Tag Archives: writing

I was THIS close to being a famous songwriter

22 Aug

royalWhile late-summer cleaning at the Smith Estates, I uncovered a treasure trove of unpublished song lyrics. After you experience a small sampling of this lyrical magic, which I created as a teenager, you’ll wonder why I’m not churning out the hits in Nashville or L.A. If you’re not prepared to be in awe, go find a kitten video.

(No title)

You dragged me away from my job in Buxton, Utah
And we drove through the desert all day
We drove past numerous canyon boxes
In your beat-up Chevrolet

But I can’t seem to muster up the courage
To ask you where we’re goin’
Cause life’s just one more wave
In the mountain river flowin’.

You’re headin’ for the butte in the middle of the plain
Which rises to a thunderous roar
To the old graveyard in the middle of the butte
Where the great eagle flies no more

But I can’t seem to muster up the courage
To ask you where we’re goin’
Cause life’s just one more wave
In the mountain river flowin’.

This song has many more verses and would have come in at roughly ten minutes as a finished product. It would have been longer had I written the letter G at end of certain words. Instead of a graveyard, the couple arrives in an Indian village where they see a medicine man, children playing, and lots of eagles, though I had just written the great eagle flies no more. Though the song is chock full of geographic and meteorological improbabilities, I most love “numerous canyon boxes.” This may refer to the short-lived Canyon & Sons cardboard box factory that folded in 1983.

And now something completely different:

(No title)

She’s in love with every movie star
All the teenage idols, too.
She follows every big rock singer
And knows everything they do
She sings their songs
And plays their games
And dreams every chance she gets.

Dart

From Comedy Central’s Reno 911

I wish I had finished that one. I’m dying to know what happened to the subject of the song. What games did she play with her idols? I picture
70s rock singers playing a lot of Lawn Darts, so I hope she didn’t get a Lawn Dart through her skull.

With wonderful lyrics like these and others, I had to share my gift. When I was 15 or 16, I got out my 45s and wrote down the record company addresses that were on the labels. Then I typed copies of my best work and mailed them to each company. Since I had no contact names, I sent the packets to the main addresses. I assumed the people in the mailroom would know what to do. This is how I imagine it went down at MCA Records headquarters in Los Angeles:

MCA underling: Hey chief, we just received an unsolicited envelope crammed with awesome lyrics by a fabulous songwriter named Ronnie Smith. He didn’t include a letter of introduction, but that would have been overkill.

MCA CEO: Smith huh? Never heard of him.

Underling: Oh, but you will when you see these beauties. (Thumbs through several pages of lyrics typed on a Royal portable typewriter.) Here’s one with a line about numerous canyon boxes.

CEO: Canyon boxes, huh?

Underling: Numerous canyon boxes.

CEO: By God, that’s brilliant.

Underling: (Holds up a page for the CEO to see.) Look, he doesn’t waste time writing the letter G. And here’s a song called Jimmy Solar. You know, I think Elton would love to put this one to music.

CEO: (Rubs his chin doubtfully) EJ’s committed to Bernie Taupin.

Underling: Taupin’s a two-bit hack compared to this Smith kid.

CEO: Hmm. What if Smith’s too good?

Underling: Whaddya mean, too good?

CEO: Unless he’s a lyric-writing machine who doesn’t care about his craft, he can’t write for all our artists. Sure, Alice Cooper would love the canyon box song. And Lynyrd Skynyrd will want first dibs on any song that mentions Lawn Darts. But what about Olivia Newton-John and the others? No one will buy their records if the lyrics pale in comparison. We could have a mutiny on our hands. And believe me, you don’t want an upset Olivia Newton-John.

Underling: (Shivers in fear) Yeah, I never thought about that. (Pulls out a cigarette lighter and sets the lyrics on fire.) I’ll file these with away with the ones from those kids who call themselves U2.

MCA Records no longer exists. Coincidence?  20150821_203701

In 1975 I took a different approach to instant stardom by entering a national songwriting contest. The grand prize was $3,000 and all the songwriter groupies one could handle. The contest was intended for professionals: singer-songwriters who had access to professional instruments, studios and talent. I had access to my mom, a cheap cassette recorder, and my older brother, who had to do what Mom said. While the professionals were putting their blood, sweat and tears into songs recorded on reel-to-reel tape, I spent fifteen minutes producing mine. Mom played an upright piano while Jeff sang The Unmarried Song. This nuanced number, which no longer exists because no one involved wants it to, was a marriage opposition piece. I don’t know why this subject was on my 16-year-old mind. I don’t remember the lyrics, except my brother often reminds they included, “The answer’s negatory.” Think about that: I entered a song in a nationwide contest that incorporated the word “negatory.”

The reaction from the judges was negatory. Perhaps The Unmarried Song had an unintended benefit, however. The following year, the same contest organizers held a lyric-only competition, which was a relief to anyone with ears. Instead, of sending my “best” song, however, I wrote one just for the competition. It was a country song, which I only listened to because Dad wouldn’t play anything else in his truck. It had to be the weirdest, creepiest song a teenage boy could write. It makes me cringe to share a verse, but here we go:

Little girls were made for lovin’ (again, where’s the G?)
This I’ve always said
Like seeing that you’re clothed
Or seeing that you’re fed.
Bedtime kisses, making wishes
And hoping they’ll come true
The little hugs that make me happy
Are coming straight from you.

I won’t even attempt an explanation.

I should have entered the canyon boxes song. And yet… That creepo creation made the initial cut in the competition. The judges, or perhaps some malfunctioning robot, considered my lyrics better than thousands of other songs. Imagine what the others were like. I won no money, but I received a certificate I framed and hung next to my bed for years until the printing faded.

I quit writing lyrics just as I was on the edge of superstardom. Something shinier must have caught my interest. Here’s the last song I wrote, which I typed in a business class when I was a senior in high school. Although I had never taken anything stronger than St. Joseph Children’s Aspirin, this makes me wonder what was in those pills.

(No title)

She sits in the courtyard
Sucking an apricot
Watching the train go by
They form a large circle
Singing a ballad
They don’t even know why
The tangerine glistens
Its nectar is sweet
And picked in the season of sun
The mellow morning answers
The daybreak song
The birds have gathered in one

Sometimes they feel
They’re not wanted
But only a moment or two
They woke up this evening
In a grandeur of darkness
And had a feeling of mystic blue.

I’ll spare you the second half. The key to a surefire hit is starting with an apricot and quickly switching to a tangerine. Keep the listener guessing what fruit you’ll name next. If you’re really feeling it, mention passion fruit or even a mango. Or find another career.

Signature

Special added complimentary bonus below.      If you’re really adventurous, a double special added complimentary bonus here.

JimmySolar

Advertisements

Our dog: the gift that keeps on giving (on our bed)

26 Dec

The Smith family is precariously close to dispensing with all Christmas giving pretense and getting our own gifts. This year, we spent an inordinate amount of time sending photos to each other. We did this to make sure we gave exactly what the other person wanted.

Which shirt color do you like?

Take a closer picture. Is that sky blue or aqua?

Even then, the first words out of the giver’s mouth Christmas morning:

I kept the receipt, if you’re not happy with the shirt. The one you approved as your gift. The one I showed you before I wrapped it last night.

What happened to the days when we opened a pack of tighty whities? Sure we were disappointed. But we still said thank you to Aunt Mollie, as well as to the Bangladeshi ten-year-old who made them.

Enough with the charades. Next year, we Smiths will buy our own gifts, wrap them, put them under the tree. We’ll fake surprise when they open them.

71PMb6vD7xL._SL1500_Ooh! A supersized stick of Old Spice deodorant! How did I know exactly what I wanted?

That will save a lot of time and disappointment.

This year, I still tried for an element of surprise. Wife #1 had been talking about replacing the comforter on our bed. I don’t know why we needed to replace the current comforter. The bed is always covered with countless pillows that obscure it. I often wonder how much of my life has been spent taking off those useless pillows at night and returning them to the bed the next morning. Still, I am an attentive husband. Therefore, I suggested Daughter #1 give her mother a new comforter. (My wife and I don’t officially exchange presents, though I seem to get a lot of gifts from the dog.)

Instead of making it a surprise, however, D1 asked W1 all sorts of questions: Color preference? Design? Piping? Duvet? Shams? I thought we were just getting a bed cover.

During this questioning, W1 told D1 she would like to have a white comforter, but she worried that I would get it dirty.

What? I work indoors. I shower semi-regularly. The only time I sit on the comforter is when I put on my socks and shoes. I did not realize I was a walking dirt ball. But our dog? That’s another story.

You can read more about the mutt here, but my wife adores that dog. The feeling is mutual. The rest of us are only bit players in their love affair. Therefore, no surprise, the dog sleeps on the bed. Here’s the problem: The dog is not young. The dog is mildly incontinent. Once or twice a week, I will find tiny round balls of dried poop on the comforter. I assume these “gifts” come from the dog, because I don’t want to imagine the alternatives. So why isn’t W1 worried about the dog getting the comforter dirty?

I’m asking myself this question as D1 and I stand in the linen section of a department store two days before Christmas. Time is wasting.

“Get the white comforter,” I say.20141226_074851

Christmas day: W1 loves the comforter. D1 launders it, along with its myriad accessories. She puts them on our bed that evening. She is a good daughter.

W1 and the dog sleep in the bed. I am allowed to sleep there, too. (I am but a guest in my bedroom.)

This morning, I discover a tiny ball of poop on the comforter. The dog has christened the bed. I don’t tell my wife, because what good would it do? She would look at me suspiciously, as though I were making it up to get the dog in trouble. Meanwhile, the dog would look at me with mild contempt.

But I know the truth, and so does Santa. That is why the dog received a lump of coal in her stocking Christmas morning. The jolly old elf and I know who has been naughty. It’s a an eight-pound ball of black fur.
10881960_10203273446263236_8878902859012907253_n

 

 

The happiest place in the world, a fable

30 Mar

The happiest land is the world is one none of us can easily reach. It’s tucked away in a hidden valley in a faraway part of the world that does not appear on any map.

By happenstance, a hiker entered this remote place on his way to climb one of the highest mountains in that part of the world. He did not know it was the happiest land. The hiker, though still young, had traipsed across four continents. He had thrown a stone off the Great Wall, bathed in an ice-cold river in Patagonia, and watched antelope drink from a calm pool at sunset in Namibia. He still had much left to see and experience. He wanted to write a great novel, learn the paint, fall in love, and have his name etched in a monument at the end of his days. But he had only one lifetime in which to achieve it all, and he worried that he couldn’t achieve all that he wanted. Therefore, the man lived in constant anxiety, as he hurried from one experience to the next.

When he first entered the happiest land, he found nothing outwardly interesting about it. Its mountains were no more majestic than others he had seen. The streams were no clearer, the flowers no more colorful, and the animals no bigger or faster.DSC07710

As he found it rather dull, the hiker chose to spend no more time than necessary in this small land. After asking directions, he took the shortest path possible that lead toward the mountain he intended to climb. Along the way, all the natives treated the visitor warmly. This was nothing new to the man. He had traveled through many hospitable places. However, the people in this land seemed even happier and more relaxed than he had previously experienced. This made him uneasy. He was not used to such calmness.

The stranger also noticed that some people wore white t-shirts with calendar dates printed in black. Some dates were many years in the future; others were close at hand. He assumed the shirts were the current fashion in this land, but he did not want to reveal his ignorance about their meaning. Still, he decided to buy one as a souvenir. He entered the next shop he came to and asked where he could purchase a white shirt like the ones he had seen others wearing.

The store clerk was pleasant, but firm. “I’m sorry, sir. You cannot buy those shirts. They are a gift when a person reaches a certain age.”

The clerk suggested other apparel — plenty of well-made shirts in beautiful colors were available — but they did not interest the hiker. He left the store frustrated.

Near the far end of his trek through the land, the hiker met a middle-aged woman along the path. Just as all the others he encountered that day, the woman had a look of almost otherworldly contentedness. By this time, the visitor had become annoyed at the serenity he saw in all the people he met. He stopped the woman as she passed him.

“Everyone I have seen here appears to have such inner peace,” the hiker said. “Frankly, it’s starting to get on my nerves. It’s as though you think you have all the time in the world. Trust me, you don’t.”

The woman shrugged.  “We have enough time.”

“I don’t know how you could. Look at me. I have no responsibilities, I travel all around the world. and yet I still feel like life it too short.”

“I imagine you have been to many wonderful places,” the woman said. She pointed to a large rock just off the path.  “Why don’t we rest for a bit while you share some of your stories?”

“I wish I had the time,” the hiker said. “But I have a mountain to climb.”

“Why must you climb it now? Is this your last day?”

“My last day?”

“I have seen other people like you. Not a lot, but a few. They hurry on the last day of their life like they are in a race.”

“It’s not my last day, I assure you,” the hiker said. “I’m still a young man, and I have a lot more to do in life. Besides, how would I know if it were my last day?”

The woman sat on the rock to rest. She rubbed the calves of her legs, which were much weaker than when she was a young woman. “We all know our last day in this land,” she said. “For some of us, that day is quite close. For others, the day is well in the future.”

“How can you know the day you’ll die?”

The woman shrugged. “We just do. We are born knowing.”

“That explains the shirts I saw,” the hiker said. “You must be miserable to be cursed with that knowledge. What if the time of your death is soon? There is so much to do and see.”

“For most of us, it’s comforting to know when we will die,” the woman said. “It liberates us to live. We can experience life with calmness, because we already know how it will end. Instead of worrying about it, we focus on what happens each minute of this life.”

“You sound like you believe in a life after this one,” the hiker said. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t be so calm about it.”

“I do believe in a life after this one,” the woman said. “But that’s not for me worry about. I know for certain that I have been given this life. No matter how long it is, I make the most of it. That doesn’t mean I have to climb every mountain, though we have many beautiful ones here. It doesn’t mean I have to read every poem ever written, though we have wonderful poets among us. It means I must cherish the life I have.”

The woman stood again, ready to continue down the path.”You seem to be in a hurry to reach that mountain,” she said. “What is the point? If you knew you were dying tomorrow, would you want to be there? Or would you be somewhere else more important to you?”

“But I don’t know when my last day will come,” the hiker said. “What should I do?”

“The same as all of us here,” the woman said. “Love, of course. Love who you are, where you are and those around you.”

“I guess you have already figured out where you’ll be on your last day?” the hiker asked.

“In a place very special to me,” the woman said. “With people I love. I’m going there now.”

Signature

From the other side of death

26 Mar

An excerpt from The Savior of Turk.

After I died, I figured I’d possess a clear memory of my whole life, from the day I popped out of my mama’s belly till they put a sheet over my head at the hospital. In eternity, I had in mind that I’d go back and forth over everything that happened to me like I was playing a movie, re-watching the nice parts and fast forwarding through the others until I about wore out the tape. But chunks of my life are fuzzier than others. Whole pieces got lost somewhere, things you’d think I’d remember. I recall but a few of the kids’ birthdays. Just a handful of Christmas mornings made the cut, and those memories are like looking through a window smeared with Vaseline.

BeachOther recollections are as clear to me as if they happened a minute ago, in vivid Technicolor. But they’re not necessarily the kind of memories you’d think would have stuck. Like the time our daughter Kimmie — I reckon she was around two because it was before Karl came along — got her fingers slammed in the door of our car as she was getting out. I hadn’t been paying close enough attention, and I took for granted that she was clear of the door when I shut it. She bawled bloody murder for close to half an hour. We’d crossed up to Iowa to spend a Sunday afternoon at a state park where there was a little sandy beach, and we had just parked the car when it happened.

For the occasion, Polly had bought Kimmie a purple swimsuit with a little yellow frilly thing around the waist that made it look like a tutu. Kimmie wore it to bed the night before. She was so hopped up about going to the beach that she liked to have never got to sleep. Then I had to go and ruin it by slamming her fingers in the door. Her right pointer and middle fingers swelled up like hot dogs. We had some ice from the cooler to help the swelling, but it didn’t make her feel any better. She sat next to her mom on a beach towel and whimpered the whole afternoon. Never got in the water. I didn’t either. I felt so bad and wished I could have done something to make it right.

I don’t know why a memory like that would be so clear to me, but I guess I’ve got plenty of time to figure it out.

Signature

A profane family history

15 Mar

I was nine or ten the first time I heard my granddad pepper his speech with cuss words. I could still point out within a five square foot area where I stood in his barnyard when he let loose one of those forbidden four-letter words in my presence.  I had crossed some invisible line of male-dom where Granddad decided my tender ears could hear those words without catching fire. I don’t recall being overly happy to hear that good man use those words, but I got over it soon enough.

Soon after that, I crossed the swear-word line with my dad, too. He was his father’s son when it came to cussing, following certain unwritten rules: Never overdo it, never swear in a house, and absolutely never swear in mixed company, particularly around the saintly woman I called Grandma.

By the time Dad started cussing in front of my brothers and me, I was already a semi-rehabilitated swearer. It seems quaint now, but I had a habit of inserting “damn” in every other sentence when I was six. My parents warned me to stop before I got in big trouble, but they never took serious action. I didn’t get the cure until after I cussed in front of my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Kraft. In addition to missing recess, she ordered me to drag my desk outside in the hallway and park by the classroom door for a while. She wanted me to spend that time to consider cleaning up that potty mouth of mine. That was Mrs. Kraft’s worst punishment for scofflaws like me, boys who were on a direct path to reform school because “damn” had become our favorite adjective.

Spending a bit of time in the hallway wasn’t such a terrible ordeal, except my dear father was also the superintendent of our tiny school. He rarely had reason to walk down two flights of stairs from his office to the first grade classroom in the basement. But I had only been serving my hallway sentence for a few minutes when he came by.CCI03022011_00002

“I hope you’ve got a good reason for sitting out here,” he said.

I considered saying I had been given the honor of Hall Monitor, but we didn’t have such a thing in our school. Even if we had, my dad knew that responsibility wouldn’t be trusted to me.

“Cussing,” I said, without bothering with specifics.

Dad said nothing, but he shook  his head and walked away. I had embarrassed him. Damn, I thought. I’ll never cuss again.

For the most part, I didn’t swear much after that until I reached twelve or thirteen. That’s a monk-like period of abstinence for a boy who grew up around people who tossed around profanities with the same deftness Peyton Manning throws passes.

Even then, I never cussed around my father. Still don’t. When my brother Jeff and I were teenagers, Dad took us aside one day to sternly reprimand us for using a word that  offended our mother. He warned we had better stop using this particularly foul word immediately or there would be serious consequences.

“What word are you talking about?” we asked Dad.

“I’m not going to say it, but you know exactly the word I mean,” he said.

“No, we don’t.”

“Don’t play dumb with me. Just quit using it.”

If the word was so offensive that even Dad wouldn’t repeat it, it must have been a doozy. Because we didn’t cuss around Mom, the word had us stumped. It had to be so terrible that even Jeff and I didn’t know it was a curse word. Jeff and I pondered this question for many years until we finally decided the word that offended our mother was… mother. As in, “That bolt sure is one tough mother to get off.”  We must have used “mother” that way several times a day.

My dad says he turns forty-eight today. This is amazing considering that makes him younger than me. But he suffers from AOBD (Adult Onset Birthday Dyslexia), which causes him to invert the digits in his age, so I’ll give him a break. Anyway I hope he has a damn fine day and one mother of a birthday party.

Signature

Random Thoughts at a Stoplight

28 Feb

Is it redundant to use my left turn signal if I’m already in the left turn-only lane? That’s like a double negative.20130301_081010

“I ain’t never seen nothing like that never in my life.” Quadruple negative. Nicely done, Ron.

I will not use my turn signal. I am a rebel. Rebel, Rebel. That reminds me of that David Bowie song. How old is he now? Seventy? I should Google him.

Now I can’t get the Bowie song out of my head. I’ll hum “Tequila.” It’s like methadone for earworms.

The time has come to buy new boxer shorts. Has underwear technology changed much in the past ten years? I should Google that.  Boxers? Why are they called that? I’ll look that up, too. No wonder I never get any work done.

What is the woman in the car next to me listening to? It must be a great song the way she’s moving. I’ll try to find it… Nope. Nope. Oh, she’s listening to that? I never would have guessed. She’s looks smarter than that. Maybe I’m mistaken. Ugh, she’s mouthing the words. Look away, Ron, look away.

Geez, this light is long. I should have turned off my car to save gas. I wonder how much gas I would save if I had. If I turn off my car, maybe it won’t start again. Then everyone will honk at me, and I’ll be embarrassed. Even the woman singing that song will scowl at me. I’ll leave it on.

Justin. Is there anyone over the age of fifty named Justin?  Is anyone under the age of seventy named Adolf? I bet there are some really old men who go by Addie or Dolf.

It would be terrible to have the same name as the infamous person in the world. If there was ever a super villain named Ron, I would change my name. I would go with Chi Chi. Nobody bad could be named Chi Chi.

My goodness, it’s that guy on the radio again. How much do I have to pledge next time to keep him off the air? Maybe I’ll have my own pledge drive just for that.

Do jeans shrink if you don’t wear them for a few months? They must. And boxer shorts shrink even if you do wear them. I’ll Google it.  fatjeans-6

My jaw is hurting again. What has it been? Three days in a row now? I hope it’s nothing serious. What if I have jaw cancer?  Oh, please, no, not jaw cancer. I’ll end up like Roger Ebert without the fame and fortune. What if I die from it? I should review my will just in case. I hope Michele has me cremated like she promised. She’ll probably dump the ashes in the trash bin. I’ll need to have a frank discussion with her about that. What if a super villain named Ron comes along after I die? My survivors will have to re-chisel the tombstone so  it says Chi Chi. I need to put that in the will, too. No tombstone for my ashes.

Why don’t they have recycling cans for ashes? Hmm. Maybe I could get the patent on that. I’ll trademark ReinCANation while I’m at it. Note to self. Google ReinCANation to see if it’s already trademarked.

A Viking funeral would be nice, but who would be my thrall? A short list there.

I wouldn’t want to be set afloat in the Ohio River. Beargrass Creek?  I’d get stuck in a jam of limbs and trash. Then all the overhead trees would catch on fire. There might be health code issues, too.  I need to Google that.

ChiChi

I’m slightly less stupid than a year ago

10 Jan

Reason #1: I know I should not be my own editor

I published my first novel, The Savior of Turk (Only $2.99. Hurry while digital copies last!) a little more than a year ago. I don’t know if I’m any smarter, but I was dumber then than I am now.Turk_Print_Cover

An adage, which I just made up, goes that even John Steinbeck needed an editor. Everyone, no matter how good they are at writing, requires a good editor to keep them on the right path. However, I was so sure of myself when I wrote The Savior of Turk  (Only $2.99. Hurry while digital copies last!that I thought I could get by without a professional putting the thing under a microscope.

No matter how good a writer I may think I am, I need someone who can look at my work objectively. This person is not my dear wife, Michele.  I find it a good idea to have Michele read my work because she takes the better or worse thing seriously and has willed herself to be my biggest fan. If she doesn’t like something I’ve written—and, believe me, there have been such occasions—it confirms I have written junk. If, however, Michele praises my work, it doesn’t prove anything, except that Michele is a supportive spouse.  Michele said she really liked the manuscript for The Savior of Turk  (Only $2.99. Hurry while digital copies last!). This proved that our marriage was on reasonably solid footing, but it did not confirm anything about the book’s quality, other than it was at least slightly better than something a baboon could produce.

Professional editors do more than look at a manuscript objectively. They also see the big picture. After Michele read the manuscript, I asked two friends with extensive writing experience to take a look.  Glenn Kleier, whose novel The Knowledge of Good and Evil is available for $7.99 while digital copies last! also read the manuscript. All three gave me favorable feedback and good suggestions. However, none of them could be expected to go through the manuscript as an editor, who would evaluate the story arc, character development, dialogue and all that. That’s what a professional editor does. And they don’t care if they hurt my feelings like my wife or friends theoretically might. An editor is paid to help the writer craft the best possible story.

Since The Savior of Turk  (Only $2.99. Hurry while digital copies last!) was published, I have revised it twice, primarily re-proofing, shortening and eliminating some sections that I decided added little to the story. I know the book was always good, but now it’s even better. It could have been that way all along if I had gotten an editor to look at it. Next time, I will, you know, because I’m not the idiot I was twelve months ago.

Signature

Next Post: Reason #2 I’m slightly less stupid than a year ago

I have nothing to say, but that won’t stop me from saying it.

2 Nov

The great Greek-Persian philosopher Demothechakakhan (known as Chaka to his buds) once said that a person could write on a cartload of papyrus and still not say shite. (Bear with me, I’ve been watching Scottish TV lately.) He didn’t say those exact words, but the sentiment is accurate. Chaka’s idea is valid, and he would have made a decent blogger.

This is not Demothechakakhan, but it could be.

The prevailing wisdom regarding novelists today, particularly indie/self-published writers, is that they must  have a blog. And they must blog at least once a week. The idea, if I understand it correctly, is to allow readers and potential readers to get to  know the writer in a way that was not feasible pre-social media. (Even if there were such an avenue back in the day, it’s hard to imagine someone like Norman Mailer blogging weekly. But whatever.)

Writers always have something to say.That’s why we write. The problem, in my case anyway, is most of my energy goes to saying it in my books. Therefore, when it comes that time of the week when I feel I need to post something, I don’t always have anything in mind.

Subsequently, to meet this self-assigned obligation, I’m in danger of writing about some of the more mundane aspects of my life. For example,  my decision to wear blue pants today instead of gray.  I was a little lazy in choosing coordinating colors, so I wondered if I could get away with mixing blue with brown. That reminded me of Mikhail Gorbachev, former head honcho of the Soviet Union, when he paid a visit to America in the early nineties. He wore a navy suit with shoes the color of a chestnut horse. I wondered if that was an acceptable shoe color with a navy suit in Russia. I would have gone with oxblood shoes, but what did I know? The more I thought about it, however, the more I decided the navy/chestnut combo worked. Still, I would never write about that in a blog. I have standards.

I could also write about how it may be time to replace my can of shaving cream, and how it’s hard to know when the can  is about empty. Even when it feels light, there could be a good two weeks worth of shaving left. On the other hand, you can tell when your stick of deodorant is nearly used up. Maybe someone could create a way to have shaving cream work like a stick of deodorant so you would know exactly when you’re running out. I keep worrying I’ll be surprised one morning soon, running out of shaving gel before I can complete the task. Then I remember that I go without shaving once or twice a week anyway,  much to the chagrin of my wife, so why worry about it?

The point is, it would be silly to write about that stuff to meet a fake obligation to fill this space with five hundred words each week.  I promise I will never do that.

P.S. If you’re interested in books that don’t simply fill space, I can help you here, here and here.

In defense of ignorance

26 Oct

I’m taking my younger daughter to my alma mater for homecoming this weekend.

I have an aerial view of the motel where we’ll stay. I know if I drive the speed limit, we’ll arrive there six hours and five minutes from the time we leave home. I know the structure is less than five years old. I’ve read guest reviews that say it’s a decent play to stay.

I also know that it’s wiser to buy our football tickets at the stadium, from a scalper, than on StubHub. I know this because the opponent is week, and that their fans don’t travel well.

I’ve packed warm clothes because I know the game time temperature will be a sunny forty degrees.

I Google, therefore I am.

I sometimes miss those days when I didn’t know much. When I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I remember the second time I came to campus, for freshman orientation. In particular, I recall a boy who was book-ended by two cute girls as they ambled from one campus building to the next. The trio had the confidence of upperclassmen. They kept slightly separated from the rest of us during our campus tour, barely paying attention to our orientation leader. I overheard them say they had gone to the same large high school in St. Louis, and they seemed so comfortable in their new home for the next four years.

I was Mr. Recent North Podunk High School graduate. I wasn’t sure I could find my way back to my car, let alone the appropriate classroom buildings again. The St. Louis Three must have read the pamphlet  How to Act Like You Own the Place Your First Day on Campus. My copy got lost in the mail. I was an ignorant kid from the sticks.  Eighteen years old with an IQ to match. That was a blessing. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I occasionally miss that state of mind. If we don’t know something, we can find the answer quickly.

My older daughter is applying to colleges. The process has been relatively sane so far, but I know there are some kids, with parents coptering over them, who have three-inch thick dossiers on all the best colleges in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as appendices on the deodorant and toothpaste preferences of each university president. There can be no surprises, nothing left to chance.

For my freshman orientation, I packed a few clothes in the little vinyl suitcase I’d gotten as a graduation gift and made the 3 ½ hour drive to campus, alone. It became immediately clear that everyone else at orientation had come with their BFFs. Many parents were hovering around, too. It hadn’t occurred to me that I should bring a posse. I didn’t know what I didn’t  know.

Those three kids from St. Louis particularly were bugging me. Because they were pre-journalism students like me, I saw them often as we acclimated to campus those two days. They were relaxed and seemed sure of themselves, as though coming to college was as easy as going out for a Big Mac. I still had clover seed stuck in my hair.

One of my first college friends attended a huge high school in one of the most affluent areas of the state. His senior class was bigger than my home town. He knew how to appropriately use big words that I didn’t yet know existed. He was trying to get into Journalism School, too. A semester and a half later, he flunked out. I, unencumbered by informed self-doubt, moved ahead.

I still think occasionally about those three confident kids from orientation. It was a big campus, making it easy to go four years without bumping into them. However, I saw the boy a few months into our freshman year. He looked like a deer caught in headlights. I never saw him again. I occasionally saw one of the girls he had been with. She asked me out on a date our senior year.

A lesson regarding the use of bovines in car spots

11 Oct

As I watched the jittery heifer pace along the makeshift barbed wire fence, something from my past warned me the situation was about to go to hell in a hand basket.

I should have seen it coming. As a kid, I got a crack at Granddad’s prized herd before he sold the rest at auction. I bought two steers, naming the red one with the white face Elton and black-white faced one John. (At the time, I thought Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the greatest album in the history of album-dom.) My other grandparents ran cattle, too. I spent more of my childhood than I preferred helping count, chase, castrate and doctor cattle. The worst bunch was a herd of steers Dad bought to fatten up for a quick sale. The steers acted like teenagers on spring break the entire time we had them. They occasionally found an escape route from the pasture, and they didn’t make it easy to get them back in. We even raised an orphaned Angus calf in our back yard. With that much animal husbandry experience, I should have been smarter when I was assigned to produce a TV commercial, with cattle as extras, in St. Louis. Yes, in St. Louis.

About twenty years ago, my boss at the ad agency, Glenn Kleier, (now a novelist) had a big idea. Our client in St. Louis, one of the largest car dealerships in the country, was close to selling its twenty thousandth car. Glenn figured twenty thousand cars would roughly equate to forty miles of cars lined end to end. He wanted to make a commercial showing forty miles of cars extending from the Arch in downtown St. Louis.

First, I located on a map the poetically named Clover Bottom, Missouri about forty miles away as the crow flies from downtown St. Louis. Perfect. In the TV spot,  lab-coated “scientists” would measure the precise length of twenty thousand cars as they stretched end to end from the city to the country. The penultimate scene would be the last few cars along the road leading into Clover Bottom, with pastured cattle in the background. The last shot would be an old farmer on his porch watching the guys in lab coats measuring each car. He’d ask his wife, “What the heck are they up to?”  His wife, knitting in her rocking chair, would say, “Oh, about twenty thousand cars.”  I smelled an Emmy.

As with most car spots, I had a tight budget. I couldn’t fake the beginning of the commercial–the line of cars with the Arch in the background–but I could stage the ending somewhere closer to the city than Clover Bottom.

I had worked with a production crew in St. Louis many times (even taking over a shopping mall after hours one night to drive cars through). They never flinched at the sometimes crazy requests I made. This time, I asked their help in finding a “rural” location. Oh, and I needed some cattle, too.

The crew located an old house with some acreage and a small barn. It was actually in a populous St. Louis suburb. But the production company promised they could shoot the scene so that no one would know the difference. Great, I said, but what about the cattle? No problem. One of their guys had a second cousin whose uncle on his Mom’s side owned cattle. He would haul some to us. I didn’t  have the time or budget to fly to St. Louis to scout the location myself, and I  had to trust these guys. They had never let me down before, but they were a video company used to shooting Bud Light commercials. They weren’t cattle wranglers.

I showed up on site early on a Sunday morning. We often shot on Sundays because the dealerships were closed. The client had given us thirty cars and drivers to work with. We would shoot them in various orders in different spots around the city, always framing the camera so that no one could tell they were the same cars. When editing was finished, it would look like we  had twenty thousand cars lined up long the streets of St. Louis.

We started with the most difficult shot–the one with the cattle. The crew had already strung a barbed wire fence along an area behind the house. When the cattle arrived, they would be unloaded in the temporary pen.

While the crew was still setting up, getting cars in position, etc., a pickup pulling a stock trailer arrived with our bovine extras. I was expecting a few docile milk cows. Instead, I got one cranky Hereford heifer, who had just hours before been enjoying a peaceful Sunday brunch of grass alongside  her buddies. Now, she was in the city hawking Buicks and Toyotas.

The heifer’s owner backed up the stock trailer and shooed the heifer into the temporary pen. I was already worried. The success of my spot depended on a juvenile cow that literally had the poop scared out of it. The shot wasn’t ready, but the heifer already looked like she’d had enough.  A mature cow might stay put long enough to get a decent shot. A heifer surrounded by lots of people and strange noises? No way. For most cows, a fence with a couple of strands of barbed wire clipped to metal fence posts is more of a suggestion than an inescapable pen. If a  one-ton heifer wants to be elsewhere, little can be done to stop her. When  it came time to get the first shot, a half-dozen people, perhaps none of them who had ever been around a cow other than in the form of a T-bone, tried to coax our star into position. Instead, the heifer jumped the fence and began a long romp through the neighborhood.

I could either cry, chase the heifer, or try to salvage the shot. While part of the crew chased the heifer, I stayed to save the shoot and my job. The owners of the property had a goat and some chickens. I turned to the goat and said, “You’re on, baby. Don’t let me down.” In addition to the goat, we also tried to shoo the chickens into the shot, but they weren’t interested in fame and glory. The goat,  however, was the perfect sport.

While we were shooting, I had visions of the heifer running across busy roads (which I heard later that it did) and causing wrecks. I could imagine TV news copters capturing footage of The Great Heifer Chase. I also could see myself going to jail for letting a frightened heifer terrorize half of St. Louis.

We completed most of the shots (other than the ones near the Arch) when the head photographer returned from chasing the animal. He had a good coating of cow crap on his pants. The heifer had run far and hadn’t given up easily. Finally, worn out from destroying petunias and leaving cow patties on sidewalks, she had been wrestled back into the trailer and taken  home. A cop had stopped to help, but he was more amused than anything. It beat writing traffic tickets.

By comparison, the shoot near the Arch, which temporarily blocked traffic on one of the busiest streets in the city, went much better. The final product, even with a goat as the stand-in, wasn’t terrible. However, it wasn’t equal to the stress it caused.  The old production rule that warns against working with animals was never more true. Especially ones that outweigh humans.