Friday, May 13, 2011

A "Novel" Approach

I taught one semester, for one year, at a genuine institution of higher learning. It was long enough for me to realize that teaching might not be my cup of tea.

Maybe it's different now. I taught in 1986, and I was only 32 years old, and really had no idea what I was doing, what I wanted to accomplish, OR ... what I wanted my students to accomplish.

The job was to be the moderator/teacher for the campus newspaper. It was an odd setup. I was the managing editor of my college newspaper, and we were in no way connected with the faculty. And we were proud of it. About once every semester -- or so it seemed -- the president of the university would get all kinds of aggravated with us and threaten to pull our funding or kick us off campus.

He was an impetuous sort, Asa S. Knowles. At least when he spoke. College kids being what they are, we had a couple of cheeky columnists who wrote pieces that fell just short of being outright porn. One of them personalized the names of all the buildings on campus and turned them into a Linda Lovelace movie.

Well ... just about.

Asa Knowles threatened to "confiscate the damn paper and throw it off campus," after that one. Our poor moderator, Harvey Vetstein, was forever charging into the newsroom like a scalded rhinoceros, huffing and puffing about some grievous offense that had pissed off a dean or a vice president. He'd get it all out ... and then laugh about it with us afterward. This is the same Harvey, mind you, who once took a bunch of us to Florida for a college newspaper convention, spotted a family of Puerto Ricans at the airport in Miami, and broke out into a chorus of, "I'd Like To Be in America" from "West Side Story."

Anyway, my experiences with the Northeastern University News left me woefully unprepared for dealing with a campus publication controlled by the faculty. It was just so wrong. How can you ever teach writers to temper their freedom with responsibility if you don't give them the responsibility, or the latitude, to be free??

It was a difficult semester for me. As it turned out, my job changed dramatically just as the semester was about to start, and I found myself working the third shift. I couldn't adjust to the sleeping patters, and, well, I was probably the worst teacher that school ever had. Not only did I leave the job that summer, I also did not return to the school. I felt I'd done enough damage.

OK. Why do I bring this all up? Because the other day -- out of the clear blue -- a name popped into my head ... a name I hadn't heard, or though of, for a long time. The last time I'd heard anything about her, she'd just published a novel (she's since published another and is working on a third).

And she was one of my students in that class.

I could tell, in the first five minutes of that first class, that whatever "it" was, Jill A. Davis had it. I knew she was going to go far ... and, thankfully, my ineptitude didn't slow her down.

She was witty. She could positively nail any assignment I gave her with ease (one of the few students in that class who could). And you just knew that someone with her talent was going to bust out and just keep going.

And she has.

Whenever a name from the past pops into my head, the very first thing I do these days is consult Facebook, and see whether that person is a member. Most of the time, he or she is. But rarely do I make any attempt to befriend them, because I already have more than 300 such "friends" ... and a lot of them I either barely know, barely remember, OR ... am damn happy I've left them in my past and would truly prefer that it stay that way.

Not Jill, however. I made the attempt. We have more in common than just the class. Fate has a way of keeping people in your life if they're meant to be there. Jill ended up working at the same paper as me (the one I'd left at the end of that semester at college; and returned to after I got let go from the public relations job at NYNEX). Our paths kept crossing.

She left the paper and eventually turned up as a writer for the David Letterman show ... and then ... I lost track until stories started popping up about her first novel, "Girls Poker Night," which dealt, in part, with working for a newspaper. Appropriate!!

It became a New York Times best seller. Her second novel, "Ask Again Later," deals with a daughter whose mother has cancer. Now, she's working on novel No. 3.

Now, we get into the reasons for this blog item.

I have never written a novel. I've started probably 10, gotten relatively deep into a couple, and then abandoned them all. I just run out of ideas. Either that, or I'm impatient with the whole notion of sustaining a plot, or a thought process, for long stretches.

I come by that impatience honestly. I am a newspaper reporter and columnist (as was Jill), and I guess I'm disciplined to write in 17-inch blocks. I have spent my entire life synthesizing thoughts and opinions into tidy columns that fit down the side of a newspaper page. It's both easy and hard at the same time.

It's easy because you know, inherently, that you never really have to delve deeply into a subject because you just don't have the space. But it's hard, too, because there are so many times you WANT to delve into a topic, and there are so many angles, and so many ways to approach a topic, that it takes tremendous discipline to pare it down to something manageable ... something that WILL fit down the side of a newspaper page.

Writing a novel is certainly at cross purposes with what I do on a daily basis. John Irving says that writing an novel is like building a house. I can see it. But I was never that good at building things, either.

It's funny. In my head, I've written a lot of music. Some of the piece -- especially the classical-oriented ones -- are quite lengthy and involved. I play them on the piano and they sound quite heavy to me. It's taken me years, in some cases, to connect all the dots from the different melodies that swirl in and out of my head. There are times when I'll have fragments of songs in my head and keep them on mental file. Then, all of a sudden, a melody will find its way in there that just HAS to be included in "that piece." And once it's there, it mysteriously comes together (maybe someday I'll actually write one of these pieces down properly).

That's what writing music is like for me. If you wait long enough, nurture it, and -- for lack of a better way of putting it -- give it the proper amount of love, the music will happen.

Why can't I do that with writing? Why do I give up so easily? Why, when I hit one of those blocks that come (I think, anyway) from the frustration of busting out of my usual one newspaper column mold, do I simply put the damn thing down and ultimately forget about it?

If you were to ask me what my biggest professional disappointment is, that would be it. I've never followed through on my lifelong desire to write a novel. I began doing this blog around this time last year not so much because I have all these deep, relevant things to say, but because I wanted to establish the discipline of sitting down at the same time every day to write something. Because that's the type of discipline you need to write a book.

I think I know how this works. You write a novel, shop it around to about six dozen publishers before you finally get one who will even look at it. And it never just gets published. There's the editing, the revisions, and all the rest. And unless you get incredibly lucky, you probably won't make a tremendous amount of money even if it does get published.

And I don't know. Maybe there's just this unspoken fear that even after I've poured my heart into writing something that's unique ... totally me ... I'd probably chafe at the idea of having to change it because of someone who doesn't even know me.

I'd like to think not. But I have to be honest. I find the entire process intimidating. It makes me crazy to admit that, and to know that I can be so easily intimidated into abandoning something I truly love to do ... which is write.

I don't even care about the money part. I just want to write a novel. If it ends up going no further than a folder in my computer, I'll have to deal with that. But at least I can point to it as something I've finally accomplished.

I have a friend who just spent the past month holed up in an apartment on the West Side of Manhattan, writing her book. The last time I spoke with her, she said she had over 100 pages in the can. Just like that. It took me twice that time to write 50.

Part of that stems from me being the ultimate fuss-budget when it comes to writing. My inner Virgo comes out in my writing. I am fussy ... I am meticulous ... I rework the same sentence 25 times before I feel as if I have it just right ... and then tinker with it some more.

I get exasperated when I read bad writing. And because of that, I'm reluctant to part with my prose until I'm reasonably sure it won't sound pedestrian. And even after I do part with it, I'm uneasy.

So, I guard my words zealously until I feel it's time to let them go. I've spent entire DAYS writing those "down-the-side-of-a-newspaper-page" columns. And once or twice, it's taken two days. Very often, I feel a genuine sense of loss when I allow something over which I've labored to be published in the paper. It almost feels like the day my son moved into his own place. It was a necessary step, but it was traumatic just the same.

No wonder it took me about a year and a half to produce 50 pages of a novel that I ultimately abandoned. Too intense.

There's got to be something I'm missing. I don't expect it to be easy. Tom Hanks has a line in one of my favorite movies, "A League of Their Own," where he says, "if it was easy, everybody would do it."

So I understand, and accept, the fact that writing a novel is a challenge. But it's challenge that leaves me feeling awfully inadequate, because I can't seem to rise up to it.

When I sent Jill Davis a Facebook friend request, I had no idea whether she'd accept. I would have been OK with it if she hadn't. It's been years. She's got her life and I have mine.

But I did want to talk writing with her. And still do. And she says she will (obviously she accepted).

I'm not writing this to suggest that if Jill Davis can write a novel so can I. As I said before, I knew Jill was tremendously talented five minutes after I met her in that class. The proper way of putting it would be, "if anyone COULD write a novel, it would be Jill Davis."

But damn, Jill ... can you throw a little of that glow my way??? I'm willing to change the dynamic after all these years. How about YOU being the teacher ... and ME being the student.

Because, dammit all, this is one disappointment I want expunged from my life!!!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Sayonara, Osama

Generally speaking, I'm not one to celebrate death ... any death. I'm so strongly opposed to the death penalty that friends don't even discuss the subject with me anymore. I've always felt that it's not within the rights of any human being ... for any reason ... to take the life of another, regardless of whether the motivation is evil or noble (at least in the eyes of those doing the killing).

But I have to say with all that, I can join my fellow Americans today in celebrating the demise of Osama bin Laden. Deep down inside, I wish it had never come to this, and that the forces who killed him had, instead, captured him and brought him to the U.S. to stand trial.

But the realist in me knows that was never going to happen. He would never allow himself to be taken alive. He would either be free, forever (well, as free as one can be holed up in the bowels of a house or a cave), to wreak havoc upon the world; or we were going to find him and do the only thing possible: kill him.

So in that sense, I'm glad it's done. Now, maybe, we can begin to truly heal from the September 11, 2001, attacks.

But there are a couple of things I'd like to kick around and -- hopefully -- discuss with my "fans," such as they are.

First, the idea that killing Obama was better because it would spare the families of the 9/11 victims from having to relive the event over and over during a trial. I reject that. That's what we do in the United States. We try murder suspects and then figure out how to handle them once they're convicted. To a surviving loved one, it hardly matters (and it certainly wouldn't matter to me) whether the victim was murdered by some gang-banger in a drive-by or blown out of a New York high-rise. Both are, to me, equally violent, and equally sudden, deaths.

Every day, survivors of murder victims have to drag themselves to court and listen to prosecutors, defense attorneys, witnesses and even defendants re-live their worst nightmares. It might not be pleasant, but it's a necessary part of what makes the U.S. system of justice what it is. Is it perfect? No. Do guilty people often go free? Absolutely. And in the eyes of a loved one who has just seen a killer acquitted, is it fair? Not at all. Just as it's not fair to railroad innocent people into long jail sentences and, possibly, death. They both happen, and, I'm afraid, a lot more often than we'd all like to think.

When people say that they're afraid families of victims wouldn't be able to stand the strain of a trial, I'm afraid what they're really saying is THEY couldn't stand the strain of it. Unlike a drive-by on Mission Hill or in Dorchester, this was an attack on the nation as well as a violent mass murder. And the nation is still tremendously scarred.

It's almost the same as the argument Gerald Ford used when he pardoned Richard Nixon: the NATION couldn't afford to keep reliving all of this.

But I say the nation, though scarred, is stronger than we give it credit for being. I believe we could have withstood it very well. And I believe those families could have withstood it too.

The downside: under pure U.S. jurisprudence, it would have been impossible for Obama to get the type of trial that we in this country alternately praise and condemn. That is to say a fair trial. You'd have to have lived your entire life under a rock not to have heard of Osama bin Laden and what he had unleashed upon the nation and the world.

The other downside, as I said: it was never going to happen. I remember watching a documentary of the Nuremberg Trials, and the diligence (ultimately unsuccessful) with which the U.S. tried to keep Herman Goering alive long enough to execute him.

At the time I watched it, that seemed pretty perverse. Who cared whether Goering was executed or whether he poisoned himself before that could ever happen? The end result was the same. He was dead. He paid.

For the first time in my life, however, I understand the sentiment. I may lean on the liberal side of things, but the last thing I'd have wanted to see was Osama bin Laden become a heroic figure whose mythical status grew because he wouldn't let the U.S. authorities get him. That would have been so ... Adolf Hitler.

If this had to be done, I'm glad the U.S. did it. I've lived through only a handful of true national tragedies ... all of them involving violent death, either the assassination of a political/social figure, or mass murders. By far, 9/11 was the most profound ... the most horrible. It was crippling on so many levels. Some of that was due to the sheer horror of it, but some of it was also due to our own complacency that we were impervious to such widespread and devastating terrorism. It shook us to the core, not only because of the actual devastation, but because of its long-term implications.

I don't want to sound overly crass about this, but if there was justice to be done, this was ours to do. Not his. And not Pakistan's.

And it's personal too. Maybe that's why I spent all night watching this, and maybe that's why I'm still wound up. A former high school football coach of mine was on one of those planes out of Logan. Mr. Jim Trentini was a tough, old U.S. Marine who certainly treated football practice (and gym class as well) as if he were running boot camp. At least that's how we all saw it. He was the one who taught me how to lift weights properly (and he was also the one who expressed ever-lasting exasperation over my total unwillingness to do so).

I wasn't a great football player, and I certainly made no effort to stay in touch with him after I got out of high school. But when I saw his name on the scroll that listed all the victims, it personalized my outrage just the same.

One of the first professional gigs I had as a Northeastern University co-op was helping out with the coverage of the Boston Bruins at a time when they were absolute royalty in the city. One of the most lively, and refreshing players, on that team was Garnett "Ace" Bailey. He was another victim of 9/11.

I could go on and on. My niece's teacher got called out of class on September 11, 2001, because his father was on one of those planes. An overwhelming number of people either knew one, or some, of the victims; or knew someone who knew someone. That's the scope of this tragedy.

A few other things. First, President Obama. I realize he's not universally loved, and that's OK. Neither was his predecessor. We said some pretty mean things about him, too. That's politics.

But to the extent of his roll in pulling this off, you can't deny that he did it. What happened Sunday sounds pretty close to what Jimmy Carter tried to do in 1980 with the U.S. hostages ... and it blew up in his face. George W. Bush chased bin Laden in and out of caves for eight years and couldn't catch him. This is not meant to be a screed against either. Rather, it is testament to the disadvantages we faced in hunting him down.

It is also a testament to the continuity in those levels of government where continuity is desperately needed. Barack Obama could avail himself of much of the machinery the Bush administration put in motion. It doesn't minimize the contributions of either president that a) Obama was on office when all this actually came to pass; or b) that it happened after Bush left office. Both can share the credit for this one, and -- to each other's credit -- neither went out of his way to claim the lion's share of it.

In fact, I thought Obama's speech was magnificent. Supposedly, some of the delay in his actual delivering of it came about because he wanted to brief the Georges and Bill Clinton of its contents and get their input. If that's the case, it was an hour well spent, because it was perfect. And it speaks volumes about the underlying respect -- beyond the politics -- that the presidents have for each other. It is still the most exclusive club in the United States, and if we lose the essence of that bond, it'll be a sad day).

Finally, let's talk a little about the national catharsis this was/is ... and the spontaneous celebrating that occurred after President Obama announced bin Laden's death.

Part of that, I'm sure, was the actual event itself. We got the bad guy. But I think part of it also has to do with the fact that finally -- and after what seemed to be an eternity -- we got good news that we, as a nation, could collectively celebrates.

We are so fractured, politically, in this country. We divide states not by geography anymore, but by colors. Red states. Blue states. Good news for one is horrible news for the other, and vice versa. And we're certainly guilty of putting the agenda du jour above the national interested sometimes too.

But there's very little to debate here. There's no way this is bad news for anyone -- at least if you get past the fact that this was a "kill" mission and not a "capture" mission (and in this case, I can).

I think a lot of the celebrating you saw was due to the fact that with the incessant drumbeat of bad news, being it political, social, natural, whatever ... and our seeming inability to handle it without equally incessant bickering ... this was one time when everybody could rejoice in the fact that it happened, and that the country pulled it off.

This was a victory -- albeit not a total victory -- over an organization that caused us great pain, and great harm. It's not over. Think of it this way: Boston celebrated well into the night after Carlton Fisk hit the homer that won Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. But the Cincinnati Reds won Game 7 and the series itself.

Perhaps this is Game 6. It's a victory that's so emotional that it just unleashed this tremendous national release. But we still have Game 7. And if we're not careful, and diligent, the wrong team could still win that one, too.