Thursday, March 30, 2006

Taking time to read and write

I’m glad that I’m a reader. Rather than provide its partakers with instant gratification that seems to be required of much of our 21st century techno-entertainment options, the pleasure of reading transports us back to a time that is more befitting of the rail car, rather than the transcontinental airliner. Rather than wired cyber-reality, with its circuits and microchips tucked away inside the cold, impersonal computer cabinet, time spent with a book smacks of a decadence befitting the luxury of time. In fact, to read means we’re willing to step outside of our self-imposed imprisonment of cell phones, palm pilots and other devices that seductively promise efficiency, but instead, end up enslaving.

Television, the most seductive time-waster, robs many of time that would be better spent with a book. With the average American watching 30 or more hours of television per week, just turning off the tube for half of that time would allow some time to promote the more healthy habit of reading.

As I get older, I find fewer activities give me the adrenaline rush that was common to my teens, or even early 20s. It may have to do with the aging process, but time spent with good books and discovering new authors, is a pleasure that I’ve come to appreciate (and one that seems resistant to the ravages of time). Rather than subscribing to the biblical adage that “there’s nothing new under the sun” (attributed to King Soloman, btw), books and new authors open up fresh springs of thought, ideas and perspective, or help to validate ideas that have formerly occupied shaky footing.

Before my recent vacation trip to Florida, I found myself making a frenetic visit to my local library. My objective was to score some books that would make good travel companions—if nothing else, pass some of the dullness of airport waiting and take the edge of the claustrophobic confines of budget air travel during my three hour flight.

From my amazing and seemingly random exercise in book browsing amongst the stacks, I haphazardly stumbled upon a book of essays by Jonathan Franzen. Knowing little about this author, the book jacket sounded interesting and with my penchant for well-written and entertaining essays, How To Be Alone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) was selected with slight trepidation. At this point, I knew little about Franzen, the heralded writer of fiction and about his much-publicized un-invitation by Oprah.

How To Be Alone entertained, informed and proved to be one of those books that is read with a sense of foreboding, knowing that it just isn’t going to be long enough and portending its end sooner than you want it too.

Within the literary community, Franzen is apparently often linked to Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. In fact, it was my chance association with Franzen’s work that introduced me to Wallace, a dynamic writer, possessing extraordinary talent in his own right. Like my introduction to Franzen, my first go-round with Wallace comes via his collection of essays, Consider The Lobster, which is the title of one of the essays, which finds him at Rockland’s Lobster Festival and writing about it.

With Franzen, his book of essays led me to purchase his fiction tour-de-force, The Corrections, winner of a National Book Award and apparently on many critics’ best of lists in 2001. All I know is that this novel, with its merciless, satirical look at contemporary life, made for a very readable 566 pages.

Foster’s book of essays is proving to be an enticing introduction to this writer’s work, which I anticipate will lead to my eventually reading his novel, Infinite Jest, which generated much acclaim for the then, 33-year-old writer, when released in 1996.

While somewhat dated, I found an interesting interview, conducted by Laurie Miller, for Salon, from 1996. At the time, Foster was teaching at the University of Indiana/Bloomington. In Consider The Lobster, he has an interesting essay about being in Bloomington, on September 11, 2001.

Life without television is a good thing—if nothing else, it provides time to read the type of writers who motivate me to write and improve my own craft.

Writer appreciation

Writing is a solitary activity. Hours are spent in front of a computer screen, putting words up, without any assurance that anyone will be interested in reading them. For many who toil at the writing craft, they tell of being driven and almost willed to write, as if not setting their thoughts down might invoke some psychic harm.

Occasionally and depending on what kind of writer you are, you are given the opportunity to speak about your book and to meet those who’ve read your book and future readers, who are interested in purchasing a copy of your work.

For the wildly popular writers who make up the best sellers lists, they are sent out on lengthy book tours by their publisher and travel to major cities and book chains around the country. The second tier writers, those who tend to write subject-driven non-fiction, do book tours, but are more apt to get sent to smaller cities. From what I’ve read, both types of tours can be grueling. For elite writers, such as Stephen King, John Grisham and J.K. Rowling, their book signings are true events. These consist of long lines of fans, sho are willing to wait hours to catch a glimpse of their literary hero and have the chance to speak a few brief words and have their book officially signed by these mega-stars. These exemplify the best case scenario for authors.

The less popular writers often sit behind a table and have people wander up and they too, sign copies of their book, but usually in much smaller quantities. According to industry statistics, the average number of books sold at a book signing is five. I used to find that incredible, but having been subjected to the book signing of the second type, I now know that selling five books (or fewer) can be a reality, especially when you’re not a household name, or a visitor to Oprah’s book club.

As a writer of subject-driven non-fiction, which also happens to be of a regional orientation, I might inhabit a third tier of the writing pantheon. Out of necessity, writers like me self-schedule a haphazard book promotion tour, but without a major publisher behind the book, we do fewer stores and they tend to be concentrated around our base of operations. Occasionally, book signings become mini-events, such as my initial book launch signing in Auburn, last September, which resulted in a healthy turnout and solid sales. More often than not, however, you end up sitting behind your table, praying that book browsers will wander by and speak with you, so you don’t have to endure the awkward isolation of being ignored.

Yesterday, at the invitation of Portland High School librarian, Susie Wright, I was invited to the school for an author’s visit. An obvious fan of local literature and appreciative of the role of Maine-based regional writers, Wright organized a Baumer on Baseball Reading Promotion. Recognizing the imminence of the coming baseball season and utilizing the subject matter of When Towns Had Teams, Wright coordinated a school wide program of trivia and writing contests, culminating with my visit.

Some of the student essays, in particular the winning one, were very well-written. The winning student work, Baseball Dreams, was an evocative ode to a father, a long-time Yankees fan, growing up playing sandlot baseball and about his first chance to attend a game in person, at Yankee Stadium.

After presenting four talks on my book and town team and semi-pro baseball in Maine, a luncheon was held, with yours truly being the guest of honor. This was all very humbling, as writers like me are not used to receiving this kind of “star” treatment. At the same time, it felt great to have worked so hard on a unique book, one that captures a time and place from Maine’s past that has criminally been neglected.

Several teachers expressed their appreciation, including one of the school’s history teachers, who said that her class will be studying the period of the 1950s and 1960s, beginning next week. Apparently my presentations gave her some helpful material that she plans to tie in to her own materials. Another teacher, who teaches at one of the city's middle schools, drove across town, during her lunch break, to pick up copies of the book, because she found out I had mentioned her dad, a former town team player in Dixmont. She had his old uniform, from the late 1950s, or 1960s, which she brought along to show me. This was a real thrill for me, seeing an actual artifact from the time period I wrote about.

All-in-all yesterday was a special day in the life of this author. Regardless of what genre a writer works in and irrespective of their subject, all of us long to be appreciated for what we turn out. If the book is one that has a niche orientation, these days are few and far between and should be savored and treasured.

Portland High School is very fortunate to have a librarian like Susie Wright. Her creativity, passion for local books and her understanding of their importance in the educational environment has renewed in me some optimism about our education system. Rather than just biding her time in her position, as some educators do, she seized an opportunity and as a result, some high school kids in Maine got to hear about something local, from the past, with an application for the present, supplied by yours truly. I was also encouraged by other teachers, who obviously have a passion for local subject matter, like Toni Skillings. I had heard good things about Portland High School and I am thrilled to have been able to have experienced the type of educational setting that I wish was the norm in our schools.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Taking it on the road

When you write a book, the goal is to have some people buy it. If you publish it independently, you don’t have the marketing budget and PR department of larger publishers at your disposal.

As a result, you are not only the author, but PR agent, marketing guru and a one man, traveling road show. When Towns Had Teams was released in September and I was able to generate publicity as a result of some strategic PR activity. I had a couple of articles written about the book, did some talks and book signings and made an appearance on WCSH’s 207 program. All of this helped to push the book into the public eye and Christmas sales were very steady.

With the advent of spring and opening day being just a few weeks away, what better time to be out on the road, promoting a book about baseball. For the next couple of weeks, I’ll be traveling to various towns to speak at public libraries, schools and historical societies. I’m also doing a book signing at Borders, in Bangor, on April 8th, at 2pm.

Here are some of the places I’ll be over the next month. If you can, stop by and find out a little bit about the kind of baseball that used to be played in places like Maine. Better yet, you can meet a genuine Maine author, or a passable double of one.

March 23 South Portland Public Library 7pm
March 29 Portland High School
April 4 Bangor Public Library 6:30 pm
April 6 Lithgow Memorial Library/Augusta 6:30pm
April 8 Borders Books and Music/Bangor 2pm
April 11 West Minot Historical Society 7pm
April 12 Abbott Memorial Library/Dexter 6:30 pm
April 20 Dyer Library/Saco 6:30pm

Monday, March 20, 2006

Another essay inspired by the sun

As I wrote earlier, my vacation in Florida, which ended yesterday, with my return to 30 degree weather and building a wood fire, allowed me some time to write for the pure enjoyment of writing. This time away from the hustle-bustle of life allowed me to work on some ideas, such as this one that takes the form of an essay about baseball and my current view of the national pastime.

Why Baseball No Longer Captivates Me

Baseball at one time was America’s game—its national pastime. Whether that is still the case, is a matter for debate. In my opinion, it no longer is and hasn’t been for some time. Still, baseball has the capacity to capture the imagination of Americans, even if it is merely as a nostalgic nod to a prior time, a period which seemed rosier and simpler than today.

Back before steroid scandals and tell-all books, bent on destroying the mystique of its heroes, baseball players and athletes in general were held in higher esteem. Rather than measuring the arc of one’s popularity by face time on ESPN, or some other media device, designed to falsely trumpet inferior stats and ability, having your visage featured on the cover of a Wheaties box was a pretty good yardstick of whether you’d arrived, or not.

The pastoral pace of baseball makes it a game that seems out-of-sync with our five-second segues and sound bite culture that assaults our senses and robs us of our introspection. Because of this, baseball’s timelessness and wealth of history work against it. The grand ole’ game, rudderless in the hands of its current crop of droll white men, lists from side-to-side, an anachronism, stubbornly struggling to stay afloat.

When I wrote my book last year, on town team baseball, my goal was to capture the game that I grew up with, as well as trying to place it in the context of a particular time. While When Towns Had Teams squarely resides in Maine, within a particular patch of time, based on my own personal reference point, I attempted to infer something about baseball and by extension, society. Even though my focus was on a major American sport, I think certain inferences carry over into other areas as well—music, literature, to name but two—with the intimation being, however subtle that sports and other aspects of culture, occupied a more noble and even important place, prior to becoming just another entertainment product to market and sell, in these hyper-capitalist times.

Whatever arguments are posited against television (and there are many to latch onto), one of the most basic is the way that television has changed our perceptions of sports, of which baseball is but one. When baseball was first televised, the period was the 1950s and unlike baseball, this medium was in its infancy. Programmers were hungry to get their hands on any opportunity to fill time slots. Baseball, with its leisurely pace and place in America’s national consciousness, was a perfect partner for the idiot box. As marketing grew more sophisticated and advertisers began to recognize the goldmine that television represented, advertising became more ubiquitous. However, in baseball’s earliest days of being televised, advertising wasn’t as important. Since baseball and beer had been partners for years, with the cry of “cold beer” being as central to baseball as “play ball,” beer companies gladly jumped onboard and lent their names, as well as advertising dollars towards making this venture a success.

It might be hard for anyone younger than 40 to remember the grainy telecasts of major league baseball, viewed on an old black and white television, but that’s what baseball broadcasting consisted of during the 1950s, 1960s and even into the 1970s, as broadcasts were relatively unsophisticated affairs. When NBC began televising the game of the week, with Curt Gowdy, television executives had come to recognize the opportunity for financial exploitation, represented by the national game.

As free agency took over the game in the 1980s, baseball players went from being matinee idols and role models, to petulant entertainers, well-publicized, but more importantly, well-compensated. No longer did a major league player, particularly of the journeyman type, have to stock supermarket shelves, or sell sporting goods in the off-season to feed his family. The modern player was more likely to be attired in an Armani suit, driving a Mercedes, than he was to be milking cows on the family farm. With the influence of money, a certain partition was erected between fans and the players, the sporting equivalent of the walls that wealthy residents with beachfront properties erect, to keep out the hoi polloi.

The argument could certainly be made that baseball owners were never known for their scruples and largesse toward the players who made it possible for them to profit from owning a team. For every owner, like the fun-loving and lovable-loser, Bill Veeck, who cultivated fun and kept baseball in its proper place—as a game to appreciated, rather than an investment strategy or something to round out a financial portfolio, there were always the Charles Comiskeys, tight-fisted and prone to push their players to resort to finding other means to benefit from their baseball talents. Today, we have George Steinbrenner, an egotistical, pompous windbag, whom sports fans tolerate merely because of his inflated bankroll. The current commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig, is merely a figurehead, put in place by powerful owners, who continue to run roughshod over the game, extracting profit at the expense of the game’s purity.

For the pure at heart, baseball now is merely over-hyped and overpriced. Gone are the days when a working-class father could take his sons (and daughters) to a ballgame without taking out a small home improvement loan. With tickets out of range for many, not to mention the parking, programs and the inflated price of the clichéd hot dog, most American families are lucky to get to a game at a major league ballpark. Apparently, the steep price of tickets hasn’t harmed attendance, as major league baseball continues to see these figures increase every year. However, young boys (and young girls) no longer grow up, keeping score in their bedrooms, with the game on the radio. Baseball is no longer the central focus of their endless summers of youth. There are many more reasons for this than merely inflated ticket prices. Still, baseball has become unmoored and adrift as a cultural reference point, in the 21st century.

Maybe that’s why for me and others like me, who allowed baseball to occupy a sacred place in our lives, our interest in the sport is at its lowest ebb. Other than my current interest in following my son’s college baseball team, my need to immerse myself in baseball each summer has dissipated. I don’t care to religiously scan box scores, as I once did, or watch the Red Sox on television. If this makes me cranky and cynical, then so be it. The present day masters of the game don’t care whether I squirrel away my time with their team, or not. Their too busy wooing corporate carpet-baggers and other well-heeled, types, to care about us regular fans that grew up loving this special game.

Maybe that’s why minor league baseball has become so popular. With affordable ticket prices, players who are approachable and an emphasis on the younger fan, this brand of baseball has become attractive for many families.

I’ll stick to baseball in the most local package that I can find. Semi-pro, or town team, if I can find it, I like my baseball with as little corporate packaging as possible. Hearing the crack of a wood bat, under the lights of a warm July night, is what I remember drawing me in and keeping me interested in the game for over 30 years.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Post-modern living, with a dash of sunshine

In places like Florida, former swamps have lost their prominence, as yards of fill delivered via gasoline-powered dump truck transform centuries of ebb and flow, in the blink of an eye, or the time it takes to develop a subdivision. These former wild areas with their corresponding fowl, fauna and fern, are now juxtaposed with three bedroom/two bath villas and two car garages, replete with lawns that require constant attention and irrigation.

Nature has always had a high capacity to adapt to its environment—trees bending to the light, root systems twisting and curling to find water, however scarce—and the introduction of human interlopers smack dab in the middle of untamed southern backwaters are no exception.

Progress rolls on, unchecked. Whether we welcome it with open arms, or view it with increased concern and even ambivalence, the modern comforts placed on our doorsteps at the beginning of the 21st century have barred the door to ever going back to a time that wilderness took precedence over laptops and a Lexus.

Some seem aware and even acknowledge the tension that accompanies living at a time when the conveniences of life avail themselves at a button, handclap, or the turn of a key. To have been born in the second half of the 20th century permits pangs of liberal guilt, emanating from merely living. Unless one is willing to adopt the lifestyle of a hermit (or Unabomber), the options are to live, love and laugh, while knowing that those actions impact others adversely, further down the food chain. Maybe this is the Faustian bargain that we’ve all struck with modern consumerism and easy motoring that accompanies cheap petroleum, provided for us, courtesy of the Carlyle Group and Haliburton.

Despite the onward procession and promise of better living, post-modern life allows us some “wiggle room” with which to assuage our consciences. Rather than completely fill in the swamps, cut the cypress groves and drive the native herons, pelicans, bobcats and alligators from their homes, we build around them, maintaining a tenuous partnership between the animal kingdom and the post-modern, easy motoring, way of life. While we sit enclosed in our backyard screened-in patios, wildlife frolics far enough away for us to enjoy, providing us with comfort and the illusion of safety. At the same time, we pat ourselves on the back, with our consciences clear—we’ve allowed part of nature to remain wild, and untamed.

There is a certain satisfaction that comes at dawn, up early, freshly brewed coffee in hand, listening to the pulse of the wild, while loons offer their lonesome call and ‘gators idle by, 50 yards away. While developers continue to fill their pockets with the gold that follows the exploitation of people and place, remnants of the past remain. Mother earth has managed very well, long before we came and will continue to survive and adapt, long after we are gone.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Writing and vacations

Everyone needs a vacation, or as the Europeans say, “a holiday.” Every March for the past four years, my wife, Mary, and I, have spent a week or more, in sunny Florida. The reason for these excursions has been to watch our only son, play some college baseball. No matter how cold, snowy, or utterly depressing our northeastern winters have been, since Mark entered college (back in the fall of 2002) we’ve counted down the days until we would be stepping off the plane in March and feeling the warm breezes wafting through palm trees.

March, 2006 finds us again in Florida, enjoying the opportunity to experience yet another area of the Sunshine State. Wheaton College, a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, is playing in their third different location over Mark’s four years. The first year, the Lyons were involved in a tournament in Homestead. During the past two Marches, it was the Tampa Invitational Baseball Classic. We spent two successive years in a small cottage, just off beautiful Clearwater Beach. This year, owing to Wheaton’s coach wanting a change and tougher competition, we are in the Port Charlotte area, staying in a beautiful villa with a pool.

Lest you think I’m just some privileged elitist, with money to burn, think again. What Mary has discovered is that renting a home or cottage, in most cases, is much cheaper than staying at a hotel that isn’t a flophouse or den for drug dealers. As a result of her diligence and online skills, we’ve scored some sweet lodging to go along with our enjoyment of experiencing a new area. This year is no exception. In fact, it appears that she’s saved her best for last. Being that this is Mark’s senior year, there’s no guarantee that we’ll come back to Florida any time soon. As a result, I’m going to do my best to squeeze as much enjoyment out of this as I can.

For me, the opportunity to get away from the daily grind of work is a welcome respite. It allows me a chance to get away from my regular routine and breathe some life and energy into my writing. Both my wife and I are readers, so we stuff a number of books to devour, into our already overloaded suitcases. I pity the poor baggage handler having to hoist these into the cargo hold of the plane.

While my wife always does a remarkable job finding lodging, this year was particularly challenging. Due to the devastation of Hurricane Charley, this area has a shortage of places to stay, particularly hotels. Not to be deterred, Mary put on her property sleuth’s hat and went to work. Initially, she was discouraged, as a number of villas and condominiums were too expensive, or already rented. When she heard back from the owner of the villa where we are staying, she was cautiously optimistic. The photos showed a roomy domicile, with a pool and a spa. It was new and she thought the initial contact with the owner was a pleasant one. Knowing that some friends of ours own a place in Cape Coral, Mary made a call and got assurance that the particular rental site she was using was reputable, as they had used it several times prior to purchasing their current place. Their experience has been positive and with their assurance, she decided to proceed. Because of her efforts, we are staying in a large community of similar homes, called Rotunda, just of SR 776, between Port Charlotte and Englewood. While the villa is not on the beach, like our cottage we rented the past two years, we are still only about a 20 minute drive from Englewood Beach, where we went yesterday afternoon. We’ve only just begun our stay, but if the rest of the trip approaches our first day here, I know it’s going to be a great time and a therapeutic one, at that.

Lastly, my nocturnal habits and writer’s insomnia make life with me a challenge at times for Mary. She’s wonderfully supportive and rarely complains. However, another upside to our place is its spacious layout. It allows me to slip out of bed as quietly and is large enough so I can put the coffee on and write, without disturbing my wife’s beauty sleep.

This morning, I’m up at 5 am. I’ve turned on the laptop and I’m just writing for writing’s sake. I haven’t been doing a lot of that of late, so I hope the trip provides a needed tune-up for my craft. Having some unstructured time, good books and the chance to catch your breath from the rapid pace of everyday life, is often a great tonic for anyone who writes. I plan on making the most of my week and doing a bit more writing, some of which I hope to post on this blog and probably over at Words Matter.