Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Star Is Born

I’m a rock star. I have now joined the likes of the Beatles, Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Milli Vanilli and Shakira in lip-syncing a tune—one of my own—for the camera.

Let me start at the beginning.

In January, Jim Ebert, the founder of Cancer Can Rock (CCR), suggested I do a turn for his organization. Jim created CCR a few years ago. He gets musicians who have cancer into a sound studio to record one of their tunes for posterity. Jim got the idea because he was diagnosed with brain cancer fifteen years ago and told at the time that he had a year to live. Obviously, he outlasted the prediction. He’s now cancer-free, but one of the things he considered while undergoing chemo and radiation treatments was how impermanent life was. He wanted to leave something behind for his family and friends…

Since Jim’s a music producer, he is surrounded by singers, musicians, songwriters, and recording engineers and it struck him that a recorded song on a CD would have permanence. If worst comes to worst, the CD will outlive the performer and be something the family can hold onto.

Back to now.  I am at Cue Recording Studios in Falls Church, Virginia, where CCR records. I was here years ago when the band I played with did a CD and had it finalized here. Today, I have a song I wrote when I was first diagnosed with cancer. It is not a happy air; it’s an equal-opportunity-offend-all-deities tune, maybe a little angry because cancer is supposed to happen to other people, not to me.

I sing the song a couple of times and the session musicians do an arrangement that is right out of spaghetti Westerns.  In other words, it’s perfect.  I sing some more. The hours speed by and the song comes together nicely. The clinker notes I hit, all sharps and flats, are fixed. A woman with a stunning voice does some really beautiful backup. My own voice is doubled so I sound, well, rock-starrish. The guitarist does a cool intro and a musical break in the middle. The guy is good! By the time the drummer packs up his gear, we have the beginning of something different and entertaining.

Meanwhile, a two-person video crew is taping all this for CCR’s website (www.cancercanrock.org). We do an interview. Jim asks questions about my situation; we talk for a few minutes on the impact cancer has on one’s life.  We relate well because he’s been through the same thing as me. Truth is, it’s almost impossible to talk about how much cancer can affect every day existence unless it’s to someone who’s in the same boat.

After the interview, the video guys need me to lip-sync a couple of verses of my song.  They’ll synchronize it later with the actual recording.

I have never done this before.

I’ve played and sang with bands, but whenever I did, words actually came out of my mouth. Not so here.  I mouth the opening line of the song, “Jesus my friend, you weren’t here in the end…”  I do it several times while the camera guy finds the angle that will make me look like an international sensation. I am instructed to look poetically to the right. Then I am told to put on a Clint Eastwood stare-at-the-darkening-horizon squint. I’m pretty sure I look like Jerry Lewis trying to look like Clint Eastwood.

Once more. This synching stuff is hard!  I lip-sync, “Buddha you would’ve, if only you could’ve…  I’m pretty sure my mouth looks as if it’s saying something about butter and maybe Gouda cheese. I lip-sync so much my lips get sore. I get a new appreciation for Mariah Carey, who lip-synced Touch My Body on Good Morning America.

Finally, the video producer says, “We’re done.”  With the acting through, we get back to real singing because unbeknownst to me, all the prior vocals were just practice.  I am starting to get a little hoarse.  Sean, who’s working the mixing board, keeps saying, “That was great! Awesome! Now do it just one more time!”  He says that seven times. My delivery is getting better. When we reach the song’s final line, “God bless me!” I really mean it. And then Sean says, “Okay, take a break.”

And that’s that. We listen to what we have. I’m thrilled!  My friend Rich who suggested the CCR gig, comes by and gives a listen. He says, “That came out different from what I thought!”  He’s right, but that’s what makes playing music with others so enjoyable. You can’t tell what you’ll end up with. I didn’t know I had a spaghetti Western tune in my repertoire.

Jim will use his skills to finalize the tune, blending bits and pieces of track to make a complete song.  The video guys will edit their footage and, I pray, not make me look too foolish.  It will all come together within two or three weeks.

Folks, I have arrived!



Sunday, February 22, 2015

New Writers

New writers. I love them.

I’ve been privileged to meet a few, and one quite recently, who reminded me of the passion writing can engender. She was open to possibilities, eager to work, and so full of ideas and notions that they bumped into each other coming from her mouth.

It was both wonderful and amazing to see the light in her eyes, and speaking with her I had the strange sensation of passing the baton to a new generation. It felt good, if somewhat scary.

I distinctly remember the very first time I was published in the Washington Post. It’s as fresh in my mind as the last time I was published in Chrysalis, a wonderful magazine that, like many, fell victim a few months ago to online publishing. I can’t recall every story that has worn my byline, but I had a gratifying moment about a month ago when I found a briefcase full of long-forgotten clippings. My stuff, published long ago and now yellowing.

The enthusiasm I had in decades past for putting words to paper still resides somewhere inside, but it’s been tempered by the necessity of using those words to make money, and I have not done that particularly well.  

In the years I’ve spent writing, there have been books, magazine pieces, documentaries, short stories, newspaper articles, and radio programs destined to be heard in developing countries. There’s even been the odd play or two, and dozens upon dozens of songs. Some have been performed; most have not, and none, not one, has brought fame or riches, or retirement benefits.

Yet every word typed was read and reread; every sentence was parsed. I still pore over each  page I type  and sometimes almost memorize it.  I ache over dialogue. I have authored endless bons mots.  I am totally enamored of creating characters and watching them grow. If I’ve built them well, if I have succeeded in imparting some humanity to them, then they sprout legs and walk away from me without once looking back. They become intent on leading their own lives, which I can only chronicle, much as a man watching the night sky might witness a comet. It has never been dull, or quotidian.

I believe in the paucity of words, and I am sure that over-writing is the eighth cardinal sin.

I have played fast and loose with grammar and have fought a losing war with the serial (or Oxford)  comma—that little earthbound apostrophe that precedes the conjunction before the final item in a list of three or more items.

I have authored sentences that go on forever with minimal attention to punctuation, much to the annoyance of editors I’ve worked with. I have tried to paint with words. Sometimes, I am told, I’ve been successful in creating such imagery that the reader stops and savors the moment. 

My new friend has a good start. She has word sense and sentence rhythm, and if she strings too many adjectives in a row, it’s an excusable fault. I still do it all the time, and I do not have the defense of inexperience.

I’ve promised to help her whenever she wants, but I wonder if that was wise. There are much better—and more successful—writers out there, and the sort of stuff I do is no longer as popular as it once was. I like to think I write literary fiction, but it may be a dying skill. Still, sitting across the table from her was a rare joy.

 We writers are caretakers, and builders and architects. We are the memory of man and womankind. We may save the world, and if we fail to do so, we’ll be there to chronicle its ending.

What greater responsibility could we possibly have?  

Monday, February 16, 2015


When you live in an older house, and it’s winter, and the outdoor temperature is in the teens, the sound of God is the sound of the furnace turning on.

Today, just past 2 p.m., it’s 11° with a wind-chill factor nearing zero. The cold penetrates my home whose windows are not all double-paned.

Mine is a largish detached single-family cottage created in the early 1960s.  There is a multitude of such homes—life-size Monopoly tokens—in Northern Virginia.  Many were built for the blue-collar workers and GIs who populated the area a couple of generations ago, and many have been torn down and replaced with bigger and more modern houses, The homes like mine that  have survived are thoroughly middle-class and growing in value. Their days are numbered. The migration of government workers from Washington, D.C., to the Virginia suburbs is constant and steady. The dotcom companies that have sprung up in my area employ thousands, and they’ve been buying up and tearing down.

The three-bedroom (small) two-and-a-half-baths bungalows plunked down on a third of an acre plot originally cost about $25,000. They were put up when energy was so cheap that trying to build a structure that did not leak heat wasn’t worth the cost. In my house, the windows that I have not replaced with more efficient models allow a transfer of heat that basically attempts to warms my back yard.  The basement where I write is a good ten degrees cooler than the upstairs bedroom, and the only thing between me and frostbite is my ancient gas furnace. 

By ancient, I mean about 25 years old.  I replaced the heating/cooling system when I bought the place in the late 80s. I  had a new roof put in and at about the same time I decided to insulate the basement myself, which helped, but only a little.

About ten years ago, we had a snowstorm that, though mild by today’s Boston standards, knocked down power lines and left tens of thousands of Virginians without heat or electricity. I took refuge in a local motel that reeked of stale smoke and considered myself lucky to find a room. Hotels were booked solid, and quite a few people ended up spending a small fortune huddling five to a room in suburban Hiltons.

I spent three incredibly depressing days in this noxious environment as I waited for the power company to restore service. The guests in an adjoining room had three kids, including a newborn that cried most of the time. They argued in a language I couldn’t recognize and slammed the doors often. When I got back to my home I spent another twenty hours waiting for the house to get warm enough to spend the night. The furnace kicked on intermittently and I held my breath while it did its job.

Now it’s almost a decade later and I’m holding my breath again.

I’ve tried to calculate how many times the thermostat has sparked and started the small electric motor that pushes the heat into the ducts and into the rooms. I hear the click perhaps every three minutes. That’s twenty times an hour, four-hundred-and-eighty times a day, give or take a few.  In the summer, the same mechanism that governs the heat starts and stops the air conditioning, so that in a given year, the heating system operates about 330 days. I’m no math genius, but that means the system kick on about 160,000 yearly. Over a decade, that’s 1.6 million offs and ons.

Jeez. The sheer number terrifies me. Replacing the system will cost approximately ten grand, so I’m holding off.

I’ve woken up in the middle of the night persuaded that something in the heart of my house had just failed. I listen to my heartbeat. Then I hear the welcome click, whirr, woosh. The furnace works.

I give thanks to the furnace god.


Saturday, February 14, 2015

Me (Moi) Part 3

I had to write a longish bio for an upcoming online book promo. Since I’m too lazy to write a blog today, I thought I’d offer a three-parter on me me me me me me. This is part three. That’s all. I promise.

I wrote and sold The IFO Report; the novel was optioned for a movie that was never produced. I was hired by a UN organization to help start up a magazine and given the opportunity to travel all over the world writing about the organization’s projects. I stayed there for more than a decade, and then decided to strike out on my own.

I returned to school and got the necessary creds to become a drug and alcohol counselor. I worked for several area rehabs and ended up in the world’s most depressing job—dispensing methadone to heroin addicts. For hours on end I sat behind a bulletproof plate glass window, taking in soiled five dollar bills and buzzing addicts in so they could get their daily fix. This gave me the incentive to write The Thirst (formerly titled The Girl, the Drugs, and the Man Who Couldn’t Drink), a novel dealing with the dangerous lives of recovering addicts.

Last year, I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize following a story published in Chrysalis magazine. I didn’t win but, still and all, it felt good.

I write because it’s what I know how to do, and what I do best. I don’t necessarily believe in God-given talent; in fact I’m pretty sure putting words to paper is nothing more than a craft. You become good and better at it by practice, much as a cabinet-maker gets more skilled the longer he’s at the trade. My favorite saying is, “Writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”  Mary Heaton Vorse, a labor writer, said that a century ago and it’s still true.

I write every day. I write blogs, novels, short stories, non-fiction books and the occasional play. It’s feast or famine with a preponderance of famine, but that’s okay.

I believe you need an enormous ego to write, and monstrous chutzpah to really believe that one’s thoughts and ideas will be of interest to others. Thick skin is a prerequisite; writers live amidst rejection—from agents, publishing houses, editors and readers. This being said, writing is also the only endeavor where I refuse to indulge in false modesty. I think I’m pretty good.

Three years ago I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. I’ve undergone eight operations and three courses of chemotherapy, and at this time I still don’t know whether I’ll be cured. It’s scary and has not been pleasant. I’ve written at length about it, because that’s what I do.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Me Part 2

I had to write a longish bio for an upcoming online book promo. Since I’m too lazy to write a blog today, I thought I’d offer a three-parter on me me me me me me. This is part two.



My family moved to the United States when I was ten. By age sixteen I had written a series of short stories in English—my chosen writing language—on the unfairness of society and the tribulations of being an immigrant. I wrote songs, poetry, essays, fiction, a play, and complicated letters to an imaginary friend who, I think, got bored. One day he left.


I struggled through both American high school and the curriculum of a French lycée. I went on to attend Georgetown University’s Foreign Service School but dropped out when offered a copyboy position with the Washington Post.


In time I became an in-house free-lancer specializing in the nascent hippy movement. I wrote about radicals, Yippies, Black Panthers, drug dealers, thieves and scammers, bikers and rock stars. I was in the newsroom during Watergate. I participated ever-so-slightly in the scandal’s coverage by fielding telephone calls from Martha Mitchell, the demented wife of Richard Nixon’s duplicitous Attorney General, John Mitchell. I left the paper after a noisy disagreement with the then-editor, Ben Bradlee, who did not approve of a story I had written for the Sunday Post about being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.


By then, I had written Bike! Motorcycles and the People Who Ride Them. Harper & Row published it, but unfortunately, the book hit the shelves the same week as another bike book that became an overnight classic—Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I got a shining review from Rolling Stone, did a quick book tour, and some radio and television talk shows. My future as a writer was assured.


I free-lanced compulsively. I wrote for newspaper and magazines both here and in Europe. I produced short television documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and authored weekly columns for Le Devoir, Montreal’s leading newspaper, and other publications. I had regular shows on Radio Canada and Radio Romane. I got married and divorced. I learned how to play the guitar and the Dobro and played in blue grass and rock ‘n’ roll bands. I was commissioned to do a tourist book for Washingtonian magazine. I traveled cross-country to help a French reporter for the Le Figaro newspaper write a series of articles on American youth. In short, I had a blast.



Thursday, February 12, 2015



I had to write a longish bio for an upcoming online book promo. Since I’m too lazy to write a blog today, I thought I’d offer a three-parter on me me me me me me.


I was conceived in an army truck and born on the radio.


Well, almost.


I was actually born in the freight elevator of the American hospital just outside of Paris, France. A rookie policeman delivered me between the third and fourth floor during a rare snowstorm in the City of Lights.


My parents met at the end of World War II. Both were soldiers with the Free French, the breakaway remnant of the French military that refused to surrender to the Germans after the capitulation of France. Their eyes met and that same evening—or so I was told—they consummated their union in a US Army truck. The one-night stand would last a lifetime.


After the war, both found jobs as actors in a soap opera aired on Radio France. My father, who spoke English, portrayed a not-too-bright American GI married to my mother, a wily French maiden. The show was live, wildly popular, and broadcast daily. One evening as they were reciting their lines to the microphones, my mother went into labor. She never quite made it to the delivery room.


My mother was an artist, a musician and an author. My father was a journalist who had studied violin at the Versailles conservatory. I was destined to write or play music. I do both.


My first literary work was an out-and-out theft. I was six years old and envious of a child celebrity, Minou Drouet, a little girl whose poems had been published in French magazines. Her name was on everyone’s lips. She was a genius, an enfant prodige, and the decorated pride of the nation 


I decided to be the same. I copied some poems from a book in my parents’ library, appropriated authorship, and proudly showed the works to my mother. She was thrilled and immediately summoned the media. My subterfuge failed and a fiasco ensued. I was seriously chastised and I’m not sure my mother ever really forgave me for not being the wunderkind she thought she deserved.



Monday, February 9, 2015


And while we're talking about writers, I'll tell you that I know a lot of them--novelists; tech folks who put out those incredibly complex computer manuals; and others who write and edit the legislation of the land. There are a screenwriter or two, a playwright specializing in children's theater, a couple of poets. I know one splendid young woman whose books are so amazing and beautiful that she should be a household name but isn't. One good friend is the British author of historical romances that have sold in the millions.  There are Pulitzer Prize winners from the old days at The Washington Post, and a science fiction author who has won the top prizes in the genre. I even know one lady who writes dirty limericks, though the buyers' market for that is pretty slim. The most widely distributed—if not read—of them all, though, is probably the author of the safety warning found on every can of Duron paint manufactured and sold throughout the North American hemisphere.
Some write by the pound, others specialize in haiku-like brevity. Every writer I know follows some rite of creation. The woman whose fiction I so admire sits among orchids, wearing earplugs. A few must be hungry; one has to just have been fed. A novelist friend can only write in his bathrobe. It is old and needs replacing, but he is persuaded that his talents will vanish if the bathrobe disappears. When he washes it—he does so twice a year—he will stand by the washing machine until the cycles are done. He dries it outside because he wants the terrycloth to benefit from the sun's Vitamin D. My friend C does a set of calisthenics, running in place, followed by deep breathing and stretching exercises before hitting the keyboard. Interestingly enough, none of the writers I know smoke, though a lot drink and do other drugs.
All in all, writing is the height of self-centeredness. One of my books comes in at 389 pages, and contains 112,742 words. Another novel I recently finished is set in Paris just after World War I. It is 456 pages long after editing.
I look at such numbers and think of the conceit necessary to produce a book. I am amazed by the fact that I believe, really believe, readers might spend several hours over several days wandering through a world I invented and peopled. Who the hell do I think I am? A writer, I guess.