The Guilty Party

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Life Is Like

We watched the movie "Forrest Gump" a few evenings ago. Our fourteen year old daughter had seen portions of it in one of her classes (we may go into the subject of what I think is an excess of movie viewing used by ninth grade instructors at a later time) and was curious to see the whole thing. It had been quite a while since my wife and I had seen it and although it was familiar it was still enjoyable and capable of moving us to laughter and tears. Okay, so I didn't cry, but I got the throat lump thing when Bubba died.

Of course the most familiar line from the movie comes very early on, right after the breeze-blown feather that leads us through the opening credits lands by Forrest's muddy shoes.

"Momma always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

It's a great line. Memorable, succinct and, like any fine aphorism, containing a goodly amount of truth. It does, however, have a weakness, in that many boxes of chocolate come with a table of contents, often with photos, telling you what is in each little compartment. Two down and three across cradles a praline, bottom left corner a dark chocolate covered cashew resides, dead center lurks a ganache intense enough to throw a grown person into sugar shock. I like this arrangement, because to my mind there is little charm in following the glorious anticipation of a chocolate indulgence with a bite into one of those nasty, gooey, runny creme filled offenses to the confectioner's art.

Anyway, there are lots of Life Is Like phrases. Here are a few.

Life is like an onion, you peel it off one layer at a time and sometimes it makes you weep.~Carl Sandburg
No, I generally chop, slice or mince the things.

Life is like a coin, you choose how you spend it, but you only spend it once.~Lillian Dickson
To a certain degree, yes. But let's face it, life makes some of those choices for you. And no, I do not know who Lillian Dickson is. Or was.

Life is like a blanket too short. You pull it up and your toes rebel, you yank it down and shivers meander about your shoulder; but cheerful folks manage to draw their knees up and pass a very comfortable night.~ Marion Howard
I kind of like that one.

Life is like a game of poker: If you don't put any in the pot, there won't be any to take out.~Moms Mabley
This one is pretty solid too. It beats Sandburg's, that's for sure.

To this list of Life is Like pearls of wisdom, I would like to submit this humble entry inspired by one of my daily chores.

Life is Like Picking up Dog Poop. You can't get to it all standing in one place. But when you move around you just might step in some.~Me

The photo up top is of a ladybug my daughter encountered in the bathroom whilst combing her hair. At her request I removed it to the backyard. I thought you might like that better than a picture of dog poop.

Go Ye Forth and Do Likewise.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Daffodils and Ice Dancers

Yes, that is a photo of a daffodil. I took it in my garden this morning. Pretty, isn't it?

That's the daffodil part.

How many times in life have you wished for the opportunity for Do-Overs? I'm not talking about a return of service in a hotly contested tennis match or actually paying attention to the roast in the oven instead of taking a nap on the patio only to be waken by a spouse with a blackened face and holding the charred remnant of what was to be the centerpiece of the family repast. I mean something significant. And what could be more significant than ones novel?

Exactly, I am glad you agree.

So you will understand why I jumped at the chance to see the New and Improved version of my first novel Close Enough for Government Work brought into the light of a brand new day. Although the original has had its day, indeed ultimately it has succeeded well beyond what I could have reasonably expected: it secured me, however temporarily, a by-god byline assignment as humor columnist with the short-lived periodical AZ3Sixty; copies of it have been purchased in some pretty far-flung locales; and the Arizona Library for the Blind approached me about creating an audio version, which was one of the great thrills my modest literary life has afforded me. But hindsight is a persistent hound and not long after I held the first copy in my hands I began to tinker with it.

That tinkering produced Boomerang.

Realizing that chances were slim in the extreme that any traditional publisher would be interested in picking up what is essentially a v.2 of a book they had nearly all said "This is quite good, but not for us" to a couple of years earlier, I resigned myself to the fact that Boomerang would serve essentially as an exercise in creating a fifty-eighth draft, not a book to be tossed into the world.

And then, a writers' site I have belonged to for the past three years, introduced a rather extraordinary offer. Working with Legend Press, an up and coming publishing house in the UK, they offered to publish the First Five Thousand properly formatted manuscripts submitted to them. Free of charge. Remarkable and, I thought at the time, plain old foolish. How could they hope to fulfill a promise in September to have all submitted manuscripts "Ready for Christmas giving and holiday marketing plans"? It couldn't be done. I rejected the idea as frivolous. But ultimately I couldn't resist. So in October of last year I sent off the digital file that is Boomerang and have since then been anxiously awaiting the arrival of Government Work's fraternal twin.

YWO and Legend soon found out that producing five thousand books in such a short period of time Simply Could Not Be Done. A small percentage of the submitted manuscripts were brought out before the end of the year, the rest of us were told we could either hold tight or opt out. I held tight.

On March 26th I received notice that My Book Was Ready. I placed my initial order for three copies, my intention being to check out the product and see if it was something worthy of putting in the investment of time and time (money is not going to be a component of any marketing plan of mine in the foreseeable future) into getting the word out.

Payment made throught Google Checkout was promptly processed. The books have yet to arrive. The last correspondence I received from the publisher said this:

The book was shipped by royal mail. I have looked at the order again and noticed that the order is addressed to Christopher Dean, I am not sure why but the address is correct.

There may just be a delay due to Easter and the parcel coming from England to America (which takes at least a week usually). Would you be able to let me know if they don't arrive by Friday and then I will contact the printers to see what we can do.

We will skip on past the part that says "I am not sure why but the address is correct" and go right to the "Christopher Dean" section. Evidently my book was fated to be placed in the mail slot of one of the most renowned ice dancers this world has seen. Christoper Dean, along with his partner Jane Torvill captivated audiences worldwide with their hauntingly romantic, almost erotic (remember, this pair is British) if chilly, version of Ravel's "Bolero" in the early 1980's.

I can only hope that once Mr. Dean has had a chance to read my book, he will be texting Ms. Torvill about a comeback based around a routine featuring the characters of Doreen Lush and Ted Hogwood.

And if you don't know who Doreen and Ted are, you need a copy of Boomerang.

Just like me.

In the meantime, the original is still available. So if you want to take advantage of what is surely the rarest of opportunities to own two versions of the same book, order Close Enough for Government Work now and Boomerang later. Or wait until both are available and quite likely cut a deal on the shipping! Even better, order through your local independent bookstore and eliminate the shipping cost altogether. Whichever way you go I promise you won't be sorry.

Well, actually, I won't be sorry. It's kind of presumptuous of me to guarantee anybody else's reaction to anything. But I'll put good odds on it anyway.

I'll let you know when Boomerang is available. With its own hyperlink and everything!

Go Ye Forth and Do Likewise.

*POD=Print On Demand

Friday, April 17, 2009

What They Don't Allow on Authonomy

During one of the message board exchanges on Authonomy (which for those of you who have just recently stopped in here at "Sketches" is a writers' site run by Harper Collins), I questioned, in a good natured, wink of the eye way, one of the other members almost desperate pleading for other members to read and "shelve" an excerpt from a member who goes by the name of RayMay. The avatar RayMay was using at the time showed a young lady of very attractive appearance and I simply put out there that perhaps her advocate had let that cloud his judgment regarding her writing. I then suggested that perhaps I should choose something more eye-catching than the pen sketch of my old Royal typewriter as my own avatar.

So I did. The photo above is what I submitted. It was taken inside the casino at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. I was there for what turned out to be the last corporate meeting of the company I worked for for twenty-one years and which went Chapter 11 bankrupt shortly after the soiree in Vegas.

This morning I received a note from Authonomy telling me my photo was unsuitable for the site. So I chose another I trust will pass muster. A straight on shot of Yours-Non-photogenically. Fully clothed, as God intended.

Then I clicked on a random excerpt on the site posted by another member to see if I could find some welcome literary surprise from a fellow unknown and was subjected to a barrage of F-bombs and sexual behavior of the most, shall we say, non-Catholic sort.

Interesting standards they have on the web sometimes.

Go Ye Forth and Do Likewise.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Thank God for Anne Lamott

I am a lapsed churchgoer. Brought up a Methodist, wandered away for several years of my callow and irresponsible young adult life, came back as a husband and father and finally split from the scene again when I couldn't take the politics, hypocrisy and general nonsense that cast a haze over the good stuff like the music and the food and many of the people. But that doesn't mean I don't have a deep and everlasting belief system going on. Maybe one day I'll find a congregation that works for me (and more importantly, for my beloved).

In the meantime it is good--heck, it's absolutely necessary if I am to hold on to any faint semblence of sanity--for me to have at least a sporadic diet of reading that helps me reconnect with Faith and Humanity and God. And few writers do that as well as Anne Lamott. For us writers she is known for her Gotta Have book Bird by Bird , but I am also so very glad she has given us Traveling Mercies and Plan B. And now, courtesy the bargain book table at my local grocery store, I have my own copy of Grace Eventually, Thoughts on Faith. Six bucks on anything other than necessities right now could be considered an extravagance in our household these days, but this was money well spent ten times over. I'm only four essays into this collection, but as expected Ms. Lamott is funny and honest and direct and just such a damned good writer it makes me mad I'm not that good and glad somebody is. She captures moments, shining a light on them from her own unique angle that somehow is the way I think most of us would like to view life if only we knew how to properly aim the lights and the camera.

She is by no means the only contemporary writer who helps refresh my mind and soul. And most of the others who do so come at Life and the Great Cosmic Scheme from a very much different place than Ms. Lamott. Two that come to mind are Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore. And of course there are many, many Dead Person Great Writers without whom I would be a much hollower shell of a man than I often feel is my fate: Twain, Dickens, Shakespeare, Shaw, Lewis, Tolkien, Wodehouse and so many others lift me up and give me strength to go on time and time again even as they open my eyes so I can see the stumbling blocks that litter the path.The point is that all my favorite writers share two qualities: An eye that recognizes what is real and a heart that shows us what is possible.

Go Ye Forth and Do Likewise

Saturday, April 11, 2009

I Come Not Just to Tell a Story, But Also To Grow Berries

It is one of those books that I have been meaning to read literally for decades and finally got around to it just this week. I was at the library looking for a book by Michael Chabon for me and one by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson for my daughter when it caught my eye and announced that it was about time I made time for it. So I plucked The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle off the shelf and took it home in company with Gentlemen of the Road, which was not the Chabon book I wanted, but that one was checked out, Peter and the Starcatchers, which was exactly what my daughter had requested, and Peter Pan, which I hoped she would be tempted to read after sampling Barry and Pearson's prequel to Barrie's classic.

I only just began reading The Last Unicorn yesterday during my lunch time, but I am enjoying it tremendously. And one of the things I like about it is that it is witty. Mr. Beagle knows how to have fun with the language and he knows how to present a very well turned phrase. He also has chunks of well presented wisdom in the book that have me reaching for my commonplace book to write them down for future reference and admiration. Other authors I cannot read without having the commonplace book at my side are Wodehouse, Pratchett, Twain, Dickens, Carroll, T.H. White, Thackeray, Wilde and Bryson. There are others, but those ones will serve as examples.

These authors are all different, all have their own styles, but one thing they have in common is the well turned phrase. They are Masters of the English language, its vocabulary, its rhythms, its tones. They are not afraid to be Writers. I admire them, I envy them and I love to spend time with them. So I think it is understandable that I have tried in various ways to pattern my own writing after theirs. And it has occured to me that this may be a problem.

Is it a good thing for an unknown writer to do anything other than try to present a story in clean, straightforward language? The kind that doesn't get in the way, that doesn't sound "writerly", that doesn't present even the slightest danger of making the reader stop and reread and maybe jot down a particularly witty, well-turned phrase? Or is this an obstacle? Is it a road too fraught with peril to even consider taking?

I haven't made my mind up about this, not yet. Although much of the criticism and rejection my writing has inspired has had as its target my tendency to strive for the witty, even on occasion the pithy, if I tried to rein that in completely I would be turning my back on those authors who inspired me to even try my hand at this most difficult of crafts.

So I think I will keep on trying to produce those juicy little berries of linguistic delight and hope that there are readers out there who will brave the thorns of semi-colon laden sentences and multi-syllabic words, of digressions and asides, and find some sort of satisfactory reading experience in what comes from my pen and keyboard.

Here is what I jotted down from The Last Unicorn right before my lunch break ended:

"He ran," the unicorn said. "You must never run from anything immortal. It attracts their attention." Her voice was gentle and without pity. "Never run," she said. "Walk slowly, and pretend to be thinking of something else. Sing a song, say a poem, do your tricks, but walk slowly and she may not follow. Walk very slowly, magician."

Let's balance that one with a bit from Something Fresh by P.G. Wodehouse:

The odd impulse to leap across the compartment and kiss Joan was not love. It was merely the natural desire of a good hearted young man to be decently chummy with his species.

And finally:

There are few fates--outside of the more gruesome types of torture, such as purchasing an automobile or sitting next to a hygienically challenged person in coach on a trans-Pacific flight--that are worse than being bored for three years. Even if one is being paid. Really. Some people may live the life and believe it suits them, but they are mistaken about this and it may be confidently supposed that they are mistaken about many things.

It's not Wodehouse, but at least I'm trying.

Go Ye Forth and Do Likewise.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Sometimes You Just Gotta Get Out

I know that the life of a writer is necessarily one that is heavy on solitude. And considering the fact that I don't really get to allocate a very high percentage of any particular day/week/year to the actual Writer's Life, my doses of solitude come pretty few and far between. So you would think I would cherish each opportunity to share my space with nobody other than the characters in my book and the thoughts in my head. And often as not that is the case.

But sometimes the rare and sought after solitude just isn't welcome.

Sometimes what is wanted is a healthy dose of Belonging to a Community with a side dish of Taking Part in a Ceremony. And I am really glad I had the chance to do both yesterday evening, because an entire day of an empty house, not many chores to do and a mind that just would not open up and let The Baer Boys (my current work in progress) in was about to drive me past grumpy to somewhere very close to surly.

My salvation came in the form of a family outing. As funds are even scarcer nowadays than they have traditionally been in the Hutcheson household, we have made a commitment to spend the little discretionary income we have as much as possible on Experiences instead of Stuff. And the latest Experience was Going to the Symphony.

It was my idea and when I posed it to the family several weeks ago it was met with what can only be called apathy. My wife seemed to agree only because there was a two-for-one deal on tickets and it would provide another excuse to ride on the new Light Rail into downtown Phoenix. Our daughter shrugged and said in essence "whatever". And our son indicated at first that he had no interest at all and then changed his mind when we said we would be trying to incorporate a visit to Pizzaria Bianco for dinner. Pizzaria Bianco has been pretty universally declared the best pizza place in the whole wide world, and from our one visit there a couple of years ago I would have to say this pizza fiend agrees wholeheartedly.

As it turned out, dinner at Bianco was impossible. When I called them the day before to ask when we should get there to make sure we could make an eight o'clock concert I was told "Three-thirty in the afternoon". Not possible for us. So, between the loss of the pizza allure and a power struggle between him and my wife regarding proper symphony attire we just about lost our son's participation. But in the end she relented regarding the outfit and so at about 6:30 yesterday evening we all got on the new Valley Metro Light Rail and headed into downtown Phoenix.

There were just a few riders at first, but more got on at just about every stop, including a bunch in Tempe around ASU, and before you knew it the train was packed. An air of excitement is what we had. Some folks were heading to the Suns game (we won!), some to First Friday's artwalk, some to clubs and restaurants, and we were going to the symphony. You just can't get that sort of vibe driving your own little capsule of a car.

About a block from the light rail stop at Third Street is Symphony Hall. No parking lots involved! We were early, so we indulged in some baked treats from one of the concessions in the lobby and enjoyed each others company and watched the rest of the people gathering.

The first piece in the concert was a Haydn symphony. Number Fifty-nine. Short, lively, a lot of fun.

And then out came a trio called Time for Three. Two violins and a double bass. They were there to play a piece by Jennifer Higdon called "Concerto 4-3" based on bluegrass and other American music idioms. But before they played the concerto, they launched into a rollicking version of Brahm's Hungarian Rhapsody No 5. that was simply jaw dropping. They treated it as a launching point for some incredible improvisation, worked in snippets of melodies from "Fiddler on the Roof" and even incorporated a bit of Two Men on One Fiddle stunt playing that you had to see and hear to believe. After that I thought the concerto would be a letdown but I was wrong, wrong, wrong. Virtuoso playing by the soloists, powerful accompaniment by the orchestra, and just an incredible amount of energy coming off that stage. I know that Springsteen was in town and playing at about the
same time, but I doubt even he could have generated the sort of musical heat that was coming from Time for Three and the orchestra being led by Michael Christie.

Then intermission, which unlike most intermissions where you must fill the time with small talk, bathroom waits and general lobby loitering, there was a short and interesting interview between Maestro Christie and the members of Time for Three. My kind of intermission. After that came Symphonic Dances by Rachmaninoff, which while it wasn't quite treat the Higdon was, still topped the concert off quite nicely.

The ride back home was even livelier than the ride downtown. Lots of people returning from having fun. Families, couples, people who were celebrating the Sun's victory and people like us aglow from the concert.

It was good to be with people. And good to participate in the ceremony of performance. The writing will be good another time. Like now!

Go Ye Forth and Do Likewise

Re the pic: I just like that one. Four marbles in a glass. I took that photo about thirty years ago.

It was a moment when solitude was working very well.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

We Dance


So in my last entry here I ended with a wish that I had pocket angels to hand out. Seeing as how even if I did they would be of precious little practicality here on the web, perhaps I can come close by sharing something I just read whilst eating lunch.

There are a number of books I like to keep on the shelves above the den desk, handy at all times, a variety that spans reference works to novels to collections of poetry. One of them is The Power of Myth , the companion volume to the PBS series Bill Moyers did with Joseph Campbell in the mid-1980's. Today I took it down for my lunchtime reading and only got as far as the introduction. But that ends in a story Campbell told to Moyers that I really like.

In Japan for an international conference on religion, Campbell overhead another American delegate, a social philosopher from New York, say to a Shinto priest, "We've been now to a good many ceremonies and have seen quite a few of your shrines. But I don't get your ideology. I don't get your theology." The Japanese paused as though in deep thought and then slowly shook his head. "I think we don't have ideology," he said. "We don't have theology. We dance."

I have about ten minutes before I need to leave for work. Looks to me like a great opportunity to dance.

Go Ye Forth and Do Likewise.

*The photo is one I took many years ago of a friend whose exuberant, dancing spirit I was fortunate to capture in this shot. I hope she doesn't mind me using it here. It's perfect for the subject.

Angels and Day Jobs

Sometimes it seems the best inspirations, the best pick-me-ups come from the unlikeliest sources.

I hope I have made it clear that I do like my current day job. Good company, great coworkers, lots of nice customers and it's a pretty good workout all at the same time. No six figure salary, but the way things are in the world lately it is good to have a job and it is triply good to be able to enjoy what you do. Only problem, of course, with any day job is that it takes time. Time that could be spent writing. Or reading. Or taking the dogs for a walk. Or volunteering at the library. Or learning how to play jazz guitar. Or auditioning for local theater productions. I have no end of stuff to occupy me if and when I get to retire from day jobs. Can't do a lot of what I want to do because the day job has a hold on quite a chunk of time every week.

But, without the day job there are so many things I would miss, so many people I wouldn't meet and so many challenges I wouldn't have to tackle (tackling challenges is, in my opinion, a really good thing for us all).

And without the day job I wouldn't have my pocket angel (see pic above). A few weeks ago, on a day that could have been going better in just about every regard as far as I could see, I had the carryout pager. We sell lots of things that are big and bulky and heavy and awkward and so oftentimes we need to assist our customers in loading up their purchases in their vehicles. When my pager buzzed late that afternoon I went to the stockroom, retrieved a large cart full of shelving product and wheeled it to the curb. When we opened up the back hatch of the customer's minivan I just had to shake my head. The cargo area was already packed, much of the space being occupied by heart shaped balloons. How was I supposed to load all the stuff on the cart into that space?

The lady who, along with her husband, was purchasing the shelving system saw my reaction and laughed. At first I wasn't sure how to interpret her laugh but when I saw her face it was clear she wasn't laughing at my problem or even my reaction, she simply recognized what was going through my head and saw the humor. This helped me see the humor too. And approaching it with that frame of mind seemed to help me figure out a way to make everything fit.

I should mention that the lady was confined to a wheelchair.

After everything was loaded up her husband parked the minivan and they both came back in the store. Hadn't finished looking around, and she liked the place and people so much she actually said "I just don't want to leave yet." I had to return the cart to the stockroom but when I came back on the sales floor she beckoned me over and gave me a pocket angel. "So you will always know that God loves you and is there to help you solve Life's problems."

Now I am not a particularly religious man, I am not without faith, it's just not attached to any certain denomination. But I am a big movie and music fan, and her gift of the pocket angel for some reason brought to mind the song "Pocketful of Miracles", from the Frank Capra movie of the same name. I mentioned it and it turned out that movie is one of her all-time favorites. We had a nice conversation that started with Capra movies (her fave is "Pocketful of Miracles" mine is "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington") that led into other subjects and by the time I had to pull away and get back to work I knew for a fact that if this woman in a wheelchair could be such a by golly genuine ray of sunshine I had no business to be a Grumpy Gus.

I've carried my pocket angel every day since then. I should have asked her where she got the ones she handed out. I'd like to hand some out myself.

Go Ye Forth and Do Likewise.

P.S. The background for the photo is the upper right corner of my Riverside Shakespeare. That's one of my bookshelf angels.

A Bit About Me

My photo
I am a writer with a longtime interest in photography. I'm a dad, husband, photographer, and not very good guitarist. My first novel, Boomerang, is available in both paperback and ebook form at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and As a matter of fact, my second novel, The Baer Boys, can be found at exactly the same places.