Thursday, October 28, 2010

Old Psychos Never Die...They Just End Up on Facebook

It's hard to forget the certifiable screwballs who have come in and out of our lives. That is, the men and women we would have nominated as the most likely to appear on a 48 Hours segment, or be oft-mentioned by the dulcet-toned Bill Kurtis on American Justice.

Recently, a personal favorite of mine emerged from the memory graveyard and showed his mug on Facebook. This is the definitely the darkest side of social networking. I’ll call him "Wayne," after John Wayne Gacy, because it wouldn’t really surprise me if he’s got a few bodies buried in his suburban Tarrytown, New York backyard. Wayne’s wall is open to the public, and I live in perpetual fear that this crackpot might one day friend me. You see, I got to know this Wayne character for a brief spell in my college years, but I never considered him a friend and, I know, he didn’t consider me one. But none of this matters in the Facebook universe.

It’s kind of hard to explain Wayne to those who have never met the guy. However, for those who have had the distinct pleasure, they will appreciate what I am about to say. Born and raised in the Bronx, Wayne gushed and gushed some more, which was unusual in and of itself. He also uttered a mother lode of “golly gees” and “oh geezes,” which were regionally way out in left field. In fact, it was this faux folksiness that initially clued me in that something was rotten in the State of New York. That is, when starkly contrasted with Wayne's periodic eruptions of rage and foaming-at-the-mouth tirades against virtually everyone who didn't look or think like him.

“There’s nothing like a cold one!” I heard Wayne say on more than one occasion. He could be the king of clichés and unctuous corn in one breath, and a blithering loon in another, particularly after having had one cold one too many, which was often. Merely seeing this man’s visage a quarter of a century later, courtesy of his profile photo and picture album, is unsettling. Foremost, let me pay old Wayne a compliment: He’s aged remarkably well over the years. He looks not far removed from the madman I remember so well with his red drinking face and 1970s mustache. Go figure: This very strange man has a wife and three kids now, and is holding down a bureaucratic accountant's job.

Wayne’s derangement once found him threatening me with bodily harm because his kid sister was dating an Italian guy, and I was therefore responsible for making off with, and making out with, all of his kind's young women. Apparently, he also didn’t approve of the size and shape of my nose (way, way too big and pointed), believing that I must therefore be a secret member of the local temple and, of course, have a controlling hand in both the media and, yes, total world domination.

Wayne's bizarre antics are actually quite legendary. He’s perversely touched countless lives in the old neighborhood. Virtually everybody who knew the guy back when has a Wayne story or two (or three or four) to recount. Reminded of that Wayne character from the old neighborhood and its bar scene, one woman summed him up rather succinctly. “He was scary!” she said. Indeed he was. And now the man’s back in a twenty-first century guise, and untold people are cowering in fear of his possible friend requests and, worse still, ending up in his Tarrytown backyard commingling with the earthworms should they refuse.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Love Versus Hate: Mets Versus Yankees

While I’ve long ceased following professional baseball, I nonetheless concede to deriving a fair measure of pleasure when the Mighty Yankees go down, as they did this past week. Is there some sort of abiding life lesson here? Perhaps hate is a far more powerful and enduring emotion than love—at least in the arena of irrational sports fanaticism.

Raised in a Bronx household with a rabid Yankee fan as its patriarch, I declared my independence from all that as a mere seven-year-old. I don’t quite know why I broke ranks at such a tender age, and why I started rooting for the Mets, but I did with a vengeance. And I quickly realized that it was one or the other—no namby-pamby straddling and allegiance to both New York teams was allowed. The very first games I attended were actually in the original House that Ruth Built—the one with the uncomfortable wooden seats painted blue and the view-obstructing, concrete poles holding the old stadium together. I recall being at a Bat Day giveaway against the expansion Seattle Pilots during their first and only season as a franchise. (The team moved to Milwaukee in 1970, but, very historically, supplied the colorful and immensely entertaining backdrop for pitcher Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, which is a great book by the way. Believe it or not, this tome of his was considered sacrilege for its time, steeped in controversy for violating the locker room’s longstanding omerta.)

I suspect it was my wide-eyed innocence that coaxed the very impressionable me to the Mets, a team in the midst of an ethereal glow. You know, the Miracle of 1969, which had nothing to do with the Blessed Mother appearing on a slice of burnt toast or any such thing. It was all about perennial losers winning the whole enchilada in crazy, unsettled times against the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles—amazing, amazing, amazing! David slays Goliath! And the fact that the Mets were televised a great deal more than the Yankees in those days of yore—on free TV, too, which was the only game in town—no doubt played a contributing and solidifying role in my declared allegiance. The battle lines were promptly drawn in the family, and with countless friends and neighbors as well—all fans of the corporate, highfalutin Yankees, despite the fact that they sucked lemons big time when I began my quarter of a century romance with their cross-town rivals.

But to get back to the love-versus-hate matter, and which of the two emotions emerge victorious in the end. I more or less lost interest in the game, and the team I loved with a passion since a boy, in the mid-1990s after a strike cancelled a World Series for the first time ever, and was still ongoing at the start of the next season. Along the way, ticket prices skyrocketed, and the players overtly, and rather dramatically and unapologetically, made greed and sheer disloyalty the hottest tickets in town. Then, of course, there were steroids, seventy-five home run seasons, and Barry Bonds breaking the great Hank Aaron’s record with both a literal head and ego the size of planet Jupiter.

I never consciously made the decision to turn in my fan card for all time. It occurred very gradually, with my fierce fan devotion waning with the passing years as the American pastime slowly but surely imploded. From my perspective, baseball once upon a time showcased a wholly unique ambiance with its slow and unfolding pace, strategy, and unpredictability. It was a game not held hostage by ticking clocks, flags, and annoying whistles—not to mention that there were many, many games on the schedule (162), with most of them played during the dog days of summertime, the best season of all for a kid.

But, ah, the question before us now is this: Why did my bowing out as an uber-fan not purge my simultaneous and heartfelt loathing for the Yankees? Granted, the wars were pretty bitter and intense back in the day between my beloved Mets and my father’s equally beloved Yankees. But that was ancient history. Or was it? I must confess that there’s still something about the Yankees, their fans, and that exasperating sense of entitlement that taps into that old hate. I may be a lapsed Met and former professional baseball fan—who’s gotten over the great love for his team and the sport—but hatred for the grisly opposition somehow endures. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Straw Man Cometh...Goeth...and Cometh Again...

I finally got around to reading Straw: Finding My Way, Darryl Strawberry’s memoir of a very, very interesting life lived so far. As a devout Met fan from the Strawberry era, as it were, I will admit to, a quarter of a century ago, being held spellbound by the man’s enormous talent and seemingly unlimited potential—he was "the black Ted Williams," after all. But courtesy of a precipitous descent into drug and alcohol abuse, and, while we are on the subject, spousal abuse, too, the Straw Man rather dramatically short-circuited his highly touted career prospects. He once put a gun to his wife’s head.

I think it’s fair to conclude that Strawberry hit rock bottom not too long ago, or at least something resembling the bottom. For a guy who apparently had it all as a hot young professional athlete with a sky's the limit future, an awful lot of bad turns have occurred in this man's life. In addition to his well-known and oft-reported addictions, Darryl was diagnosed with colon cancer and prescribed intensive chemotherapy. The cancer then recurred and required another go-around of treatments. A kidney of his was removed along the way. Whereas once upon a time he was tossing one hundred dollar bills out of his limousine window—so he says—Strawberry subsequently found himself broke and paying alimony and child support to two understandably unsympathetic ex-wives. He also spent eight months in jail for violating his repeat-offender parole as a serial drug user. And the gifted athlete, who we were certain would break Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record, ended up living in his then-girlfriend’s, and current wife’s, parents’ basement somewhere in the Show Me State of Missouri—a markedly steep plunge, I'd say, for a nine-time Major League Baseball All-Star and renowned celebrity.

Even though I recollect reading about the particulars of Strawberry’s fast and furious retreat from glory, the recurring relapses and general mess of his life eventually blended all the sorry minutia together. What was a real shock at first, and major disillusionment surrounding all that could have been, just ceased to be after a while. Still, I rooted for the Straw Man. From my perspective—and many others outside of the callous sports-writing fraternity, which clearly loathed the guy—there was always something likeable and outwardly sincere about Darryl. I had long hoped the better Straw would win out in the end, and perhaps it has—well, at least he thinks so. Hence, this book.

However, as I read this memoir of his, the surprises just kept on coming. You know, Darryl’s next relapse and the next one after that. As the timeline inched closer and closer to the present, I got a bit worried. After all, his straight and narrow pathway is a relatively new one. I would very much like to believe that his last setback was just that—his last. The deeply religious Straw sees the Lord as the wind beneath the wings of his myriad trials and tribulations, including his jail sentence. He believes the dreadful series of events in his life were all part of the curriculum—an absolutely necessity to get him where he is today.

But really, Darryl Strawberry’s had a heaping helping of not especially good stuff happen to him in this life, and he’s come out of the meat grinder standing pretty tall (he’s 6’6” by the way). He’s now a commentator on ESPN, has founded an organization devoted to children with autism, and just recently opened up a restaurant and sports bar in his old Queens stomping grounds. No doubt, the Straw Man’s been humbled with all that’s happened to him along life’s long and winding road, but his hubris and penchant for braggadocio have not been wholly tamed.

I know a few recovering alcoholics who cannot help but boast about their former capacities to drink all comers under the table, and who don’t seem particularly ashamed of their past antics as they recount their war stories. And Darryl displayed more than a bit of this showboat air while chronicling the purported horrific episodes in his life and times. As a parting salvo, may I just offer this one simple piece of advice: For openers, don’t point any more guns at women’s heads…and the rest should come pretty easy.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Last Honest Man

Many moons ago, I worked alongside a man named Garrett. He was a soft-spoken, even-tempered, affable fellow, who did his job sans any fanfare, griping, or pointless workplace histrionics. Garrett was also a dead ringer for the bearded G.I. Joe I recall playing with as a boy.

In the rough and tumble retail business environs, employees come and employees go with the reliability of the ocean tides. And often in this ebb and flow, human flotsam washes ashore.

The Garrett era, if you will, coincided with—from our very non-technological perspective—the primitive use of video camera surveillance in a mom-and-pop business setting. Our shop had a claustrophobic backroom that performed double duty as a cafeteria and office. And a safe, which more times than not had ample cash in it during the daylight hours, was nestled at its very far end but nonetheless visible, and well-known, to one and all. Safes out in the open, with money in them, are just asking to be robbed.

As per the script, money did in fact go missing one day. But what the hapless perpetrators were blissfully unaware of was that they were captured in the act. Caught on film. The camera never blinks. It was an inside job, too. And, please, say it wasn't so! Serving as the lookout for the brains behind the theft—an arrogant malcontent and recent hirer named Tony—was Garrett, caught red-handed on the surveillance videotape. Tony had assumed the role of Jimmy Valentine, safe-cracker extraordinaire, but was hopelessly inept in his reconnoitering. Both Garrett and Tony were summarily dismissed from their jobs, and no criminal charges were filed against them after they fessed up to the crime and, of course, returned the dough.

Fast forward a few weeks and we receive a phone call. Garrett, it seemed, had applied for a new job and cited us as a reference—his only one, by the way. The fellow on the other end of the phone seemed a bit befuddled. He said, "Garrett answered the question, 'What was the reason for leaving your last job?' as 'Fired for stealing.' This can't be true? Why would he tell us the truth! And he wouldn't list you as a reference then, would he?" The last honest man would.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Index Card Kid Grows Up

I knew this kid in high school. He was, to put it mildly, goal-oriented. Now, I believe a little of that sort of thing goes a long way. And one didn't have to be Columbo to surmise that he came from a family with extraordinarily high expectations for him, and that his goal preoccupation was inbred. This classmate of mine always carried around an index card that listed his current school schedule, along with the grades he was shooting for in each one of the courses. His goals were extremely precise, too. He didn’t work with wide parameters like 90-95 or 92-97. No, he simultaneously established the bar exceptionally high and was highly specific. He anticipated grades like 98.2 in AP English and 97.5 in AP History, and nothing less would do. Grades that fell short of his stated goals were deemed failure.

I had long wondered what became of this kid. Like me, he’s an adult man now closer to fifty than forty. I came from a family that didn’t require index cards, or even a less formal brand of goal setting. While I grew up in a mostly benign atmosphere, there was nonetheless this underlying feeling that if any one of us achieved something, it wasn't much of an achievement. After all, it was us that we were talking about. Permit me to paraphrase comedian Jackie Mason here: “I make this observation with all due respect.” Really, though, there should be a happy medium of some kind between the index card and indifference, which is, I suppose, the quintessential parental tightrope.

Anyway, I long suspected one of two things happened to the Index Card Kid in his adult incarnation. He either imploded altogether from the intense pressure, and ended up on skid row as a pathetic alcoholic or cokehead—working at the Olive Garden between rehab stints—or he became an ultra-successful lawyer or doctor.

Courtesy of the world getting smaller and smaller, I’ve uncovered the answer to that intriguing mystery. Happily, it is the latter life course. Evidently, this formerly young person has hit the jackpot with the goals on his adult index cards apparently reached and even surpassed. From all that I’ve gleaned, this man certainly knows what he’s doing in his field. And I’d feel comfortable accepting his opinions and relying on his judgments in his profession. Still, I get this uneasy feeling that the Index Card Kid, now the Index Card Man, would not be much fun to talk with, or socialize with, unless, of course, you too are an Index Card Man or Index Card Woman.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Often What They Know...Just Ain't So...

A quarter of a century or so ago, the first nail salon opened its doors in my old neighborhood. Believe it or not, the concept seemed very, very strange back then. Locals were perplexed with the notion that a business entity could survive, let alone thrive, cutting, painting, and scraping dirt out of people’s fingernails. A manicure biz standing on its own two hands seemed at once foreign and far-fetched. Who pray tell would pay real money for simple services they could do for themselves with a ninety-nine cent nail clipper and two-dollar bottle of nail polish?

Flash forward to the present and these very same salons are ubiquitous, and nobody questions anymore their business potential or legitimacy. Gone are the days when a relative of mine speculated on what was really going on in these places—these fronts for all things nefarious. “They must be selling drugs,” she said with absolute certainty. Why...there could be no other explanation. Indeed, all those smiling and unfailingly polite Korean women, patiently sitting at their stations with scissors and nail files at the ready, were obviously up to no good. This very same member of my family has since christened other businesses, which she cannot quite comprehend, as drug dens, prostitution rings, or yet to be determined portals of mischief and debauchery.

The alarming component here is that there are so, so, so many people, akin to my blood relation, who absolutely know so, so, so many things—countless things, as a matter of fact, which just aren't so. And these all-knowing folks are not content to limit their wanton speculation to local businesses. No, many of our neighbors, in the very places where we live, assume the roles of judges, juries, and executioners with the flimsiest of evidence at their disposable.They know who among us is naughty, and who among us is nice, just like Santa Claus, and often based on idle gossip and hearsay.

That aforementioned kin of mine has more than once decreed what neighbors she feels lead the right kind of lives, and noted with utter disdain whom she deems the bums and ne'er-do-wells. Journalist Edgar Watson Howe once said, “What people say behind your back is your standing in the community.” I fear he was right.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Yes, Virginia, There Is Life After High School...

It being the thirty-year anniversary of my high school graduation, I am sadly reminded of a reality program on TV Land called High School Reunion. The show brings together a smorgasbord of classic archetypes from prior high school graduating classes. Only now these former teens are pushing forty. And trigonometry is a distant memory. In fact, the High School Reunion stars have lived for two decades in various adult incarnations and, naturally, acquired ample psychological and other baggage along the way.

Granted, it’s part and parcel of human nature: We desire recognition in some demonstrable ways for being wholly unique individuals who possess special qualities and talents. But I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone of sound mind would willingly embrace unflattering attention, perverse publicity, and the opportunity to appear like utter nincompoops for fifteen minutes of fame? But, apparently, it happens all the time.

High School Reunion features casts of characters who once upon a time stood apart in their educational milieus. You know: the school jock, the haughty gal who thought she was better than everyone else, and the bully; the class clown, the nerd, and the teen Lothario. What’s particularly disconcerting about this show—and indeed so many others with similar reality premises—is that these real people are perfectly willing to ride emotional roller coasters and endure periodic meltdowns with the cameras rolling. And all of this melodrama is supposed to be swallowed hook, line, and sinker as real? Surreal, perhaps.

What’s equally unpleasant concerning this entire production is that the aforementioned classic archetypes appear to be stuck in time warps. The doofuses, bullies, and bitches, if you will, from high school have by all accounts not grown up, and are essentially still doofuses, bullies, and bitches intent on settling past scores and wallowing in very old and mostly petty grievances. And worth noting, too, is that these various ensembles consist of men and women whose life high points seemingly occurred when they were sixteen and seventeen in high school. The scary part is what is real.

Why not? Let’s all go on television and act out, swapping genuine emotions, human interactions, and relationships for flickers of fame and all-expenses paid trips to Hawaii or some such idyllic locale. Ah, yes, the class of 1988 does the Bahamas, and the teenage girl magnet, now a man of forty, practically bald, and with a noticeable paunch from one too many Budweisers and Dunkin’ Donuts is still getting the girls. Go figure. And that dreadfully toffee-nosed member of the school’s in-crowd, also forty, still loathes the wannabe popular girl, the loner, and just about everybody else for that matter. Beyond reality TV, there is very fortunately life after high school.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Killer in the Family

Sorry to disappoint, but this essay isn't about my family. It's about a movie. Ah...the things one can unearth on YouTube. Once upon a time there was this television flick, which starred Robert Mitchum and a twenty-something James Spader playing a teenager. Called A Killer in the Family, it premiered in 1983. I remember watching it by pure chance and had no idea it was based on a true story.

The movie recounted the dramatic tale of convicted murderers Gary Tison and Randy Greenawalt, their escape from prison, and subsequent vicious and violent crime spree. To say that this small-screen production was simultaneously creepy and compelling wouldn't do it justice. I distinctly remember the station announcer chillingly intoning after each commercial break, "We now return to A Killer in the Family!" Shivers! This made-for-TV motion picture was quite intense and shockingly brutal—it really was. And I admit to being somewhat unnerved after watching it, and feared that Robert Mitchum and his weaselly accomplice, played by Stuart Margolin, Jim Rockford's "Angel," would invade my dreams.

I've long since forgotten what it was, but something—many, many years later—resurrected the memory of A Killer in the Family. I desperately wanted to see this movie again. I wondered if it was available on videotape, and whether or not it was ever shown in reruns. But no luck. Since I'd long since steeled myself to its gruesome unpredictability and horrific denouement—no happy ending here— I had to see it, at the very least, one more time. I had to know if it was as I remembered.

Decades passed...nothing...and then one pleasant autumn October day in 2010, I searched YouTube for A Killer in the Family, or as that announcer dramatically bellowed twenty-seven-years-earlier: A KILLER IN THE FAMILY! And eureka! Some generous soul had put the entire movie up, in parts, on the site!

For those of us getting a little long in the tooth, this cyber portal is a real godsend, resurrecting countless media moments from days gone by, which otherwise would have been lost to us forever. And so, I can now watch A Killer in the Family in its entirety, which I haven't seen in almost three decades. Will I be thoroughly discombobulated after seeing it, as I was a long time ago, or bored silly and unimpressed? After all, I'm an almost fifty-something, jaded man now. 1983 was then and this is now. It's time to find out.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Prescription Drug Free Zone

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that close to fifty percent of us take one prescription drug or more per month. That’s a heaping helping of perfectly legal drug use. Of course, many of these drugs are necessary and, in some instances, lifesavers. But exactly what percentage of the prescription drug-user population would be better off not taking them? I don’t really know, but would hazard a guess that it’s a not inconsiderable number.

During an unexpected and unwanted month-long hospital stay some four years ago, I was infused with all sorts of drugs, gradually getting weaned off of them as I recovered from a blood clot gone seriously awry. I left this Shangri-La with only one prescription on my person: for Percocet, an opiate painkiller. In the hospital, these benign-looking white tablets furnished me with my only warm and fuzzy interludes, short-lived as they were. The very same meds worked their magic the first couple of weeks after I returned home, too. The percs were my good buddies during very painful times. However, by the end of my first month in hearth and home—while still in pretty bad pain—the aforementioned warm and fuzzy interludes had gotten noticeably less warm and less fuzzy, and were accompanied by a nasty constipation on top of that. Shortly thereafter, even minimal relief from the pain disappeared altogether, but not that darn constipation, which tightened its grip on me.

There was little point in my continuing with this narcotic painkiller, which was no longer working for me. I didn’t cry out to my doctor for an alternative, either, and thus one was never offered. The epic constipation had, if nothing else, at least taken my mind off the phantom pains shooting through my missing body part with varying degrees of intensity. With the assistance of a cocoa-tasting, rabbit-food resembling product called Senekot, the brave soldier that I am grinned and bared the pain. Fortunately for me, I healed extraordinarily well with no cancer, diabetes, or any such thing to hinder my recovery. The phantoms of the night eventually left me alone, although they do reappear every now and again just to remind me of what was and can be again.

When I hear about people being addicted to the likes of Percocet and OxyContin—and the amounts that they consume, and must increasingly consume, to achieve their desired highs—it boggles my mind. Percocets may have been my foul-weather friends during life's lowest ebb, but they turned on me real fast, and I hope never to meet their acquaintance again. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Checkout Time

“When it’s your time…it’s your time.” This profound sentiment recently tumbled out of a man of the cloth’s mouth. He was consoling the grieving daughter of an individual who died rather unexpectedly last week. Uncharacteristically, the deceased had called on his GP several times in the weeks preceding his passing. The family was bewildered and angry at what they perceived as this doctor’s laissez-faire attitude and non-diagnosis of something very, very serious.

As this poor fellow’s vital organs slowly but surely ceased functioning, there was perhaps little that could have been done to save his life. Who really knows? Still, should we blithely accept the tired bromide: “When your time is up, it’s up?” If this is indeed the way things work, then everything from medical malpractice to drunk drivers causing the deaths of others is part of some larger ethereal plan. Why blame any of these folks for their actions? If they are lethally incompetent and irresponsible, expressly to make certain others check out on time, and not a moment sooner or later, they certainly shouldn't be punished or reviled.

Having come pretty close to being dead as a door-nail several years ago—fortunately, it wasn’t my time—I don't really fear this final act anymore. What I do fear is being in the shadows of my fellow world travelers shuffling off this mortal coil before me, and having to listen to more and more of the same illogical, simplistic, contradictory, and non-reassuring reasons for life and death. It's enough to put a man in an early grave.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Life's Wacky Packages

I had a boyhood chum once upon a time. And from my ten-year-old perspective at least, his parents were different. No, there wasn't a Heather Has Two Mommies issue there, or any such thing, which would have certainly raised a big stink in the old neighborhood. They were, however, among a distinct minority. That is, their worldviews—what they expected of their children, and what they wanted them to be when they grew up—were well outside the mainstream.

Sometime in the mid-1970s, I remember being on my front stoop with Billy O’Hare and showing him my neat collection of Wacky Packages. Now, I thought those stickers were quite cool and clever, and still think so all these years later. But little Billy sniffed at the waste of time and money in acquiring such childish ephemera. He mentioned, too, that his parents didn’t approve of Wacky Packages and what they represented. What was that? Humor? Fun? Billy’s folks also didn’t sanction his watching The Three Stooges—too violent—despite Officer Joe Bolton gently reminding us each and every day that Moe, Larry, and Curly were merely acting, not really poking one another in the eyes, and that we should therefore never try any such thing at home.

I suspect that Billy was the only kid in the Bronx's Kingsbridge instructed to answer his home telephone: “O’Hare residence. William speaking. May I ask who’s calling?” You would think Ma and Pa O'Hare were grooming their boy to be a valet or butler. But no, they weren't. No Wacky Packages, no Three Stooges, and the right and proper manners were floorboards in Billy's foundation. And while I'm generally a fan of atypical parents looking out for their boys and girls, taking great interest in them, and maintaining the highest hopes for their futures, there was something wacky, if you will, about the O'Hare's no Wacky Packages edict.

Today, I sincerely hope Billy understands that the more run-of-the-mill parents in the old neighborhood were completely innocent in permitting their youngsters to buy and trade Wacky Packages. Granted, there were many indictable parental actions from those bygone years. But possession of Wacky Packages was not among them. And don't you think answering the phone like Mr. French,when you were just ten-years-old, was kind of silly and even a bit bizarre? "Hello" would have sufficed. Ah...but then you would have been just like the rest of us.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Road to Validation

A question posed on a LinkedIn writers group thread asked: “Did you feel validated when published by a royalty-paying publisher?” It was a thought-provoking query for sure that unleashed a flurry of responses. Not surprisingly, the consensus answer was “yes.” However, the word “validation," to express the feeling of leaping over an important and very high hurdle in a mercurial business, seemed an interesting choice.

Nearly ten years ago, a business entity was willing to pay me real money to write a book. I didn’t have a say in the title, nor a say in the book's layout or design. It was all about writing—and that was fine and dandy. Once upon a time, this sort of thing meant a whole lot to me. For one brief shining moment after I got the job, I was on cloud nine. I was soaring like a Canada goose when my author copies arrived in the mail several months later. I believe I checked out every Manhattan Barnes & Noble store on foot to first see if The Everything Collectibles Book was available and then counted how many copies were on display. The Union Square location had six—and face out to boot. When the same publisher asked me back for another go-around and a new title, I felt uber-validated. For this meant the powers-that-be not only approved of what I had done, but that I wasn’t destined to be a one-hit wonder, either.

But such pure and innocent feelings of validation—that wondrous first time—faded with the passage of time. In fact, very, very quickly. I know now that validation must be frequently renewed and, also, that the validation bar keeps getting higher and higher.

Courtesy of today’s technology, increasing numbers of people are bypassing traditional publishers, along with the so-called validation that comes with it, and self-publishing their works instead. The self-published book versus the real book debate gets a bit contentious at times. Many published writers—validated, as it were—resent the tsunami-like inundation of materials that flood the marketplace and often blur the distinction between the legitimate and illegitimate. It seems that every time I visit my sister out on suburban Long Island, she shows me a novel penned by one of her professional friends or friends’ husbands—self-published, of course—with this distinction unmentioned.

But that aside, there are plenty of excellent self-published books in print and in the offing. And if a self-published author sells a couple of thousand or more books, a royalty-paying publisher is going to take note—you can go to the bank on that. Selling books via any avenue, traditional or nontraditional, is validation. I’d gladly swap my validation résumé for a self-published book selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

There's an unquenchable thirst for this elusive validation. From most writers’ perspectives, passing through a gauntlet of men and women much more inclined to say no than yes, and making it to the other side, is a crowning achievement. But once you’ve been there and done that, it feels more like a pat on the head than a blessing from on high. And so I continue searching for the next chapter and verse in my validation story.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Let's Go to the Videotape

Nearly two decades ago, while toiling in the vineyards of a place called Pet Nosh, an independent chain of pet food and supply stores in the Greater New York City area, a funny thing happened. A 101 Dalmatians VHS tape set in motion a series of unfortunate events that threatened to sully a reputation.

In the business world, it often takes years to nurture a reputation, and only seconds to cast away some of that hard-earned luster. For sure, this video episode put a small dent in Pet Nosh's reputational armor—and it didn't have to be. It was here where “the best laid plans of mice and men” intersected “the road to hell,” which, of course, was “paved with good intentions.”

It was a huge Pet Nosh promo for its time: a multi-page, full-color supplement included in numerous Sunday newspapers around town. The flier teemed with great buys on a cross-section of goods—something for everyone. And as the icing on the cake—while supplies lasted—a free 101 Dalmatians videotape would be awarded customers who spent over $25, or some such figure that I've since forgotten.

The horsefly in the ointment was that only a finite number of tapes were on hand. And happily, most customers didn’t ask for one, even when they exceeded the not especially high threshold to qualify for a tape. Still, these freebies didn't last very long at all. In fact, within only a few days of what was a two-week sale, the Pet Nosh stores had run completely dry of the giveaways. And even though the advertisement plainly stated, “While supplies last,” it didn’t look good. It was bad P.R.

I regret to say that more than a few of our patrons foamed at the mouth and went off the deep end because of this. This free videotape obviously meant the world to them, and they would risk heart attacks and strokes to get their hands on a copy. I was privy to one rather dramatic meltdown replete with a fusillade of F-bombs and not-so-veiled threats of violence—this R-rated theater courtesy of a customer whom I remembered as a quiet, unassuming sort. That is, a man who stood silently by, and said hardly a thing, while his wife did all of the shopping and transacting week after week after week.

This hot head ultimately took his case to a higher authority: the Better Business Bureau. The bureau forwarded us his missive, which nastily accused Pet Nosh of all kinds of chicanery and gross unprofessionalism. With the bossman’s consent, I drafted our reasoned response to this bully boy, whose mouth really needed to be washed out with Irish Spring. The Better Business Bureau promptly sent us his response to our response as this pointless back and forth continued. A reasoned argument made before a hyperventilating oaf is an exercise in futility—and very bad business policy. It was a big mistake venturing down this road.

And, too, the Better Business Bureau is not interested in adjudicating cases. This outfit’s mission asks of its member businesses complete capitulation to complaining customers, even if they feel they are in the right. Such gracious acts remove grievances from the public record. Despite this accuser of ours being a foul-mouthed little turd, if you will, it was foolish to get into a pissing match with the guy, even if we felt innocent of the charges.

Granted, it was naïve on our parts to expect “While supplies last” to be a potent enough disclaimer to ward off the wrath of the sometimes unforgiving, often suspicious public at large. In the final analysis, the aforementioned militant, and several of his equally aggrieved comrades, received their free copies of 101 Dalmatians. Multiple business and life lessons were, however, learned in the wake of this unseemly debacle. I've often wondered what the brute felt when he slipped his VHS tape into the VCR, and then hit the play button for the benefit of his children.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Happiness...Whatever You Want It to Be...

I find myself in wholehearted accord with Ebenezer Scrooge’s ex-fiancé, Isabel, who sang, “Happiness is whatever you want it to be.” You blew it, really blew it. In fact, I thought I might just have achieved a moment of supreme bliss this very day—true happiness from my unique and arguably perverse perspective—when I stumbled upon a compilation of commercials from the late 1970s that aired on New York City local station WCBS-TV. The description of this video included an advertisement from a furniture chain called Frankart Furniture, which was scattered about the area in the 1970s. And I have been searching—wishing and hoping, and hoping and wishing—that the YouTube genie would one day grant me this rare find.

Alas, it was not to be. The commercial from yesteryear that would have supplied me with true ecstasy—where the head cheese Frankie Frankel goes toe-to-toe with salesmen who are “not up to Frankart standards”—was not in the mix. Life is fraught with such ups and down, I’ve discovered, but hope springs eternal. Tomorrow is another day

But it really is so: Happiness is whatever you want it to be. While this commercial mélange from the 1970s wasn’t exactly what I hoped for, it nonetheless titillated this nostalgia hound. A promo for crime reporter Chris Borgen! Wow! This spot alone brought me back to the grittier, crime-riddled days of my teens.

Ah, yes, riding the Number 1 train with my sister to see a movie in Manhattan called Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty, and a woman is robbed at gunpoint along the way. She freaks out and runs off into a station wailing for help. I hope she got it. Everybody else in the subway car just sits there with poker faces, not one expression of shock or concern. But please, cut me a little slack here. I wasn't yet sixteen, and wasn't about to chase after a man brandishing a handgun. We all just wanted to get moving again, I suppose, and we did in due time. I don't remember any police officer questioning people on the train about witnessing the robbery, or asking us for a description of the perpetrator. By the way, I saw Heaven Can Wait as planned and thought it wasn't half-bad. 

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Exiting on a High Note

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, of course. But I got there another way. For my one and only appearance in this hallowed hall, I was the guest of a stand-up comedian and rather good impressionist who had won two tickets by convincing a local radio talk show host that he was indeed the real Regis Philbin.

After this man of myriad voices was turned down by a couple of ladies—attempts at real dates—he tried to entice his limited fraternity of male friends. Again, no luck. Time to tap into the acquaintances. In the early 1990s, I fit this bill—but don’t anymore—and accepted this chance of a lifetime to get to Carnegie Hall and to experience live and in-person a songster with whom I knew next to nothing about: Gene Pitney.

Actually, Pitney was mega-popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and something of a teen idol for a spell with bona fide hits to his credit: "Town Without Pity," "Only Love Can Break a Heart," and "Twenty-four Hours from Tulsa." He even recorded a memorable song for a memorable movie, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," although it wasn’t used in the film.

Anyway, Pitney gave a bravura performance that night in the hall and I became a fan. The man’s adenoidal tenor and vibrato proved quite compelling—a wholly unique singing voice if ever there was one. I know of no Gene Pitney sound-alikes—past or present.

In April 2006, Gene Pitney died suddenly at the age of sixty-six, only hours after a concert performance in Wales. He wowed those in attendance that evening and received a protracted, well-earned standing ovation. His manager found him in his hotel room several hours later. He was fully clothed and lying on his bed, with no evidence of any sort of death struggle or frenzied last gasp. A subsequent autopsy revealed that atherosclerosis caused his death.

When I read the account of his untimely passing, I couldn't help but feel that Pitney had somehow ideally departed this earthy plane. While still on the top of his game, the man delivered his special brand of art to appreciative fans and then, on this adrenalin-filled high note, peacefully exited life's stage. We should all be that lucky.