Thursday, July 31, 2008

My Personality Type: ISFP

Back in 2001, my colleagues and I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test (MBTI). (For what it's worth, the only person whose personality type was the same as mine was the receptionist.) My type was found to be ISFP. You may or may not be familiar with the Myers-Briggs classifications; I won't take the time or space to get into it in detail (other than what my type says about me) but feel free to browse the Wikipedia entry.

As one can imagine, each MBTI personality type comprises four distinct components. Each individual component reflects one of two poles, and where one score along the pole's continuum determines which end you are. They are as follows (my poles in bold):

Extraversion (E) vs. Introversion (I)
Sensing (S) vs. Intuition (N)
Thinking (T) vs. Feeling (F)
Judging (J) vs. Perceiving (P)

If you prefer Extraversion, you focus on the outside world to get energy through interacting with people and/or doing things.
If you prefer Introversion (as I do), you focus on the inner world and get energy through reflecting on information, ideas, and/or concepts.

If you prefer Sensing (as I do), you notice and trust facts, details, and present realities.
If you prefer Intuition, you attend to and trust interrelationships, theories, and future possibilities.

If you prefer Thinking, you make decisions using logical, objective analysis.
If you prefer Feeling (as I do), you make decisions to create harmony by applying person-centered values.

If you prefer Judging, you tend to be organized and orderly and to make decisions quickly.
If you prefer Perceiving (as I do), you tend to be flexible and adaptable and to keep your options open as long as possible.

According to my report, ISFP people typically care deeply about what they do, more likely showing this through deeds than words. They are loyal to people, ideals, and organizations they care about. They have a great deal of warmth, although they don't always display it. ISFPs tend to be tolerant, open-minded, and adaptable, taking things as they come. However, when something important to them is threatened, they do not give in. They have little need to impress or dominate others. They care about having people get along and may be the glue that holds things together. People can count on them to notice what needs to be done and proceeed simply and without fuss.

Additionally, according to the detailed analysis I received, I am most strongly I and F, firmly P, and mostly S, though there are aspects of N and to a much lesser extent J in my overall profile. It's important to note that some aspects of all the poles are in each person's personality, though some are much preferred.

Here are some individual characteristics that correspond with each letter:
I = Receiving, Contained, Intimate, Reflective, Quiet
S = Concrete, Realistic, Practical, Experiential, Traditional
F = Empathetic, Compassionate, Accommodating, Accepting, Tender
P = Casual, Open-ended, Pressure-prompted, Spontaneous, Emergent

Because these scores and classifications are based on questionnaire responses, they feel very right to me. Furthermore, when I look at the other personality types, I find them not only foreign but also less desirable to me. ISFP fits me well, and I can't imagine being anything else. I guess if I could, I would be it.

The takeaway, I suppose, is that each of us is wired in a certain way, and when it can be codified it can more easily be understood, even tolerated. Sometimes what we find annoying or displeasing in another person is simply his or her different way of expressing that part of their personality. If I can keep in mind that chatty people "get energy through interacting with people" and are not just out to drive me nuts with their incessant jabbering, I can at least learn to respect their different approach to a common need. That I get my energy in a different way doesn't make me better (though to my mind it's more comfortable), it's just another way to do it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Future Projects I: Novel

I've always been sort of interested in the Shakers. Not enough to want to join, but enough to be concerned that it likely won't be too long before there simply aren't any left. There were a number of Shaker communities in New England; for the most part, they are now museums. I think the last remaining Shaker community is the wonderfully named Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in Maine. Years ago, the community (then down to six) was profiled on some morning "news" show (you know, the ones that purport to be news but are really more concerned with celebrity diets and making celebrities of the anchors themselves). The report inspired the idea for a novel called The Last Shaker.

Essentially, a troubled woman (recently date-raped with a history of drug and physical abuse) is on the run and passes out at night at the outskirts of a Shaker community, where she is found in the morning by one of the three remaining elders. She is taken in, healed, and invited to stay. With her strength returned, she becomes a caretaker of the others. Though the Shaker lifestyle is not something she desires or appreciates, she quickly becomes emotionally attached to the three elders. Soon, however, it becomes obvious that her rapist made her pregnant.

Again, she becomes distraught and depressed, yet the elders help her to see a positive side to her situation. Though the Shakers are celibate, they believe in life, and it is important to them that she be able to make this new life a useful one. As the pregnancy advances, one of the Shakers becomes ill and dies quickly. Another becomes infirm. The woman fears being left alone to birth and care for the child and considers leaving the community. But in a moment of crisis for the infirm Shaker, she realizes she must stay. The infirm Shaker dies, leaving one Shaker and one pregnant woman.

The woman considers becoming a Shaker but feels she is too impure to ever fully embrace the ascetic lifestyle. The last remaining Shaker midwifes the birth of the woman's child, a boy, then falls ill. The woman cares for both the elder and the newborn at the same time, finding similarities both in their dependence and in the fact that despite their physical frailties, there is much each can still teach her. As the elder dies, the woman tells her that she will raise her child Shaker. Her child, therefore, becomes the last Shaker.

So this is a story I began writing years ago and never returned to; one reason is that I found it difficult to research specific Shaker rituals, particularly some sort of conversion ceremony. I bought a very beautiful book called God Among the Shakers, but it still left me with unanswered questions. I believe I am now more capable of undertaking the research needed, if I can allocate sufficient time. Given my other projects, I'm not sure it will happen in the next year or two.

However, an item in the news today has re-piqued my interest in the project:

Shaker child returns to celebrate 90th birthday

By Clare Trapasso Associated Press Writer / July 29, 2008

CANTERBURY, N.H.—Eleven-year-old Alberta Kirkpatrick didn't believe she would ever be loved when she arrived in New Hampshire almost 80 years ago.

Her mother was dead. Her father drank. Her three siblings had scattered. She had threatened to kill herself if she wasn't removed from an abusive foster family.

Kirkpatrick found a home as the last child officially raised by the Canterbury Shakers -- then a dwindling, celibate community. And this month Kirkpatrick returned to the village, now a museum, to celebrate her 90th birthday.

"It's like going home to me," said Kirkpatrick, who drove up with a friend from her Warren, Pa. home.

The village has changed since Kirkpatrick ran through its fields picking asparagus from the garden and sledding over its hills. After the last Canterbury Shaker, Sister Ethel Hudson, died in 1992, the once religious village was turned into a museum.

Twenty-nine restored and reconstructed buildings, including the one where Kirkpatrick lived, sit on almost 700 lush acres.

Groups of tourists file through the carpenter's shop, where the Shakers printed mail order seed packets. They participate in cooking demonstrations, like how to make lavender ice cream. And they examine the simple craftsmanship of Shaker furniture, built for efficiency, which can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Kirkpatrick, a sharp woman with blazing blue eyes, is one of the last people who remembers it as it really was.

Officially known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, the Shakers began in England in 1747. Because of their wild dancing during worship, they were called Shaking Quakers and then simply Shakers, according to Tom Johnson, curator of the Canterbury Shaker Museum.

They left England and formed societies stretching from New England to Kentucky where they practiced pacifism, equality of the sexes and celibacy. Men and women performed separate jobs and even used separate staircases.

They become known for their business acumen, craftsmanship and innovations, including the clothespin and circular saw.

In the mid-19th century, they peaked, with more than 6,000 U.S. members, including about 300 in Canterbury. More than 100 buildings, including an infirmary, stood on about 3,000 acres.

But after the Civil War, Shakers had trouble attracting converts, Johnson said. Another source of membership, children in need of homes, slowly dwindled as society developed alternatives.

Villages began closing. In 1968, Canterbury decided to stop taking in converts. Today, the four Shakers left in the world live at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine.

Kirkpatrick said the Shakers never pressed their religion on her or the eight other girls she was raised with in the village.

The girls attended the Shaker school and learned to sew, knit and embroider. In their spare time, they performed small tasks like washing pots and pans or helping with the laundry.

In seven years, Kirkpatrick was never hungry or punished.

"They made a living through the Depression for all of us," she said. "I'm grateful for the education I got there."

When Kirkpatrick was 18, her aunt and cousins persuaded her to leave.

"They were telling me about boyfriends and going to the movies," Kirkpatrick said. "They said they could get a job for me at Sears, Roebuck."

Sister Marguerite Frost, the woman who became her surrogate mother, told her to go.

"She said there's nothing here but the sisters that are getting older," Kirkpatrick remembered. "She said that's no life for a young person."

Kirkpatrick left. She married and had a daughter. Kirkpatrick remarried when she was 50 and is now a great-grandmother. Her second husband died in 1983.

Kirkpatrick has played a part in helping to guide the museum staff in recreating the village.

"She's a wonderful primary source of information for us," said museum director Funi Burdick. "She puts a family story into the Shaker community."

The museum held Kirkpatrick's birthday party on July 13. Kirkpatrick told townspeople about her childhood and was presented with a cake.

"It was marvelous, it was marvelous," Kirkpatrick said. "When I was little, I wasn't wanted at all. Now that I'm older I get this adulation. I can't see that I'm that spectacular of a person, but I certainly loved it all."

Monday, July 21, 2008

Current Projects V: Family history

My uncle Arnold was always the family historian. In my 20s and 30s, I began to take an earnest interest in my family's history, and Arnold was only too glad to share stories and artifacts. He died tragically a few years ago, and more of these treasures came into my possession. A couple of years ago, I was looking at a Certificate of Naturalization for my great-grandfather (Arnold and my father's grandfather), Max Rubin, and noticed that he arrived in America (from Pinsk, then in Russia) on July 8, 1907. It occurred to me that with the centennial of his immigration about a year away, there was an excellent opportunity to prepare a family history and arrange an event bringing together relatives far and near to celebrate my family's 100 years in America.

I set out poring over the documents I had, interviewed a number of great aunts and uncles (thankfully, at the time I was doing my research, five of Max and his wife Rose's brood of 11 were still alive; as I write this, four remain). The stories I uncovered were truly awe-inspiring. Various websites (such as and the Ellis Island Foundation) were very helpful as well. Here are a few nuggets from Max's journey, excerpted from the report I wrote and had printed and bound for the celebration. Then I'll tell more about the celebration itself, which truly was a day to remember.

In the late 1800s, Russian Pinsk was home to a family headed by a man named Myer Rubacha. It is believed that Myer was twice married, yet neither wife’s name is known. By his second wife, Myer had two sons, Fischel and Mordecai (the latter born August 25, 1883, and known by his Russian name Morche), and probably one daughter, whose name is not recalled.

Morche had a friend named Wigder Kirsner, whose family had some money. Wigder had a younger sister named Reizel, born on May 25, 1885 (though her death certificate says July 25). Their father, Harry, worked with horses and all the family were capable riders. Esther, their mother, sold used clothes. The family maintained two houses, one in which they lived and one that stored the clothes.

Reizel, only 16, had eyes for Morche, to such an extent that her parents took to prohibiting him from visiting her because of his orphan status. Morche, however, was equally smitten, and would steal away to her window at night to speak with her. Eventually it became apparent to all that Reizel and Morche were very much in love. In spite of the fact that this was a time when arranged marriages were common, the two were allowed to indulge their mutual attraction and to wed. At the time of their marriage in December 1902, Morche was 19 and Reizel was 17. It wasn’t long before Reizel became pregnant, and their first child, Perl, was born on September 22, 1903.

Fischel, who apparently never married, had decided to join the masses from throughout eastern and western Europe who believed that America offered a level of freedom and opportunity they would never know in their native lands. It is not known when or by what means he came to America, or how he paid for his passage, but like most of those of his and succeeding generations, he came to Ellis Island and took up residence in New York.

A skilled carpenter, Morche was never idle. As a young husband, he was not idle, either. Their second child, Heschel (his Russian name), or Zvi Beinish (named after Reizel’s father), arrived on May 15, 1905. Early in 1907, Reizel was pregnant a third time. However, there were fears that Morche would be drafted into the army. A decision was made that he should join Fischel in America. Fischel paid his way, and in late June of 1907, Morche boarded a train from Pinsk to the port city of Antwerp, Belgium. On June 30, he sailed from Antwerp on the Kroonland, bound for New York harbor, arriving nine days later.

It would not take long for Morche to undertake his first adventure. When registering at Ellis Island, he informed the officer that he would be staying with his brother, Fischel Rubacha, residing at 529 99th Street in New York. Apparently, he was given directions to the address, which may have been a rooming house. When Morche arrived, he asked for Fischel Rubacha. He was told there was no one of that name living there. He confirmed the address and was told again that no one had ever heard of a Fischel Rubacha.

Confused, Morche started to walk away when he heard his name called. It was Fischel; which is to say it was Fischel. Now, however, it was Phil. Phil Rubin, returning home to meet his brother. He explained to his newly arrived sibling that Rubin was a more American-sounding name and easier for people to spell. Following his elder brother’s advice, Morche Rubacha became Max Rubin.

It is not known how long Max stayed with his brother. But by year’s end – December 10, to be exact – a second daughter, Scheindel, was born to Reizel, who now had three children to feed and raise without a husband. It was essential that Max find steady work quickly, not only to support his family back in Russia, but also to support himself in America. Fate intervened when the Great Chelsea Fire of 1908 decimated the Massachusetts city. Surely, there would be work there for a carpenter. And so he left his brother and went east (thus ensuring his progeny would be Red Sox – and not Yankees – fans).

In 1911, Max apparently had saved enough to rent a three-room apartment at 42 West Third Street large enough for his family. He was able to pay the passage fares (steerage rate, of course) for his wife and his three children. Now, it was Reizel’s turn to have an adventure.

Difficult as it was for a man to travel alone from his village in Russia by train to board a ship and travel to America, how much more challenging it must have been for a woman at that time – particularly a 25-year-old woman with three children, ages 10-1/2 (Perl), nearly six (Heschel), and not quite 3-1/2 (Scheindel). But came they did, though not without difficulty. On the train from Wolki (a suburb of Pinsk), Russia, to Rotterdam, where they would board a ship named for the port city, Heschel somehow fell off the rear platform. Though he sustained a nasty gash above his forehead, he got back up and began to run after the accelerating locomotive as fast as his six-year-old legs could take him. Reizel either saw what had happened or soon realized that her only boy was no longer on the train and she pleaded with the conductor to stop the train. Soon enough, Heschel was reunited with his family and his injury was cleaned and dressed.

Reizel and her children sailed from Rotterdam on April 1, 1911, and arrived on April 11. While the ship’s manifest listed their names as Reizel, Perl, Hersch, and Scheindel Rubacha, in short order they became Rose, Pauline, Harry, and Jeanette Rubin. (Harry is my grandfather. My older daughter, Hannah, is named for him. Jeanette, whose grave is next to that of Max and Rose, is the grandmother of comedian Gary Gulman.)

Now that Max and Rose were together, new children came with remarkable regularity. Freddie (known as Frank) was born on February 15, 1912. The following year, to the exact day, on February 15, 1913, Myer (known as Mike) joined the family. Bloomka (known as Bertha) arrived on March 30, 1914; and Bessie was born on April 30, 1915. For some reason (possibly luck, possibly miscarriage), more than three years passed before the next child, Celia (known as Cele), was born.

Three years after Cele was born, in 1921, Rose gave birth to Mildred (she was named Minnie but her birth certificate said Mildred). The following year, Allen arrived. It was time to move the family to a larger dwelling. Max purchased a three-decker on 123 Grove Street, with the family occupying the middle floor.

As the oldest son, Harry worked many different jobs to earn money for the family. One of his jobs was as delivery boy for a shochet (ritual slaughterer) named Gershon Levine. One of Gershon’s daughters, Martha, worked in the slaughterhouse as his bookkeeper. Like Morche and Reizel, Harry and Martha became smitten with each other despite their class differences. Soon, they were engaged to be married. But not so fast. It turned out that Rose Rubin was pregnant yet again! Herb completed the family in 1925.

The 11th child, and the first of Max and Rose’s children to be born in a hospital (Chelsea Memorial Hospital on Bellingham Street), Herb delayed Harry and Martha’s wedding until February 14, 1926. (My bar mitzvah was held 50 years later to the day; that night we had another big bash to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.)

November 19, 1960 was a Shabbat morning. At 77 years of age, with a 75-year-old wife who had birthed 11 children, Max and Rose performed what is considered a “double mitzvah”: making love on the Sabbath. Afterwards, while getting dressed for shul, he had a heart attack and died. Rose survived him by more than a quarter of a century; she died from complications of pneumonia on March 1, 1987, at the age of 101.

On July 7, 2008, one day prior to the 100th anniversary of Max's arrival in America, we held a large celebration, which began in the cemetery where Max and Rose are buried. Amazingly, I found out only after starting my research that they were buried in the city in which I live, Melrose, Massachusetts! We gathered around their stone, I spoke some prepared remarks, then people were invited to speak from their hearts and their memories. Afterwards, we went to a restaurant and had a wonderful lunch, during which each attendee (age range: less than 1 to 94) received a copy of the printed report. I was proud to have brought so much nachas (pride) to my family. At some point, I want to refine and expand the report into a larger, more depthful and comprehensive work; I want to do the same for my grandfather, and for my sister, Donna, who died at age 7 from leukemia when I was exactly 54 weeks old.

I believe each family has in its past a treasure trove of inspiring stories about those generations of heroes who risked so much to build a better life for their families. I would encourage any and all who may be reading this to speak to your senior relatives while they're still around. Don't let them take their knowledge and wisdom into the grave with them. For your sake and for your children, preserve your family's history and make it a core part of your identity.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Brian Wilson, Calvin Theatre, Northampton, MA, 7/15/08

What kind of musical genius leads his audience in a round of "Row Row Row Your Boat" in the middle of the performance? What kind of musical genius sits at a keyboard for an entire concert yet plays nary a note on it all evening long? What kind of musical genius puts on a show in which the most notable thing to a concert-goer who has been privileged to see him several times before is that he didn't use a teleprompter to remember the lyrics?

The answer, my friend, is Brian Wilson. The pre-eminent genius of popular music over the last half-century. A man who by all that's right and holy ought to have died from massive drug abuse three decades ago, yet has outlived his two younger brothers. A man who has battled mental illness since about 1965, and continues to require medication and therapy to ignore voices in his head, and who has been a major worldwide concert attraction for the last 10 years despite an almost paralyzing anxiety that overtakes him prior to taking the stage each night.

Any true Brian Wilson fan thinks of himself as a collaborator in a way. Brian Wilson fans not only love his music, they love him. They are protective of him. They defend him in conversation and they support him with their dollars and voices. My sense is that they are more likely than not to identify as Brian Wilson fans rather than Beach Boys fans, though it is impossible to be one and not the other. Certainly that is the case with me. The first few tours that Brian did exhausted me, because I spent so much psychic energy from the audience sending him good vibrations and praying that he didn't make a mistake, or that if he made a mistake that it didn't upset him or throw him off. It seems in retrospect that I held my breath for entire shows, though I know I was singing along heartily. But when a hero is so fragile, when you're so invested in both the art and its source, when your own healing is bound up with his, you willingly carry such a responsibility.

After a while, though, I realized that Brian is strong and still has it. He's not just a dancing bear brought out to amuse; the man, despite his many issues, functions at a high level musically and as an individual. He doesn't operate at his '65-'67 peak, but that's an unrealistic expectation. Neither does Dylan or McCartney, and their best years occurred in that time period as well, IMO. His solo albums over the last few years, especially the long-awaited completion and release of SMiLE in 2004 – intended to be the Beach Boys' 1967 follow-up to Pet Sounds, it was rumored at the time to be superior to Sgt. Pepper – prove that he remains a uniquely capable and creative composer, arranger, and producer. A new ambitious suite-like work, That Lucky Old Sun, will be released in September.

Which leads me to what is now last night's performance (I have not yet retired for the evening so it still feels like today). In spite of having a new album in the can, only two tracks were previewed; the rest of the show was a "greatest hits" repertoire. Given that Brian essentially occupies his own chapter of the Great American Songbook (when an enthusiastic crowd sings along with songs composed 45 years ago, the works cease to be "oldies" and must be considered canonical), that's certainly nothing to complain about. But in recent years, Brian has performed Pet Sounds or SMiLE in their entirety, which were nothing less than transcendent events. So for me, anyway, the concert was fun and entertaining, and provided the true thrill of seeing my hero (looking and sounding very well) receive all the adoration he's always deserved; yet it wasn't a groundbreaking performance. It was great, but not his best. And while he sounded good (though he wasn't miked well), at age 66 he has given up singing certain songs. Most notably, it's something to pause about that he has barely even a harmony part to sing on his brilliant 1964 ballad, "Don't Worry Baby," which he sang so beautifully back in the day.

His band is composed of exceptional singers and musicians. This tour, several players are missing various shows because of other commitments. The band size has fluctuated; Scott Bennett, who usually plays keyboards, vibes, and guitar, was the drummer a few nights ago. The foxy female singer, Taylor Mills, was absent, to the disappointment of the male audience members. Yet it is a testament to the quality of the music itself that all those perfect melodies and harmonies ring true regardless of the how the band is constructed any given night.

I don't have a set list top of mind at the moment (it's 1:30am), but highlights were the Pet Sounds three-fer of "Sloop John B," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," and "God Only Knows;" homages to his inspirations Phil Spector ("Then I Kissed Her") and Chuck Berry ("Johnny B. Goode"); and two 1965 chestnuts, "California Girls" and "Help Me Rhonda" that, as good as they are in their original studio versions, somehow come to life in concert in such a way that it seems they can only exist in the moment, night after night, with an audience supplying their own backgrounds.

And, getting back to my open, it was exciting and positive that Brian didn't use a teleprompter. Not only did it prove his abilities to remember the words to all those songs (you can fit a bunch of two- and three-minute songs in a 90-minute performance), but it enabled him to look out more at the audience, to see the effect his music has on people, cheering, dancing, singing along to these little pieces of art that have comprised the soundtrack to our lives for so many years. At age 45, I have been a Brian Wilson fan for 32 years. That's a long time to love someone. And plenty of time to be grateful that he somehow has survived, improbably has endured, and remarkably remains inspiring.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Current Projects IV: Short stories

By now, if you've been reading bottom to top, which is chronologically correct but blogarhythmically unorthodox, you know that not only am I a writer, but that I'm a marketing copywriter, a playwright (unproduced), a poet (well, not really), a novelist (fingers crossed), a non-fiction ghostwriter, and now...a short story writer? What's next, you might be asking yourself: fortune cookie composer?

A good 15 years ago or so, I interviewed a guy for a local arts paper about his first novel, which had just been published. He taught poetry at a nearby community college and he told me that his colleagues used to call him "the poetry guy" and now they were calling him "the fiction guy." He wondered why writers can't just be writers, free to compose and create in the form that seems most appropriate for the project at hand.

For what it's worth, I completely agree with him. I've always believed that I could write anything that needed to be written. I've been turned down for jobs because I didn't have industry experience – "We need a healthcare writer" – yet my career has proven that I can master any form, any vertical market, any audience. That hospital didn't need a healthcare writer, it needed a writer who could quickly get up to speed and consistently deliver copy that hits the mark. That's what I do, and if all those people who turned me down because I wasn't healthcare enough, or telecom enough, or anything enough were to stand in my office today, I'ld piss all over each and every one of them. Hell, I'm a trained journalist, skilled in research and interviewing techniques. You're hiring a noun, not an adjective. Want a writer? I'm a writer. A writer writer, if you insist.

Anyway, that little rant aside, I think that writer writers working on the creative side should be free to explore a range of forms as well, without being labeled any one kind of writer. One of my all-time favorite writers, James Agee, was a novelist, screenwriter, journalist, poet, and film critic. I'm not saying he or any writer (myself very much included) working in different forms will be as effective in all, or that such a writer wouldn't necessarily merit being best known for one particular form. For my money, Agee was first and foremost a journalist, and Let Us Know Praise Famous Men was his magnum opus. His other most notable work, A Death in the Family, is essentially a fictionalized autobiography, and autobiography, like biography, is essentially a journalistic pursuit. It's the investigation and clear organization of facts intended to inform and enlighten. Film criticism, too, is a form of journalism and in his day, he was a very influential critic. (Of course, another notable work of Agee's was the script for The African Queen, for which he won an Oscar; however, he was one of four credited writers and it is hard to determine how much of his work survived.)

So that brings me to short stories. Like poetry, it's not a form I have studied extensively, nor have I read many anthologies. My boss, Neal, gave me a Raymond Carver collection (Where I'm Calling From) as a gift and it was very inspiring and influential to me. Which is not to say that I adopt his innovative style, but there's a quality that I try to emulate in that the story seems not confined to itself; that there's something prior to the beginning and subsequent to the ending that we're not allowed to see yet somehow strongly suggests that important stuff did and will happen there.

I have five short stories I have written, three of which are not yet completed. The first is called "The Last Car," and it's a first-person account of a man obsessed by a woman he sees on the train every morning. He fears he's making her uncomfortable and when she doesn't show up one day, his mind creates outrageous scenarios to explain why. When she returns, it's no better and his obsession forces him to take drastic action.

The next story I started I still haven't finished. It's about a guy who meets up with an older woman he had a crush on in college. They never had sex then, but now he's determined to bed her so as to erase his two decades of fantasies about her. Whether it was worth it or not remains to be seen (since I haven't finished it yet), though the sex scene I wrote is quite a scorcher, I have to say.

The third story is also unfinished. It's called "The Untangler" and it's about a guy who gets himself in knotty situations in terms of his intimate relationships. When a set of wind chimes he was given by his ex-girlfriend get hopelessly tangled during a storm, his current girlfriend recommends he take it to her great uncle, who is known as an ace untangler. As he works on them, the Untangler imparts numerous lessons to the guy on the nature of knots and life. I wish someone would finish this for me because I really want to know how it comes out.

The fourth story is one I had pieces of for a long time, and then finally sat down one day and banged it out. It was inspired in many ways by a friend of mine. It's called "Elevation" and it's about a guy who decides to make up cards that say on them "You're very attractive," then give them out to women he meets on the street who have earned them. He's very clear that he's not doing it to pick up women; he sees himself as acting altruistically, giving people positive feedback about themselves. When he finally gives one out, though, he discovers something he hadn't counted on. I know it sounds goofy, but I really like this one.

The last one is unfinished but I think it has a lot of potential. All of these, you may have guessed, are heavily inspired by my real, somewhat pathetic life, littered as it is with numerous interpersonal regrets. But this one, at least, doesn't involve a woman. It's about a guy who finally meets and talks to someone he's known for years only by his disability. I know there has to be some kind of a zinger at the end, but I haven't figured out what it should be yet. But here's the beginning. It's called "Kegger."

by Jason M. Rubin

We called him Kegger. There were two reasons why we called him Kegger. The first was that we didn’t know his real name. The second was because he had some kind of physical disability that made him walk in a jerky, emphatic fashion so that he looked like someone leaving a “kegger” (that is, a keg party). In other words, he walked like he was drunk, even though he wasn’t. We used to joke that when he was shitfaced, he probably walked perfectly normal.

He was a classmate of ours in college. That was almost 20 years ago. He and I were in a class together once, but it was in a large lecture hall so the only way I could learn his name was to go up and talk to him. Suffice to say, I never did that. And neither did any of my college friends, though we used to see him on campus frequently. Were we cruel? Ignorant? Scared? Yeah, sure. Or maybe at a large state school like ours, with so many people all around, there was no great impulse to get to know someone who’s…well, different.

I don’t know what his ailment was. It could have been something like muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy, but to tell you the truth, I don’t really know what those diseases are all about. He could have sustained a brain injury in an accident. I don’t know. It would have been so easy to get the answer…no, strike that. Even had I introduced myself to him and learned his name, I don’t think I would’ve had the nerve to ask him the nature of his disability. “So what’s with the funny walk: brain damage or incurable disease?” I don’t think so.

The strange thing is, ever since we graduated, I see him around the city every so often. Maybe once every three to five years. I don’t even see most of my college buddies that frequently. Like I said, I went to a large state university and for all I know I’m constantly coming into contact with people from my class – but I wouldn’t know them from Adam, because there’s nothing about them that distinguishes them in my mind. Not like Kegger. I’d know Kegger anywhere. It’s true, because I’ve seen him with and without a beard, and there’s no question it’s Kegger.

Usually when I see Kegger, I call or email some of my college buddies to tell them about my sighting. It’s usually good for a chuckle or a : ) or even an “LOL!” I’m the only one of us still in the city so no one else has seen him since college (actually, that’s not true; one guy saw him at a Grateful Dead concert. For that night only, his name was changed from Kegger to Acid Casualty).

It should be obvious to you now why I’m telling you this. I saw him again. Just yesterday, walking down the street. Only this time, I talked to him.

© 2008 Jason M. Rubin. All Rights Reserved.

Current Projects III: ghost-writing non-fiction book

So there's this guy, see. His name is Bob Krim. He's a history professor, specializing I guess in economic history, and he co-founded a local non-profit call the Boston History & Innovation Collaborative (BHIC). The purpose of the organization is to research Boston's 400-year history of innovation as a tool to help build tourism as well as provide local business and civic leaders with models of how to succeed in the innovation economy. So after a bunch of years of research, the BHIC put out a 60-page research report called Innovate Boston!, in which dozens of case studies of both social and technological innovation are explored within nine distinct eras of Boston's history.

That's all well and good. But now Bob decided he wants to reach a larger audience and tell a more complete story. His idea is to expand the research report into a 250-page book aimed at a national and international business readership. The angle is that the research reveals there were four times when Boston was on the brink of economic ruin, yet managed to rebound and redirect its economy through remarkable innovations. The book, then, will provide a lesson into how to achieve growth in the midst of a downturn. In each period, there were five chief drivers of innovation: entrepreneurship, local network, local funding, local demand, and national demand. The "special sauce" connecting these elements is what Bob calls the "bump and connect" - people coming together to share ideas, learn, challenge each other, and collaborate to make new things happen.

His working title for the book was How Boston Failed. I came up with something a little more positive and descriptive: Innovation at the Brink. We're still working out the subtitle. How I became involved is that Bob knows a guy in the publishing business, John, who knows my boss, Neal. Bob asked John if he knew a writer who'd be willing to ghost-write the book for him. John told Bob to ask Neal. Neal wasn't interested/didn't have the time, but asked me if I was interested. Indeed I was. So Neal told John to tell Bob that I was game. Bob and Neal and I met for breakfast one morning, a proposal went back and forth until terms were agreed upon, and my work began. This, by the way, is the essence of how bump and connect works.

I was given copies of the research report, some early treatments of the book proposal and sample chapters, and all the cases. Piled on top of each other, it's about two feet of material I had to pore through, master, conceptualize, and spit out in language that was less academic and more compelling than the source material I was working from. My initial deliverable was one sample chapter, an introduction that explained about the research driving the book concept, and synopses of the various chapters.

Each synopsis is about a page long, but here are short descriptions of the chapters:
  • Era 1: 1630-1730 – The founding of Boston and the emergence of a farm- and land-based economy, which faltered in the 1640s as a result of the English civil war. A shift in fortunes occurred with the growth of the salt cod trade with the West Indies.
  • Era 2: 1750-1850 – The rise to prominence of Boston’s port and maritime prowess, as trade with British-controlled ports is prohibited in the wake of the American Revolution. This led to the Northwest China Trade and the advent of the Clipper Ship era.
  • Era 3: 1810-1900 – The development of a domestic manufacturing industry, led by a group of innovators creating new forms of technology and financing, and founding new mill towns like Waltham, Lowell, and Lawrence that gave birth to the American Industrial Revolution. These innovations kept Boston moving forward after the maritime economy sank by 1857.
  • Era 4: 1920-2000 – The Technological Revolution, which began with local innovators from industry and from the local hospitals and universities, and led to the growth of such powerhouses as DEC, Wang, and Polaroid. Boston led the way in computers, lost the lead to Silicon Valley, then came back stronger and more diverse in the late 1990s. From the ashes of those powerhouses grew the dot com boom and the biotech industry.
The sample chapter I wrote was for Chapter 2, currently titled, "Port Story: Boston Rides Wave of Innovation." It's gone through four drafts and now it's just about ready for a July 30 meeting with someone who, if the stars are aligned, will be interested in publishing the book, paying us an advance, and enabling me to finally tell my kids their Dad is a published author.

This is already probably more information than Bob would want me to share, so I'll refrain from printing an excerpt of the chapter. Suffice to say, if and when we get the green light to produce the rest of the book, I'll let you know.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

In the presence of genius

The nature of my work is that every so often, I am in the presence of genius. The same, of course, cannot be said of the people who are exclusively in my presence, but they are just one degree removed from genius so that's something to recommend me, I think.

I am a writer, and, poor that I am, I write that proudly. During the day, I am a full-time marketing-type writer, working for a small agency in the South End that serves primarily clients in the high tech and higher ed fields. (At night, of course, I become Creative Writer Man, serving my own damn needs, working alone and very much removed from genius.) As such, I get the opportunity to meet with and interview people involved with innovations both big and small; many of these innovations are of modest impact, but some are truly huge.

When I am in the presence of the people responsible for the latter category of innovations, I am always processing the moment in multiple ways. First, I am talking, listening, and otherwise engaging with the individual at the purely professional level, where I am trying to get the story I need to write about from this person who has been identified as my primary information source. This requires a great deal of attention, because after all, I'm just a guy with a BA in Journalism from UMass Amherst, who still sometimes can't believe he's been a professional writer for 23 years when he feels deep inside not far removed from the stoner who used to zone out at Laser Rock shows at the local planetarium. When people are talking to me about their technology or their research, I'm kind of like George Jetson on his treadmill, and it's all I can do to maintain a mental pace that keeps the interviewee within my cognitive sights.

So that's one level. On another level, I'm a silent observer of the individual. I am always looking for physical evidence of the person's genius, such as an oversized head, a mark somewhere. I remember my mother once commenting on an artist acquaintance of my father's (the painter Hyman Bloom) that he had the most beautiful hands she'd ever seen. That made sense to me, that a painter would have beautiful hands. But does that mean a technical genius has a beautiful brain? That's not good enough for me, because I can't observe that. On this observational level, I am often somewhat disappointed. "This guy's so short, how can he be a genius?"

At a third level, I observe myself in the presence of genius. I want to make sure I am respectful but not starstruck. I want to nod and let the person know I get the gist of what he is saying but not appear like it's all so simple. I want to be sure to ask intelligent questions that demonstrate that I am quickly processing the information and moving the conversation in an interesting and appropriate direction. I have to be a good interviewer, which goes beyond simply conceiving and conducting a Q&A session.

So who are these geniuses who fight for the opportunity to be interviewed by me? I'll start with the most recent one. Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web. THE WEB, PEOPLE! This whole freaking thing we're obsessed with, he invented. When I walked into his office, his assistant was helping him blot a stain on his shirt; he apparently had just spilled a beverage on himself. Hey, it happens. Just because a guy invents the World Wide Web doesn't mean he can defy the laws of gravity.

Anyway, we sit in his office and he's polite and gracious, asking me about nature and scope of my assignment. Then I turn on my digital recorder and ask my first question, and it's like three people are talking all at once. He speaks so rapidly, darting from one idea to the next, in a voice that despite the English accent is in desperate need of enunciation remediation, that I worry our transcription service will fire us. He answers my questions, and I parry his points with relevant follow-up questions, leading to new fragmented threads of response that are remarkable compelling and yet frustratingly elusive at the same time. He knows more than he can tell me, and at the same time, gracious though he is, every minute he spends with me is a minute he could be spending changing the world...again.

After about 45 minutes, his cell phone rings. I had just ask a question, but within 20 seconds he turns to me and asks, "Are we done?" The answer, of course, is yes. I ask him to sign my copy of Weaving The Web, his book that details the development of the invention that earned him an OBE (I couldn't bring myself to call him Sir Tim), a MacArthur Fellowship ("genius grant"), and dozens of other prestigious honors. I thank him, he winks at me, and I leave. Impressed.

Another genius I hve known, like Berners-Lee plying his trade at MIT, is Robert Langer. Langer is a chemical engineer who could be a Nobel Laureate by the time my two-year-old hits grade school. Back in the early '70s when Dr. Judah Folkman was doing groundbreaking cancer research, Langer was among the very first people with an engineering degree to think he could play a part in biomedical research. Today, Langer is the author of about 1,000 articles, he has more than 600 patents issued or pending worldwide, his patents have been licensed or sublicensed to more than 200 companies, and his awards include 2006 United States National Medal of Science; the Charles Stark Draper Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for engineers; and the 2008 Millennium Prize, the world’s largest technology prize. There are so many awards and certificates on the walls of his office that I couldn't tell you what color those walls were painted.

Langer is as enthusiastic as Berners-Lee, but more lucid and articulate. He wanted me to not just to get the gist of what he was saying, but to really know the research as deeply as possible. Countless times during the interview, he jumped up from his chair to ask his secretary to get copies of articles and reports for me. I walked out of his office lugging reams of paper that described his mny innovations. One of his big areas of focus is drug delivery systems for cancer. He uses nanotechnology to develop chips that can be implanted into a patient's brain to deliver precise amounts of drugs directly to a tumor; minus this innovation, general drug delivery would lead to toxicity. I enjoyed meeting with him very much and I definitely had the sense that he was interested in helping me with the work I was doing.

Sam Bodman is GW Bush's Secretary of Energy, but I try not to hold that against him because I admire him so much. Some time before my current job, I was a Corporate Communications Writer for Cabot Corporation, at that time a Fortune 300 manufacturer of specialty chemicals. Bodman was the CEO and I had the opportunity to write speeches for him, which naturally required me to sit with him one-on-one on several occasions. Himself an MIT-trained engineer, I found him to be the sanest, smartest chief executive I have ever worked for. I left the company after only a year because it just doesn't feel like a good fit for me. I went from chemicals to public broadcasting so that tells you where my values and politics lie. He was genuinely sorry that I was leaving, not because I was irreplaceable (far from it), but because it bothered him that his company couldn't provide a good fit for a potentially valuable employee. He saw the big picture and the small details, and he was equally concerned about both. I might add that he does have a large head and I always assumed it was to hold his big brain.

I had the opportunity to meet one of my heroes, Brian Wilson, at a time in his life when he could best be described as a broken genius in the midst of healing. His autobiography had just been published, and it was later revealed that he had taken no part in its creation. He was under the control and influence of his controversial doctor, Eugene Landy, who would later be forced to give up his psychiatry license. Landy had saved his life, but was now trying to make a fortune off his troubled client by attaching his name to songwriting and production credits. Brian was doing a book-signing, a frightening proposition for him given his psychological problems and his discomfort both with performing and with being in public. He is in a much healthier place now, he tours worldwide often, to great acclaim (in fact I'm seeing him next week and will publish a review afterwards), and is much more comfortable being Brian Wilson. He is very productive and creative today, but back then he was a shell of a man.

I had already bought and read his book, and I waited in a long line to meet my hero. When I was maybe five people from him, I finally got to see him up close and I could see he was uncomfortable. He wasn't looking up at people, his hands were shaking, he really didn't want to be there. He was flanked by two "handlers" employed by Landy. When it was my turn, the handlers took an opportunity to get Brian feeling good. They asked me how long I waited, how long I was a Beach Boys fan. "You hear that, Brian? They love you!" was the extent of their therapeutic expertise.

Brian was signing my book slowly and with his shaking the autograph looked like it was written by a six-year-old. But I was determined to be as positive as I could. Though we had been told not to talk to him or expect to shake his hand, I reached my hand out and he took it. I said, "Stay healthy, man. I love you." I know it sounds corny, but he looked at me, shook my hand, heard my words. Maybe it meant a little something to him. All I know is I touched the hand that wrote "God Only Knows."

One of the hands typing this, therefore, is one degree removed from pure genius. So there.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A stab at poetry

I don't fancy myself a poet. I've never really studied poetry and my attitude towards it has always been "I don't know a lot, but I know what I like." Most of my attempts at writing a poem end up being lyrics to songs that with a few exceptions remain uncomposed. But here's one that I've kept. It's from 2000 and details a true event: me walking to work dressed for a client meeting and being kept off my pace by a large homeless man walking slowly ahead of me.

He Walked Ahead
He walked ahead of me
Homeless, aimless
Mind full of short-term concerns:
The next butt, the next half-eaten dog
The next quarter, the next fifth
Downwind, my sympathy suspends
His hair filthy, thickly matted
The unintended dreadlock
Poverty headlock
The slow, nowhere-to-go gait
On this narrow sidewalk
I can’t get ahead of him
It’s his advantage over me
And he doesn’t even care
He doesn’t even know
I have somewhere to go
Somewhere to be, now
But I’m left behind
To stare at his cow-pie hair
His jacket dirty, slept in, worn out
His shoes, ill-fitting, sides splitting
And the faster I walk the closer I get
Traffic slows, a parked-car gap
Sidestep to the street
A brisker pace, a change of place
Now, finally, I’m ahead of him
On my way, yet I think to look back
To see him seeing me from behind
My clean combed hair
My calf-length coat
My brush-buffed shoes
So I cast back a glance
And find that he’s stopped
Bent, reaching for a coin
He turns and goes the other way.

We each got what we were waiting for.

© Jason M. Rubin, 11/1/00. All Rights Reserved.
To salvage this post, here's a real poem, a longtime favorite of mine. I think one reason why I like it is that it reminds me of a story my mother used to tell. She was not what you'd call a dark, edgy individual by any means, but she lamented her whole life losing a writing competition (in which she'd entered a tale of a severed hand that came to life to exact its revenge) to a classmate who wrote a story about a boy and his dog.

"OUT, OUT -"

Robert Frost

The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside them in her apron
To tell them 'Supper'. At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap--
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy's first outcry was a rueful laugh.
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all--
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man's work, though a child at heart--
He saw all spoiled. 'Don't let him cut my hand off
The doctor, when he comes. Don't let him, sister!'
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then -- the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little -- less -- nothing! -- and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Current Projects II: Novel

For years, I'd been taken with the song "Matty Groves" as performed by Fairport Convention, featuring the stunning vocals of Sandy Denny and the magic fretwork of Richard Thompson. This 17th-century English folk song (cataloged as Child 81) is a classic tale of adultery and murder in a mixed-class setting. It seemed to cry out for dramatization, and for a long time I thought I would turn it into a short story. Then, some time after completing the one-act play described below, I realized that perhaps a full-length play would be a better medium for telling the song's story. Such project was still simmering on the back burner when in late October 2006 I was told by a colleague about National Novel-Writing Month. The point of "NaNoWriMo" is to churn out a 50,000-word novel from November 1-30. You register at the website and can upload progress drafts; the whole point is just to create an incentive for writers with books just dangling like stubborn dingleberries from the sphincter of their minds to finally make a novel movement.

Well, my colleague said she was going to write one so I thought I'd do it, too. Matty Groves seemed the logical theme and I set myself to writing. I made decent progress for the first couple of weeks; however, my wife and I had a baby the previous August and in her third month of life decided that sleep was overrated. By the end of NaNoWriMo, I only had 25,000 words down. By January '07, I had 27,000. Things looked bleak until last fall when in a burst of inspiration I finished the novel. Or thought I had. I'm now on my fourth draft and have no idea when it will be done enough to begin sending to agents and small publishers. But the idea has become real. It's on paper, and I have to say I like the overall story arc.

Now, the song itself is eight minutes long, and the latter half of it is a raging instrumental, so essentially I've been treating a four-minute folk song like Silly Putty, stretching it to fit the contours and boundaries of a short novel. To do this has required filling in each character's back story, a process I was astounded to find was fueled by the characters themselves. Honestly, sometimes I would be typing and wondering just who was doing the dictating. I also invented a character named Alexandra McLean (Sandy Denny's real name) and promptly fell in love with her.

The challenge of dramatizing a song is that people familiar with the source material will know how the book ends. To solve that, I changed the ending a bit. I should say I added to it, because the song's ending is beautiful though tragic and I didn't want to lose that. But by extending the action a little longer, I was able to bring an important subplot to resolution and give the reader (dear G-d, please let there someday be a reader) a glimpse at the possible future the survivors may experience beyond the scope of the song's narration.

As the book is set in Olde England, I tried to have the omniscient narrator speak in a tone that suggests it is a contemporary telling. For this challenging style, I was greatly inspired by Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer. Ellen is an old friend from my time at WGBH, and after I left I contributed three scripts to her extraordinary Public Radio International series, Sound & Spirit ("Mourning," "Prayer," and "The End of the World"). Ellen was kind enough to read my first chapter and honest enough to tell me it ain't ready yet. But it's getting there, and I think it picks up steam after the first chapter so I'm focusing my attention on my opening. I was going for something cinematic, but Ellen advises getting the characters involved right away.

Forgot to mention the title (working title, anyway). It's called The Grave and the Gay, which refers to a number of things. First, the phrase is from a speech by Abraham Lincoln, whom you know by now is my primary hero. It also plays on characters' names, the characteristics of the protagonist and antagonist, and hints at one character's unacknowledged sexual identity.

Anyway, the experience of writing a novel was extraordinary, and the challenge is giving it the continued attention it needs when the impulse is to launch into the second one. As I will write about soon, I have both fiction and non-fiction books in my queue. Until then, here is the song that inspired my novel.