Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Smattering of Book Reviews

I work for a writing firm called Libretto. On our website, we have a section called "Nightstand," in which each of us crafts a brief review of what we've been reading lately. Here are some that I've posted there.

The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora
By Michael Nesmith

Much as I like this book, it’s difficult to avoid – or resist – damning it with faint praise. So here goes: The Long Sandy Hair of Neftoon Zamora is the best book written by an ex-Monkee (but not the only one: both Mickey and Davy wrote memoirs designed to make a fast buck, while this is a work of fiction guaranteed to make a few really slow ones). At first glance, the line between fiction and non appears thin: the hero is a musician named Nez (as the author is known to his fans, of whom this reviewer is one). However, the object of his quest, the elusive and enigmatic Neftoon Zamora, is various described as either male or female, actual or mythical, and, as early as page 2, “part Zuni, part Martian, and part Delta blues player [who] had come from the Great Spirit, Mars, or some place in Mississippi, thousands of years ago.” Nez learns of NZ from a friend who has a tape of him/her/it performing blues songs. Nesmith describes this sufficiently well to make me wish for a soundtrack. (In fact, Nesmith’s 1974 album The Prison is actually described as “a book with a soundtrack.” The idea is to read the story and listen to the album concurrently; when one becomes accustomed to paying attention to both sources at the same time, one hopes to experience a certain synergy. I can vouch that with the right attitude, the effort is not fruitless.) Anyway, back to this book. During his journey, Nez comes upon a woman named Neffie, who has long sandy hair. Is this Neftoon Zamora? We aren’t sure, and Neffie joins the quest. The story takes place in New Mexico, first in a canyon village, then at a desert enclave. Along the way, we meet colorful characters, go to a swinging dance, and get pulled deeper into the mystery. Unfortunately, three-quarters into the book, Nesmith takes us away from these organic and exciting environs and plunks us into the mechanized compound of a crazed billionaire. In a Monkees episode, this is when the zany montage would come on over the song. Unfortunately, as I’ve said, there is no soundtrack. And so the book, which begins with much promise, ends with little clarity or satisfaction. Still, I think it’s a worthwhile read – but then, I’m a Believer!

Where I'm Calling From: Selected Stories
By Raymond Carver

For my birthday this past year, a certain someone who signs my paychecks gave me this book. Obviously, then, I had to read it. But I didn’t have to choose it to review on the Libretto website. I did so because I was so enthralled by the style and perspective of this late master of the short story genre. This collection, published just three months before his death from cancer at age 50 in 1988, brings together 30 works from previous books, as well as seven previously unpublished stories. Perhaps what is most striking in such a retrospective is Carver’s ability to maintain his unique lens while keeping his tales compelling, empathic, and surprising. He is able to write convincingly from both male and female perspectives, and his stories can plumb the depths of hopelessness and the heights of redemption. Like any short story writer, Carver presents a snapshot of people’s lives. In another writer’s hands, these snapshots would be moments of highest drama, with a definite beginning, middle, and end. Carver, however, makes us aware that there are other stories, even bigger stories, going on in the blurred periphery of his viewfinder. Stories are introduced at some point beyond the start of a situation. At the end, we know that there are events and consequences that await the characters in scenes that will be played out beyond our view. The person who gave me this book (you know, the kind and generous one who signs my paychecks) particularly recommended "The Cathedral," in which a person who spends an evening with a blind man against his will begins to see many things more clearly, but the story immediately after that one burned most deeply in my mind. In "A Small, Good Thing," a rewrite of an earlier story, two parents must face their worst fear while dealing with a doctor’s vague assurances and a prank phone-caller. While a theme of the first two-thirds of the story is the impact of lack of knowledge, communication, and understanding, the final third is a dramatic stripping away of everything the characters had been keeping from each other. The title of the story is a good description of the book.

The Tin Drum
By Günter Grass

Stones From the River
By Ursula Hegi

I decided to combine two books in one review because they have so much in common. For one, they are both spectacularly well-written stories, rich in creative imagery and historical detail – both the characters’ histories and that of the actual period in which they take place. That, in fact, is another similarity: they both are set in Germany and span a multi-generation epoch that precedes and succeeds World War II. Yet perhaps the most striking similarity is that the heroes of both novels are short. Oskar Matzerath, in The Tin Drum, willed himself to stop growing at age three; while Trudi Montag, in Stones From the River, is a zwerg – a dwarf. Further, each has a similarly sized mentor who is a circus or carnival performer (Bebra for Oskar/Pia for Trudi). Through their eyes and experiences as outsiders, we see the struggles of post-World War I Germany, the encroaching tyranny of the Nazi regime, and the shame and uncertainty following defeat in World War II. If Oskar is somewhat less sympathetic than Trudi (and much less trustworthy as a narrator than the omniscient voice of Stones), he is the more powerful, confident, and entertaining hero. However, I have to say that I prefer Trudi, maintaining her decency and dignity against all odds, as a symbol of a lone light in the darkness.

House of Sand and Fog
By Andre Dubus III
House of Sand and Fog centers around the rapidly rising and falling circumstances of three people: Amir Behrani, a one-time colonel in the Iranian Air Force who, until purchasing a repossessed house at an auction, had been making a living in the US picking up trash along the highways near Berkeley; Kathy Nicolo, a one-time alcoholic whose husband has left her with little more than the house she inherited from her father – that house she has just lost for failure to pay taxes; and Sheriff Lester Burdon, a married man who finds himself in the middle of their dispute, yet soon falls in love with the desperate woman. There is, of course, a fourth character as well: the titular house itself, which stands mute yet somehow menacing in the background, the shared desire that ultimately, along with the mistrust and myopic fear the two parties in dispute have for each other, leads to everybody’s downfall. Along the way, we learn a good deal about Persian language, food, and customs; we see how systems so easily fail those who rely on them; and we watch helplessly as three characters who are neither heroes nor villains, yet possibly both, chase their selfish desires into a descending spiral of pain and despair.

Invisible Man By Ralph Ellison
Motivated by a recent PBS documentary on the writer and the only novel he ever completed – which made the Top 20 of The Modern Library’s 1998 list of the best English-language novels of the 20th century – I decided to dust off the paperback I originally read in college and see if it was still as powerful. Indeed it is. Ellison’s use of language is scintillating and each chapter has enough dramatic arc and emotional depth to stand as an independent work. The opening paragraph of Chapter 5, in particular, is as rich and lyrical a descriptive passage as I’ve ever read. Never named, Ellison’s hero is naïve, intelligent, and deeply concerned with playing by the rules, which, to his confusion and chagrin, keep changing depending on the company and part of the country he is in. Ultimately, he (and we) must confront this conundrum: if society wishes him (us) to be invisible, what is his (our) place in that society?

©Copyright 2008 Libretto, Inc.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Safe, Positive, Healthy Facebook Outcome

So I'm on Facebook, which is fun and highly addictive. I think I have twice as many Facebook friends as real-life friends, but it's proven to be an easy and effective way to reconnect with old classmates, colleagues, friends, and relatives.

If you're not Facebook-knowledgeable, all you need to know to get the point of this post is that in addition to people you can befriend, there are groups you can join, causes you can support, and sheep you can throw (the last one is true but irrelevant).

So if you've read my blog before, you'll know that my mother died of a neurological disorder called Lewy Body Dementia or Lewy Body Disease (conveniently LBD either way). One day, my younger sister, who also is on Facebook, came upon an LBD cause page, joined it, and alerted me to it. I also joined, and I posted my Dove Nested Towers blog post to the LBD cause page's "wall" (a posting forum).

Some time later, I received the following message in my Facebook inbox:

Dear Mr. Rubin,

Pardon this message from a complete stranger, but I was reviewing the Lewy Body causes page and read your incredibly powerful and beautiful passage about your mom. So much of your entry was applicable to our situation. And your writing is beautiful. My mother died of LBD three days before my wedding (2006). And we as a family also had to make the same sad sad choice you did guiding her toward the end of her journey with LBD. We found a wonderful hospice home in Philadelphia for those last grueling 8 days.

Anyway, thank you for your words, and I just had to tell you how much they touched me. I'm so sorry for your loss as well.

Kindest regards,
Ilana Davidson

I replied with humble gratitude and then invited her to be my Facebook friend. In so doing, I was able to access her page and I learned that she is a professional opera singer, a soprano. On her website, I further learned that she will be appearing in Boston (where I live) in March, performing Mahler's Symphony No. 2. This prompted a note from me to her:

Seeing your page now, I realize you're a professional opera singer. I come from a family of opera buffs, from my grandfather who performed in local operas, was a freelance bass-baritone in temple choirs throughout Boston, and had his own radio show at one point. Googling your website, I see you're performing here in Boston in March, doing Mahler. My mother's maiden name was Mahler, and her family came from Austria. She always thought she was related to Gustav, though she had no genealogical proof. And my singing grandfather was paternal, so no musical talent was apparent on my mother's side. Still, we like to carry on the idea that there may be a familial connection, so it's a nice coincidence that you connect with my mother on this other level, as well. I will keep an eye out for the performance; it would be fun to hear you in it.


A further coincidence is that the conductor for the March concert will be Benjamin Zander. I once interviewed him for a freelance article I wrote that was also printed in the CD booklet for a recording made of his New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Orchestra's tour of Chile and Buenos Aires in 1995. You can see it here.

Thus, a nice correspondence was begun with this woman, who is based in New York. She offered to try to get me tickets to the performance and we did a little Jewish Geography to see if we know any of the same people. In the meantime, I searched Facebook for any Lewy Body hits and found that the UK-based Lewy Body Society had a page. I joined it, and again posted my blog piece about my mother.

Now Ilana, being my Facebook friend, can see any update I make to my Facebook account, including any new groups or pages I join. So she saw that I joined the Lewy Body Society page and she did likewise. Some time later, I got the following message from her:

Hello Jason,

So the Lewy Body Society (the one we joined here on facebook) and I have been in touch. We are working on the possibility of me doing a benefit recital / concert for LBD. We are trying to consider venue or country (!) as they are based in the UK.

In just my preliminary thinking: All is need is a pianist of my choice and to pick a beautiful program ... But we will need to think about other details (location, as I said is one of them)

Might you be willing to be my sounding board ? Or feel like getting involved to work with me on this possibility?

I replied enthusiastically thusly:

I'm honored to be asked and would be thrilled to help out in any way. I don't know if you sussed it out from my info, but I'm a marketing copywriter, so in terms of strategy, theme, proposals, copy, etc., that's all up my alley. As far as pure event/program brainstorming, absolutely, count me in.

BTW, I know you're in NYC somewhere; we'll be visiting with my brother in law and his family in Chelsea from 12/26-30. Maybe we could discuss this over bagels?

Thanks again for offering me a seat at the table.

To which she replied:

Great news.

I actually just kind of presumed that it might be up your alley. And had a gut feeling too - and hoped even more that you might be up for helping.

And as it happens I'm very comfortable on the musical end of things and the other stuff kind of paralyzes me in event-programming-strategy-proposal fear... Perhaps it's all fate somehow. I'm really excited about this now.

I definitely should be here in NY when you guys come this way! When it suits the family schedule, I would be so happy to come down.

This concert (s) is so important for me. I want so much to contribute to their memories and to LBD. I couldn't do this alone ~ so glad you're at the table.

And so, in a few days, if all goes well, I will get to meet this soprano in person and hopefully create an event - and cement a friendship - that will have lasting impact. Certainly, there are weird things you hear about when people take social network relationships and take them offline, but this is something very positive and worthwhile...not least because it's gotten me to play more Mahler!

Mom would be thrilled.

Friday, December 5, 2008

What's in the Middle?

My professional name is Jason M. Rubin. Whenever possible, I insist that my middle initial be used. It's not that I love my middle name (Mark) so much, but without the initial, my name is too sing-songy. Jason and Rubin rhyme a little and are so metrical and symmetrical that they need the M. to serve as a kind of fulcrum.

This gets me to thinking why we even have middle names. Most people don't use them, and I've noticed that a lot of women who take their husband's surnames, tend to use their maiden name as a middle name. For Jews, naming is very important; we give first and middle names that reference and honor deceased relatives. For my oldest daughter, for example, her first name, Hannah (a Hebrew name meaning grace), was named for my grandfather Harry. Her middle name, Dovit (a Hebrew name meaning little bear), was named for my sister, Donna. If she were to get married, take her husband's name, and lose Dovit, it would sadden me. Even though I know she's not thrilled with an unusual name like Dovit, it's important to me because it's a way for me to keep my sister's memory alive.

I seem to remember some comedian years ago noting that assassins are almost always known by all three names. John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray, and Mark David Chapman come immediately to mind. It seems that failed assassins don't get the same honor: Arthur Bremer (George Wallace), Squeaky Fromme (Gerald Ford), and John Hinckley (Ronald Reagan), for example. I always liked the fact that if you count the letters in Ronald Wilson Reagan, you get 6-6-6 (666).

Of course, a middle name or initial is also a literary convention. After all, who would read anything by e. cummings or Edgar Poe? Or Jason Rubin, for that matter? Ray Davies of the Kinks is known as such on album covers, except on his composing credits, when he is known by his full name, Raymond Douglas Davies.

I've also always been intrigued by people who use their middle name as their first name, or initialize their first name, as in T. Boone Pickens and R. Buckminster Fuller. I went to college with a couple of guys who did that; of course, one's given first name was Winslow, so it's understandable that he wanted to be known as Peter, his middle name. J. Mark Rubin doesn't do it for me.

Folk legend Odetta died the other day. Years before Madonna and Prince (though a long time after Moses; and BTW, "H" was not actually Jesus' middle initial), she successfully went by a single name, her first.

Harry Truman's middle initial, S, doesn't stand for anything, and is sometimes written without a period. According to Wikipedia, "[Truman's] parents chose "S" as his middle name, in [an] attempt to please both of Harry's grandfathers, Anderson Shippe Truman and Solomon Young; the initial did not actually stand for anything, as was a common practice among Scots-Irish."

Of course, this post doesn't really stand for anything, either. I was just bored and looking to keep the blog fresh. But thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Current Projects VII: A Cultural Exchange

As a writer, making money is clearly a major priority. At the same time, however, it's enriching for the soul and for the greater good to provide my services pro bono to worthy non-profits. I sort of adopted one such organization a dozen or more years ago, and it's one that remains close to my heart.

The organization is called A Cultural Exchange and it's located in Cleveland, Ohio. Though I live in Boston, my in-laws are from that area so I've gone there at least once or twice every year since my wife and I were dating (and we celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary this past October).

So one day I was looking for something to do and my mother-in-law told me about a street/shopping district called Larchmere. The principal attraction was a used book store where I indeed had found a few treasures over the years before they closed some years ago. Walking down the street, however, I was struck by a window display that featured a number of children's books with multicultural themes and characters. Now, I can't remember if my 12-year-old was born yet or not, but I've always been interested in children's books so it's just as conceivable that I went in before I became a parent as it would be if I had Hannah in a stroller. Either way, I went in.

The store was A Cultural Exchange, and after browsing for a while, I struck up a conversation with the proprietress, Deborah McHamm. I soon learned that the store was actually a storefront, and ACE was in fact a non-profit organization devoted to increasing literacy and love for books among urban children in the Cleveland area. At the time, I was working at Boston public broadcaster WGBH, writing development materials. Once she learned I was involved in fundraising, she took an even keener interest in me. We talked further and I gave her my contact information, saying I'd be happy to write anything she need free of charge.

Over the years, I have done a number of projects for her, usually on an emergency basis. One time, she left such an urgent message on my home phone while we were in Disney World that I was compelled to call her right away, even though I was standing in the middle of Epcot. Her requests are rarely mundane. Once, she said to me, "I need you to get me in front of Oprah." I do my best for her but I'm realistic about what I can accomplish, especially from Boston.

Best of all, after all these years, we are now friends. Though I only get to see her on an annual basis, I think she knows I'm always there for her. She has watched my children grow and taken real joy and interest in our lives.

This link describes Deborah's background, the history of the organization, and the wonderful programs ACE undertakes, including the Read Baby Read book clubs. The most current program is called the Busy Bookmobile, which drives subsidized books costing a dollar or less into neighborhoods and schools where kids and families don't have much money for books - or for books with characters that look like them. In fact, the tagline on the bus below (Helping children find themselves in books) is one I developed for Deborah, the idea being that children will become excited by reading if they can have access to books with stories and characters that reflect their lives. They get lost in books and find themselves at the same time.

My latest project is to help raise money for the Bookmobile, and also to raise money to launch a pilot Read Baby Read book club in Boston. I greatly admire and respect Deborah and am honored to help A Cultural Exchange in any way I can.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Brian Wilson Day-Night Double-Header - Part II

My legs and lungs were still hurting from running all over Boston in freezing weather yesterday morning to wait to get Brian Wilson's autograph. I had gone from my home in Melrose, Massachusetts to drop my daughter off at her school in Newton, and then into Boston. At the end of my work day, I had to go from Boston to Newton to pick up my daughter at the end of her afterschool rehearsal for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court at 6:00pm, drive back out to Melrose, and then head back into Boston for the Brian Wilson concert. Time was against me, as the concert was slated to begin at 7:30, and my ticket was being held at the Will Call window. Unfortunately, traffic was against me, too.

By the time I got my daughter home, my best bet was to take the subway into the city. Easily accomplished, since the line ends in Melrose. I had eight stops to travel to get to Downtown Crossing, from where I would run to the Orpheum Theatre with almost no time to spare. The subway ran smoothly; when I got to Downtown I ran somewhat less so (it's uphill from the subway to the venue). When I got there, the Will Call line was very long. I was tired, out of breath, and just about out of time. Fortunately, the box office people, seeing that there were too many people outside to start the show on time, sent someone out with all the Ticketmaster-ordered tickets to go down the line and distribute them. Thus, I got my ticket, ran into the theatre, got to my seat, and had about five minutes to catch my breath before the lights darkened.

The Orpheum is one of the last eyesores hosting live entertainment left in Boston. For years as a teenager, every concert ticket I bought for there noted that a 25-cent restoration fee was included in the price. I don't know who made off with all the money, but I'm sure no carpenters, painters, or upholsterers were ever called. Still, it's a nice, intimate venue with good acoustics. And even though it's notorious for being stingy with legroom, I was in the first row of my section (center Orchestra, behind the first small section of rows) so I had more space. Excellent seat.

Brian Wilson sports a crack 10-piece band, eight of whom sing. The number of instruments played is rather astounding. In addition to the standard rock arsenal, there's a vibraphone, baritone sax, flute, theremin, various guitars and keyboards, percussion, and while it wasn't needed last night, a banjo has appeared when needed. Despite the studio tricks and overdubs Brian is famous for, he has the personnel to perform his music perfectly and precisely as recorded, even in a concert setting.

The first set of Beach Boys hits opened with California Girls and included such uptempo classics as Dance Dance Dance, Do You Wanna Dance, Sail On Sailor, Do It Again, All Summer Long and Marcella, the latter a track from an obscure, mediocre 1972 album that is much better live today than the original recording. Interspersed were some of Brian's best ballads, such as Surfer Girl, In My Room, Please Let Me Wonder, and God Only Knows. The first set ended with Good Vibrations.

The second set comprised the entire new album, That Lucky Old Sun. An autobiographical work, TLOS presents as a whole better than it does on a track-by-track basis. Therefore, even though I had played the album a few times prior to the show, spending more time on the better tracks, the emotional richness and elegant musical and narrative arc that guides the piece only came to life for me in concert. I will listen to it differently now. It's a wonderful work, nearly as emotionally substantial as Pet Sounds but from a much more mature perspective. Musically, it's not as adventurous as his masterpiece SMiLE, but it demonstrates that his compositional and vocal arrangement powers are still in a league of their own.

After two wonderful sets, you'd think you'd heard it all, but then comes the encore set, comprising Johnny B. Goode, Fun Fun Fun, I Get Around, Barbara Ann, Surfin' USA, and Help Me Rhonda. All singalongs and dancealongs. By this point, you realize Brian has some kind of unfair advantage. He can rip off a couple of dozen of all-time classic pop masterpieces and still only scrape the surface of his catalog. Then he comes back to perform his mellow latter-day anthem of healing, Love and Mercy.

It was a two-hour, fifteen-minute show, a busy night for him. I should add that at this point in his life and career, Brian doesn't do many of his original vocal parts. He has a guy, Jeff Foskett, who handles the bulk of the falsetto work, as well as a very hot female vocalist, Taylor Mills, to handle the upper register parts (in fact, Foskett sang lead on the whole of Wouldn't It Be Nice except for the Mike Love part: "Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray, it might come true...", which Brian sang). But not for In My Room. Foskett and Taylor provided support, but Brian dug down and put out a good lead vocal on this song with serious care and effort. Clearly, In My Room is a special song for Brian and it's something that remains very meaningful for him. It was an emotional highlight that brought moisture to my eyes, as that was the song that first made me a Brian Wilson fan 35 years ago.

Once the show was over, many people were overheard to say it was the best Brian show they'd ever seen. Respected local music writer Brett Milano, an acquaintance of mine, said as much to me directly. I would have to agree, although seeing SMiLE live a few years ago has to trump TLOS. But Brian (66 years young) and his band were simply on fire last night. It was a great, great experience. As I exited the theatre, I walked slowly and leisurely back to the subway. In spite of the cold, I was content to finally take my time and savor my feelings of gratitude and contentment, rather than rush around all stressed as I had been twice that day already. A day like yesterday is rare. It should be savored. It certainly puts me in the mood for Thanksgiving because I am truly grateful that Brian Wilson and I are alive and functional at the same time.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Brian Wilson Day-Night Double-Header - Part I

Brian Wilson is in Boston today. Frequent or occasional readers probably know that Brian Wilson is my greatest living hero and musical idol. (My greatest non-living hero is Abraham Lincoln, whom I'm led to understand couldn't carry a tune.) In fact, the title of this here blog, "Dove Nested Towers" is a phrase that appears in Brian's most masterful composition, in my opinion, "Surf's Up." Originally composed in 1966, finally released by the Beach Boys in 1971, and recorded under his own name in 2004, "Surf's Up" is a four-minute epic in which a concert audience takes in the fall of civilizations and the emerging world-weariness of post-JFK America. And yet, at the end, there's a hopeful note, a brighter future, and it's in the form of what? A medical marvel? An advanced computer? The words of a statesman or the weapon of a soldier?

No. It's a children's song. The way forward will come from innocence, simplicity, and youthful optimism. That was Brian Wilson's way forward, too.

Surf's Up
Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks

A diamond necklace played the pawn
Hand in hand some drummed along
To a handsome mannered baton
A blind class aristocracy
Back through the opera glass you see
The pit and the pendulum drawn

Columnated ruins domino
Canvass the town and brush the backdrop
Are you sleeping?

Hung velvet overtaken me
Dim chandelier awaken me
To a song dissolved in the dawn
The music hall a costly bow
The music all is lost for now
To a muted trumpeter swan

Columnated ruins domino
Canvass the town and brush the backdrop
Are you sleeping, Brother John?

Dove nested towers the hour was
Strike the street quicksilver moon
Carriage across the fog
Two-step to lamp lights cellar tune
The laughs come hard in Auld Lang Syne

The glass was raised, the fired-roast
The fullness of the wine, the dim last toasting
While at port adieu or die
A choke of grief heart hardened I
Beyond belief a broken man too tough to cry

Surf's Up
Aboard a tidal wave
Come about hard and join
The young and often spring you gave
I heard the word
Wonderful thing
A children's song

A children's song
Have you listened as they played
Their song is love
And the children know the way

Brian Wilson fell as surely as did any ancient civilization, in a swirl of drugs, mental illness, obesity, and neglect. Yet today he is fit, clean (except for prescribed psychotropics), musically and physically active, and productive, having released his 10th solo album (including one album credited to Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks) earlier this year, called That Lucky Old Sun.

So today, Brian appeared at Newbury Comics in Faneuil Hall to sign autographs at noon, and tonight he performs the album in its entirety (in addition to the usual supercatalog of hits) at the Orpheum Theatre. Faneuil Hall is a lovely tourist spot to walk around on a summer day, but not the easiest place to get to when you're coming from 12 miles north of the city and have to drop your oldest daughter off at school probably an equal distance west of the city. There's no parking and in addition, the temperature was in the 20s with a wind chill that made it feel like 0.

The plan was that Newbury Comics were allowing people to line up as early as 7am, then they would open their doors at 8am so people could come in, buy the new album, and get a wristband for the autograph session. Then we had to wait outside until noon. I knew I'd be lucky to get there much before 9am, so I was stressed and worried that the wristbands would be gone before I arrived. I weighed various options, including parking near my daughter's school and taking a bus, but I'd probably get a ticket; parking in a garage near Faneuil Hall, which would be very expensive; or parking at work (Boston's South End) and hustling to take any combination of bus and train that would get me to Faneul Hall ASAP. I opted for the latter approach. I missed the bus that would take me quickly and warmly to a subway station, so I walked fast and ran, the cold air burning my lungs, got on a train, got off nearby, and ran through traffic to get to Newbury Comics. I did, in fact, arrive before 9am. But was I lucky?

As it turned out, the weather (or ungenerous employers) kept a lot of Brian fans away in the early morning hours, so I was actually 10th in line. That was wonderful. Waiting in the cold was not. Fortunately, however, the Newbury Comics staff were very kind and they worked out a way that most of us could wait inside if we kept to certain places along the walls that didn't obstruct fire exits or other businesses. We passed the time talking about our lives with Brian.

There was a time, early in Brian's reemergence a remarkable 20 years ago now, when I would hold my breath whenever he appeared on TV, at a book signing, or in concert. I feared he would fail somehow, that the pressure or the unpredictability would set him off or shut him down. But he has always been a remarkably strong and committed trouper. I've seen him blow lines but he went on like the seasoned pro that he is. At this point, I'm sure he's done more live shows as a solo artist than he did with the Beach Boys. It's OK now. If I'm breathless at a Brian Wilson show now, it's because of the music, not because of my paternal concern for his well-being.

Brian was in a wonderful mood this morning. He smiled, said hi to people, even sang along a little to the new album, which was playing in the store. There were fairly strict rules about what he would sign and what we could and couldn't do (we could take photos in line but not stand next to him or touch him), and as soon as our stuff was signed we were whisked back out to the freezing street. But before I took my freshly autographed items off the table, I said, "Thank you, Brian. Your music really means a lot to me."

And really, what was cool about this morning, this day of meeting Brian ever so briefly, was not what I got but what I felt. Gratitude. And for the first time in a long time, the sense that I was lucky.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Current Projects VI: Turkish novel

Cutting in line is one of the great joys in life, a small act of civil disobedience often made possible by having an ally near the front. Similarly, vaulting over a queue of planned projects is easy when the queue-maker is particularly excited about the latest project to pop into his mind. In this case, it's a novel based on my real-life experience in befriending a Turkish family, and the sometimes bumpy road to understanding and affection we traveled together.

It started about four years ago. My oldest daughter was entering second grade, and my wife had just started a family mentoring initiative in which an experienced school family would take a new school family under their wing and help guide them through the transition and answer their questions. She made the matches without much difficulty until she came upon a new family that had just arrived from Turkey. Mom and Dad spoke very little English, their daughter (same age and grade as mine) none at all. Our Mayberry-esque little suburban school system was ill-equipped to serve them and my wife couldn't see saddling another family with such a challenge, so naturally, social worker that she is, she decided we would be their mentors.

during the first couple of weeks, my wife tried unsuccessfully to convince the school to allow an interpreter to be in the girl's classroom. Hiding behind the banner of Immersion, the principal and teacher were in fact too cheap, shortsighted, and possibly even racist to make such a small yet significant accommodation. No matter, within a few months the girl was reading English texts at same high level as my daughter.

The first month or so of school, I had yet to meet the Turks, as I was working. But Laura wanted me to meet them, so she arranged for them to come to our house one Saturday. Even on a level linguistic playing field, I am no great conversationalist, so it was definitely uncomfortable at first. But they seemed friendly and likable. The parents, Kerem and Olgun, were young and very attractive. He was a customs official in Turkey, she had been a district attorney. The Turkish government, we learned, was interested in sending government workers to the US to study international finance at Boston University. For some reason, they had been advised to look in our sleepy bedroom community of Melrose to live during the two-year program. One would think the more diverse Boston/Cambridge student meccas would have been a more appropriate location. But they were here and our mission was to make them feel welcome.

Our daughter, Hannah, and theirs, Ilayda, played silently yet cooperatively together apart from us. After a bit, Kerem started peppering me with difficult questions, based on things he'd heard were true about Americans and Jews. What was the connection between freemasonry and Judaism? Was it true that Jews who worked in the World Trade Center stayed home on 9/11? Why do Americans allow President Bush to burn up the middle east? Rather than challenging me or my values, he was asking out of pure curiosity. He'd heard these things and wanted to know my response. As clearly, simply, yet as definitively as I could, I rebutted these rumors. I didn't know the connection between masons and Jews (though my father is a Shriner, I'm not privy to the secrets since I have never elected to join) other than it seems to go back to King Solomon and the building of the temple, yet there is nothing sinister about either group. Jews did not stay home on 9/11 and a simple reading of the list of victims shows that a great many Jews were among the dead. Many Americans protest their government but in a democracy we work within the system rather than stage coups.

He seemed satisfied with my responses, though he often continued to challenge me about American foreign policy. In fact, as liberals, my wife and I were very ashamed at what we were doing in the world and the incompetency of the Bush administration, and we told him we could not and would not defend Bush. In a way, this formed a bond between us, but a number of other families in Melrose were suspicious of them because they were not as willing to criticize their own government - at least not to a Muslim family.

And yes, of course, they were Muslims and we were Jews. We actually knew far better than they did that the two religions are very similar. The first time Kerem heard us say Shalom Aleichem, he was stunned because the Muslim phrase for "peace be to you" is pronounced almost identically. The dietary laws behind Kosher and Halal are virtually the same. And the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael are foundational to both religions, although they differ in that to Jews, Isaac was the favored son and to Muslims, it is Ishmael.

Our friends were Muslims but they were not strict Muslims. They did not pray regularly, and they drank alcohol. And this was one of the great gifts for us, as Kerem introduced me to raki (rahk-UH), an anise-flavored liquor known as Lion's Milk because it turns white when you add water to it and has a bite like a lion. He was most impressed the first time we drank together because I was able to walk away afterwards, though I was in no shape to drive. I was impressed by the ceremony around it. One prepares mezes, small bites of food like tapas, and eats while drinking. One also engages in pleasant conversation while drinking. One drinks leisurely and comfortably and toasts often ("Serefe!"). It is polite when clinking glasses to have the rim of your glass hit below the rim of the other person's, thus humbling yourself to your guest. It is delicious and delivers a nice, clean buzz.

Their food was wonderful, too. Olgun was an amazing cook, and while Hannah and Ilayda became very close friends, Hannah never took to the food. On the other hand, Ilayda took very easily to American junk food.

After two years, they moved back to Turkey. In the interim, they had a baby and so did we. In fact, they delayed their departure a few weeks because they wanted to be here when our baby was born. They have told succeeding families to come to Melrose and call us for help. The small apartment building in which they lived in time became 100% occupied by Turkish nationals studying at BU. We met some of the them, not all, but never established the kind of friendship that continues to this day. We hope someday soon to visit them in Turkey, and then to travel to Israel. We still keep in touch via email, and they recently sent us a CD of lovely Turkish music.

In retrospect, meeting this Turkish family was one of the great occurrences of my life. I learned so much from them and was able to teach them as well. In all the time we've known each other, there are only two things I can't shake them of: They reject the veracity of the Armenian genocide, and they believe George W. Bush was complicit in 9/11. We have agreed to disagree, yet this will be a key aspect to the novel. Partly because it is so rich, and such a unique experience, and because I love them so much, I am starting this novel today.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Requisite Obama Post

Wow. I'm still stunned. Sometimes you want something so bad, all you can think about is how crushed you'll be if you don't get it. And then you worry about spooking the karma gods, and you begin to think that the more you want something, the less likely it is that you'll get it. So it was that I was momentarily crestfallen when the very first returns came in and McCain had 7 or 8 electoral votes to Obama's 3. It wasn't too long before it became clear that if Obama could cherrypick a couple of those pesky middle of the country states, it would be clear sailing to the west coast and a certain victory. With Pennsylvania and Ohio in the bag, it truly was just a matter of time before California's 55 votes gave the Big O the Big V.

I figured I'd have to write about this, and yet I was emotionally drained from the whole campaign, and didn't know what to say. It's hard to write to a computer screen, especially when the computer screen doesn't often write back. But a dear friend can get you to talking, and that's what happened this evening. One of my bestest, closest, dearestest friends, Eric in San Francisco, wrote me a note and his thoughts inspired me to write a little something of my own back to him. Here's an excerpt of our email conversation.

I am sure you were able to appreciate the gravity of the moment and the incredible well-spring of hope that erupted. The faces of young people excited to be taking part, the faces of older black people crying as an event occurred that they never would have imagined possible.

And the man himself - sober and clear in victory - more somber than celebratory, reaching on both sides of the aisle - the hope of forging a new American identity. None of this would occurred with the McCain and Palin team - instead it would meant 4 more years of divisive ugliness.

Looking at the 250,000 people who assembled in Grant park and comparing them with the 2,000 who came together in Arizona - it was a striking snapshot of who the 2 parties represent and the future (I hope) of our country.

By 2050 - and maybe sooner - white people will be a minority here, the minorities together will be the majority. This could be the beginning of an exciting identity shift for our country at home and around the world.

With love,


My response:
Brother, this was sweet and I've been very emotional over it all. Not only did I cry in the moment, but at several times this morning hearing clips from the moment and from people who have waited their lifetimes and the lifetimes of several generations before for a moment when they could look at the highest peak of American achievement and see themselves represented. I got chills listening to Rep. John Lewis on ABC and CBS last night (I was less moved by Jesse's tears, as he was a bit of a dick to Obama during the campaign). I think there are three mountaintop events/eras in black American history: Emancipation/13th Amendment; March on Washington/Civil Rights Act; and last night. Jackie Robinson would be a 4th, but somehow less monumental than the others.

It's rare when you get to see history made - and really positive, meaningful history. 9/11 was history but that was a drag. The Patriots winning three Super Bowls in four years was history but that don't mean shit. This was a moment for standing tall, for realizing that as flawed as humanity is, it's the only construct in the universe that knows the concept of hope, that can generate it and be inspired by it, that when things are low they are merely at the ebb of a continuing cycle, and that it's the efforts of a committed and united humanity that can bring it high again. It's a beautiful thing, and I feel blessed to be living through it, and grateful that my children can see it and live in this world where anything is possible. And it's a good feeling when life is hard personally to know that each day is a new opportunity to make it a little better.

Peace, my brother. We have overcome the Bush years. We finally have a president elected not because of the color of his skin, but because of the content of his character.

Much love,


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Honor among rogues"?

“To say that a man is your friend, means commonly no more than this, that he is not your enemy. Most contemplate only what would be the accidental and trifling advantages of friendship, as that the friend can assist in time of need, by his substance, or his influence, or his counsel; but he who foresees such advantages in this relation proves himself blind to its real advantage, or indeed wholly inexperienced in the relation itself…. What is commonly called Friendship is only a little more honor among rogues. But sometimes we are said to love another, that is, to stand in a true relation to him, so that we give the best to, and receive the best from, him. Between whom there is hearty truth there is love; and in proportion to our truthfulness and confidence in one another our lives are divine and miraculous, and answer to our ideal. There are passages of affection in our intercourse with mortal men and women, such as no prophecy had taught us to expect, which transcend our earthly life, and anticipate heaven for us.”
- Henry David Thoreau, On the Concord River

I long have been fascinated by friendship. The concept, that is. What makes for friendship between two people, why some friendships sour and why others endure. My curiosity stems from my personal experience. At various times in the course of one's youth, alliances are formed and shifted. Bonds are forged, hurts are felt, and it all seems like a blur of speed dating or an awkward square dance until the music stops, you are 45 years old, and you wonder where your old friends went and where your new friends came from.

When I was an adolescent, I was one of a core group of four friends, memorialized in my one-act play of the same name. We had other friends as well, but we four I guess you could say had more intense adventures together, we took ourselves further to the boundaries of experience. Among other friends, it was a laugh, when the four of us were together, we were serious about what we were doing, whether it was listening to music, trespassing on a golf course at night with a case of beer and other substances, talking into the wee hours, or dreaming about forming a band. We seemed a very tight-knit group.

Yet whenever there was some kind of an issue about which there was no unanimity, our quartet would split into two dyads. And always the same two. Later, awkwardly, two of us, one from each dyad, had a major falling out, and then it became two separate trios. Actually, three, since one of us was a year older and went away to college before us. The next year, two more of us went away to college, one never did. The three in college went to the same college, but wouldn't you know only two of us, from an older dyad, stayed close. After college, nothing was quite the same. The one who stayed home found a new group of friends and the rest of us never really gelled with them.

Within a few years, we were completely splintered and then one of us died. Two who had been estranged became reacquainted. But the remaining three seem to have little left in common. We are friendly, but can we be said to be friends?

The unraveling of this group has intrigued me for a long time. I dare say it has troubled me. We seemed to have so much in common once. Had we all changed so much? Were the bonds we had shared in the past no longer valid? Had they ever been?

Aside from my play, I have tried writing about friendship over time in other stories. Until I figure it out, I'm not sure I can complete any of them. My current hypothesis is that what poses as commonality is really largely just proximity. I was friends with my friends because they were geographically close to me. We all lived just a few blocks from each other; I and my dyad-mate, in fact, were next door neighbors. We had other similarities, of course, some of them quasi-cosmic: three of us were Aquarians, the other a Pisces; the three Aquarians all had the same middle name, Mark, and the Piscean's first name was Marc. We were all Jewish, we went to the same school, and we all basically liked the same music. Personality-wise, we were far from identical, but it didn't seem to matter then.

Now it seems to matter a great deal. I won't describe us because it will only sound as though I was normal and the rest less than. Suffice to say, I don't always find their personalities so ignorable anymore. Why is that so? Again, I think part of has to do with proximity, or lack of it. We all went in separate directions professionally, we all live in different areas. I am more religious than the others and so am more connected to Jewish ritual and community. My musical tastes are broad and challenging. I am a writer, hopelessly nostalgic, yearning and dreaming of realizing my creative vision.

Of the other two, one is a Deadhead/Phishhead type who owns a small service business, and the other is a wealthy attorney. We three are very much like the archetypes outlined in a concept album by my favorite progressive rock group, Gentle Giant, in their 1972 album, Three Friends. In that album, three friends who are very close in school drift apart as they enter the working world. One is working class ("Working All Day"), one is an artist ("Peel the Paint"), one is rich ("Mister Class and Quality?").

By being part of different worlds, different communities, we have each been broadened in different ways. Further, we are all part of multiple worlds, multiple communities. We have our home domain, our work domain, as well as cultural and avocational domains. Because we lack proximity to each other, we can't stoke the core elements that once drew us together, and they become further suffused by the layers of new contacts, qualities, skills, interests, and friends that we accumulate every day. When we get together, we almost don't know each other anymore. We default to the shorthand and inside jokes that were relevant 25, 30 years ago, but those things aren't how we define ourselves today and we find it difficult to get reacquainted to who we all are now.

Maybe if we spent a week in a cabin in the woods, we would learn better who we are now. Maybe we would find even more conclusively that we are not simpatico anymore. Maybe it's better simply to sustain the tenuous thread that keeps us connected, and try neither to strengthen it nor take scissors to it. After all, it's not wrong that we grew, that we changed. Nor is it wrong that we grew and changed in different ways. Proximity served its purpose then; the lack of it also serves a purpose today. It allows us to evolve without the constraining expectations of childhood alliances.

Interestingly, I find that I have more interesting interactions with my second tier of friends, those outside the four with whom we were always friendly yet in a more general social way. I had lost touch with them as well, yet I find today that not only do we still retain meaningful bonds and values from the old days, but we are also able to successfully integrate the lives and qualities we possess now. I'm not sure why that it. Maybe my quartet was too intense, maybe we applied too much pressure to maintaining the integrity of our small group, maybe we inadvertently kept each other from doing the self-exploration that is so necessary in adolescence and early adulthood.

I look at my current friends and I don't have one with whom I share the kind of closeness I knew as a child, when two people seem to be one. I have music friends, sports friends, Jewish friends, work friends, neighborhood friends, 117 Facebook friends (several of whom I barely know)...I don't have anyone who spans the entirety of my experience. Maybe I never did. Maybe that's why I feel a certain void in my life that keeps me looking back, trying to reclaim something I thought existed.

Maybe it's not a friendship I lost that intrigues me, maybe it's a friendship I never had. If indeed it has eluded me all these years, why do I feel I need it now? And would I know if it were to come to me? And if I did, would it fulfill me?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

If a post enters the blogosphere and no one comments on it, does it have any impact?

Heavy question for a long holiday weekend. But it's been on my mind, since I'm still relatively new to the blogging thing and I guess maybe I still need to be convinced that there's a point to it beyond being a purely egocentric forum for whatever it is about me that I want to broadcast to the anonymous masses who come here - mostly quite accidentally - and scan the offerings.

The days when I check my blog and see a comment are extremely gratifying - and rare. I've enjoyed learning how people found my blog and what of value they found in whatever post it was that they commented on. It's endlessly fascinating how connections work in this (n)etherland. I've "met" people who share my interest in family history, who have a loved one afflicted with the same disease that claimed my mother, and who want me to pursue one of my future projects. It is in these moments that Tim Berners-Lee's vision of the World Wide Web becomes real to me - that there is something in these links and pages of user-generated content that can not only connect but potentially heal humanity.

What I wonder about it why so many people from so many countries (at least a dozen, according to my site counter) come here, look around briefly, and leave without making their mark. Maybe they took a quick scan and didn't find anything worthwhile here. I can understand that. Different strokes for different folks. I can't get too upset if someone I don't know doesn't take interest in my personal life and work. But I sense that people (other than a certain colleague who lets me know in personal, analog terms that she has read and enjoyed my posts) are actually reading the content and then clicking away for someone else's two cents. To them I say, "Hey, at least leave a calling card so I can thank you for the visit."

For a writer, particularly, feedback is a critical part of the creative process. Yes, there's a certain sense of "I need to put this on paper regardless if anyone reads it" but the obverse of this is "If no one reads what I write, why then am I writing?" A song never heard by an audience may have an intrinsic value, but the lack of extrinsic interest and acceptance renders it largely moot. It calls to mind the famous quote by Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?" To put it another way, if I choose to write that others may learn from and/or enjoy my writing, is there an audience willing to consume it? And should I choose to write to feed my soul rather than my family, how does that change my sense of role, of identity, both in and of myself and in the eyes of others?

And if not know, when? Well, therein lies the rub and the root of my inquiry. If you read something here and do not comment on it immediately, will you ever? And if the time to do so it now, will you do so? If not, why not? I am putting myself out here for your consumption. Will you not do the same? Is it coincidence that most of the comments I have received are from other bloggers? Who knows what lurks in the hearts of lurkers? If they don't comment, we'll never know.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Close but no cigar

On July 8, 2008, I posted a piece called "In the presence of genius," in which I spoke about some of the brilliant people I have had the opportunity to meet and interview in my job. Two of the folks were from MIT: Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web; and Robert Langer, a chemical engineer who has developed remarkable nanotechnologies for biomedical applications.

Recently, I was asked to edit an article about the fact that of the three winners to date of Finland's Millennium Technology Prize - a prestigious global award with a purse of $1.4 million for people who develop innovative technologies that aid humanity - two have been MIT engineers. Yes, you guessed it: Berners-Lee and Langer. Anyway, the first draft of the article needed a lot of work so I rewrote it, to the client's delight.

Then last week, our client came to our office to tell us that there was a chance the article may have to be rewritten again. It appears that both Berners-Lee and Langer were finalists for Nobel prizes, announced this past week. Langer was up for the Nobel for Medicine, Berners-Lee for the Peace Prize. As it turns out, neither got the nod, and my own opportunity for further bragging rights also evaporated.

Had Langer won, he would have become the first engineer to win the award for Medicine. It would seem that his time is coming, however, as the Nobel is pretty much the only major award he hasn't received yet. The man is a true superstar in his field, and royalty at MIT, where his last name is uttered in reverent tones.

As for Berners-Lee, the very notion that a technologist who invented a computing concept and a programming language could be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize is indicative of just how monumental the World Wide Web is. The Nobel committee may never come to terms with giving an engineer a Peace Prize, but what would the world be like today minus his fingerprints?

Anyway, the article doesn't need to be rewritten now.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Past Projects III: Radio scripts

When I worked at WGBH years ago, I was pleased to make the acquaintance of Ellen Kushner, an extremely smart, gifted, and funny writer and radio host. Recurring readers will recall that my novel-in-waiting, The Grave and the Gay, was stylistically inspired by her wonderful work, Thomas the Rhymer. Suffice to say, she has been a friend and inspiration from that moment hence (and I recommend her Green Marinade highly).

Anyway, Ellen was host and principal writer for a marvelous public radio series called Sound & Spirit, a co-production of WGBH and Public Radio International. S&S treated the human experience with wonder and reverence, with text and with song. Each hour-long program was almost a meditation unto itself, a listening experience that somehow engaged all your senses and left you with a decided optimism about humanity.

One day after I had left WGBH for greener (as in $) and meaner pastures, I received an email from Ellen. She was working on a program called "Fathers and Sons" that was intended for Rosh Hashanah, using as its core narrative and thematic springboard the Genesis story of Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. Ellen was asking me and others included in the email for song suggestions. One of mine, Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" (Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"/Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"/God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"/God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but/The next time you see me comin' you better run"/Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"/God says, "Out on Highway 61.") was selected and she gave me on-air credit for helping out.

My appetite for stardom thus whetted, I asked Ellen if I might try my hand at writing a script for S&S. She knew my writing ability from WGBH and invited me to come in and meet the team. They asked if I had any ideas for a show. My mother had died not long before and I had become fascinated with the logic and beauty of Jewish mourning rituals, so I suggested something about mourning. They liked the idea and told me to cover a range of cultural and religious traditions. Just conducting the research was a fascinating experience. You really get an appreciation for the breadth of beliefs and customs in the world.

In addition to the narrative development, there was the music. The S&S team would scan through the WGBH CD library for material and I would be able to suggest music as well. The typical S&S musical cut was in the classical, ethnic, or folk realm. Arvo Pärt seemed to work his way into a lot of shows. I asked an online jazz community I participate in for suggestions, and someone alerted me to a stunning solo piano piece by Bill Evans from the album Bill Evans At Town Hall, called "In Memory of His Father." Evans' father had died just a week or two before the concert and rather than cancel he decided he would improvise a tribute to him. One enthusiastic listener wrote a letter to the station applauding the inclusion of Bill Evans' music in the program! At the end of her narration, Ellen noted that the program, titled "Mourning and Loss," was written by me and was dedicated to the memory of my mother.

The second script I did was called "Prayer." The third and last one I did, which was particularly challenging yet fun, had the happy-go-lucky title, "The End of the World." That program explored how various cultures think about and even plan for the end of days. Pretty heavy stuff.

I had more ideas, but due to budget issues they weren't making a lot of new shows after that and it was faster, easier, and more cost-effective for Ellen to churn them out herself. Ellen is now in New York City being brilliant so I'm not even sure the series is anything but reruns these days. That said, every program is a jewel, so you should check out the Sound & Spirit website for information on where and when it may be playing near you. You can also view a list of all the programs (including mine), view the playlists, and order transcripts.

Writing for Sound & Spirit was extremely gratifying, but writing scripts for strictly timed programs is very difficult and requires a certain touch and an ear and sensitivity for much content a person can hear and ingest when interspersed with excerpts of music. I learned a lot and though I don't think I'll ever write for radio again, I'm very proud of my credits and grateful to Ellen for the opportunity.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Update to Current Projects III: Ghostwriting

As reported early in the life of this blog, here to be exact, I'd been hired to ghostwrite a book about Boston's 400-year history of innovation for a local non-profit. Phase I was to write a sample chapter, a rationale, and synopses of the various chapters. We presented it to a literary agent in late July. He asked that we work on the rationale to bring out what about the story is of sufficiently universal interest and value that someone in Chicago or Seattle would care about what happened in Boston in 1630 or 1750 or 1820 or 1990. The chapter itself he said he liked, but to pitch it to a publisher he needs to be able to make the case that the book would have a strong national readership.

So, we made the changes and resubmitted the package. Today, we heard from him. He rejected it. The content, again, he thinks is fine. He just doesn't think people outside of Boston will care much about it, and publishers these days are looking for potential returns that would justify a minimum initial run of 150,000 copies. He sent us a list of other area agents and wished us luck, but my client is of the opinion that this agent represented our best shot at getting the book published.

Hence, my first rejection letter. I am now pursuing agents for my novel. Anyone out there in the publishing business, please make yourself known.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Grave And The Gay: Chapter One

Well, folks, here we go. Here's the first chapter of my first novel. As discussed many posts ago, the title of my book is The Grave And The Gay, and it's a retelling of a 17th-century English folk song known by various titles, perhaps the most popular being "Matty Groves," performed masterfully in the previous century by Fairport Convention. It's a classic tale of adultery and murder between the classes, revolving around the roguish hero, Matty Groves (in my version, as in much older variants, his name is Matty Musgrave), and the unhappily married Lord and Lady Barnard. For more information on the song and its variants, click here.

And now, as a sneak peek at my work, and in the fervent hop of attracting comments and critiques, here is the first chapter of my story. Please don't be shy; your input can only make the story better and, of course, one that someday you would want to buy for yourself. However, do also please be gentle, as this is my first time offering such a major work of mine up for public comment. It's not long, and the action picks up as the story goes on, but what I want to know is whether or not, after reading Chapter One, your curiosity is sufficiently piqued so as to want to read more.

The Grave And The Gay
By Jason M. Rubin

Chapter 1

Even as the morning sun dried the dew on the exterior of her bedroom window, Lady Barnard’s exuberant breath created a moist fog on the interior-facing pane. It was the first morning of spring, and she looked out with hopeful eyes on the servants in the yard and, more particularly, the townspeople passing her grand home on the street. Instead of white, the endless, hopeless still white of snow drifts, there were colorful figures in motion against a deepening green and grey background.

With her face still close to the glass, Lady Barnard used her hands to work the wooden bolts that had kept the window closed tightly against the winter chill. When they were loosened, she flung open the window and into her face flew the insistent, long-awaited guest: that southwesterly wind that clipped the green fields of Dublin, carried the moist, mossy aroma of peat over the ocean and round the Isle of Anglesey, at last depositing this timeworn trace of spring to the thawing English county of Lancashire, and into Lady Barnard’s room.

It had been a brutally hard winter – dozens had died of exposure or illness – and this much-anticipated sign of change was as welcome to the Lancastrians as the sight of Noah’s dove had been to the survivors of the great deluge. Together with the increased chatter of returning birds and the reappearance of tight green buds on vines and shrubs, these heralds of the new season inspired a restless euphoria in all. Never mind that one’s breath was still clearly visible at dawn and in the evenings, or that fires as much for warmth as for cooking still burned in hearths. No, impatience prevailed, and folks were already out and about, planning and preparing for the Eastertime celebrations to come.

At this season, in taverns, on porches, in fields, and even in the rear pews on Sunday mornings, small bands of enterprising young men enlisted like-minded merry-makers to join their pace-egging troupes. Outsiders may be unfamiliar with this tradition and confused by its name. Yet those of you who learned your Latin will know that “pace” is from pacha, or spring. And eggs, of course, are the season’s primary symbol of rebirth. The pace-eggers journey from town to town each Easter Sunday in wild costumes and with a song of entreaty, requesting favors – usually eggs boiled in onionskin or coins of any value – which they repay with a farcical play.

The dramatis personae of this play includes such characters as the Lady Gay, the Soldier Brave, and, of course, the notorious Old Tosspot, whose coal-blackened face gapes and guffaws above the basket he waves to hold the aforementioned favors. In his other hand, the stronger one in fact, he holds a straw tail stuffed with pins, which he swings madly towards those who either are slow in paying into the basket or who have the temerity to try and steal its contents.

Following the play – not the Passion narrative as such, although it is typical that a death and rebirth of sorts transpires – Old Tosspot again bullies the crowd for favors. The eggs, then, are eaten (and shells crushed, lest witches use them as boats) and the coins shared and pocketed, or else tendered in exchange for mugs of ale. The pace-eggers then make their way to another village and the entire act plays out again. By the end of the holiday, the pace-eggers would have consumed enough eggs and ale to keep them in their beds well into the following day.

Yet even as the men were organizing their bands; even as the women were cleaning their houses and making room in their kitchens for the game they would pluck and cook, and the pies and cakes they would bake; even as children dreaded the clean, newly knit clothes they had to wear to church, and the switch they knew would be taken to them if they misbehaved during the service, even with all this activity at high pitch, still Easter was half a fortnight away.

Perhaps a milder winter would not have inspired such impatience to greet spring and all its wonders. Yet in truth, rarely is spring met with indifference, especially here in Lancashire, still a Catholic stronghold, where the faithful greet this time with hope, for we all have the capacity to change, to grow. And we, too, if the sun finds us and we strengthen in the warmth of its light, we, too, may be reborn in an eternal spring.

It was in this optimistic atmosphere that Lady Barnard drew the new peaty air deeply into her nostrils, and in exhaling released a winter’s worth of loneliness and frustration. The crisp, invigorating breeze felt good on her pale, oval face, framed by dark hair tightly drawn at the back in a bun. She closed her eyes so only the lids could know the lake-green circles underneath.

I bid you welcome, spring, she thought to herself, and may winter not soon return. In truth, as cold as it had been out of doors the past few months, it had been just as frigid within her stately home – and for an even longer duration. Though she was not a prisoner in her home, her comings and goings were carefully controlled by Lord Barnard, who had an odd, seemingly irrational dislike of people gossiping and sharing information about what went on in each other’s lives and homes. Clearly concerned that Lady Barnard would talk as such, he severely limited her trips into town; though in truth, not much at all went on in their home.

After ten years of marriage to Lord Barnard, there had yet been no children. Furthermore, it had been far too long, in Lady Barnard’s opinion, since the act of conception had even been attempted. Now, with the advent of spring, Lord Barnard would resume his hunting trips. She would be left alone, which, after all, she found preferable to being ignored. This day, however, as nature’s insistent cycle moved one-quarter turn, Lady Barnard decided she would like to spend more time among the townspeople, go free of the servants more frequently (for well she knew that servitude chains both slaves and masters), and even see if there might still be more to her appeal than that overly familiar visage which appeared in her looking glass.

Then a scowl formed on her face, as she turned away from the window. O, that I could ever be like the girls I see on the street, fluttering about and flirting in plain view, with no care nor shame, she thought. Lady Barnard sadly turned back to the window, continuing to spy enviously on those who have fewer means yet far more freedom than she. It may not be a good life they lead, she thought, but it is a life they own, a life they control. I am no more in charge of my destiny than these French draperies are of theirs. In truth, she admitted, I am much like the draperies, the furniture, the china and silver. We all are affectations, decorations for my Lord. We are that, all that, yet nothing more.

With that distressing thought, her focus became distracted and though she continued to look out the window into the yard below, in truth she saw nothing; or rather, her mind did not acknowledge what was within her view. Thus it was that she took no notice of the figure passing into the scope of her vision, the man known affectionately as Little Musgrave. To his long-deceased mother, he was Matthew Musgrave. To his friends, and he had many, he was Matty. He was Lord Barnard’s stable hand, and had Lady Barnard truly seen him she would have thought him familiar-looking yet been unable to identify his name or place. The stable was but one of many places to which she never ventured. Matty, however, looked towards the grand home as he walked and could see Lady Barnard’s eyes facing his direction. He assumed she was looking at him, but as she did not appear about to give an order, he continued on his way.

Fewer than twenty paces hence, Matty came upon Alexandra McLean, who was doing the Barnards’ laundry. A red handkerchief held back her straw-colored mane. Beautiful even in damp, loose-fitting work clothes, she stood chest-high to her visitor. As Matty approached, she gladly suspended her work and placed a lid on the tall pot of water that sat on an open fire beside her.

“Good morning, Alexandra,” said Matty, with a knowing grin on his strong and pleasant face.
“And to you, Matty,” Alexandra replied, dabbing her moist forehead with her apron.
“Will I see you in the loft tonight, fair maiden?”
With mock incredulity, she said, “Oh, is it my turn again so soon, then?”
“Whatever could you mean?” came another mock-incredulous reply.
“I shan’t promise you. I don’t see myself finishing before nightfall, unless I collapse where I stand. The Lady has me cleaning all the quilts and carpets today.”
“Odd thing. She was just staring at me from her window as I passed along from the stable.”
“It’s not so strange for a woman to stare at you, now, is it, Matty?”
“Well, she’s not just any woman, is she? I doubt she even knows my name.”
“Ah, but I’m sure she knows a pretty face. And I believe she has been lonely,” Alexandra added.
“What makes you say that?
“I wash the bed linens,” she whispered. “Many a tale is told in soiled sheets. The Lord and Lady’s are unusually clean, if you understand my meaning.”
“Perhaps they employ that long dining table in place of a bed,” said Matty.
“I would prefer hard wood or even cold marble to straw.”
“Then accept this offer. Tonight you will ride me like a horseman and I will take the quills in my backside.”
“You are a true gentleman, Little Musgrave. A true –”

And at that moment, the occasional lovers were interrupted by Darnell, the Barnards’ personal assistant. Such position made him a “house” servant, a more prestigious role than those like Matty and Alexandra, who toiled out of doors or in other quarters.

“Matty Musgrave,” Darnell called.
“I am here,” replied Matty.
“Lord Barnard wishes to see you immediately.”
“For what purpose?”
“I neither wish to know nor need to know,” Darnell replied, without the disinterest he would wish to display. “It is my Lord’s desire to speak with you and while I do not comprehend the affection he seems to have for you lately, I am merely fulfilling my duty in informing you of his request.”

Looking down at Matty’s feet, Darnell added, “Might I suggest you change your shoes so as not to track manure into the home?”
“The Lord loves his horses and he loves me,” teased Matty. “How, then, can he be upset if my shoes bring both his loves to him?”

As Darnell stifled a shout and Alexandra muffled a laugh, Matty bid them good day. When the strutting stable hand neared the house, Darnell said to Alexandra, “He is a disgusting brute.”

“Yes, though you have to admit he is honest about it,” she replied.
“You’re too good for him, you know.”
“So you’ve told me. Thank you for your concern, Darnell. Now if you don’t mind, I need to attend to the washing.”
“I can do better by you.”
“Can you, then? How? You work in the house, but you are not master of it.”
“Alexandra, you know I have feelings for you. I am a decent man. I have a good position. The Lord and Lady treat me well. As my wife, you would improve your standing with them.”
“Is that your offer, then? That I should be a servant’s wife? Am I to be servant to a servant?”
“Well, what can Matty offer you?”
“Laughter, Darnell. Laughter and passion. And nothing more because I desire nothing more. You know Matty. He’ll not be chained to a wife, nor I to a husband. It’s enough for me that I can sit out on a spring morning and earn a wage and a meal.”
“You’re a lovely girl, Alexandra. But you have no sense. I will not stop courting you, not until I have saved you from yourself and your demeaning relationship with that, that…stable hand.”

Suddenly, a bell rang, it’s jingle emanating from the open window above.

“That’s Lady Barnard,” said Darnell. “Remember what I have said. Remember that I love you, Alexandra.”

And with that, Darnell followed the same steps that Matty took into the house, looking down all the way to check for traces of manure. Alexandra watched him walk away, then returned her attention to the pot and placed another log in the fire beneath it.

© Copyright 2008, Jason M. Rubin. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Future Projects V: Family history 2 - my sister

The first line of Erich Segal’s novel, Love Story, is: “What can you say about a 25 year old girl who died?”

So what then can I say about a seven-year-old girl who died, other than she was my sister and I was exactly one year and two weeks old when leukemia ended her life? She was, in fact, exactly seven years and one week old when she died. I was born on February 12, 1963, her birthday was February 19, and she died on February 26, 1964. I always thought that was interesting.

Interesting in retrospect, of course, because I have no actual memory of her. In fact, there was a time when I didn't even know of her existence. I was perhaps four or five or six - some age when everything seemingly was as fuzzy in real time as it is in hindsight - when a friend (a second cousin, actually, though we always felt more like friends than family) said to me one day that I used to have a sister. At the time, I did have a sister, Amy, four years my senior (another sister, Judi, arrived when I was seven). No, my friend said, you had another one, named Donna, but she died.

Not knowing the term "bullshit" at that age, I'm guessing I merely called him a liar, then went home to ask my parents. I was shocked to find that it was true. I did have another sister. So why weren't there any photos of her in the house? Why didn't anyone talk about her? Why didn't anyone tell me? These were questions that remained either unanswered or answered unsatisfactorily to an inquisitive young mind such as mine.

Through snooping, I found the occasional photo. My favorite, which unfortunately I no longer have, showed her playing with me; I have what appears to be an empty KFC bucket on my head. Most tantalizing in my memory is that we used to have a junk closet that I loved to explore. In it was a tape recorder, a mini reel-to-reel job. The batteries were dead but I found if I manually turned the reels you could hear someone's voicing speaking in slow motion, Lurchian deep tones. It was unintelligible and I think back on it wondering if perchance Donna's voice may have been on that tape.

Anyway, I grew up with the unspoken Code of Donna Silence (CDS) and when Judi came along it never occurred to me that she should know about her. Until the day when she was probably about the same age as I when I found out about Donna, maybe closer to six or seven because she could read well. She, too, had been snooping around and was going through my father's wallet. There she found an interesting yellow square of newsprint, which she brought down to the den and proceeded to read to the family. It was Donna's death notice. Within seconds, my mother put her hands over ears and yelled "Stop!" My father sprang up and took the little square from Judi's hands. I was a mute witness, yet the scene brought back my feelings from my own rude introduction to the CDS.

I'd like to be able to say that things changed after that, but they didn't. I was too young to understand the unbearable grief of losing one's daughter. I only knew that I felt cheated. In my teens and twenties, I kind of adopted Donna as my guardian angel. Any near miss I was involved in I chalked up to her intervention. This included a traumatizing plane ride home from my honeymoon in Ecuador when I was 30.

Prior to that, however, I decided that enough was enough. I was more than simply curious about Donna; she was my sister and the very reality of her existence was being denied to me. Bad enough I didn't have a memory of her, I also lacked a community willing to help me create a memory of who she was. Urged and guided by my soon-to-be-wife, a social worker whose grab-the-bull--by-the-horns philosophy was hardly Rubinesque, I finally confronted my parents one night.

As lovingly, gently, and empathically as I could, I sat them down and told them that I needed to know my sister, and I needed them to give her back to me. Difficult as it was for them, they proceeded to tell me stories about her, both the good and the bad. Then my mother went up to her room and came back down with photos of her that she had kept in her night table drawer. They told me about her personality, the course of her sickness, and, courageously, of her death. I was chilled to hear my mother say that as Donna was drifting in and out of consciousness, she opened her eyes, looked at my mother, and said, "Oh, I thought you were holding Jason." Those were her last words. My name was her ultimate utterance.

I decided then and there that I needed to bring Donna back to life. I needed to write her story. I began to do some research by talking with family members. They were cautious in sharing their memories; not only was it still painful for them, but they wanted to be sure it was OK with my parents that they talk about her. They all had signed on to the conspiracy of silence out of love and compassion for my parents. Eventually, you could almost hear the pop of pent-up testimony as people began to speak about her freely.

I visited her elementary school and managed to get a few papers from their archives, including a registration form in which my mother notes her interests and tastes. I got a copy of her autopsy report from Children's Hospital in Boston, the request form signed by my mother's neurologically impaired hand at my semi-covert insistence. I was told that Donna's eyes were donated; someone in the world sees through my sister's eyes. For all I know, I've looked into them.

Of course, now that I am the father of two girls, ages 12 and 2 (with the older one, I swear I held my breath the entire year she was seven), I have much more empathy and sympathy for my parents' reaction to Donna's death. Honestly, I don't know how I could ever endure a day or fall asleep at night after such a tragedy. Yet they did. My mother laughed and cared for people until her illness took her away, and my father worked hard day after day making a good life for the three of us who remained.

Since my intervention, through to the current day, photos of Donna are displayed proudly in my father's house. At the time of her yahrzeit (the anniversary of her death by the Jewish calendar), we all light candles and/or visit her grave, activities that we had never been invited to share in when my sisters and I were young. Coincidentally, her grave is directly across from a girl who, though 11 I think when she died, passed away on a February 26 as well. It is thought that the two are fast friends down there.

Speaking of graves, Donna was the first major death in the Rubin family of my father's generation that made everyone realize that they should buy plots. Today, my mother, my grandparents, my uncle, and other relatives are in the same row as Donna. I remember passing her grave at my uncle's funeral, and a great aunt looked at her plaque and said sadly, "She brought us all here."

When I see the stones left on her plaque I know there are many people who knew her and will always remember her. Gradually, I am getting to know her, too. A biography of a seven-year-old girl won't be a thick volume, but it will be heavy with unlived days, unfulfilled potential, and the unfought fights and never-felt embraces between a big sister and her baby brother.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Future Projects IV: Monkees tribute band

OK, you're thinking, now he's gone off the deep end. How does one go from wanting to novelize the romance between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, stage a one-act play dramatizing the spreading of one's friend's ashes at a sacred childhood spot, and develop other creative fiction and non-fiction works, to forming a band to play the repertoire of the Monkees? What can I say, I'm a renaissance man.

I love the Monkees. I have ever since I took my sister's copy of their first album. I then got their Greatest Hits, with the original orange and black cover. And of course, I loved the TV show. But, say the critics and the cynics, that's really all it was, right? A TV show about a band, and the band was just actors who didn't play on their records, right? Wrong. While the individual Monkees were indeed cast for a show, their first hit single preceded the show's debut. They provided all the vocals, and Mike Nesmith contributed two original compositions (his song, Different Drum, was already a hit for Linda Ronstadt).

Therefore, in terms of the level of participation of the members in their recordings, the distinction between the Monkees and a group like the Temptations or even the Jackson 5 seems pretty small. Furthermore, the Monkees, at least Nesmith and Peter Tork, actively campaigned for the right to play and write on their records. More Monkees performed on the group's third album, Headquarters, than Beach Boys performed on Pet Sounds. Motown had the Funk Brothers, the Beach Boys and Phil Spector had the Wrecking Crew. The Monkees also benefited from studio musicians. It makes them no less of a legitimate band.

Ultimately, though, the proof of the pudding is in the grooves. They were great singers and they sang great songs, written by some of the best songwriting talent around at that time, including Goffin-King, Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, Boyce & Hart, and John Stewart. With his contributions, Nesmith was one of the earliest pioneers of country rock. Micky Dolenz was a soulful singer with relentless energy. Davy Jones was the balladeer, but could also put some English on uptempo rockers. Peter Tork was underutilized but whenever he was featured, his efforts stood out.

So anyway, I play drums and I've always wanted to form a Monkees tribute band. Aside from loving the music, it's also a fun idea. Now, I need to be clear that I don't want a band that dresses and acts like the Monkees, nor do I want a band that slavishly copies the original recordings. I just want a band that plays this music well and with enjoyment. I even have a name for the group: MonkeeJuice. This is a tribute to the Boston-based cover band, BeatleJuice, that was fronted by former Boston (the group) vocalist Brad Delp before his unfortunate suicide a couple of years ago. BeatleJuice played Beatles songs for the sheer love of the music, and that's what I want to do with MonkeeJuice, too.

Unfortunately, the guys I've played with over the past few years aren't so much into the idea. One show, one time, we played Last Train to Clarksville, with me on drums and vocals. Other than that, I can't get these guys to buy into the idea. At the same time, I'm a bit hesitant to pursue this project more heavily. One of the guys I've played with decided a few years ago he wanted to start a Steely Dan tribute band. He placed a notice on Craig's List and was inundated with offers from people all over the country. He assembled a large group and rehearsed with them for a long time until it started to splinter, with some people complaining it was getting too jazzy, and others saying it wasn't jazzy enough. If this can't be fun, I don't want to do it.

What I do want to do, however, is spread the gospel of the Monkees, a band that absolutely deserves to be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

This rarity was written by Goffin-King, sung and produced by Nesmith. Always thought this sounded like a lost Buffalo Springfield track (not that ironic considering Peter Tork was a one-time roommate of Stephen Stills).

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Past Projects II: Brainstorming class

Twice upon a time, in April and October of 2000 to be exact, I taught a class called "Brainstorming Basics" through the Boston Center for Adult Education. I did this for two reasons: a) I genuinely enjoy brainstorming and have always been curious about different methods of conducting and facilitating this creative endeavor; and b) I wanted to see if I could teach. As to the latter, I fancied myself to be like William Hurt in Children of a Lesser God or Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society, or at least Donald Sutherland in Animal House. In other words, a cool, innovative, unorthodox teacher whose students would adore and idolize him. As it turns out, though I had an interesting approach, I'm just not a big performer type, with a voice and delivery that command attention and capture hearts, souls, and minds.

I started each class by playing a CD of a Monty Python sketch called "String" in which John Cleese does some amazing (and hilarious) brainstorming about how to market Eric Idle's 122,000 miles of string - which happens to be cut into three-inch lengths. "So it's not really useful," says Idle, whereas Cleese counters, "Well, that's our selling point!" and proceeds to rattle off a range of blue-sky ideas. Humorous and over the top as it was, the sketch also was truly illustrative of the two extremes of brainstorming: the stream-of-consciousness bellowing of anything that comes into one's mind the very second it does, and the instant, hyper-critical cutting down of any idea presented.

I taught that there were two phases to a brainstorming session; actually three. The first phase occurs well before the session takes place. In this phase, a creative brief is written and distributed to the brainstorming team that provides all the background information, creative direction, and context people will need to start generating ideas. A few days is then provided to allow ideas to gestate because the fact of the matter is that ideas are not obedient things - they don't come when you call them, and they don't always arrive when you need them. They tend to come when you're least prepared for them: in the car, in the shower, in bed. It's useful to keep paper and pen or a tape or digital recorder near you at all times when you have a brainstorming assignment.

The next two phases generally happen at the brainstorming session, although they can be broken up. The first of these two phases is the brainstorming itself. This is the process of generating and articulating ideas, which should be written on a board or on sheets so people can see them. Often, people will be able to offer useful variations on someone else's idea, so there needs to be an understanding and agreement at the start that this is an open, friendly, and safe process where no one's input is less valuable than anyone else's, and that all ideas belong to the group, so anyone can take license with anyone else's input, the goal being to improve the total pool of ideas generated.

The second phase is when ideas get analyzed and critiqued. They are not "judged" per se, but again, while no one ought to try to hurt anyone's feelings, the entire group has to take ownership of the ideas so as to build consensus around the strongest ones. It's important that this process be separate from the idea generation and articulation phase, because otherwise it has a chilling effect on people's thinking and their willingness to share their ideas. First get it all on the board, then decide which gets removed. This is another opportunity to try out variations on other people's ideas; slight changes can make a big difference. Whatever decisions are made in this phase must align with the direction set down in the creative brief. If people are excited about an idea that falls outside the scope of the brief, chances are it should be killed, unless it is felt that it is worth advocating with the client to adjust the strategic scope to accommodate the idea. More likely, though, it is the right idea for the wrong project. Save it for another project.

I find a good brainstorming session to be very exhilarating, and my classes would conclude with one that I would facilitate. If a student had an actual need, we would take it on; otherwise, I would make one up. Generally, these went pretty well, although there obviously was no time for the first, pre-session phase of getting acquainted with the material and doing some preliminary thinking.

Ultimately, I didn't continue to teach this class because I didn't think I was a very effective teacher. Nearly a decade later, I might be convinced to try it again. I still think I'll lead with that Monty Python sketch (the link in the sketch name above will take you to a page where you can hear the entire piece; you can also find the script of the sketch here).