up a song and do a little routine as part of the show.  

Alas, it is a small world even on the largest of cruise ships.  You work from sunrise until well after midnight.  You have minimal privacy, even with a private cabin.  The problems are the same, only the drunken vacationers are different.  If you ever worked in customer service eight hours a day, you know what it means to want an opportunity to shout STFU in someone’s face.  Yet, at the end of the day, you got to go home.  On a cruise ship, you’re already home.

He made it about three years.  Amazing, really, when you think about it.  I’m not sure I would have made it three hours.  Typically I am averse to drunk vacationers unless they happen to be me. 
If life as an actor prepares you for anything, it’s being willing to take the big chances.  Eric took his on the mainland, in Florida, so he could continue to enjoy the tropical weather with his new wife, Renee. The job was the same, really, vacationers testing the boundaries of sobriety and propriety at every turn, but Eric was able to go home at night, to his Honey and their little dogs…it made a difference.  He settled in Orlando and bought a house, the first he had ever owned.  He got his voice back.  He had his knees fixed.

My fellow actors know this…you can SAY you are through with theatre but nothing is official until theatre says it is finished with YOU.  As it turns out, Eric had been rehearsing all along…for the role of a lifetime.  The resort where he worked decided to mount a production, a Christmas show, for their guests who come and stay over the holidays.  Who better to spearhead such an effort?  Second and more importantly, who will play Claus?

Well, you’d need someone tall (and Eric is over six foot), able to communicate with an audience full of children (check), maaaaybe a bit on the heavy side (and the good life had left him with a few extra pounds) and of course, always nice to include a Christmas song, so, how about a singer (double check)?  Add in a real beard and some pretty people in elf outfits, you got a show!

It didn’t stop there.  It progressed.  Every year, a little more was added.  Another song, another character.  At the end of the show it snows….yes, snow! In Orlando, Florida!

Being an enterprising man, Eric discovered that there were good paying engagements for a bearded fella with his talent and a certain red suit.  All the way up to the holiday he earned a generous wage at corporate gigs for kids to sit on his lap and share their deepest hopes and desires.  Your average Santa is done on Christmas Eve, as soon as the mall closes.  But this is no ordinary Santa.

For a set of triplet boys, Santa would appear every Christmas morning, unpacking their gifts from his big red bag.  Year after year, the three of them would roll out of bed and be served by the man himself.  I should caution that this didn’t come cheap, but what a memory those parents made for their children.  Can you imagine those boys when their classmates said Santa ‘wasn’t real’?
Even little boys grow up though.  The parents of the triplets decided that at eight years old, at least one of them would be hearing some hard truths about Yuletide legends and was unlikely to keep it to themselves.  There would be one last Christmas visit from jolly old Saint Nick.

But how do you explain your future absences to babies that have grown up with you?  When Claus quits coming does a child stop believing?  It’s such a short time they have to enjoy the fantastical stories we spin around our traditions.  With a few weeks until Christmas, Eric stewed over what he would say.  He finally settled on the truth, or at least a version of the truth.  This is why I say he was preparing for the role of a lifetime.

When he ho-ho-hoed his way into their living room for the last time, he distributed the gifts as he always did and received the appreciation back from the children as usual.  But at the end, Santa had added one little codicil…

“Now boys, I need to talk to you,” he said solemnly, kneeling down on a titanium knee.  The boys moved forward conspiratorially.  I think if he had told the boys to rob a liquor store at that moment, he could’ve been drinking Cristal on the way home. “I’m not going to be able to come see you anymore,” he said to their three shocked faces.  “There are kids younger than you who aren’t sure if they believe in Santa and I need to go and visit THEM on Christmas morning.  Do you understand?”  It took a second, but they came around to agreeing with the jolly old elf.

“One more thing,” he added.  “I will still bring you your presents…don’t worry about that…but I want you to give something to each other, and your Mom and Dad, and help me keep the Christmas spirit alive.  Will you do that for me?”  The boys looked at each other and nodded to Santa with resolve and just the slightest trace of smiles.  He had made the sale.

I don’t know what Eric made during his career on stage. I’m sure it wasn’t as much as he deserved. Even if it was FAR more than I suspect, it wasn’t enough.  

You can’t put a price on believing in Santa for even one more day.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Fabled Portland Flea

Miss Kitty and I first heard whispers about it a couple of years ago at the Antique Festival in Midland, Michigan.  “Are you going down to Portland this year?”  “Yeah, ya gotta go to Portland.  Indiana’s kind of on-the-way.  Then, depending on the weather, I might head back to Florida…”  Flea market shoppers (I won’t call them ‘Junkers’…I prefer ‘Treasure Hunters’) will sometimes be secretive about the places they find great bargains, akin to the fisherman with a favored fishing hole.

I struck up a conversation with a vendor later in the day.  I loved his stuff and couldn’t afford any of it.  But he was one of those people who is in the re-sale business partially because they love talking to a friendly face.  I timidly asked, “I’ve heard a rumor that there’s a FANTASTIC flea market down in Portland, Indiana.” 

He responded, “That’s not a rumor.”  He explained that it was smack-dab in the middle of a Tractor and Gas Engine Festival (no word on whether there was a falling-out with ‘those diesel engine bastards!!’), a show held a couple of times during the summer, “but you have to go to the August show.  THAT’s the big one.”

It took us a while to get around to it, but this year the stars aligned and we overpaid for an eighty-dollar motel room to be twenty miles away.  I reserved late, my own fault, but there doesn’t seem to be TONS of lodging in the area.  It might pay to book early.  There is a good-sized motel right next door to the fairgrounds that sits derelict.

I will take most of the blame for missed opportunities, but, that said, there is little work done to draw a crowd to this show.  Signage was negligible.  It was almost as if someone said, “If I have to explain it, you don’t need to know.”  The information we got from the motel was about a street full of vendors “just past the Arby’s on 27.”  Again, no literature.  The desk clerk told us all she knew, stating that she hadn’t lived in Portland for twenty years, but “If you live in Portland, you didn’t want to be there THIS weekend.”

It was a wide open, open-air grouping of garage sales mixed in with the pros I recognize from Ann Arbor and Wyandotte Art Fairs, as well as the firmly-priced ‘marts’ of cheaply made, new imported goods.  Oh, and a lot of Trump stuff.  One booth was nothing but.  The hats were ubiquitous on the heads of shoppers, but hundreds more awaited purchase on tables all the way down the street.  It is an extremely conservative area.

We picked up a few bargains, a Packers jersey sporting Rodgers at $10 being the highlight.  Overall, it was disappointing. The trend in selling to the end user continues unabated, though the folks selling out of the garage are not cleaning and repairing their goods before insisting on a full price they read about in a collectibles guide.  I had a women tell me she was asking twenty-five dollars for her dirt encrusted 354 Tonka because “no one’s ever played with it.”  There was nowhere near the 150-200 vendors that I had heard about, and I had no clue why ANYONE would think this sale was elite level.

It bugged Miss Kitty as well.  The difference between us is that she is able (and willing) to whip out her iPhone and puzzle it out.  There WAS indeed a flea market in the midst of the tractor show, in addition to the ad hoc sales that took place up against the back gate of the fairgrounds.  You know, “…over by the Arby’s.”

Going in on the Saturday of the show, we were able to cruise into the free parking about ninety minutes after the gates opened.  Kath and I have never been gate crashers at the flea market.  Everybody’s looking for different things and, as I stated earlier, I’m a treasure hunter.  You don’t look for a thing.  You just look.  You aren’t after anything in particular.  I am continually shopping for both myself and my small re-sale business.  I don’t buy things based solely on logic.  I will only buy something when my Spidey-Sense is tingling.  If you approach me when I have picked up one of your wares, I will certainly engage you about the item.  Whether I buy it or not, I will thank you for your time.  I don’t know how the introverted vendors do it, but I see them all the time, sitting in the doorway of their mobile home or on the tailgate of their truck, looking like they can’t wait for sundown.

The good news, fellow flea market shoppers, is that there is a terrific flea market in the middle of a Tractor Show.  There were bargains to be had and we took a few of them home.  It appears that the craze over early 20th century school desks is over, as the prices for finished product is less than twenty dollars.  I don’t know how long it will take to sell all of these synthetic sunflowers…but I fear I won’t live to see their demise.  Sets of China flood the market.  All those times we told Grandma to use the good stuff and she blew us off and served dinner on the Melmac?  Yeah, WE were right, Granny was wrong.  If you are in an estate situation or cleaning out an old house, do your due diligence (of course!) in terms of research, but put no value on the China sets.  I would be willing to bet that most of the China cabinets that are re-sold these days are now displaying action figures rather than cups and saucers.  The restrooms were clean and not too widely spaced (even for people in their fifties!).  The concessions were excellent (for a flea market) with more than just hot dogs and popcorn.  Local fraternal organizations run the booths and proceeds benefit the community.  Kath and I both thought the food was good.   

The bad news is the community around you may chafe at your arrival.  In the Portland area, there are 8,000 Amish and 4,000 English.  I had no quarrel with the Amish folks, trying to give them as wide a berth as possible when passing on the road, so as not to spook the horses.  I saw more than one skittery nag that must dread this time of year as it was forced to pull a buggy partially on a soft, grassy shoulder because of a shithead in a muscle car.  The folks from town were another matter.  It seems likely they can spot a local at fifty feet and they respond with…eh.  Not mean or confrontational, no one glared at us. I wasn’t worried about someone keying my truck or pushing us around.  There was just a general closing of ranks, where they let you know your place.  One of the restaurants we went to on Friday night decided to close an hour early and simply COULDN’T accommodate us. A young lady raced to the door to tell us this.  When we landed at a truck stop, open 24 hours a day, suddenly that hot grill slowed way down.  In a half-full dining room, we waited forty-five minutes for a cheeseburger and the special of the day.  We still tipped twenty percent and wished everyone we saw a good evening.  I will caution further that the presence of pickaninny sculpture and signage is replete.  No doubt, African-American treasure hunters are as used to this as one can be used to a direct insult, but the general lack of dark-skinned people was notable.  Kitty and I saw five African-Americans in four-plus hours.  Two were vendors.

It is possible to do the whole flea market area in a day if you are in good physical shape.  Kath and I, knowing what we like and what we don’t, cruised through in about 4-1/2 hours.  As always, get a motel that serves breakfast and eat your fill.  Take snacks like granola bars and push lunch off as long as you can, so you can make decisions about dinner depending on how soon you think you can get out of the parking lot.

Miss Kitty and I remain aware that we are visitors in the communities we visit.  We are middle-aged hippies in a world that is uncertain about a lot of things.  We tried to respond to the indifference we met with a guarded kindness.  Portland, Indiana?  I want to love you…but as every singer/songwriter in the 70’s lamented, you just won’t let me into your heart.