Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Outrage


There seems to be a lot of outrage going around.

Cops are shooting people—mostly Black people—and getting away with it, which leads to outraged folks—mostly Black people, too—pouring into the streets and sometimes rioting and putting police cars, liquor stores and your local CVS to the torch. This is reported in full color by outraged CNN correspondents intent on getting the most dramatic story for their outraged viewers. Since stories are generally slow to develop—as are simmering riots—the correspondents replay the most powerful scenes repeatedly, in effect fanning the flames and ensuring that the outrage spread.

None of this serves any cause.

Cops shouldn’t shoot people. That they do is tragic and inevitable because cops carry guns for the very purpose of shooting people. Admittedly, they should fire their guns only in situations where lives—theirs or others—are in jeopardy. The problem there is what you consider a life-threatening situation will probably be very different from what I consider a life-threatening situation. We will react differently, you and I. I might be more frightened than you are, or you might be angrier than me, and the end results of our behaviors will vary. One of us may shoot and the other not.

There’s good reason to be outraged by the actions of one Charles Bates, a wealthy 73-year-old insurance executive who likes to play cops and robbers. Mr. Bates accidentally shot Eric Harris, an unarmed man, with his gun, thinking it was his Taser. This is not the sort of a mistake you want to make in a tussle.

According to the Los Angeles Times, another deputy berated the dying man who was on the ground and shouting, “Oh God, he shot me; I didn’t do sh--!”

An officer responds, “You didn’t do sh---? You didn’t do sh---?”

Harris then says, “I’m losing my breath.”

The officer responds, “F--- your breath!”

Harris died an hour later.

The sheriff’s office concluded that Bates’ shooting of Harris was excusable homicide, and not a crime.

Okay. Now that’s outrageous.

I’m still a little confused whether it’s outrageous to destroy the stores in your own neighborhood as a sign of your outrage.

That’s anybody’s call.

 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Dani's Camino


My friend Dani is going for a 500-mile walk. She’s leaving tonight but I suspect from her recent demeanor that she’s already been gone for a while. That’s generally what happens when you’re off on a grand adventure. You actually leave a long time before you go.

She’ll be doing the Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James. She’ll begin at St. Jean Pied du Port in southern France and cross the Pyrenees, then walk west in Spain through Basque country and end up in Santiago de Compostela, near the Atlantic Ocean.  Legend has it this is where the remains of St. James are buried. She’ll have plenty of company. The trek draws thousands of pilgrims a year on foot, on bicycle, and occasionally on horseback or mules.

Dani has been preparing for this trip for months. Her pack will weigh seventeen pounds, though she was hoping for fifteen. She has weighed every single item she’ll be carrying, and she recently spent the better part of fifteen minutes worrying about the weight of a hairbrush. She is not taking make-up. Nor will she be carrying her heavy camera, though she will have an iPad and an iPhone. She is prepared for rain, as this is the wet season, and she has spent a part of each weekend for the last few months slogging through mud and muck. Her favorite saying is that it’s not poor weather, it’s poor equipment.  

Dani wants to write a book about her Camino, which is what she calls it. She’s already blogged about it extensively and I’ve no doubt the experiences garnered on the trail will be worth reading.

She’s hoping the long time away—almost six weeks—will help her come to some decisions about her life, and harden her resolve regarding some choices already made. She’s young, attractive, smart and single. She has a good job that doesn’t fully satisfy her creative urges. Like many writers, photographers, musicians and other imaginative sorts, she’s torn between having the security of a salary and the lure of inspired self-employment. She’d like to be able to devote her full existence to the craft she’s honing, and make a living at it. She’s also savvy enough to realize that earning a paycheck from your passion is iffy. Almost all artists will tell you it’s more famine than feast.

I’m envious. Decades ago I went to that area of France and Spain and spent a summer in Santander. The Camino existed then, of course—it’s been traveled by pilgrims since before the Middle Ages—but I never heard of it.

I’ve started looking at websites; Dani has lent me a couple of books. I too have to make some decisions about the future. The Camino is tempting.

 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Big Sean vs Marcel Duchamp


Mired in Northern Virginia traffic, a good spring day and car windows are rolled down. I am idling next to a Toyota whose stereo system is blasting, “I ain’t f*cking with you, you little dumb ass bitch.” This is shouted about twenty times by a singer—I use the word loosely—named Big Sean. Big Sean changes the words once or twice to, “I don’t f*ck with you, you li’l stupid ass bitch,” and caps it off with, “You li’l, you li’l Bitch, I don’t give a f*ck about you or anything that you do.” Notice that this rhymes, an accomplishment repeated eight to twelve times. The lyrics are accompanied by the sort of minimalist electronic backbeat favored a decade or so ago by the German group Kraftwerk.

Personally, I’m fascinated by anything that can mix anger, potential violence, illiteracy, misogyny and meaningless cursing so effectively in so few words. I suspect there are a few neat-o dance moves when this is performed live. As they say in my neighborhood, congrats, Big Sean, you da man.

But here’s a thought that crept in as the Toyota pulled away.  I’m wondering if maybe Big Sean is the Marcel Duchamp of our time. You remember Marcel, of the 1917 Fountain sculpture, which was nothing more than a urinal. It caused a sensation and redefined art. Is that what Big Sean is doing? Shocking us into an awareness that all is not as it appears to be?

Nah. Been there, done that. Using the word f*ck gratuitously is nothing new. It’s been overdone in music, literature, and movies, and now seems hopelessly juvenile. In contrast, there was something behind Duchamp’s urinal, a desire to prove that art could be readymade, and that the artist was displaying creativity by choosing, by displaying new thought to select the object shown. In other words, Duchamp moved art from the realm of the never-before-seen-until-conceived to that of the quotidian. Big Sean is cashing in on our weariness for the ugly, the stupid, and inappropriate.

Some of Duchamp’s works will be displayed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, beginning August 9. On that exact same day, Big Sean will be appearing in Washington as well. Coincidence, or what?

I’m pretty sure I know where I’ll be.

 

 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Rookery Blues


Lately I’ve been rereading Rookery Blues, a wonderful book by the late Jon Hassler whose works often center on small-town life in Minnesota.  Hassler was a careful writer of beautiful phrasing and lively dialogue.  His characters were carefully drawn, and he imbued each and every one of them with grand frailties that gave them life.

Rookery Blues is one of his most memorable works. To quote Amazon (because it’s easier than coming up with my own summary), “Rookery State College in the late 1960s is an academic backwater if ever there was one--until the Icejam Quintet is born. With Leland Edwards on piano, Neil Novotny on clarinet, Victor Dash on drums, and Connor on bass, the group comes together with the help of its muse, the lovely Peggy Benoit, who plays saxophone and sings. But soon isolated Rookery State will be touched by the great discontent sweeping the country: the first labor union in the college's history comes noisily to campus. As a teachers strike takes shape, the five musicians must struggle with their loyalties--to the school, the town, their families, and one another.”

So, not the stuff of high adventure. The book move slowly, like the blues played by its musicians, one of whom, the clarinet-blowing Neil Novotny, is working on his first novel. Novotny is a lousy college professor—uninterested in his students, arrogant, obsessed, and willing to give easy A’s to students who simply show up for his class. He’s unlikeable from the start and does not grow on you.

The first time I read Rookery Blues some ten years ago, I developed an excessive dislike for Novotny. He is beautifully drawn as simpering and clueless, and Hassler imbued him with all the clich├ęd shortcomings of a failed artist. He lives in the opposite of a garret—a dank rented basement whose upstairs neighbors, construction workers, have little use for the late night clattering of his typewriter and threaten him with bodily harm. The plot of Novotny’s book constantly bogs down and its characters are one-dimensional. Yet he stays up at night, an insomniac working out descriptive bits. Should his heroine say “Hi,” or “Hello,” or perhaps nothing at all? Should she lose her right or left shoe as she escapes, Eliza-like, from the clutches of the bad guy? Does the snow cover like a blanket? A shroud? A  mantle? A veil?

Here’s my point. I know a lot of writers. None of them are tortured souls. Mostly, they’d like to be able to write and a make a living at it, but the majority does not because it’s not feast or famine, it’s famine or worst famine. They write because they love writing, it feeds their souls if not their stomachs. Not one has ever confessed to pacing the floor at three in the morning trying to figure out how snow covers stuff.  And, being a writer, I can apply that to myself. There are many reasons to stay up worrying—in my case health, money, a sputtering 30-year-old car, and a failing furnace—but few reasons have ever had to do with a character I created, or the cul-de-sac I wrote myself into.

And so I wonder, why did Hassler create such a formulaic personality? Was it a private joke? Was he describing his early self? Or was he simply satirizing the starving-artist stereotype?

No matter. I highly recommend Hassler’s work. He wrote almost a dozen novels, all ultimately satisfying and you could do a lot worse than spend an hour or two with his people in a small Minnesota town.  

 

Friday, April 10, 2015

Reviews


I got the first negative review on my book Thirst, which was released last month. The reviewer really didn’t like it and found fault with the plot, the characters, the book’s setting, the action (or lack thereof) and even the spelling—she noted there were typos. She ended her ten-line critique with, “I guess the bottom line for me is this...if your (sic) going to write a story and expect someone to want to read it then maybe make it a story worth telling so people would want to read it, talk about it and pass it on.” Which, I suppose, she didn’t.

I’d sent this person the book free of charge since she had reviewed a somewhat similar book positively a few months ago.

The sight of only two out of five stars in the review column initially angered me, particularly since every other review was four or more stars. I wondered what was wrong with this woman.  Who wouldn’t love a book about an alcoholic amateur detective fighting a drug lord in the Nation’s Capital? Sex! Drugs! Washington, D.C.! What’s not to like!

I immediately began plotting a revenge. Then I had a square of dark chocolate, watched a couple episodes of The Tudors and went to sleep. In the morning decided one bad review wasn’t going to affect me.

Certainly, my writing has been criticized before. I regularly attend a couple of writers’ groups where I routinely present a book chapter, or short story, or even a simple idea that might germinate into something larger. Members of these get-togethers are not shy in stating their opinions. They’ll tear into a word, a sentence, a concept or a comma. Their comments and thoughts, though, are almost always constructive. I go home afterwards, gather all the comments, and decide which ones are valid points. Then I rewrite. Only once did a fellow writer really slam me. I reread his observations several times, and decided he made many good points. I redrafted the entire chapter in question.

Long ago, I wrote a book titled Bike! Motorcycles and the People Who Ride Them. A magazine sent a copy to a member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang and asked him to review it. He did, writing, “This guy don’t know f*ck about motorcycle.”

That remains my all-time favorite review of anything I’ve written.

 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Shameless Self-promotion


My first book was published about 40 years ago. I had written a story for the Washington Post Sunday magazine about bikers—motorcyclists—and Harper and Row contacted me. Would I like to do a book? I hadn’t considered writing books at the time, but this seemed viable. No agents were involved. Harper & Row sent me a contract. I read it; it was straightforward so I signed on the dotted line and never once regretted doing so.

I wrote the book over about nine months, and Mr. Wood, a genial older man and a respected editor, sent me several letters asking for clarifications on finer points. What was the difference between a Knucklehead and a Panhead Karley? Were Montesas Spanish or Brazilian bikes? Who were the Motorcycle Maids, and was there really a group called Dykes on Bikes?

When it came out Bike! Motorcycles and the People Who Ride Them was a modest success. A hardback was soon followed by a paperback. I got favorable reviews, including one in Rolling Stone. Harper & Row arranged a brief book tour.

One event was an author appearance on an early morning talk show in Pittsburg. I arrived at the television studio decked in full leather regalia with hair down to the middle of my back. The host was a study in pancake make-up—dreadfully white with bright orange hair, bloodshot eyes, and an iridescent blue suit. It was eight in the morning and he was drunk.

I spent my allotted 17 minutes trying to persuade him that I had not written a book on bicycles. I failed. He actually—really, truly—made a couple of dubious bicycle seat jokes. On a subsequent radio call-in show, I had to disabuse several Pittsburg bicyclists that the book had nothing to do with their two-wheel mode of transport.  

That was then, this is now.

I’ve discovered, as have most authors today, that getting a book published is minimally about writing; putting words on paper is possibly the easiest part of the process.

Getting an agent today is almost impossible and even having one does not mean he or she is aboveboard. My agent, Barry Zucker, persuaded me to sign with his agency, McGinniss Associates, in January 2014. And then he vanished. I have not heard from either him or the agency since June of last year. There’s been no response to my numerous letters, phone calls, emails, and text messages.

It turns out there is no governing agency for literary agents. You want to be an agent? Just say you’re one. Create a web page, and insert your name in any number of lists. You’ll get queries within days because writers are desperate to get published and if you’re going to deal with the Big Five publishers, you need an agent.

Me, after the agent pulled his disappearing trick, I decided to self-publish. I soon discovered this is not the easier, softer way. Aside from mastering the software needed to publish in various versions—epub, kobo, mobi, PDF—that can be read by Kindles, Nooks, iPads, Sony, and others, I’ve had to mount a promotional campaign for myself. I have given free electronic copies of Thirst to readers willing to post reviews of the book on Amazon and Good Reads. I’ve sought and gotten the help of successful on—line gurus. I spend a minimum of an hour a day badgering friends and acquaintances to buy and review Thirst. This weekend, I’ll do a short video about the book that can be posted on my Goodreads and Amazon author pages, as well as on my website, www.sagnier.com. I am trying to set up a book signing at a local independent store that doesn’t seem interested in returning my calls. I’ve attended seminars on making a small splash in a big pond—in 2013, more than 450,000 books were self-published.

So here is the self-promotion of the day: Check out Thirst at http://tinyurl.com/thirstbook. If you think you’d enjoy reading it, send an email to thierry@sagnier.com and put “ebook review” in the heading. I’ll give a free EBook copy of Thirst to the first ten people who contact me and offer to do a review. Make sure to tell me what format you’ll need—Kindle, Nook, or other.

Thanks!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Cancer Comments


“So, how’re you?”

“Pretty good, actually. Had my last surgery—“

“I mean, how are you really?”

“Well, actually, this last procedure was—-“

“Hey! Marcia! Howe are you, girl?”

“—-sort of difficult, you kn—“

“You need anything, anything at all, you call me, OK?”

“Hum, yeah, sure.”

“I mean anything. You want to talk, cry, get mad, you call me anytime!
“Yeah. Of course. I’ll be sure to do that.”


“You look great!  Just great! I mean, no one could even tell you’re sick! I don’t know how you do it. If I had what you have, I’d look terrible!”


“The thing you have to watch out for are the lymph nodes. Have you had them checked? It’s the lymph nodes that are gonna get you. Remember that. The lymph nodes.”


“Cancer? Is that what you have? I got two words for you. Cannabis Oil. You get it on the internet.


“The chemotherapy couldn’t have been that bad. You still have all your hair.”


“… and when her hair started growing back, it was completely different. It used to be straight and now it’s all curly. Almost like some sort of Afro. Strangest thing I ever saw!


“My aunt Sophie died of cancer. It was horrible. She weighed 70 pounds when she passed away. And she used to be a big woman.”


“Do you get good drugs at least? Percocet? Vicodan? Cause if you don’t need them, I’ll take them off your hands. Won’t be a problem at all.”


“Gosh, I’ve known so many people who’ve died of cancer. This nice lady down the hall. My sister’s boyfriend’s ex-wife. This woman I used to see at Safeway. The mailman.”


Nine surgeries?  Nine? So how many more do you think you’ll need?”


“With Aunt Sophie, it was ovarian cancer that took her. I guess that’s not something you have to worry about, right? You don’t have ovaries, do you?  Just kidding…”


“Cannabis oil is bs. It’s all about antineoplastons. You have to check out this website about how cancer cures have been suppressed by the big pharmaceutical companies. You’ll thank me later.”


“Cancer? Oh man. I mean. Cancer is like the cancer of our society!”


“Is it contagious? Should I be worried?”


“It’s not like everybody who gets cancer dies from it, right?”


“The preacher at my church used to say that cancer was God’s punishment for being---wait, you’re not gay, are you?”


“My bad. It’s not cancer that’s the punishment.  It’s AIDS.”

 


“…this place in Mexico. It’s a big secret, and it’s hard to get to; like, it’s in the middle of the jungle and you need a private helicopter. It’s where Johnny Depp went when he had cancer? You didn’t know Depp had cancer? Yeah. Really. And Keith Richards, too.”


“It could be worse…”

“WOW!!! I’d never thought of that! I’m so glad you told me, and I feel so much better now!”


“So let me ask you this. Can you have sex?”


 

 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Twelve Minutes


So yesterday I had my twelve minutes of fame. Andy Warhol stipulated I should have gotten fifteen, but I had to visit the restroom for three minutes. In case you missed this important event, you can bear witness at www.tinyurl.com/waposagnier.

I can tell you, I’m glad it’s over; celebrity is not all it’s cracked up to be. No one recognized me in the street; no one hounded me for autographs. The paparazzi stayed well hidden. I did not get a free goodie bag full of great stuff or even a breakfast discount at Panera.

I think my minutes were overshadowed by those of a bank robber who escaped custody close to where I live. He was known locally

as the bicycle robber because that was his preferred mode of escape after pulling a job. Yesterday, during my minutes, he fled from a hospital and led a horde of police and sheriffs on a merry chase. I think his fifteen minutes were more adventurous than mine. On the positive side, mine didn’t involve guns or handcuffs.

I got a fair number of emails, one or two of the heartbreaking variety from people with far worse cancer situations than mine. I heard from old friends. I notified those old friends I did not hear from that my minutes were rapidly elapsing and got a couple more emails. I am now on YouTube with, as of this morning, 647 views. I know. Impressive.

Last Friday’s surgery went well, as those things go, though I won’t be sure until biopsy results come in later this week. No pain since they took the tubes out and now I can again walk like a man.

My new book is on Amazon and appears to be selling. I decided that anyone buying the paperback would get an EBook free, so here’s your chance for a twofer. It’s available from http://tinyurl.com/thirstbook. Being painfully honest, I have to divulge that it’s not an entirely new book but a re-edited version of a novel I wrote a few years ago, Wasted Miracles. But let’s be honest, even if once upon a time you read Wasted Miracles, you’ve forgotten it by now, and this is a new and much improved version with a totally cool new cover. So you should buy either the eBook version or the paperback and write reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, because nowadays, writers really have to flog their works in order to survive, so I plan to beat the living hell out of this one.

My new song, Jesus My Friend, an equal opportunity wail against all gods great and small, was featured but not fully played on www.CancerCanRock.org. It’s available from http://www.reverbnation.com/cashcarry.

I think I need another fifteen minutes.