Thursday, December 22, 2011

My Brilliant Solution to the Ch****mas Dilemma-- Patent Pending

I recently attended my son's "Winter" concert (formerly referred to as the "Holiday" concert and many years ago...."Ch****mas" concert) and of the ten songs played, only two were even closely holiday related.  This made me take pause, made me consider how things have changed.  In the olden days, we had "Ch****mas" parties...why, we even wished one another "M***y Ch****mas!"  Imagine that?  We exchanged "Ch****mas" cards, passed out candy and "Ch****mas cookies!"  But, it's a new world order.  No more classrooms with children snipping "Ch****mas" snowflakes or creating "Ch****mas" paper chains.

Even a trip down the greeting card aisle demonstrates how the market has changed and devolved into a least-offensive-lets-not-polarize-the-masses-kind-of-time-of-year.

And that's when the perfect solution dawned upon me.

It reminded me of the movie, Mr. Deeds, when the character Longfellow Deeds (played by Adam Sandler) dreams of selling one of his greeting card ideas to Hallmark.

That's the dream that came to me.  And now I share the same dream, and believe I have stumbled upon a real solution to the holiday-labeling conundrum (feel free to contact me for a wonderful investment opportunity).

It's generic.
It's inoffensive.
Socially Acceptable.
And most importantly...politically correct.

Yes,  it's the perfect Greeting Card:

    Front of the prototype Greeting Card Design (patent pending)

    Inside of prototype Greeting Card Design (patent pending)

I needed to Beta-test my design.  I parked the van next to the entrance of CVS, opened the hatch, and began peddling my wares.

"It's completely blank," said one anonymous woman (we'll call her respondent # 1), flipping the carefully folded prototype card back and forth.

"Exactly!" I answered, clapping my hands together.  "Brilliant, no?"

"And how much is it?"

"Retails at $3.99."

"No envelope?"

"Not needed."

"Where do you sign?"

"That's the beauty of it," I said.  "You don't!  That way no one, not even your sworn enemy can possibly be offended.  Am I right?  Am I right?!"

"So, you send it completely blank?" she asked, shaking her head and thrusting the prototype back into my hand.

I hastily scratched notes in my record book.  Respondent #1 declined purchase.

"Excuse me, Sir."  It was him (Respondent #2), disguised as a CVS manager.

"Ummm, hey," I smoothly replied.

"I understand you are selling Christmas cards in the parking," he said, arms crossed.

I covered my ears.  "Did you just say Ch****mas?"


"The word.  You said the word!"


"Aaaaaah!  You said it again!"  I fumbled for the hatch of the van, slamming it down.

"What's wrong with the word Christmas?"

"Aaaaaaahhh!"  I screamed running for the driver's side door. "Okay, you win!"  I shouted, throwing my prototype samples out the window,  "I'll leave....just don't say that word again!"

By now, another CVS employee had joined the fray.  "What's that dude's problem?" I heard him ask, as I slammed the van in reverse.

The manager shrugged.  "Guess he doesn't like Christmas or something."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Shameful Re-post of a Christmas Classic

I've dusted off last year's Christmas Post because, like re-runs of Frosty and Rudolph, it never gets old (it's only been a year, after all).  The following incident is true...really.

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree, Where's My Albuterol Inhaler?

It's the most wonderful time of the year, and I as I pulled into the driveway after a hectic day at the 'ol Academy, I saw that a package had been dropped at our doorstep.  73 pounds of something, in a large, elongated cardboard box, and blocking the front doorway.

But what to my wondrous eyes could it be? I wondered, redundantly, stooping to take a closer look.

Why, it was an artificial Christmas tree.

And as I dragged the hefty box inside and down the stairs, settling in to unpack the festive limbs, I realized that this was no ordinary artificial tree.  Uh-uh.  This was a replica 6.5' Norway Spruce with 5,280 tip points and 600 color and clear lights, complete with a remote control with the option of snapping on color, clear, or both color and clear lights at the same time!

I re-heated some coffee and set to work bending and shaping the branches, donning the white gloves generously included in the box. When it was finished, we gathered around the tree, alternately taking turns clicking the remote.  Color, clear, both...color, clear both.  Ah, Christmas in the 21st Century.

It wasn't until later that night when it finally hit me.  The purchase of this artificial Christmas tree signaled the death knell of a time honored family tradition, sawing down a live tree.

Though, as I recall, our first such family endeavor wasn't exactly a Norman Rockwell moment.

(Insert Rod Serling Twilight Zone music here)

Picture, if you will, a pristine winter day, fifteen years ago.  Location:  Allen Hill Tree Farm, Brooklyn, CT.  On a whim, the family and I wheeled into the parking lot of the local tree farm, bent on selecting the perfect yuletide tree.

The temperature hovered near freezing, a bright December sky with traces of snow lingering in the air from the fresh coating that fell the night before.  The fields were dotted with people ducking in and out of lines of trees crisscrossing the landscape.  My stepsons, Michael, age 9, and Matthew, age 4, set off with their mother down the dirt path while I secured a tree cart and wood saw.

It took a bit of effort to catch up with them, but I managed, shuffling along the slushy road, the cart dragging behind, the cold air pressing in on my tightening lungs.

"This one!" shouted Michael.

"No, bigger!" yelled Matt.

The kids were flying in out of trees at breakneck speed.

"Mike, Matt, be careful, there are other people out here," said my wife, Beth.

And indeed, we were convening on a popular spot.  To my right, a family of five had circled around a tree.  They looked resplendent in LL Bean wear, the children in matching scarves and fluffy ear muffs.  The father was sizing up an 8 foot spruce, while the mother was dispensing a Thermos of hot chocolate in mugs clutched in tiny mittened hands.

Beth sidled in close to me, nodding toward the Christmas scene unfolding before our eyes. "Look at that.  Isn't it nice?"

I coughed.

The father asked the family if this was "the one." They answered in perfect unison, "Yes, Daddy, yes."  The family encircled the tree, and then began singing Silent Night, while the father knelt down, gracefully wielding the saw, and within six passes of the blade, the tree silently fell to earth, nestling into the snow.  As if on cue, a tractor appeared, towing a trailer of trees and more singing LL Bean families, rosy-cheeked and swilling cider and cocoa.

 "Got room for you," said the tractor guy, dressed as Father Christmas.  He hopped off the John Deere and helped the father wrestle the tree onto the trailer.  The family climbed aboard and off they went, tractor, trees, cocoa. Up the road and out of sight.

We were left alone.

I coughed again, redundantly.

Mike and Matt reemerged.  "Found one!" Mike announced.

Beth and I followed the boys through a maze of trees and ended up standing  in front of a stout 6 footer, round and full.  Beth circled it.

I coughed.

"This one's not too bad," she said.

"What do you think boys?" I asked, testing a sharp tooth of the saw.  My numb thumb began to bleed.

The boys started whipping pine cones at each other.

"Wanna get in a circle, around the tree?"  I asked.

A pine cone whizzed at my nose.

"Sing a carol or two?"

The boys began wrestling as another family emerged with a perfect tree.  Tractor number two arrived.  This one driven by a plump elf.  Everyone dressed in flannel, festive hats, smiling.  Everyone was singing.  The tractor drove off.

I turned back to Beth just in time to see Matt, dressed in torn jeans and a ragged sweatshirt, take a header into the only mud puddle visible for 9 acres.  The kid was covered in brown muck.  Suddenly, the sun sank 10,000 miles and a strong chilly breeze kicked up.  I decided to take matters into my own hands and knelt to cut the tree.  The branches were thick and low to the ground.  I crawled beneath, pulling in close to the trunk and raking the saw against the base of the pine, but couldn't maneuver my body at the right angle to extend my arms to effectively cut it.

Beth and Mike were attempting to retrieve a sobbing Matthew from the puddle.  Through the branches I could see him, resembling more of a mud-fudge popsicle than a crying little boy.

I struggled to get the saw going.  I could feel my chest tightening, the coughing jags increasing.  Five minutes of sawing and I was only a quarter of the way through.  Beth and the boys stood nearby now, slowly inching closer.

I started wheezing.

"How's it going, honey?"

"I'm c-c-c-o-l-d," chattered Matt.

"This sucks," said Mike.  "I want some hot chocolate.  What's taking so long?"

Zhee-Zhee-Zhee-Zhee.  Ten minutes of sawing and I was only halfway through the tree.

It was at this point that I started to notice the stares.  You know, the ones from onlookers who sort of want to lend a hand, but don't want to infringe.  They stand off to the side, with that "no I'm not really paying attention to your sawing inadequacies, but I am looking at you with that rubber-necking car crash stare."

Zhee-Zhee-Zhee-Zhee.  "What the hell," I yelled.  "Is this a pine or oak for Chrissakes!"

"Ah, honey?"  Beth asked.

"@#$^%!!!! tree!"  Cough, wheeze, cough, wheeze.

"Say, Mister, I gotta chainsaw in my truck," a man finally offered.

Zhee-Zhee-Zhee-Zhee.  My lungs locked into a spasm.  "%^^%$!!!  You're mine now, tree!!!!  Yeah!!! Going down, sucker!!!!"

"Mommy, why is that man screaming at the Christmas tree?" a little girl asked.

Zhee, Zhee, Zhee, Zhee.... "Yeah! You dirtly little mutha!"

The tree tumbled down, and I pulled myself into a kneeling position, a predatory grin crossing my frozen face.

The two families standing nearby slowly edged away, mothers holding their little ones in close.

I turned to see my family gawking, staring silently at the wheezing lumberjack hacking up snowball-sized phlegm before them.

"Good job, Pop," Mike finally said.

Tired, cold, wheezing, and on the verge of vomiting, I dragged the tree to the edge of the road waiting for the arrival of Father Christmas or that fat little Elf on his John Deere.

They never came.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How one small town is rewriting US history

My devoted followers will remember a post I wrote this past summer focusing on certain town officials' blatant disregard for the feelings of my offspring.  A sign appeared directly facing our home, taunting and jeering at the dexterity and speed at which my poor son moves through life.  See below:

(To see the post click here)

Yes, the higher-ups labeled my child as SLOW.

So, I ranted, raved, pulled out the remaining strands of hair atop my head.  Nothing changed.  The sign remains.  My hacksaw blade too dull to make a nick in the metal post.

Time passed, my anger died down.  I gradually stopped following my son around the house with a stopwatch and clipboard.

But then something happened, something so startling that I had to revisit the "sign-gate" scandal again.

A new sign appeared, one at the end of the road.  A sign that has changed history as we now know it.

It seems that the street on which we have lived for the past sixteen years had been incorrectly labeled.

Instead of FRANKLIN DR, the sign read FRANLKIN DR.  See below:


I stood in the middle of our misspelled road and danced with glee, snapping copious numbers of digital pics.
I became so lost in my photo-journalistic ambition, I narrowly missed death by Prius as my neighbor screamed around the corner.

"Idiot!" she yelled.

"But the sign!" I announced, pointing, jumping up and down.

I raced home, printing out hundreds of pics of the sign.  I grabbed envelopes, stamps, and my red pen (every teacher has one). I decided 100 letters to town officials would be enough.  See below:

The sheriff is a nice man.  Along with the restraining order preventing me from entering Town Hall, he hand delivered a letter from town officials:

Dear Mr. Anastasio-

We are aware of the spelling of your road and can assure you it is indeed correct.  After careful research, we discovered that Franklin Dr. is not named after Benjamin Franklin, as we had assumed, but his half-brother, Frank Franlkin.  That Ben Franklin even had a half-brother with a coincidentally similarly spelled last name is a little known fact in American history, one in which we encourage you to pursue instead of sending us letters.  So your road sign will stay the same, honoring Frank Franlkin (father of the Franlkin stvoe, the pulbic lirbary, and of course, discovering elcetriicty by flying a ktie.

Thank you for your concern, and please stay away.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Love is in the air

A very dear friend of mine sent a link to a New York Times piece entitled: You Love Your iPhone. Literally.,  by Martin Lindstrom, a branding consultant.  Lindstrom performed a series of tests essentially determining that we react to the image and sound of our iPhones in a similar way that our brain would react to the embrace of a loving spouse, or the sight of our devoted poodle bouncing down the driveway.  We are, indeed, "chemically" in love.  Lindstrom used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) test to watch the brain cortices light up like the blood pressure machine at CVS (when I slide my arm through the tube after a long day at school).  Yes, according to Lindstrom's findings, which included testing little bitty babies, we are madly in love with our technology.

But not me.

I'm different.

I decided to prove this point by testing Lindstrom's assertions.  On the way home from school, I swung by Radio Shack to inquire about the purchase of a fMRI unit to begin my self-study.

"You're looking for what?" the young man behind the counter asked. 

"A functional magnetic resonance imaging machine," I said, flipping through the sales flyer.


"Preferably one that operates on propane... Have you seen gas prices, lately?"

Apparently, Radio Shack isn't what it once was.  I settled for an electronic turkey baster and a strobe light.

Arriving home, I dusted off the soldering gun and tore apart the innards of a defunct Nintendo GameCube.
Within minutes, I had wired the device to my brain.  My son initially expressed his reservations, but with a little coaxing (and a $25 iTunes gift card), he reluctantly agreed to be my lab assistant. 

We placed several items on the workbench:  A fresh Twinkie, cheese grater, and a teaspoon of Castor Oil.

I sent my firstborn on the quest to retrieve my iPhone.  Like something out of an Indiana Jones movie, my son crept down to the basement, cradling the combination to the alarm system keypad that would allow him to enter the concrete bunker that housed the safe.   Once inside, he donned the HEPA suit, deactivated the hermetic seal, and entered the stasis field.  With iPhone in gloved hand, he put it through an infrared sterilization wash.  He burned incense to Steve Jobs, then carefully wound it in bubble wrap.  He placed it in a foam-lined stainless steel suitcase, and cautiously made the return trip to the garage. 

We stationed both poodles on guard outside the door, and carefully unpacked the iPhone, placing it between the Twinkie and cheese grater on a soft bed of freshly ironed cotton linen.

I fiddled with the metal colander on my head, checking the wire leads for tight connection to the turkey baster.  I focused my attention on the objects before me, then gave the thumbs up for my son to hit the power switch....

Emergency rooms are slow.

Thank God I have Word Feud  and Zombie Farm on my iPhone to keep me busy.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Taking a Trip to the Spirit World

This past Friday evening, my sister and I attended a demonstration given by a psychic medium. I have to say, even though I've written a book-and-a-half revolving around the paranormal, I'm a bit of a skeptic at heart, though the Fox Mulder in me wants to believe.  My sister seemed excited, and had invited me to attend this past summer during a family picnic.  Perhaps it was the summer beverages, or too much of my father's barbecued kielbasa, but I remember eagerly agreeing, not giving much though or credence to the production.  What the heck, a nice time out with my sister.

Months passed, and there we were, waiting in line to fill the small theater. It was packed, sold out, and I could tell from the look of the crowd, there were far more believers than non-believers.  I was unexpectedly nervous, not the Edgar Allan Poe "nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous," but just plain nervous.  I had no excuse for this agitation.

We filtered in, grabbing two seats in the center.  The show began and the medium explained how things would work, no cellphones, keep bathroom breaks to a minimum...and then we meditated.  One audience-goer fell asleep (no, it wasn't me).

Then it was showtime.

The medium explained she heard voices, saw images, smelled, tasted, touched.  Apparently, earlier in the day she had scribbled notes as spirits paid her visits, including many dogs.  This puzzled me.  How did the spirits in the other dimension (as she put it) know who was to attend this evening?  Dogs?  All dogs go to heaven?  Was that really true?

I had not done my homework, as my sister pointed out.  I was supposed to fill the past week with thoughts of loved ones that I wished would communicate with me.  Oops.  Missed that memo.  I decided to close my eyes and do the Spark Notes version.  I think I may have even audibly hummed.  I remember my sister smacking my arm. I tried to recall the smell of my grandmother's pasta sauce bubbling basil and garlic into the air, tried to recall my best friend's last words, the name of our first dog (Sophie), etc.  But no readings came our way.

It was undeniably fascinating, however, to watch the impact of the medium's words on other members of the audience.  At one point, the skeptic crept back in my head as the psychic seemed to manipulate the conversation.  "Mahoney?  Is there a Mahoney, or does that name mean anything to anyone?"

"I'm Mahoney," said a young man, raising his hand.

"Interesting, interesting," the psychic continued.  "Irish, yes?  Someone has a deep Irish accent, trying to get into the conversation I'm hearing."

My eyes rolled in my head.  Mahoney... Irish, eh?  No kidding, that's a stretch.

But then there were moments where the (pardon the cliche) hair stood up on the back of my neck.  The psychic was pulling names, habits, events, dates... all undeniably real to the family members present.  She provided images and fragments of connection between the spiritual plane and our own.

"Are you redoing a kitchen?" asked the psychic.

"Yes," the daughter replied.

"Did you use a staple gun to hammer in a nail?  or use the wrong tool to do something."


"Well, your father was there, and he didn't like that."

Moments like that made me take pause, made me consider that perhaps there was something more out there.

Two-and-a-half hours flew by.  I walked my sister to her car, we said goodbye, and parted ways.

On the drive home I considered the experience.  I found myself drifting back to the day of my best friend's funeral.  I had been left with much of the responsibility for making the arrangements, lining up a church, organizing music, helping the family.  He had been a teacher for thirty-one years, well-liked, well-respected. Over his teaching career he had amassed a huge collection of ties (mostly ugly, on purpose) and the family had decided to distribute them at the wake, so that those attending the funeral could wear them in honor of his memory.  I snagged one of his favorites, draped it over my shoulder, and prepared for the next day.

The week leading up to the funeral was fraught with mishaps.  Nothing fell into place, and I felt like things were not going as he would have wished.  For instance, he had told me before he passed, that he had wanted a small gathering, but instead, we found ourselves in St. Patrick's Cathedral in Norwich, CT, hundreds of mourners present.  So much for a small circle of friends.

After the funeral, my wife and I decided to swing by the supermarket to pick up something for dinner. We were both exhausted, so I told her to wait in the car.  I walked in, still dressed in funeral attire, my friend's sunrise tie still snug around my neck, and I remember feeling overwhelmingly sad, like i had screwed something up, and I jokingly asked aloud, "Well, Ed, I did the best I could, if things were okay, send me a sign."

Somehow, lost in my thoughts, I had wandered all the way down to the dairy aisle, and realizing yogurt for dinner was a bad choice, I spun around, and that's when I saw him.

It was an unmistakable image of a large man, barreling down the front of the store, making a beeline straight in my direction.  I can't remember his facial features except to say that he wore a large smile.  His arms swung rhythmically at his sides, as though marching in step during a parade.  I froze to the spot, the little plastic basket swaying in my grip.  I remember thinking, is he going to stop, should I step aside?

As if in answer, he did stop, just a foot away from me.  He pointed his finger at my chest and said, "Now that's a great tie!"

I remember my eyes tearing, my throat closing a bit.  "Thanks," I finally choked out.

And he was on his way, down around the corner, disappearing past the cartons of milk.  It took me a few seconds to recover.  I remember striding down the aisle, moving quickly from one side of the store to the other.

There was no sign of the man.

He had simply disappeared.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bloggity, Bloggity...How I have Missed Thee

Oh, I've been a bad blogger.  I have let my followers down countless times over the past month.  I think I've started five entries, crisply followed by delete, delete, delete, delete and delete.  Not sure if it's lack of material, writer's block, insecurity, or writer's block (bears repeating). Well, consider all of your free subscriptions duly refunded.  Just haven't been keeping up, have I?

But no more.  I am resolved to do better.

I even solicited possible topics from readers.  Here they are in no particular order:

#1.  Some sort of scandal
#2.  Writer's Block
#3.  Star Trek
#4.  Upcoming Boy Scout camporee
#5.  Honey Badger
#6.  Suicidal Tendencies after the Red Sox collapse
#7.  Changing the school mascot from a bobcat to a pig (i work at Bacon Academy)
#8.  Poodles

I thought combining these topics into a short piece might help generate one solid idea to send me off into a typing frenzy:

      Two poodles walked into a Star Trek convention....the Romulan poodle, Bak-Rah, turned to the Federation Security Guard poodle (old-school-red-shirt-gonna-get-killed-first-security-officer type) and said, "How about those Sox?"
      Security Guard poodle whimpered.  "I know, and then on top of that, I just found out they're changing the school mascot to a pig, not a poodle.  Pass me the Romulan Ale and a dram of Cyanide."
     Romulan poodle grunted.  "Scandalous!  What else is troubling you no-name-red-shirted-security officer?"
     "Well, I've got to help plan a security detail for an upcoming camporee for 300 Federation Scouts...."
     "I see," Romulan poodle said.
     "...and this damn writer's block is killing me, plus the fact that I don't have an opposable thumb and typing with paws is the pits."
     Romulan poodle growled.
     "And what's with the Honey Badger video?  I have a video on YouTube and it only has five hits, I think I'm at least as amusing as the stupid Honey Badger.  I mean, really, a Honey Badger?  I can flip, I can twirl, I can bark at things not there, I can---"
    It was about this point when Romulan poodle stopped, pulled out his disruptor gun, and vaporized Federation Security poodle.

The End.

So, I finished this little tale, waiting for the writing gods to electrify my synapses and get those fingers flying across the keyboard on some witty and profound topic....

wait for it, wait for it, wait for it.....

well, maybe next week.

                                   Romulan Poodle, Bak-Rah


Sunday, August 14, 2011

Outrage! When I find the culprit, why I'll....

     Without warning, this sign appeared on our road, hovering above the mailboxes last Tuesday.  Of particular note, is the purposeful placement of this signpost directly across from our driveway.  I write purposeful because it is no doubt someone's assessment of my offspring's inability to act speedy, whether facing mental or physical challenges.
      My wife thinks I'm overreacting, but I think I'm onto something.  We're a nation of label-givers, after all.  It's no surprise that individuals have now taken it upon themselves to post billboard-like signs taunting parents with kids they perceive are not up to speed. Outrageous!

      "You're reading it wrong," my wife says.
      My son, still mouthing the speed limit number, remains transfixed, ignoring the yellow metal insult hanging below it. His attention breaks when his phone chirps.  His thumbs blur to life and burn a text message into Cyberspace.
      "Oh, I don't think I'm reading anything wrong."  I trace the words with my index finger as I read aloud.  "Slow play," I say.
      My wife sighs.  "It's obviously intended to be read:  Slow....children at play."
      "No," I say, "If that's the case, where's the comma?"
      "I think the little image of the running child is meant to act as a comma."
      "Don't recall seeing that in the Strunk and White Elements of Style."
      She shakes her head. "You're getting upset over nothing."
      "Nothing!" I shout, "This is an affront to every child on the street, especially ours!  Who are they to judge the speed or smarts of the kids on this block?!"
      My son drifts away, narrowly tripping on a flower pot as his finger speeds across the face of his phone.
      My wife's brow shoots to the sky.  "Is that what I think it is in your hand?"
      "What?" I ask.
      Now she crosses her arms, foot tapping.  "Put the hacksaw away."
      "What hacksaw?" I say, whipping my hand to my side.  The sound of metal clanks on asphalt.

     I will wait until darkness.

Friday, July 15, 2011

My eyeballs are itchy

Yesterday, in a mad dash to actually complete one project that I have started (mowing and trimming the yard), I retrieved the gas powered weed trimmer, primed it (by pushing the bulb the required ten times), clicked the choke, and fired it to life.  I skirted about the base of trees, obliterated the line of towering vines at the end of the driveway, and slowly made my toward the pachysandra encircling the cherry tree.  I whistled, might have even skipped, because this was the first of many summer projects I would start and FULLY COMPLETE.  This may seem like a strange and utterly ridiculous goal, finishing what you have started, but I have a problem, you see.  I get distracted.  Overwhelmed.  Underwhelmed.  Bored.  Lazy. Inspired. Depressed.  Yes, all of these factors deter me from actually finishing projects that I start.  Just ask my poor wife.

But this summer would be different!

I went full throttle, attacking the weeds and plants sticking up through the thick carpet of pachysandra.  Three quarters of the way through it finally dawned on me.  The plant with the three leaves...yeah, the green stuff being chipped into tiny pieces and flying airborne, sticking to my face, my glasses...poison ivy.

All stop!

I raced into the house and lathered my face in anti-bacterial soap.

Today, my eyeballs itch.  But I'm fine.  Really.  I even went back outside, after Saran wrapping my upper torso and face (poked a mouth hole and used a straw to breathe) and actually FINISHED trimming the yard.

Did I mention my eyeballs itch?

****Book Update****

Received an encouraging email from my agent yesterday.  She's reading the revised manuscript and so far she "loves" it.  Fingers crossed that this trend will continue.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Rapture, Sweet Rapture...Where Were You?

So, Judgment Day came and went, and 89-year-old Harold Camping, the minister that predicted the end of the world as we know it, said today, "It has been a really tough weekend."

A really tough weekend, eh?

How about the poor schleps that emptied their back accounts to advertise your prediction, Harry?

How about the teachers that put off grading papers this weekend?  

Or didn't send the payments for bills that should have gone in the mail on Saturday (Where's that number for the electric company)?

What about those that flew out the door at 4:30 on Saturday, bought Spam (made a meatloaf this afternoon), flashlights, and heavy duty batteries? Filled a cart with bread and bottled water (a sin to purchase, we know, but some assumed the arrival of the Archangel might contaminate water supplies)....yeah, what about them?

If I sound bitter, it's not for me, really.

It's for those that came before Harold Camp, and the ones that will surely follow after him.

In ancient times they had traveling soothsayers (usually blind guys, go figure) and of course, the infamous Nostradamus.  There were temples, and magicians, mystics and holy men.

One would think that in this secular age, in the land of the I-Pad and microwave ovens, we would have moved past this end-of-the-world phase.

But we haven't.

Remember the crazy actions of the Hale-Bopp Comet Cult in 1997?  How could thirty-nine people blindly buy tennis shoes, slip on workout clothes, lay out on cots and then kiss the world goodbye in the hopes of rising to join with aliens?  I mean seriously, take one look at the cult leader, Marshall Applewhite (pictured below).  

                 Would you accept a glass of Kool Aid from someone that looked like him?
End of the world prophecies have been around a long time, so why do we keep falling for them?  Is it human nature to secretly long for the end?  Perhaps.  Consider why do we slow down and rubberneck at car crashes?  Why does the news always begin with fires and murders and other such tragedies?  Why are there so many Saw movies?

The next big prediction is some cataclysmic event on December 21, 2012.  The pundits believe it could be good, or it could be bad-- from some spiritual transformation of the human race to the Earth being sucked into a Star Trek-like Black Hole.  

But then again, December 21, 2012, could pass much like this past Saturday...gently going the way of Hale-Bopp, Rapture, and The Backstreet Boys. Just fading away and turning into the next day.

Let's just hope the human beings involved keep their heads this time. 

Addendum:  This just in...Camping has amended the timetable.  Everyone circle October 21.  Not.

Friday, May 6, 2011

No, I didn't give up blogging for Lent.

Life interrupted.

To re-cap the novel situation:

We're in Beta-read mode. I transformed The Mist manuscript into five paperback copies and distributed them to select members interested in providing feedback to the

I'm nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous (Thank you, Mr. Poe).

Kind of like when you're waiting for an answer from your boss about a possible job promotion or potential layoff.

Or like one of those high school deals where you left that secret someone a note in her locker, asking her to the dance, and minutes later you cross paths with her in the hallway, and she gives you that look and it sends you scurrying into the paranoid corner of your mind. What did she mean by that? Her eyes looked crazy! Oh, she hates me...that sort of thing.

So that's how I'm feeling when I run into those individuals clutching my paperback manuscript as they quicken their steps down the hall, or turn their head when I smile in their direction.

And the silence, that's killer too.  I mean, i don't want to hover around them, asking questions.  In my head I'm asking  how far in the book have you gotten so far?  What do you think?  But thankfully my mouth doesn't cooperate and I instead stammer something about pitcher John Lackey's inability to get anyone out in the game the night before.

It also doesn't help that I'm going through that everything-I-write-sucks phase, too. 

Take this blog entry, for  Yeah, good one, eh?  No, really.  it was good, right? Wait, it's bad, isn't it? You hate it.  Be honest.  C'mon, I'm craving feedback.  I can take it. 


No I can't.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Writing Withdrawal...Now What?

Last night I sent my revised YA paranormal/suspense manuscript off to my literary agent.  I expected to feel a sense of relief wash over me when I clicked the mouse to send it off, but instead, I found myself staring at the words "message sent" hanging on the screen, a feeling of angst and anxiety tumbling through my insides.

For the past several weeks I've filled just about every waking moment making the last push-- editing, writing, rewriting, wordsmithing-- and though it involved a great deal of work, my energy level and creativity hit levels equivalent to when I banged out the original.  I felt like my "A" game had returned and it was really like a writer's natural high.

I wish I could say the entire process was enjoyable, but it was not.  The first roadblock was trying to discern which nuggets of advice to follow when it came to rewriting the manuscript, and often those two avenues of thought were diametrically opposed.

Then came the surgery.  Artfully removing characters, implanting new ones, altering events and changing dialogue and then seemlessly grafting them together-- giving the story time to heal and recover.

In the end, I'm very happy with the changes.  Now the question is whether the publishers will agree, and that's not including the state of the publishing world, etc.  Probably not a great time being a new author trying to break into the biz, but that seems to be true across all industries.

Fingers crossed.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Who do we really write for?

So, I just passed the one year mark on getting the news from my literary agent that all of the publishing houses where she submitted my YA paranormal/suspense manuscript said, "No thanks."  I remember the call vividly.  I was watching my son try out for Little League in the middle school gymnasium.

His tryout was going about as well as my phone call.

Of the ten houses where the manuscript was sent, only two even replied back.  Little Brown was the most gracious, sending a detailed critique.

My agent remained upbeat, even while I sat there like a puddle of goo watching my son take grounders on the wood floor.  We'll just rewrite and resubmit, she said.  It's a normal part of the process. Don't give up.

She was right, of course.  But I couldn't help but feel like one of those kids trying out for a baseball team.  Three years and still the answer was, No.  So, I clicked off the cell and resolved to make the changes necessary to get published.

Therein lies the rub.  What changes does one make to ensure publication?  What's the balance between an author's satisfaction with a piece of work and the acquisition committee in some board room collectively nodding its head that my words will leap off the page and hit the right demographic?

My agent had a few people read the manuscript and give me feedback.  The problem was, those individuals took me in very different directions.  One critique was a 45 minute phone call with suggestions ranging from making my adult characters carry some secret sin to the protagonist's mother having an affair with the town sheriff. At one point during the call, I wondered if this person had even read my novel.

The story had become muddled in my mind, characters walking in circles, listlessly waiting for me to give them a new direction, a new life.  It wasn't long before I became as listless and aimless as them, hence the one year anniversary of rewriting the book.  So, now I would estimate that I'm 75% through the manuscript.  Some days the words flow out, others, it feels like concrete hitting the page.  But my characters are responding, making new decisions, taking new chances, and there are even some new faces born.

In the end, I went with my gut, and traveled back to the one paragraph critique sent by Little Brown as a starting point.  The advice from the editor made the most sense to me.

But it was my wife, Beth, who really set me straight:  It's your story, just tell it the way you want to tell it.

Words to write by.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Despised on a Grecian Urn

If my sophomore English students could lay hands on some clay, fire up a kiln, and forever capture their enmity for me at this moment, I would probably be depicted on the side of an urn plastered with a large target on my chest, Greek soldiers armed with sharp spears bearing down upon me.

"I hate you," one student said, half joking, half not, as I moved about the room monitoring the small groups as they annotated the John Keats poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn.  The room grew quiet, some uncomfortable laughter emerged, all eyes peeled on me for some response.

Another student chimed in, "C'mon Mr. A., that's probably not the first time you've heard that." More laughter followed by a chorus of "ooooh's" and "aaaahhh's."

True that.

But in my heart, I could feel their pain.  After all, I was asking them to think for themselves, and at nine o'clock in the morning.

They were stripped of Google, SparkNotes, Facebook, I-Pods blaring in their ears.  They were forced to talk to each other, to converse, to think, to wrestle with words....and initially, most of them felt it was an impossible task.  But as the minutes ticked away, conversations about the poem hummed along, pens found paper, questions flew around the room, and in the end, the kids felt good about their accomplishment.

Who woulda thunk it?

A recent NPR report focusing on a new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, focuses on the steady decline of students' high order thinking skills at the college level.  One suggestion asserted by the co-author of the book, Richard Arum, is the lack of academic rigor.  According to the NPR report, Arum asserts that professors are more interested in receiving favorable student evaluation reviews by students, than slamming them with a hefty term paper.  It seems popularity transcends raising the bar.

Interesting thought when one scans the high school landscape.

Rigor is a word thrown around at my school, but I'm not sure the current academic atmosphere is conducive for raising the bar.  I don't think it has much to do with a teacher fearing his or her popularity, but there are other contributing factors.

Here's a quick list:

#1-  The school culture says it's the teacher's fault. The message from on high is that it's the teacher's responsibility if the student is struggling.  We will leave no child behind, every student will have a success plan in place, pass the CAPT to graduate, etc., and the teacher will ensure that this happens. To a degree, I suppose this is true, because we are responsible for teaching, assessing, reflecting, etc., but it also seems as though less accountability is placed on the student to rise above expectations, grab that educational brass ring and run with it.  Students seem to want to complete the bare minimum and expect to receive top grades for it. 

#2-   Shrinking budgets.  Raise your hand if you still have an enrichment program at your high school.  Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?  Bueller?

#3. Soaring class size.  And I'm not just talking about a student's waistline (see Michelle Obama leads fight to make kids healthy as they melt into the couch whilst playing X-Box).  Hard to assign those hefty term papers when you've got 120 of them to grade.  Studies show that narrative feedback and conferencing are the best methods of improving student writing, but with student class loads spiraling upward, it tends to curtail such practice.

Essentially, schools are stuck in the "tread water" mode.  With the economy in such a dismal state, school districts are slashing budgets resulting in fewer teachers, resources, and programs.  It's hard to build up academic rigor when schools can barely meet basic needs.  Pretty dismal outlook, eh?

My solution has been to close the classroom door and design lessons that work within the classroom, without the expectation of outside completion when it comes to the higher order thinking part.  This seems to run counter-intuitive because we strive to create lifelong learners, but when kids can Google a scholar's interpretation of a poem, they tend to cut and paste, blindly accepting what the "expert" states.  It's much easier than thinking on their own.

I try to emphasize the analytical skills, the importance of rhetoric, pose the questions, stress the value of thinking and questioning ideas.  Hopefully, some of it will take hold, and if they hate me for it, I guess I can live with that.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Lobster: A Life Lesson for Writers

My wife's birthday follows the holidays with breakneck speed.  We are usually so burnt from festivities that she often gets less than a stellar celebration, but this year I decided to surprise her with one of her favorite's:  Lobster dinner.

So, I cruised down to Big Y, bought four lobsters, some Idaho baking potatoes, salad fixings, ciabatta bread, and even some flowers for the table.  I was on a roll.  A lobster roll...hehehehe, sorry, couldn't resist.

Arrived home and within minutes the lobsters were stranded in a potted steam bath, potatoes hummed along on the microwave carousel, ciabbatta sliced and fanned out on a plate, salad tossed and adorned with Chatham Croutons.

I threw in a Peter Mulvey CD, dimmed the lights for ambiance. The room filled with laughter, smiles...everything working and perfect.  What a celebration!  What a time to be together!

I plated the meal for all in attendance.  The largest lobster, a mixture of fiery orange and dimpled brown, for my wife, a baked potato with sour cream, salad on the side.

What a birthday!

She smiled, I smiled, we all smiled.

And in my heart, I made a little check mark, right in the left ventricle.  "You done good on this one, Joe.  You done good!"

And then...

Yes, and then...

We all looked down at the orange crustaceans staring up at us.

The lobsters were laughing, you see.

They knew.  They understood.

Mine, in particular, leering up at me said, "Oh, yes, you had no problem throwing us in the steam bath, you putz, but guess what, the last laugh is on you!"

It was my very astute son who made the horrific realization first.  "Uh, Dad, how the heck are we supposed to eat these things?"

I looked at my wife, and sounding very much like my students in block six, uttered the word "Shiznit" or something to that effect.

We scrambled through the drawers, the garage, the utility room.  Through wayward picnic baskets and cardboard boxes, and all the while I could hear the mocking laughter of the crustaceans cooling on their plates.  "Creee, creee, creee, you moron.  You can cook us, but you can't eat us!"

Minutes ticked by, and finally we slumped down in front of our plates, exhausted from our search.  "They must be in storage," said my wife.

Sure enough, I could picture the box they were in...the lobster eating kits containing claw crackers, little pics, miles away, locked up safe and sound.

I stared down at the plate.  "Moron," the lobster said.  Then he winked at me.

"Oh yeah!"  I flew out of my chair, stomping to the garage.  "I'll be baaacccck!" I shouted in my best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice.

My son turned to my wife, "What's he doing?"

She shrugged her shoulders.

My son's mouth dropped open as I returned brandishing weapons of war.  I tossed my son a hammer and my wife a pair of pliers.  "Dig in."  It was like SpongeBob meets The Shining. 

As the minutes passed by we began to adapt and develop various techniques of eating lobster with Craftsman tools.  Direct smacks with the hammer tended to spray bits of lobster in a shotgun spread-like pattern against the wall.  Crossed that one off the list.  Needle-nose pliers worked best for retrieving meet from claws.  There was one scary moment when Adam launched part of a claw into mid-air, nearly blinding the birthday girl, but no damage was done. In the end, mankind triumphed over crustacean.  We were able to devour our meals (Thank you, Sears).  The birthday was saved.

         Adam, adapting and conquering his dinner with pliers.

Days later, it dawned on me that this little mishap in planning the perfect dinner mirrored my recent struggles with writing.  We go in with what we think is the perfect plan, and then all hell breaks loose because we can't find the "tools" to implement our ideas.  Characters rebel against us, disappear, and suddenly new ones arrive, and within thirty pages, it's a new book.  Sometimes we willingly follow their leads and the path brightens, and sometimes they totally screw us over.  We leave them stranded in a cornfield for weeks on end (true story), waiting for us to save them, to turn the next page and breathe life into their lives. I wish I could send a text message or a greeting card apologizing for my inadequacies, but they would probably gather round and tear it up. I know them that well.

Sometimes I wish I could be prepared, have all the tools at hand to perfectly execute where I want things to go, but it's not textbook surgery or car repair from a manual, and I suppose it shouldn't be at that.  Real writing is supposed to be messy, unpredictable, and damned hard to do at times, especially when we have a million other things on the list ahead of it.  But I often find that sometimes, stepping out of my comfort zone and trusting a character to lead the way gets me out of a fix.  In the end, good writers find what it takes to get the story told, no matter the tool or device.  Yeah, sometimes writing is like eating a lobster with a ball peen hammer.

PS-  I caught Adam eating scrambled eggs with a 3/8 inch socket wrench this morning.  That's my boy.