Tuesday, August 26, 2014

5 Things They Don't Tell You About Getting Old

I still remember when my neighbour turned forty. I was in my mid-twenties then, and all I could think was 'Wow, Paul got old, man.' I felt bad for him. I still had my whole life in front of me, and his, well, his was winding down. I didn't tell him that. No use depressing the guy, but I felt like a fortieth birthday was probably closer to a funeral than a party, if only because you were so much closer to a funeral.

Well, a few weeks ago I turned forty-two. I'm an now officially "middle-aged." Amazingly, I'm not sad about it. Fact is, I'm happy to report that a lot of the stuff I was told about aging is a load of crap. In a good way. And so while I yet stave off death's calling, which, according to my young friends, should arrive any minute, here are a few things I'v learned along the way. My young friends, take heed. And to my fellow, err, mature adult friends, heyo!


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Who Am I? (A fun test for you)


I'm always a bit surprised that, in an individualistic society like ours, few people really understand themselves, their personality, and why that matters. All humans are self-centered, and I don't mean selfish, I mean oriented towards our own lives. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, because it's not like we can live lives for or through other people. (Though, ahem, some hockey dads seem intent enough on doing that)

Understanding who we are, why we think the way we do, why we like certain movies or books and why others don't, is extremely helpful. (As a writer, its absolutely imperative to understand what makes us tick. If we can't figure out ourselves, how do we expect to understand our characters?) It helps us not only relate to ourselves, but to those around us. It helps us understand why we respond to certain things within our family. It helps us better explain things in our romantic relationships, and in turn, helps us relate to one another in a more positive manner. If we can answer the question, "Who Am I?", with some degree of success, everything else becomes a bit easier.

I'm not simply talking about dealing with mental health issues, although that's certainly part of it. I'm talking about understanding your personality type. What makes you tick. What you need to recharge your batteries. What your strengths and weaknesses are. What job would suit you. Etc...

I took a leadership course in grad school, and every student in the class was asked to take a number of different tests, all designed to help us gauge our abilities in different areas. The most helpful one, by far, was the Myers-Briggs personality test, based on Carl Jung and Isabel Briggs Myers typological approach to personality.

(If you want to skip the explanation, you can find the test here.)

The test asks you basic questions, all answered with a yes or no. It breaks down four categories and groups your answers into sixteen possibilities:

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

The result will be a combination of four letters. (For example, I am an ENFP.) I was skeptical when I first took the test, because I questioned how we could break down so many human personalities into sixteen categories. (And some people do fall between two categories.) However, when I looked up the results, I was shocked. I felt like I'd just printed out a paper stating who I was. And just to verify, the test is not based on astrological readings or any kind of mysticism. It's based on your actions.

Sample question: 1) You are almost never late for your appointments. YES or NO

When you take the test as done by professionals, it posits about 120 questions costs anywhere from $80 to $150. However, I found a spot online where you can take a similar test (and yes, I referenced this site in my Top 7 Sports Movies post) It is 72 questions (about ten minutes) and it is as accurate, or nearly so, as ones done professionally.

On the site, you can find summaries to your personality type. And if you Google your personality type, you can find all kinds of information, everything from ideal jobs to ideal partner types. It's a lot of fun, and I know a few people to whom I recommended this site who called it a life-changer. (Yes. Self-knowledge can be that liberating.) I should mention here, since I have two friends who are therapists, that the idea of this is FUN. The idea is not to mock someone (and really, if you mock someone because of their personality type, you're a classless moron who doesn't get it anyway. Self-knowledge means squat without self-awareness) but simply to understand one another. Why not do this with your spouse when the kids are in bed? Or with your boyfriend/girlfriend?

You can find the test HERE.

Have fun with it, and if you have any questions, drop them in the comments and I'll address them. (If you want to better Jung's typology, you can find the basis of his work here.)




Blog Verification:
  • The contrived tree rends a healthy workload.


Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Importance of Mom(s)


I smile at my wife as I walk up my parents’ driveway. Snow lines the edge of the street, but most of it has melted. Another green Christmas. When I was young, it snowed more often, and Christmas was the way Bing Crosby would have liked it. That was long ago. Like many things, the weather has changed.
My parents have lived in this house for forty-two years. They moved here two days after I was born. That, at least, has not changed. It is a red brick bungalow with white siding and a carport hedged with hanging ferns and flowers. The big evergreen in the middle of the yard is gone, replaced by a birdfeeder. But the old maple beside it, the one I used to climb and swing on as a child, remains. It is even cozier inside.

As soon as we enter, my dad’s voice booms across the room

“Heya, Partner!”

We hug. I greet my sisters the same way. My mom gets a hug and a kiss. No snow, but it is still Christmas. My mom takes me by the hand.

“I want you to meet my friend.”

“Okay.”

She’s told me about her friend, an elderly woman who moved in down the street and lives alone there. This is my first chance to meet her. Her name is Aluweya. She wears an African style dress that sweeps down to the floor and a matching hijab. She has a kind face and smile lines around her eyes. She is from the Sudan, a widow with eight children, all of whom are highly educated, two of which are doctors in the U.S. My mom has told me this before I met her. I say hello and we exchange pleasantries before I am swept away by the entrance of more family.

My mom takes her friend’s hand, the way she took mine, and leads her to the front entrance. I watch them, not surprised, exactly, but it still hits me with a quiet, redeeming force.

Aluweya is black, and she is a Muslim. That is not a big deal in Toronto or Ottawa, my two cities of residence the past sixteen years, but this is not those places. This is Welland.

WELLAND

My hometown of fifty thousand seems to shrink every time I visit. That is not an insult. It is slower here, the pace less frantic. A walk down the street seems more reflective and less harried. Born sometime in the late 19th Century, it was birthed on the edge of a canal, which fostered ships along between the great lakes and down the St. Lawrence and out to the ocean. It became an industrial town, steel mostly, and filled with Italian and French immigrants, nearly all of them Catholic. Most of the steel mills have gone now, but the makeup of the population remains the same. Many Wellanders are Catholic, nearly all of them are white. In my high school of over a thousand students, there were two black students. Neither was Muslim.

This does not seem to bother my mother. Nor does it bother her new friend. Both are devout. Neither would ever consider the other religion. Neither care. My mom has bought her a gift. That Aluweya doesn’t celebrate Christmas does not matter. At Christmas we give gifts to people we love. People we appreciate. Aluweya has also brought a gift for my mother. It does not to bother her that she is, in a manner, celebrating a Christian holiday. When Ramadan comes the next year, my mother will make her friend special cookies without yeast. Sometimes wisdom is not spoken, it is only seen.

MOM

My mom is a small woman, quiet and strong with a good sense of humour. She hovers in the background during family gatherings. She takes pictures at odd moments. All moments. My sisters and I have become good at insta-smile. I am faster than most gunmen with my camera smile. It is a learned behaviour.

My father is as generous as he is boisterous. He is loud and fun and was beloved by many of the boys he coached, both basketball and baseball, for over forty years. He has received awards for his volunteer work. That is not why he did it, but he is known in the community. My mother’s kindness is quieter.

During my childhood, any stray cat was welcome. My mom kept a food dish on our porch. We adopted many of them. Mitsy. Professor. Blacky. Smokie. The same was true of any dog. Any wounded animal. She spent hours walking the neighbours’ dogs, or walking the homeless ones at the Humane Society. She cooked for people. Cooked for us. Cleaned up after us. Nothing was done for attention. Nothing to get attention. She taught us that kindness does not have to be loud to be effective. That it is more powerful when it is quiet.

TODAY

The world has changed since I was young. We hear stories about faraway places more often. Stories of tragedy and conflict. Every day they are thrust in our face. We are asked to choose sides. Sometimes they use nations. Often they use religion. We are told that if one is bad that all are bad. That one idea is better than another. That we can tell a book by its cover. Things are so fast that mostly we look at covers. We have stopped reading books. We don’t have time.

But kindness is not fast. Kindness is slow. Kindness volunteers hours at the soup kitchen teaching the poor to cook. Kindness walks homeless dogs. Kindness provides a home and love and care for family. It does not make waves, except the gentle kind that ripple slowly to shore. It does not seek attention for its own sake. It does not counter angry rhetoric with argument, nor ignorance with logic, but acts of its own accord and dares one to challenge it.

My mom will never win an award for this. She would not want one. She does not expect such things to be calculated or quantified, because this is how we are supposed to be. We help those who don’t have. We help the wounded and the strays. We befriend our new neighbours. We do it because we are human. 

Because this is the life for which we were created. It is not a life of affectation, but affection. We do not have all the answers. We do not know what will happen in the future. We cannot be sure what will happen when we die.

But we do know the people next door. We do know our family. We do know our friends and family and work colleagues. We know them because we know ourselves. We know what it means to struggle through a world and life that often befuddles us, resists our attempts to be strong, steals our resolve to be better. And so we don’t try to change the world. It is too big.

Instead, we put out food for the stray cat down the street. We call him Ginger Ale, because of his coat. He is too scared to come inside. And when he disappears, we continue putting out food for him. Maybe he has been killed. Maybe he’s just gone for a while. But we put out food for him anyway, every day, just in case. And if something has happened, another kitty will be able to eat.

We put out food for him, and we tell our son and daughters about it. We become friends with the elderly woman down the street. We volunteer with Pathfinders. We join an organization and take our dog to senior’s homes, to let them visit with her. We are quiet and gentle and what people are supposed to be. We inspire our children with our kindness. With our wisdom.

The world has changed. The weather has changed. But our mother has not. She is mom. She is kind. And she is amazing.

Dancing with
mom at my wedding.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Does The NFL Hate Women?

It was a slow walk up the apartment steps. I appreciated the quiet of my old apartment building, only four stories high and too short for an elevator. After a long workout, however, even four floors felt like a lot of work. As I opened the door to my hallway – top floor, of course – one of my neighbours was running from door to door, frantic.

            She was a stout girl who I’d bumped into once or twice in the laundry room, usually with one of her children. Now, however, she wore a nightshirt and underwear and nothing else. She still hadn’t seen me as she pounded on my door.

            “Please help!”

            I sprinted towards her. “Stephanie,” I said, thankful I’d remembered her name. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

            She turned. Two marks – one purple, one red – marked the left side of her face. She was breathing hard. “It’s my boyfriend. He won’t leave! The kids!”

            Adrenaline and rage washed over me, and for a moment I felt blind. Not again. Four weeks earlier I’d been woken up by the smashing of pots and pans in the apartment above me, accompanied by a few screams. I’d rushed upstairs and ended up throwing out a Nigerian man who’d just finished beating his girlfriend. She’d begged me not to call the police, and as I wasn’t sure what their status was regarding immigration, I did as she'd asked.

            I followed Stephanie down the hallway. Her door hung open. I stepped inside the dimly lit apartment. Her three kids – all under the age of five – gaped at me. All three were either naked or wearing only a diaper, and they were sitting on a bare mattress in the middle of the living room. The girl – the oldest one -- appeared to have been crying.
   
            Empty beer cans and overturned bottles covered every counter in the tiny kitchen. Water dripped from the faucet. And behind the kitchen table stood her boyfriend.

His beard was thick and black, and he dangled a gold and black tallboy from his hands. With the beard, it was impossible to tell how old he was – early thirties, maybe older – and he was small and lean. One of the children started crying.

“Shut up!” he yelled.

“Get out,” I said.

The other children started crying. This time he ignored them and looked at me. He wore a half-smirk that dangled around his lips like expensive jewelry. He noted the size difference – I probably outweighed him by fifty pounds – and put his beer can on the table. He shook his head a little, glanced over at Stephanie and back at me. “Women,” he said with his eyes. “Drama queens.”

Stephanie had gone to her children, content to leave this part to me. I ignored the attempt at misogynal bonding and jerked my head towards the door. He swaggered past me. I escorted him out of the building. He tried one last time when we reached the bottom stair.

“It’s her fault, you know.”

I gave him a blank stare. He shrugged and walked outside. I went back upstairs. Stephanie still hadn’t closed her door.

“Call the police, Stephanie,” I said. “You need to report it. If he comes back or you need anything, I’m just down the hall.”

She nodded. “I will. Thank you.” She turned back to her kids, distracted, and I closed the door behind me.

When I was young, I used to think that helping people in distress made you feel better. Well, this was about the fourth time around this particular rodeo, and all I felt was dirty.Sick. Like I’d just waded through a sewer of human shit. It’s always the same, I thought. Even if you’re trying to make it better. Even if you’re trying to help. You’re the one gets covered in it, and you’re the one who stinks.

RAY RICE 



It had been a while since I'd felt that dirty, but when the news about Ray Rice broke a few weeks ago, I felt that way again, especially after watching the above video. Yes, that’s the Baltimore Ravens’ star running back Ray Rice dragging his unconscious wife out of the elevator. According to the police, it was a result of a “minor altercation,” during which Rice beat her until she lost consciousness. It's about as disgusting a thing as you'll see.  

The NFL commissioner thought this was such a grievous incident that he suspended Rice for two games. To put that in context, if you fail an NFL drug test for marijuana, which they test at military-like levels, you get an automatic four game suspension. If you, say, stomp on the head of another player during the game, like Albert Haynesworth did, you get five games. If you beat your wife or girlfriend unconscious, you get a two games and the people around you, like Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh, will say things like “he’s a heckuva guy.”

"REAL MEN" ONLY

It goes without saying that the NFL has always had its own set of patriarchal tendencies. But within the changing societal landscape and under the weight of its own enormous influence within the culture, it has become a seemingly last-gasp playground for misogyny, white-knuckled fists clenched hard against the “progressive" agenda of equality.

And for many of the people who work around the NFL (most of whom are men) it’s clear they haven’t got a clue what to do with the changes to what was once a simple code. Classy old coaches like Tony Dungy, who works as a studio analyst on the most popular show on television, (NBC’s Sunday Night Football) said he wouldn’t have drafted Michael Sam, the first openly gay linebacker who was taken by the Rams with the last pick in the draft, because he wouldn’t have wanted the ‘distraction’ on his team. This from the guy who pushed for a team to take another chance on Michael Vick, the quarterback convicted of running dog fights. (Uh, what?)

Of course, if you’d have told the "establishment" around the NFL ten years ago that a three hundred pound lineman would take a nine game leave of absence because he’d been bullied (?!) by his fellow lineman, they would probably suggest that you’d lost your mind. And yet, that’s exactly what happened last year with whole Jonathan Martin – Richie Incognito incident.

The only thing that’s clear nowadays in the NFL is that, at least to most of the old-timers, nothing is clear. That’s true of many of its fans as well. (Question: How many ‘stop the effing sermons’ comments do you find on any article that talks about women or gays or bullying or anything outside the patriarchal domain of “bro” chatter? Answer: A lot. Or, watch the above video on YouTube and see how long you can read before you start to feel nauseous. I lasted four comments.)

In general terms, the NFL has managed to navigate these waters by staying away from them, ignoring them, or offering general platitudes while winking at its hard-core fans. It forces its players to wear hot pink for an entire month to raise money for breast cancer research, but when something real happens, when something that may affect the game on the field happens, it offers a two game suspension. And for anyone who thinks that a player beating a woman unconscious is pretty serious, the NFL flips us the collective bird.

It also doesn’t really care what happens to the women on the sidelines, the ones wearing short skirts and halter tops. I don’t have a problem with cheerleaders being on the sidelines, and for those who raise questions about objectifying women, I disagree. Vehemently. Those kinds of accusations may have some truth to them, but then you have to start extending that to look at women who choose to be models, women who choose to work as hostesses in restaurants, etc… I’m sorry, but a grown ass woman has a right to do what she wants, and leading cheers while waving pompoms is what it is. What I do have a problem with is the NFL’s inability to pay them a decent wage. Or let them form a union. And then there’s the lack of female commentators and analysts and studio hosts. (Every year, about halfway through the season, it becomes nearly impossible for me to watch the pre-game shows with all the fake ‘bro-chuckling’ going on in the studio.)

In a way, you can’t blame the league for doing it. They’ve done a better job mythologizing the game than any other sport over the past forty years, with the possible exception of baseball. (Baseball is better equipped to do it simply because it has a longer history. And the two sports are radically different in their mythological approach. Baseball has always been a father-son family game. Football is for men and building young men. Similar, but different enough in that most of the hard core NFL fans, especially the older ones, can’t fathom how the name “Redskins” might be offensive while Major League Baseball designates a Jackie Robinson day every April when every player wears his number.) The NFL doesn't need to explain anything. They don’t need to justify anything to anyone, especially a bunch of pushy liberals who never played the game.


Now What?

Varsity Blues "bro-ing it up"
Well, I’m not sure how pushy I am, but I played football for three years in high school. I loved every second of it, too. Changing in the hallway. Wearing the jersey on game day. Bro-ing it up with boys. It was like bathing in testosterone. If I’d been a peacock, my tail of feathers would have been wagging me. I remember watching Dwight Clark’s The Catch in the NFC Championship game with my dad back when I was a Cowboy fan. I remember standing on the table in a tavern as a twenty year old, screaming at Scott Norwood “Lifetime contract if he makes it!” during the Bills’ first Superbowl. (He didn’t.) So many memories. And now, well, now I’m not sure.

Living a Kind Life isn’t a religious thing or a cult thing, it’s about trying to do what we can in a pretty messed up world to be decent freaking human beings. My wife and I stopped shopping at Wal-Mart because The Evil Empire represents everything I hate about big corporations, in everything from where they buy their meat to how they treat their employees. That said, our little boycott is not a big deal. Those twenty bucks we’d spend there don’t matter, but that isn’t why we do it. We’re not interested in standing around their headquarters holding up a giant sign that says “Look at me! See how hip and countercultural we are!” No, it’s so much simpler than that. It’s about living a decent life and trying feel like you haven’t had your soul sucked down the black hole of materialism and greed and the shallow facades that permeate the three hundred billion dollar ad industry.

Hell, that’s part of the reason I love sports so much. I don’t want to watch another news story about the tragedy of humanity or Nancy Grace or Honey BooBoo. I want to dive into the mythology and story of a sport, the same way I do with fantasy. But it has become increasingly difficult to justify diving into a sport that clearly doesn’t care about some of the things that I hold dear, equality being one of them.

So what to do? How do I justify the attention I give the NFL? I’m not sure, truthfully. I don’t want to stick my head in the sand, because that goes against everything I believe. That a player can beat a woman unconscious without truly getting penalized leaves me feeling like I’ve been gut-punched. And every time I hear someone like John Harbaugh saying things like ‘he’s a heckuva guy,’ I remember Stephanie’s boyfriend looking over at me with that half-smirk, trying to appeal to my “bro-hood,” and I feel dirty and sick all over again.

I don’t think the NFL hates women, because the National Football League is a business, and businesses don’t hate their customers. Green is green. But does it cherish women, does it even consider the two genders equal? No. The league – which includes the players, coaches, media and management – condescends to women in much the way it always has, except now they have a few games where they wear pink. I'm not sure what I'm going to do just yet. Maybe wait and see how sick I feel this year. Or see if the league can redeem itself. The NFL may not hate women, but does it despise them, at least a little? Absolutely. 

And, well, that ain't no Kind Life.

-Steve

UPDATE: (September 1, 2014) The commissioner issued a public apology this week, and increased the ban for domestic violence charges to six games for a first offense, and a lifetime ban for a second offense. This was brought about because of the outcry from major news sites to blogs like this one. This is why we fight for a Kind Life, why we have to fight. Equality doesn't just happen. Now then, if we can just get the NFL to lighten up on the whole 1950's weed issue... 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Divergent (A Very, Uh, Critical Review)

Note: As I rule, I only review two types of books and movies. Ones that I really like, or ones that annoy me to such an extent that unless I'm able to vent about it in some form, it will continue to annoy me. Divergent, both the book and the movie, falls into the second category. I write fantasy, and I generally enjoy YA fantasy, but sometimes, especially when a book/series becomes popular, these things must be discussed, if only to reap some amusement from them. 


Divergent takes place in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, where the leaders have decided that humans will best survive if they are divided into five random factions. The reason for this separation is never explained, but my best guess is because other dystopian YA fantasies have factions (the Hunger Games use numbers) so that clearly whenever a nuclear war comes, humans must divide that way. And using geography was already stolen. (Damn that Suzanne Collins) The five groups are: Abnegation for the Amish selfless, Amity for the peaceful, Candor for the honest, Dauntless for the cool, pretty kids brave, and Erudite for the evil nerds smart people. Each year, all sixteen-year-olds take a test to determine which faction they will belong to for the rest of their lives.

WARNING, SPOILER ALERT!

When Tris takes the test, however, she somehow tests positively for three of the randomly divided factions. What?! How is that possible?! The examiner gravely warns her not to divulge this great secret. She is (drum roll) DIVERGENT! (Audience gasps. Murmurs. Someone from the audience yells "Say it isn't so, Tris!" His sobs continue long after the movie flickers back to life.)

Tris is fearful and scared -- and what 16 year old wouldn't be frightened by such dire results -- but she is determined to pick the one that best suits her. And by God, she will! Her parents' faction, Abegnation, means that she dresses in drab, shapeless clothing and is only allowed to look at a mirror for fifteen seconds or something because that would be vanity. (No one cares if you have stuff in your teeth! Stop being so damn selfish!) Her parents expect her to follow in their footsteps, because what kid wouldn't want that life, and yet, Tris is torn, because part of her wants to join Dauntless.

And the kids in Dauntless -- everyone in Dauntless is under thirty -- are just SO brave. They jump off moving trains and run through the town screaming like they've just come out of an Avicii concert and are looking for their next rave. They wear cool leathers and weapons and stuff, and they are like, totally free. No one else in the society gets to jump off trains and buildings and oh, did I mention how cool they are?


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Robin Williams, Depression, and One Writer's Life

“Robin Williams was found dead last night, due to self-asphyxiation. The beloved actor and comedian was 63. According to his publicist, he’d been struggling with depression.”

I can still see the bottle. It’s clear, with white labels and green and black writing. The aspirin are small and white. The plastic bottle is full. I’m sitting on our spare bed, a cheapie I picked up when we moved to Ottawa. It was supposed to be for guests, but two weeks ago I moved into the spare bedroom. After five quick months, my marriage is over. I am a failure. I do not blame my wife. All we do is argue. I cannot seem to find happiness. 

I stare at the bottle. I do not know how many I will have to take. Twenty? Thirty? It doesn’t matter. I’m twenty-six years old. I sell newspapers over the phone. I make ten dollars for every subscription I sell. Some days I sell only one. I have never sold more than eight.

My wife is in her first year of teaching. She is doing well. Her career is under way, and I pushed for us to move here.

“I’ll find something,” I’d told her. “There has to be a youth job here.” 

This is all I’ve found, and I’m angry about it. Angry that my dreams have been flushed into two hundred and fifty cold calls a day selling a cheap newspaper. There’s more to it than that, but I’m not aware of those things yet. I am only aware of The Sadness. It has become a visceral thing. A companion. I do not know how else to explain it.

My friend shows up an hour later. I am still staring at the bottle. I am surprised, but tuck it away. I ask why he’s here. Who drives three hours in the middle of the night?

“She was worried. Really worried.”

I smile. I assume that I am going a bit crazy, but the pills suddenly seem a distant memory. No one is allowed to see The Sadness. I have made it my rule.

“I’m fine.”

He stays until he believes me.

Another image. Two years later. My basement apartment is dark. It’s winter. Snow covers my only window. My parents are knocking on the door. They’ve driven six hours to see me. They’re worried. I do not let them in. An empty beer bottle sits on my coffee table. My computer flickers in the corner. I feel guilty. I am a failure. The Sadness has come, and for two weeks it does not let me go. I fear it will never let me go.


Robin

Time passes. I leave the church. I have tried their suggestions. I have gone to the altar. I have laid my heart bare before God. I have asked for help. But I am not good enough. I read and begin to understand my struggle, but the church is dismissive, though I know they mean well.

I am being oppressed. I am sinful. I am not committed enough. Depression is spiritual. I listen. I try hard. But The Sadness has become my shadow.

Another year passes. I am learning how to deal with my problem. I read books that inspire me. I write. And I watch films that make me laugh. Of those, no one is funnier than Robin Williams. Some are good, some are bad, but he is a constant. I watch Dead Poets Society often. It makes sense to me. But I cannot blame the Darkness on my father. My parents love me and support me. I am a failure, but it is not their fault, no more than it was the fault of my wife.

Some days I am filled with happiness. I love those days. On those days, I make myself seen. I try to spread joy and laughter. I try to live an extraordinary life, as Keating (RW) has told his students. I dream of making it as a writer. I dream of overcoming my failures. Of proving my worth. I watch Rudy when I need a lift. I watch Robin when I need to smile. And when I feel my shadow begin to overwhelm me, I watch my favourite film.

GWH

Good Will Hunting is just a movie, a fable. But for me, narrative is more than that. The characters in my favourite books are my friends, as are the ones in my favourite movies. They know that I am a failure, but they remain the same. Here, Robin is a counselor, a teacher. He is the kind of counselor I wish I had, the kind of mentor I need. I am not closed to counseling, but I am a youth worker. An aspiring writer. I cannot afford it. I can barely afford my apartment.

Robin will win an academy award for his performance. I do not know whether he is simply a great actor or that he knows what it means to have a shadow, but I feel the movie, and it feels true. So does the pain in his eyes. That is what I need. Someone who has learned to deal with The Sadness and live, and not live just another life, but an extraordinary one.

And now, he is gone.

NOW

Robin’s death fills me with great sadness. His legacy is unique and yes, extraordinary. My wife, too, feels it. There is the sense of a light being extinguished, which makes no sense as most of us did not know him, but it’s there anyway. The grieving on social media is real. Some trolls suggest that he is ‘selfish’ and ‘made a choice.’ They are roundly criticized by a more enlightened population, but their page views have gone up, and they have received more attention. Human parasites will always exist.

The images of my early struggles remain. Like pictures people once kept in their wallets. They come to mind easily and quickly, though not without pain. I have learned to deal with my struggles over the years. The Sadness remains, and on certain days, it is all I can do to get through the day. I do my best to not let others see my shadow. That is the rule. It has always been the rule.

But I am lucky. Five years ago I married the girl of my dreams. She understands. Some days, I still feel like a failure, like she has married someone who simply cannot get over himself. Those days are hard, and I wish I was ‘normal.’ But such a thing does not exist, not for me or anyone else. We all have struggles.

As for the funniest man in the world, I do not know what to think. I do not know if things could have been different. Sometimes, The Sadness visits in such power that we are helpless before it. Religious people do not like to hear this. Neither do I. Sometimes the truth is hard.

If I could say something to him, though. If I had been allowed to speak to him, I would have thanked him for helping me through so many rough times, when his smile – his laughter, his jokes – overcame The Sadness for me. And then I would have told him this:

“You have lived an extraordinary life. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”

Rest in peace, My Friend. You have blessed us beyond imagining. You will be missed.

-Steve


Monday, August 11, 2014

What Does a Strong Woman Look Like?

There were four of them. Young guys in their early twenties, tall and lean and loud, more interested in being heard than working out. Otherwise, the gym was relatively quiet, about fifteen others spread throughout the weight room. 

Bethany set her water down by the lat pulldown machine and leaned over to adjust the weight.  One of the young guys approached, indignant, and said, "Hey, I'm using that!"

“Ok, can I work in with you?”

He sniffed. “No.”

He turned back to his friends and started joking with them as if she was no longer standing there. As he was talking, he picked up a pair of dumbbells and started doing shrugs. Bethany shook her head and dropped her stuff beside the lat machine. When she sat down, he looked over at her.

“Hey, I told you that I was using it.” His voice dripped with entitlement.

“No, you're not.  You're doing shrugs.”

“But my stuff is there,” he said, pointing to his towel, clearly shocked that someone would challenge him, especially a woman. A woman!

Bethany pointed to her water bottle on the other side. “My stuff is there, too.”

It wasn’t until she finally started doing her set before he backed down, though not before looking over at his friends. “What a bitch.”

When she’d finished her set, an older man approached her. “I’m glad you told them off. They’re a bunch of jackasses.”

Bethany nodded, though she hadn’t really told them off, she’d merely stood her ground. She finished her workout by spending a hard twenty minutes working the heavy bag, angry that the place she went for peace, her place, had become a place of confrontation.

When she came home, her face was red. I kissed her at the door.

“How was your workout, Love?” I asked.

“I may have gone a bit too hard.”

She told me what had happened, and I grimaced as I listened. My wife is about 5’4”, strong but small, and this seemed like just another story – one of many – that she’d told me regarding her brushes with men. From the parking lot to the grocery store to the gym, her experience in society was completely different than mine. I wasn’t completely surprised by this, I’d been lucky enough to have a number of strong female friends over the years, and they’d echoed similar situations that happened to them on a regular basis.
   
According to them, when you’re a girl, you grow up with it, and so dealing with incidents like that are just part of life. Yeesh. I shook my head and continued to listen to Bethany tell her story. For as much as I still found it difficult to believe, there was a time I thought I had it rough because I was a man.

Young Men are Daft (For a Reason)


When I was in my early twenties, I had these ideas about women, strange creatures that they were. Fortunately, they were easy to categorize.

a) loud and crass
b) sexy and dumb
c) smart and ugly
d) bossy and mean

And all of those could be lumped into one of these two categories

e) frigid or slutty (Madonna or Whore)

That was about it. Some combinations were possible. Occasionally a woman could be smart and plain, or they could bossy and pretty, but for the most part, there weren’t that many different types of women. Men could be a million things, have all kinds of contradictions, but that made sense. Why? Because they were men, that’s why.

Early romantic counselling for me included any number of older men telling me that women would be whatever you made them. They were mirrors. Whatever reflection you saw was a result of your own doing. Women were strange, yes, but very simple. If you were good to them, they’d look after you. If you weren’t, all kinds of bad behaviours would result. Like pets, I remember thinking. Crazy as it sounds, I did not intend that as an insult. It just seemed self-explanatory. Most of the movies I watched clearly showed what happened when women were put in tough situations. How many times did the woman bungle things up only for the man to save things? Or when was the last time you heard a woman speak intelligently about guy things. Sure, there were a few exceptions, but that’s all they were: exceptions. It wasn’t that women were doing it on purpose, it was just their nature. I understood that, of course. But damn, it was just so frustrating.

And then there was the special attention they received. That used to frustrate me, too. A woman could walk into a room, and a proper man was supposed to hold the door open for her, make sure she was okay, settle her down if things got anxious, and THEN pay the bill. And I didn’t even mention all those ridiculous fruitcakes running around screaming about feminism and equal rights. Equal rights? Women didn’t have to do ANYTHING? Men had to shoulder the load. You didn’t see us running around whining about “special rights.”

When I asked other men about this, older men, they’d smile and shrug. That was how women were. There was no explaining it, so best get used to it.

Writers: Women are NOT Hollywood

Some time in my late twenties, a good five years after I started writing full time, I noticed that my attitude regarding women began to change. My first (horrible) novel featured two men as the main characters. Writing from a woman’s perspective was as unthinkable as understanding women in the first place. My own marriage had been a colossal failure, and here I was, not yet thirty and already divorced. What did I know about women? Certainly not enough to write from their perspective.

As a writer, I’d always wanted to challenge myself, so I determined that I was going to feature two women in my next novel as my main characters. Two estranged sisters, wildly different from one another. (That novel, Ravin, led to me to my brief relationship with a literary agent.) I’d somehow developed close friendships with two women who started to show me that everything I’d perceived about women and most things I’d learned about them, from either books or movies or the “wise” advice from other men, were completely wrong. Both of them were pretty and smart and complex, filled with nuances and contradictions, just like a man. They did not fit into my categories. (Yes, a man can have a platonic friendship with a woman. Both of them stood for me in my wedding party, and they remain two of my best friends to this day.)

At the same time, I began to realize that my perception of women had been shaped as much by the narrative I’d absorbed (movies, books, music) as by my own experiences with actual women. Around this time, I’d started watching Hercules: The Legendary Journey, and when they spun Xena off of it, I watched that, too. As funny as it sounds, Xena was the first show I’d ever seen to take women seriously. Sure, Lucy Lawless was sexy and tough, but even within the campy set of the show, there were more than glimpses to some of the difficulties women faced. That, along with her relationship with Gabrielle, her quick witted younger travelling companion, was quite revealing to me. I’d never watched a show – certainly not a ‘superhero’ type show – that centered on the relationship between two women. Both of them were strong in their own way, and both of them were admirable.

What DOES a Strong Woman Look Like?

The crazy thing is that she doesn’t “look” like anything. One of the reasons I perceived women to be weak and shallow when I was young was that the definitions and answers I received regarding them weren’t answers at all, they were types. Look again at my categories. Those aren’t real humans, they’re stereotypes. And they’re still perpetuated in everything from relational best-sellers (Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars) to blockbuster movies (anything from Michael Bay) to best-selling novels written by men AND women. (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone? Twilight?)

Over the last decade, my view of women has changed so dramatically, I can hardly recognize the boy that used to believe those stereotypes were the totality of another human being. And as a writer, I find it much easier now to write strong female characters than I do strong males. My only explanation for this is that when you work from a blank slate, as I’ve had to do, and you’re writing from an experience completely unlike your own, it’s much easier to find objectivity when you discover your characters. (Sorry, that sounds artsy, but there it is)

In Second Blood, my forthcoming fantasy novel, my female lead (De Nyara) is by far the strongest and most complex character in the book. She was also the easiest to write. And in my new novel, The Last Angel, my female lead is a strong character that again, one I find easy to “hear.”

In both fiction and life, it’s important to consider the complexity of all people, regardless of gender. By addressing this complexity you neither write shallow characters nor perceive others the same way. (With brazenly ignorant comments like, “Ugh. Typical woman!”)

A strong woman does not have to be an Amazonian princess in the same way a strong man does not have to be a warrior. A strong woman can be a stay-at-home mom or a lawyer or a politician or a nutritionist. Strength is not defined by the loudness (or quietness) of an individual or success in a certain field or recognition by others within society.

Strength, in both men and women, is found in those who act against their own self-interests to better those around them. Their family. Their friends. Their community. Strength is found in those who battle the pre-conceptions and prejudices of society and decide for themselves what they will believe. And strength is found in those unwilling to sacrifice kindness and compassion for the sake of moving up society’s hierarchical ladder, be it for money or fame or anything else. Ultimately, it is defined by our attention to self-awareness, our willingness to look into the mirror and see who we are, to see our humanity, and face whatever that reflection reveals.

I’ve been lucky in my life. I’ve been able to meet strong people, kind people, people who were selfless and gracious and compassionate. But if you were to really press me, ask me what a strong woman looked like, I’d tell you that she looked something like the one who stood up those guys at the gym, the one who refuses to kill a moth in the house and will spend time trapping it in a box to release it outside, the one who spends countless hours developing meal plans for her friends and family, most of which go unpaid. Yeah, if you were to press me hard enough, I’d tell you that she looked like my wife.


-Steve

NOTE: Why not tell me about a strong woman in your life in the comments below?

Friday, August 08, 2014

Top 7 Sports Movies of All-Time

If you’re going to post a “Top” movie list, there has to be some explanation behind the choices because every list like this is subjective. For me, a great sports movie taps into the mythology of both the sport and the culture it’s based on. I expect a Great Sports Movie to:

a) Still register culturally

b) Isn't so acutely interested in inspiring that they’re playing the “inspire music” after twenty minutes

c) Actually showcase a sport at the center of a film

d) Bring me to (honest) tears or make me laugh or both

e) Push me to go play that sport, or work on something I'm passionate about.

f) It MUST be a Vacation Spot, a place you can go back and watch and be all inspired again.

In keeping with the theme of this website, here are my other guidelines in choosing my Top Seven.

Guideline #1: Recency bias. I’m 42, which means some of the sports films were shot before I was born. (The Pride of the Yankees, Brian’s Song) That doesn’t necessarily preclude them from making the list, but I was less apt to include them.

Guideline #2: The avoidance of overly treacly or saccharine sports movies that seemed too interested in getting me to cry. Hey, I’m watching a sports movie. I want to be a) entertained and b) genuinely inspired. If I want to cry for the sake of crying, I can watch one of those Tom Hanks movies from the nineties or put on the news or chop some onions.

Guideline #3: No documentaries. Hoop Dreams is an extraordinary documentary, but it doesn’t make the list. A movie based on a true story is acceptable, but I’m only interested in fiction. No video memoirs.

Guideline #4: The Raging Bull Rule. Every list you see of top sports movies includes Raging Bull, which makes sense. It’s probably one of our greatest film director’s best movies, perhaps his best (Scorsese), De Niro is amazing, and it’s a boxing movie. However, nobody watches Raging Bull twice.

(Okay, nobody with an ‘F,’ in their Myers-Briggs personality test watches it twice. If you’re a ‘T,’ you process your entertainment intellectually, which means you can appreciate the technical genius of the film. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, go to this site and take the test. It’s enlightening.)

So then, three things. Raging Bull is a brilliant and disturbing film. Raging Bull is the story of Jake LaMotta, who was an abusive, arrogant piece of human dirt and since the movie is working from his autobiography, understates just how terrible a human he was. Raging Bull is depressing as hell. So no, it didn’t make my list. Raging Bull does not inspire a Kind Life. (The literary equivalent would be Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie McDonald, a wonderful novel that will cause you take to take a ballpeen hammer to head… and never, ever read it again even as you recommend it to others.)

So you got all that? Okay, on to the ‘close but no cigar’ list.

FILMS THAT DIDN'T MAKE THE CUT

(What? You didn’t think I’d just drop the list on you, did you? Just scroll down if you’re impatient.)

Here are a list of the contenders, names that I’ve seen on other lists, that didn’t make the list.

A League of Their Own – My Favourite Geena Davis role of all time. Tom Hanks, brilliant. Not one you want to re-watch though, and while it entertains you, there’s no inspiration here.

Remember the Titans – Too much self-awareness. It knows that it is a VERY IMPORTANT film and never lets you forget. That self-awareness means the ending didn’t do much for me. I was aware that I was watching a CULTURAL MOMENT, and Denzel, who we all love, wasn’t allowed to “full” Denzel because, well, it was a Disney movie.

Caddyshack – This isn’t a sports movie. Stop putting on your list people. And oh yeah, GO GOPHER!

Million Dollar Baby – Wow. This movie was so good, right until the ending. Doesn’t make it due to the Ragin Bull rule. (Man, Eastwood may be a laugh on the set, but his movies are such downers. Dude needs to lighten up. Come with this website.)

Jerry Maguire –All-time sham that Cruise didn’t win an Academy award this role. I almost put this one on the list. It has the climactic moment, Renee Zellwegger when you could still recognize her, lots of humour, and is pretty re-watchable. However, “you complete me” and everything about the end of this film lets us know that it’s a romance in disguise. Nothing wrong with that, but not good for this list.

Chariots of Fire – Wonderful story, brilliant score by Vandelis, well-acted, but just a bit too precious for me.

Breaking Away – From what I hear, it’s a great movie. I’ve never seen it, so it doesn’t make the list.

42 – I loved this film. Let’s wait a few years and see how it sticks.

The Natural – If they’d followed the book (a fantastic novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Bernard Malamud) Redford would have struck out in his last at-bat, so that great scene, with the lights exploding and cascading down like fireworks, never would have happened and I would have had to leave it off the list based on the Raging Bull Rule. As it is, if I extended this list to a Top 10, The Natural makes it. Therei isn't anything that isn't great about The Natural, and any sports movie with Wilford Brimley being Wilford Brimley deserves its accolades.

Tin Cup – Hardest to leave off the list. Kevin Costner doing a sports movie is always a Good Thing, and he’s even better when he plays quirky characters. This movie is eminently re-watchable, hilarious, and that last moment when the ball finally crosses the pond and sticks is an all-time killer.



(For those of you who scrolled down to see the Top 7, before you start yelling at me because a certain movie didn’t make the cut, scroll back up and read why. Or, just throw your vitriol in the comments below.)

7. Cinderella Man – Boxing and baseball are two of the most cinematic sports (along with golf) and the ones we have most deeply mythologized over the past century. And Cinderella Man fits that narrative as the anti-Raging Bull. Based on a true story, James J. Braddock was a fighter on the verge who ended up in the poor houses before rising one more time to become champion. Russell Crowe’s Braddock is a man with a good heart, a man who just wants to support his wife and kids as the Depression sweeps across the country. After so many anti-heroes, I appreciate a film that has a humble athlete, a good person, which by all accounts, Braddock was. Zellwegger and Crowe are both terrific here, the boxing scenes are convincing, and by the time the end credits roll, you feel a bit lighter than you did before the film started. Great "Sports Movie." 

6. Field of Dreams – “Hey… Dad? Wanna have a catch?” is one of the all-time tear jerker scenes in great sports movies. And as much as Field of Dreams is a baseball fairy tale, thanks to the grounded work by Kevin Costner (sorry, he’s fantastic as an Everyman), and Amy Madigan, the film keeps it feet firmly on the ground even as it reaches for the stars. Beautiful, and in this rare case, better than the book. (Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella)

5. Rudy – The quintessential inspirational sports film about a “five foot nothin’, a hundred and nothin’” Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, who managed to earn a place on the legendary Notre Dame football practice squad and then the field for a single game his senior year in the mid-seventies. There are reasons why people don’t like this movie. One, it has a touch of narcissism to it, Rudy’s single-minded individualism can be annoying from a certain perspective. Two, it’s been hacked to pieces by a number of satirical skits and movies. Three, it can be cloyingly “American Dream-ish,” and if you’re Canadian, like me (where we tear down our heroes) it can rub you the wrong way.

HOWEVER, I’m a dreamer. (I’m a writer, we’re all dreamers.) I challenge you to watch it again. Listen to the people telling Rudy he’s an idiot for following his dreams, listen to how they’re really trying to help him. Sound familiar? Us dreamers hear that all the time. But the movie doesn’t hate his father or anyone else who tells him he’s being foolish any more than our parents tell us we need job security. Watch the performance by Charles S. Dutton, and how his cynicism has honed into wisdom, and yet, his character still leaves room for being inspired. Sean Astin plays Rudy as being so earnest as to be on the edge of annoying, but the “want” is there in such a big way, it’s impossible not to cheer for him.

There was a time in my life when things were going nowhere. I was a struggling writer (well, that part is still somewhat true), just divorced, with only a handful of dreams and unwilling to give them up for a “practical” career that I hated. Back then, Rudy was my Vacation Spot. This is the movie I turned to, so if seems like I’m biased, well, of course I am.

The greatest scene in this movie isn’t the climactic moment when the players give up their jerseys or when he rushes onto the field or when he sacks the Georgia Tech quarterback. The greatest moment is when Rudy opens the acceptance letter down by the river and sobs softly to himself when he realizes that he’s been admitted into Notre Dame. That is a gut punch for me every time, because that’s EXACTLY the right emotional response. For something that important, you don't whoop it up. It's relief and joy and exhaustion, all rolled into one. They don’t drag the scene out, either. It’s masterfully acted and filmed, and twenty years after its initial release, the movie remains a hammer.

4. Rocky – Before Stallone became a caricature of himself, the dude could really write, and he could really act. (Or play himself, but whatever) I wasn’t aware that Rocky was based on a true story the first few times I watched it, but it doesn’t matter. The end result is a boxing film that plays on the mythology of the underdog, and instead of offering us treacly nonsense, gives us complicated relationships, very few cardboard characters (Paulie, anyone?), and a very plain Talia Shire.(Who was truly beautiful.)

The film was shot on a budget of $25,000 (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Transformer Blockbuster Toy Movie Garbage) and if you watch it enough, Stallone never looks like he’s close to getting hit in the ring. But between the great theme music, the slow, building pace, and the kick that offers not a “Championship,” but an “I Earned Respect” moment, Rocky still wins thirty years later. Awesome.

3. Major League – The funniest mainstream sports movie of all-time. Period. Major League, featuring a young (and still normal) Charlie Sheen, an in his prime Tom Berenger, Wesley Snipes in his best role, Rene Russo being, well, Rene Russo and giving the movie some heft in what could have been a throwaway role, and of course, the late, great James Gammon as Lou Brown.

I can watch this three or four times a year, and feel great every time. It might seem odd to place a straight comedy so high on the list, but name another that’s had this kind of staying power. (And no, Caddyshack is no longer funny. Why do people like that movie so much?) If you haven’t seen this one in a while and want to spend a couple of hours smiling, watch it again.

2. Bull Durham – Kevin Costner in his best role. Susan Sarandon not being too annoying. Tim Robbins the perfectly clueless and un-self-aware Kid with the Big Arm. And the writing, did I mention the writing? Ron Shelton, the screenwriter, played in the minor leagues, and he gets all the small touches right here. (Listen to the PA announcer in the background. Perfect.) And if you grew up playing the game, there’s nothing better than a sports movie that gets the damn sport right.

There are moments where you wish they’d focus less on Annie Savoy, but for her part, Sarandon gives what’s really a “groupie” character an almost regal bearing. In her world, in her town, she is not just another horny older woman going after young athletes, she’s a queen, respected by both the players and managers. (That probably would never happen in real life, but she pulls it off so succinctly that we buy it. And her.)

I memorized Crash Davis’ speech in high school, the one when he tells Annie what he believes. (I can still recite it), but for my money the best scene in the movie is the "cocksucker" scene, the one where Crash gets thrown out of the game. (It’s here, and it’s brilliant and hilarious.) There’s a soulfulness to this movie that, to me, is unique to baseball and the solitary challenge it represents within a team sport. It’s the best baseball movie ever made, and for my money, the second best Sports Movie of all-time.

AND THE NUMBER ONE SPORTS MOVIE IS...



#1. Hoosiers – No other sports movie captures the American mythology of sport and life quite like Hoosiers. No other sports movie hits every single underdog cliché like Hoosiers. And no other movie character or Indiana basketball legend ever inspired a legion of suburban white kids playing an urban sport to pick up a ball and shoot hoops like Jimmy Chitwood. (Uh, wait) And yet, AND YET, the movie never hits a false note. Never. It’s remarkable and such an achievement that when I watched the film again last year, I was shocked how well it still plays.

The key to the film, which is loosely based on the Milan high school basketball team that won the State championship before Indiana separated schools according to size, is Gene Hackman’s performance. He’s riveting here, grinding out a second chance to coach in a place like Hickory. We learn about his past, but by the time we realize why he’s coaching in a backwoods town like Hickory, we don’t care.

Some people might suggest that the romance between Norman Dale and Myra Fleener (Barbara Hershey) is played too quickly. But think back to those times. Was it? I don’t think so, and I liked the way they kept the team and the sport in the forefront. This isn’t a romantic sports drama. This is a Sports Movie.

As for the basketball, what’s not to like. As a coach, I still use some of Hackman’s well-worn truisms (“Five men functioning as one single unit, no one player greater than another”) with my teams. I use them because I believe in them. Just as Hackman’s character believed in them, just as he believed in his boys.

Feel like being inspired? Get a copy of Hoosiers, watch the Greatest Sports Movie of All-Time, and see if you don’t still believe. 
  
-Steve

NOTE: Disagree? Did I miss one? Throw it in the comments!







Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Second Blood, Fear and Indie Publishing

I still remember that phone call. The first literary agent to call me back and tell me they were interested in representing me. I was thirty-two years old, and after three novels and a decade of hard work trying to make it, I was finally on the cusp. I'm not ashamed to say that I spent the next hour on my balcony in tears, so grateful to be validated after all those years of getting up early or going home early or staying up late to write.

Writing is such a solitary profession that when someone, especially someone representing The Industry, calls you and tells you that you're good enough, well, that's the response you get. Buckets. Disorientation. That feeling like your diving off the cliff into an unknown paradise. It's magical and joyous and terrifying all at once.

Six months later, the agent stopped calling me. Just... stopped. No messages. No explanation. Suddenly I wasn't good enough. It was falling in love with that perfect person, having them tell you how much they love you, and watch them pack up their bags six months later without ever telling you why.

I was, to put it mildly, shattered. I had no experience in the publishing world, no understanding of whether that was a common or unusual, and it took me years to get back on track. In 2008, when I started writing Second Blood, I was determined not to skim, not to cut corners. I would write as long as it took to produce my very best work. Hadn't it taken Patrick Rothfuss ten years to write The Name of the Wind? And what about Chad Harbach?

But over the past six years, the publishing world has changed. Dramatically. Independent Publishing, what was once called Vanity Publishing, now accounts for nearly 30-40% of all book sales, depending on which stats you use. And with the ability to publish your own work AND retain the rights to it completely AND to do it with minimal cost convinced me that after years of hoping for another phone call, I've decided to publish Second Blood myself.

Why Do It Yourself

1. Hugh Howey and JA Konrath are the experts here. Go to their website and just start reading to get a basic feel for the changes in the industry, and the horror stories that abound with mid-list writers whose books are taken off the shelf and never seen again. All that work, and you'll never see another penny from it.

2. I'm going to have to do the marketing and publicity myself, anyway. Unless my book was auctioned for 6 digits, I'd be doing the exact same thing. I'll take my chances, thanks.

3. It's a waste of time. Traditional publishing, assuming I don't know someone, wants me to spend months writing query letters and summaries (which I have), and then wait months to see if another agent will like the work, and if they, in turn, can find an editor who likes the work, and so on. I'd rather just write, thanks, because I'm still going to have to do all that marketing and publicity myself.

4. I'm not a literary writer. While I appreciate and enjoy writers like Jeffrey Eugenides and Donna Tartt, I don't live there. Give me Robert B. Parker, Jim Butcher or Robert Jordan any day. I've always been more interested in great stories and great ideas than great prose. I'm not saying they have to be exclusive, but a good fantasy novel is more enjoyable for me than even great literary fiction like Half-Blood Blues.

5. This isn't a short term plan. If you publish independently, you can't produce one work in six years. You're not spending time brushing the same sculpture over and over, but exploring new ideas and new characters, which is a LOT more fun. I have three books in the well, and am nearly done the first draft of The Last Angel, which I started less than a month ago. How? Three thousand words a day and the knowledge that it will come out, even if only a couple of people read it.

6. Inequality. Twenty years ago a trade paperback sold for about $20 here in Canada. They still sell for that price, and its MUCH cheaper to publish a book in the digital age. You can talk about inflation, I suppose, or increased salaries, but the writer's cut, the one who created the work, is the same. A novelist will make about $1 per book. A writer has no guarantees, no salary, and no benefits. So why are they still getting the shaft? Yes, a publishing company incorporates risk, but that doesn't balance the scales. Not when I can have my book printed on demand by Amazon for about $3 per book. Listen, if I were to sell enough copies myself that one of the big five wanted to offer me a six digit contract, I might take it, like Anthony Ryan, authour of Blood Song (very good book) did. And I'm not bad mouthing people who publish traditionally, especially my friends who write so brilliantly and are capable of winning literary awards. Hell, you SHOULD publish traditionally.

7. I'm as scared as I've ever been. Releasing something without getting "Industry Approval" scares the crap out of me. And I LOVE IT! Listen, if nothing you're pursuing scares you, or causes your stomach to dance, than you need to find what does and go after it. Just do it! The world doesn't care if you're happy or not, but people will notice when you find your passion and invest all you have into it. They'll get excited, too! Not just for you, but for themselves, because so much of life can be daily drudgery, the same old routine. Be alive, and let others find some uplift in what you're doing.

My wife tells me that she hasn't seen me this excited in a long time. I'm writing so much that I'm typing this blog with one hand. (The other is sore.) Whatever gifts you have, whatever gets you going, pursue that! DO it! It's nearly impossible to live a Kind Life when we feel like life is nothing but the same old crap. Don't fall into that trap. You can do it.

I've had these moments lately, where I imagine releasing Second Blood and about 15 people buy it. And then nothing. Six years of hard work and it's met with a collective 'meh.' You know what though, that's okay. I have other books coming, I'm having a hell of time writing them, and in the morning, I'm excited about what the day will bring. That's the real juice, my friends. And at the end of the day, if tomorrow sounds like a good idea, you're doing something right.

-Steve

Monday, August 04, 2014

Musical Fruit

Even the cat thought it was funny.


This is why I became a writer and not an astronaut, we vegans eat A LOT of beans. This is hilarious, and any ad that makes me snort, deserves its own post.













42 (Movie Review)


The sun blistered down from the afternoon sky. Sweat rolled down my forehead as I adjusted my cap, my feet spread and balanced beneath me. The trapper was heavier than the catcher’s mitt I usually wore, but I was only in Grade 8, my first year in a league that included high school seniors. First base was the only position available, and like any good coach’s son, I played where I was needed. It didn’t make me any less nervous. I’d be catching throws from our seventeen year old shortstop, Tim, who had a cannon for an arm. Just breathe, I told myself. You can do this. For the first three innings, I caught every throw on the grounders, and while I tried to make each play look casual – I just had to catch the ball, something I’d done since I was five – I still hadn’t relaxed.
With two outs in the fourth inning, one of the opposing team’s older players hit a rocket headed to right field. I dove to my left, and to my utter surprise, I caught it. I stared at my glove even as my teammates cheered and patted me on the back, the older players nodding in approval. I was still looking at my glove when I got to the bench.

Mr. Lesco, one of my coaches, smiled. “Nice catch, Steve. But remember, Mattingly doesn’t look at the glove.”

I nodded. I understood what he was saying. You belong here, now act like it. Don't look at your glove. I felt my shoulders loosen, and when my teammate stepped to the plate, I joined in with the other boys, excited, but no longer nervous. It was just baseball, a sport I’d played and followed since I was a child. It was a different league, but the game was the same.


Willie Mays

I remember the first time I saw Willie Mays play. I was ten years old, and the grainy, black and white footage of his famous over the shoulder catch against Cleveland in the 1954 World Series enraptured me. As a kid, I’d been regaled by tales from my father of those glory days of baseball, back when he was a young man and the world was changing. Changing so much that even he didn’t realize it. Didn’t realize what it would mean for his son. For most of my childhood, I pressed my dad for stories and read whatever I could get my hands on. Stories of the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. Willie Mays played his last professional game when I was a baby, but well into high school, he remained my favourite player. A black man, idolized by a white boy, twenty years after he retired.

This would have been impossible when my dad was a kid. Or nearly so. When Mays broke into the major leagues as a rookie in 1951, it’d only been four years since Jackie Robinson had obliterated the colour barrier, a wall so thick it had seemed impregnable only a year earlier. Blacks playing with whites. A black athlete competing with the best Caucasian players in the world. Jesse Owens had shown a prejudiced world in 1936 what a black athlete could do, but where I came from, baseball was more important than the Olympics. Baseball was every day. Baseball was oatmeal for breakfast, girls learning to be ladies and Father Knows Best. Baseball got it right.

Before Susan Sarandon ever uttered her belief in the “church of baseball,” I believed in it, too. As a boy, the first stories I ever wrote were of Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle and of course, the, ‘Say Hey’ Kid. In my stories, I turned them into heroes off the field, saving innocent people from fires and hunting down criminals. I basked in the warm glow of sports mythology, none of which shone quite as brightly as my favourite sport. Books like Roger Kahn’s classic, The Boys of Summer, only fed my appetite for tales of the Great Ones.

When I was seventeen, my dad and I went with Mr. Lesco and his son, Josh (my best friend) to see Field of Dreams. When the movie was over, my old coach leaned over and asked me what mistake they’d made in the film. I answered without hesitation. Shoeless Joe Jackson was left handed. In the movie, Ray Liotta had played him as a righty both in the field and at the plate. He’d smiled, nodding in approval. A seventeen year old shouldn't have known those kinds of things about baseball, not about a player who’d played his last game around the end of World War I. From the time I was ten, however, something about the game made me want to be better. I didn't know it then, but baseball was, and had always been, the perfect vehicle of change for a culture redefining itself. That it was mythical didn’t make it untrue. It just meant that it had room for heroes. And when it came to heroes, no one was bigger than Jackie Robinson.


42

Fifty seven years have passed since his first game with Brooklyn, and his story now casts such a large shadow that in some ways it obliterates just how special he was, how much he endured, and how he not only saved the game itself, but forced the culture around it to shift. Shifts that still reverberate decades later. For an artist to interpret that type of story, one as powerful and mythic as Robinson’s, it requires a uniquely steady and sensitive hand. One that can fashion drama around a story that has been told and re-told, without removing the inspiration of the story itself. That is a daunting task for any film maker, and if you read the critic’s reviews of “42” when it appeared in theatres a year ago, many of them suggested that the film was “earnest and inspirational,” but “too safe and old-fashioned.”

Nonsense. In time, 42 will enter the cannon of films that extend the mythos of sports stories beyond the box score, the ones that highlight the search for human dignity and the fight for something more, a fight reflected in every civilization throughout history. The only thing “old-fashioned” about the film is that it presents the ruthlessness of racism while pushing us towards something better. It allows us to confront our demons without causing us to cover our eyes. It pushes us away, then pulls us back and asks us what we truly believe.

There are times the film underplays the abuse Robinson suffered, aside from one scene with a particularly loathsome Philadelphia manager, but director Brian Helgeland keeps the lens centered on a racist culture, if only in the background. (The seeming ubiquity of a bathroom door with ‘Whites’ on it is particularly galling. And to think this was only fifty years ago.) And too often for my liking, the movie tilts towards “The Help” territory, powerful whites helping blacks. Harrison Ford gives an inspiring, growly impression as Branch Rickey, the Dodger owner who made it his legacy to integrate the game, and his performance includes moments of genuine humour. (“Robinson’s a Methodist. I’m a Methodist. God’s a Methodist.”) Unfortunately, there are times when the movie feels it’s as much about Rickey as it is Robinson.

Those are minor criticisms. Boseman is excellent here, and as so much of the film is about the players and culture responding to him, he is less the driving force of the movie and more the anchor. He gives Robinson a steady stoicism and athletic grace on the field. Off the field, however, he allows us to see Jackie’s inner joy with his wife, and his smile lights up the screen with warmth and charisma. Helgeland, who also wrote the film and is white, writes with purpose and sensitivity. He reveals that much of our bigotry, by seemingly decent people, stems from never having to confront how we feel about certain aspects of our culture. That sometimes change occurs only when we are faced with extreme views of those beliefs.

We are all raised to believe certain things. We believe them because of our parents, our church, our teachers and coaches and everyone else who aided in our shaping. And too often, we move through our adult life without ever questioning those beliefs, those beginnings, even when they’re clearly wrong.

Here, the non-racist players are forced to confront how they really feel by their more adamantly bigoted teammates, the ones who circle a petition to have Robinson booted from the team. When the Philadelphia manager (played here with alarming force by Helgeland alum, Alan Tudyk) starts in on Robinson, the camera pans to the dugout, where some of the players, the ones who signed the petition, recoil in disgust. This is the moment they decide. Are black people human? Are they equal? Most people think we get a lifetime to make those choices, but we don’t. Life is a fast flowing river, and once we make a decision like that, we’re more apt to justify it than challenge it again.

PeeWee Reese, the Hall of Fame shortstop, helps the fans of Cincinnati hollering at Robinson come to that place by placing his arm around his new teammate at the beginning of a game. When he slaps Robinson on the shoulder and says “maybe one day, we’ll all wear your jersey,” my eyes welled up. The line is a Helgeland addition that works like one of Spike Lee’s signature visuals, pulling us briefly from the story. (It’s a nod to baseball’s new yearly tradition to choose one game in April where every player in both leagues wears Robinson’s number.)

Pulling a moviegoer out of a story is dangerous, and it must be done surgically to work properly. But even as that line slammed me back into the present, I quivered under a wave of inspiration.

We do so many damn things wrong as humans, we screw up so many times that sometimes it’s all you can do to pull your blanket over your head at our race’s incessant cruelty and ignorance. And then there are these other moments, the ones that whisper to our ability to be better, to stand beside our black teammate in the face of a white crowd, a racist white culture, and say “the hell with it. I can be better. We can be better.”

More, it’s people like Robinson, (who some will insist I am canonizing here, which I will not apologize for) who, simply by being willing to stand up for themselves in the face of great adversity, and yes, great evil, remind us that human dignity is not something cheap. That it can’t be bought or plagiarized by the next generation. That it is something we must never lose sight of, if only because of our very human tendency to exclude those who are different from us, those with whom we are unfamiliar.

The movie deals delicately with these ideas, grounding them in the players’ slow adjustment to Robinson. Bit by bit, some of them begin to see what they truly believed, begin to see the inhumanity of it and what they’ll believe in the future.

When Robinson accepts his owner’s challenge to “be tough enough not to fight back”, we’re shown how his frustration occasionally boils over, but it is only because of what he must endure. We never get the idea that Number 42 is out of place in the white league. That he feels he doesn’t belong. And by the time he hits the home run against the Pirates and glides along the bases in slow motion, we realize that he’s right. It was never about him. We didn’t know it until he showed us, but all this time it was us. We were the ones looking at our glove.

***** Highly recommended.

-Steve

NOTE: This blog is dedicated to my amazing father, Don Burns, who coached (and acted as commissioner) for Welland Minor Baseball for 35 years (and who coached me most of my life). I still remember the time he used to spend on the phone calling players and planning his practices. Our basement was inevitably crowded with baseball equipment, and to this day, I still love that smell. 

I'd also like to dedicate this to Mr. (Don) Lesco, my former coach and high school English teacher who was beloved by his players (including me)and inspired students for generations. 

And for all of you who take the time to volunteer as coaches, I want to say 'thank you,' the world is a kinder place because of you. The kids may not understand now the sacrifices that you make for them, but they will, and they'll never forget it.    


 
My dad and I celebrating his 72nd birthday.