The drawbacks of the writing life are well-known. Long hours, low pay (if any). Frequent bouts of insecurity, hysteria, despair. And don’t forget the rejection letters and snarky reviews! But this profession has one wonderful benefit that almost makes up for all the pain and suffering. Writers are great at telling bedtime stories.
My kids are fourteen and twelve now, but we still do the bedtime reading ritual. My son prefers that I read out loud to him, usually from action-adventure young-adult novels. We’ve gone through the Maze Runner series, the Divergent series, and the I Am Number Four series. We’ve also read all the Lord of the Rings books and some adult sci-fi novels such as Wool. We recently finished Feed, an amazingly good YA novel about a dystopian future where all the teenagers’ brains are directly hooked to the Internet. I loved the teen lingo that the characters used in Feed. Whenever I finished one of the chapters, I’d start speaking to my son in that futuristic way. (“You are so null, Unit!”) Now we’re reading Ender’s Game, another great sci-fi novel. I can’t wait to see my son’s reaction to the surprise at the end of the book.
My daughter likes science fiction too -- she loved Wrinkle in Time -- but she usually goes for the more humorous books, such as Savvy and The True Meaning of Smekday, which features a lovably bone-headed alien who calls himself J. Lo. She also enjoys the earnest, realistic, middle-grade family-drama books, the kind I would never read if I didn’t have a twelve-year-old daughter. I have to admit, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how good some of those books are. I loved The Romeo and Juliet Code, a novel about a British girl sent to coastal Maine during World War II. And I was choking back tears at the end of Eight Keys. (I couldn’t help it. The girl’s parents are dead but they left her a bunch of letters. Believe me, you would cry too if you were reading the book to your kid.)
Lately, though, my daughter has been asking me to invent my own bedtime stories rather than read books to her. This can be a challenge at the end of a long, trying day, but I’ve had a few successes. After we read Animal Farm last year, I concocted a similar story involving rebellious, talking pigs and sheep, but instead of taking over the farm and creating an allegorical Communist society my animals ran off to Atlantic City. The pigs played blackjack, the chickens crapped on the craps tables, the horses bet on the horse races and the sheep invaded a luxury clothing boutique and carried off a bunch of winter coats that they claimed were made from their father’s wool. Then the animals commandeered a cruise ship and set off for Europe, chased by the drunken farmer and the one animal that remained loyal to him, a homicidal goat.
Another popular bedtime story features a headless girl named Headless Hattie. Her parents have even stranger deformities: her father (Pantsy) is just a pair of pants, and her mother (Susan) is nothing but a brunette wig and a pair of sunglasses. Pantsy’s dream is to become a police officer, but when he goes to the precinct house to apply for a job, the desk sergeant laughs at him. “How are you going to shoot a gun, you don’t have any hands!” But Pantsy learns how to carry the gun in his pocket and pull the trigger by swinging his hips. He arrests a gang of bank robbers and becomes a hero. And so on and so forth. I keep making up new adventures until I run out of ideas. When I get desperate I try to work President Obama into the plot. (For an example, consider the recent episode “Pantsy Joins the Secret Service.”) In my stories, Obama is an amusing figure, easily exasperated by Headless Hattie and her truncated father. As if he doesn’t have enough problems already!
A few days ago my daughter informed me that the Headless Hattie series of stories had “jumped the shark” and I needed to invent something new. So I started a new series featuring a girl named Peggy who has a very small man living inside her belly button. His name is Herman and he’s barely visible, only an eighth of an inch tall. He was a normal-size man two thousand years ago, during the heyday of the Roman Empire, but he wandered into some Italian cave and ate a weird mushroom. The fungus stopped him from aging but also started the slow shrinking process that gradually miniaturized him. For the past few hundred years he’s been living inside belly buttons, jumping from one person to another whenever he gets the chance, but he’s starting to tire of this nomadic life. He convinces Peggy to fly to Italy so they can find that mushroom-growing cave and try to undo the effects of the fungus.
Here’s the latest installment of the story that I told my daughter earlier tonight: Peggy is on the plane to Rome, trying to surreptitiously talk to the tiny man in her belly button, when the passenger sitting next to her overhears their conversation. Peggy claims she’s just talking to herself, but the passenger -- a kindly old woman -- winks at her. “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me,” she says. Then she lifts her shirt and points at her own belly button. “I’ve got a man in there too.”
Good cliffhanger, right? But I have no idea what will happen next.
Posted on Saturday, December 14, 2013
I’m going to the Dominican Republic this weekend, so today’s post will have to be brief. The coach of my son’s baseball team is Dominican, and he invited all the boys (and a few dad-chaperones) to come to his hometown and play a few games with the local kids. The DR is renowned for its baseball talent, so we’re expecting to get creamed.
It occurs to me that this trip could be the setup for a comic spy thriller by Graham Greene: a bunch of clueless, middle-aged New Yorkers bring their teenage sons to Santo Domingo, bearing gifts of donated baseball gloves and bats. Crazy hijinks ensue, involving Caribbean drug lords, CIA company men and unscrupulous scouts from Major League Baseball.
If I were writing this thriller, I’d try to work A-Rod into the plot, too. Talk about screwball comedy!
Working title: Damn Yankees
Posted on Saturday, November 30, 2013
I have a son in ninth grade and a daughter in seventh, and the bane of their existence is homework. Their teachers assign way too much of it, four or five hours every night. And because the kids don’t come home from track practice till five or six in the evening, very often they’re still working at midnight, solving algebra problems or reading about the Roman Empire. They get far more homework than I ever got during my school days. Back in the halcyon Seventies I used to tear through my assignments in an hour or so and spend the rest of the evening reading my X-Men comics, listening to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman on TV.
I blame globalization. The world economy has grown more competitive since the days of disco, and the striving meritocrats of America are desperate to save a slice of the shrinking money-pie for their children. In response, the schools in the wealthier districts have accelerated their curricula, trying to prepare their students to compete with the fiercely disciplined kids in East Asia. If the top achievers in Beijing and Seoul are working their butts off, then our kids should be doing the same, right?
Wrong. I’d rather see America forfeit this global rat race than continue to make our children miserable. Seriously, it’s not worth it.
The worst part is seeing the pernicious psychological effects that excessive homework has on my kids. The nightly burden is so great, it makes them depressed. They sense the unfairness of it, the futility. And they add to their misery by putting it off as long as they can. There’s too much homework to finish it quickly, so instead they delay starting it. It’s like a huge black mountain darkening all the hours ahead, and the last thing they want to do is begin the long, hard climb. So they go on Facebook or YouTube, or text their friends, or watch another Simpsons episode on TV. But all the while, the homework is still waiting for them, a looming threat.
I can imagine their feelings because I’ve felt them myself. Writing novels is more fun than doing homework -- otherwise, why write them? -- but sometimes I get confused about the direction of a work-in-progress and I start to wonder if the whole thing is a lost cause. At those moments I see the black mountain looming in front of me, and the last thing I want to do is climb it. So instead of writing the next sentence of the manuscript, I check my e-mail or the New York Times website. Or I go into the living room where the kids are watching the Simpsons episode and watch it with them. (It’s such a consistently entertaining show.) We procrastinate together, as a family.
I’m in that predicament right now, unfortunately. But I know that sooner or later I’ll sling my backpack over my shoulder and rediscover the path that goes up the mountain. With any luck, it’ll happen sometime this week. In the meantime, I’ll keep busy by nagging the kids about their homework.
Posted on Saturday, November 16, 2013
Lou Reed’s death this week really bummed me out. I loved his songs, especially the ones about New York. Here are some amusing lyrics from “Dirty Boulevard”:
This room cost two thousand dollars a month
You can believe it, man, it's true
Somewhere a landlord's laughing till he wets his pants
And this song came out in 1989, which means the same room is probably renting for five grand now.
One of my favorite Lou Reed albums is “Songs for Drella,” the biographical collection of songs he wrote with his Velvet Underground bandmate John Cale. The album is dedicated to Andy Warhol (whose nickname was Drella, a mash-up of Dracula and Cinderella), and the songs tell the story of Warhol’s life. The Velvet Underground was the house band for Warhol’s Factory, and it’s fascinating to listen to Reed and Cale recall those years in song. I’ve been playing the album every day since I saw Reed’s obituary.
An irrelevant aside: I met Warhol once, in the spring of 1979. He was signing copies of his book Pop-ism at the university bookstore at Princeton. I knew nothing about art -- I was an astrophysics major, a real geek -- but I bought one of the books anyway, just so I could meet the guy. Warhol looked terrible: haggard face, bad skin, hopelessly wrinkled clothes. But he scribbled “To Mark, Love Andy” on my book, and now I have a collector’s item that my kids can auction off.
Okay, but how does any of this relate to writing fiction? I’m getting to that. One of the tunes on “Songs for Drella” is called “Work.” Lou Reed is singing about Warhol’s ferocious work ethic. Warhol produced a phenomenal amount of art and made Reed feel guilty for not being equally prolific as a songwriter:
No matter what I did it never seemed enough.
He said I was lazy, I said I was young.
He said, "How many songs did you write?"
I'd written zero, I'd lied and said, "Ten."
"You won't be young forever,
You should have written fifteen."
It's work, the most important thing is work.
I think of this song when I’m finished writing for the day. How many words did I write? Five hundred? A thousand? Maybe I’ll even feel good about myself, satisfied with my daily output. And then I’ll hear Lou Reed’s voice in my head, channeling Warhol: You won’t be young forever. It’s work.
Posted on Saturday, November 2, 2013
I used to bike in Central Park, but it got too crowded. The tourists, so blessedly oblivious, don’t look where they’re going. They step into the bike path, gawking at everything except the cyclist bearing down on them. You can try yelling, “Watch out!” but it never works. It only startles them. They stand there in the middle of the path with their eyes wide open and their mouths agape. After experiencing several near-collisions, I realized I was fighting a losing battle. So I started biking in Riverside Park instead.
The bike path in Riverside runs next to the Hudson. I ride about five miles north, from 72nd Street to the George Washington Bridge, then turn around. There are good views of the river and the Palisades on the New Jersey side. I can outrace the barges when they’re moving against the current (which sometimes goes north, sometimes south, depending on the tides). If I’m riding during rush hour, I blow past the cars stuck in traffic on the West Side Highway. And sometimes, if I’m lucky, I find inspiration. Herman Melville was right: New Yorkers are obsessed with the water surrounding their city. “Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.”
Last May I saw a corpse lying on the strip of grass between the bike path and the river. It was a Saturday evening and I was exhausted because I’d just gone fifty miles instead of my usual ten. My son’s baseball team (the New York Gothams, hooray!) had traveled to a tournament in Demarest, New Jersey, that morning, and I’d had the bright idea of biking there to watch the game. It didn’t look that far on the map. All I had to do was cross the George Washington Bridge and go up the bike path in Palisades Interstate Park. Suffice it to say, my knees were in great distress by the time I re-crossed the bridge and returned to the city. I just wanted to get home and lie down for the next 24 hours. But as I neared the part of Riverside Park that’s unofficially set aside for weekend barbecues (between 145th and 155th streets, approximately) I saw a crowd of people standing around a heavyset, middle-aged African-American man who lay supine and motionless on the grass. There were several cops in the crowd but no paramedics. That’s a bad sign, I thought as I sped past. No one in the crowd knelt beside the supine man to give him CPR. They just stared at the body and kept their distance. My suspicions were confirmed a moment later when I saw a van marked MEDICAL EXAMINER parked about fifty feet farther down the path. I checked the newspapers the next day and didn’t find any mention of a homicide, so the man must’ve died from natural causes. Still, it freaked me out. Although I’ve finished off scads of unlucky characters in my novels, I haven’t seen more than half a dozen corpses in my life.
In August, Riverside Park gave me another piece of macabre inspiration, although I didn’t witness this incident firsthand. I read a newspaper story about a pack of muggers who’d strung a rope across the bike path, just south of the George Washington Bridge. They waited until they saw an expensive Cannondale bike come down the path, and then they pulled the rope taut to clothesline the cyclist, knocking him off the bike. He wasn’t badly hurt, but the muggers took his Cannondale, as well as his iPhone and the five hundred dollars he was carrying.
My first reaction to the story: Well, that could never happen to me. The victim was biking at 11 p.m. and I would never ride that late. Plus, no mugger would want to steal my bike because it’s a rusty, twenty-year-old piece of crap. And why the hell was the guy carrying so much money?
This reaction is so typically New York. Whenever anything bad happens in this city, we try to distance ourselves from it. We say to ourselves, “That guy got in trouble because he was an idiot. And I’m not an idiot, right?”
Just a few weeks later, another local news item shattered my complacency. An emotionally disturbed homeless man wielding a pair of scissors went on a rampage in Riverside Park near 65th Street. He slashed two joggers, a dog-walker, and a father pushing his two-year-old in a stroller. A bystander wrestled the man to the ground before he could attack anyone else. Luckily, no one was killed. My first reaction to the story: Thank God for New York’s gun-control laws. The carnage would’ve been a lot worse if the assailant had been carrying a semiautomatic.
It was much more difficult for me to distance myself from this crime. It happened at eight in the morning, less than a mile from my home. I could so easily see myself standing in the shoes of the father, throwing my body between the disturbed man with the scissors and the two-year-old in the stroller. I know that New York’s parks are, on average, very safe; that’s why the incidents got so much ink in the newspapers, because they were anomalies. Crime rates in New York have plunged to record lows over the past twenty years. Nevertheless, I felt a mixture of fear and fascination. And as we all know, those emotions are good fodder for thrillers.
Maybe I’ll start a novel with a scene in Riverside Park. “He didn’t see the rope until it snapped up to his neck.” “He didn’t realize he’d been stabbed until he saw the hole in his jacket.” Or maybe not. I’ll think about it some more the next time I go biking.
Posted on Saturday, October 19, 2013