Tag Archives: The Stand In

Notes from a Caretaker

24 Jun

Last night I made dinner as I usually do, cooking baked macaroni and barbequed pork sandwiches because the menu is one of my mom’s favorites. Then I set the table, calling her into dinner from her bedroom at the back of the house.

“Who’s missing tonight?” she asked cheerily as she came into the dining area on her mobility scooter, surveying the dinner table.

“What?” I asked.

“You’ve set the table for only two. What about Rosie and Daddy and Jackie…?”

It was as though she had thrown freezing water into my face. Because those people – her father and two sisters – had died a couple of decades ago.

If you want to know the reason I haven’t been writing my blog lately, that’s why. My mom recently turned ninety and she seems to be rapidly dropping all her marbles. I’ve taken care of her for ten years now because she suffers from arthritis in most parts of her body, particularly in her knees, and she has become almost immobile. I moved back from New York City to care for her because she had suffered a debilitating fall, and when I thought about it back then I never imagined that I’d be doing it a decade later.

Ten years.

Ten years of being butler, driver, parlor maid and cook. Ten years of being turned into that most woeful of professions, not to mention one of the least paid – the care-giver. Ten years of being estranged from my friends (she doesn’t like visitors), ten years of making beds and cleaning toilets, of eating at five o’clock in the afternoon (because she has always eaten at five o’clock in the afternoon), and going to bed at 7:30 from sheer boredom. Worst of all I’ve been years out of the job market, neglecting my own retirement needs. I used to be able to go into town and stay overnight with friends, or go away for a weekend. Not anymore.

Recently I went to the movies. I was gone for no more than three hours. When I returned home, I found her terrified. “Where were you?” she demanded. “I was alone all afternoon, and no one called me – not even Mother.” Do I need to mention that her mother died in 1971? Does this mean that I can’t even go to the movies now?

The only thing that made the situation remotely tolerable in these last ten years was the fact that she had remained witty, sharp and intellectually stimulating. She read a book a day and devoured the news magazines, all the while railing vigorously against those bastard Republicans. She swore like a sailor – in fact, she was a sailor, having been in the Navy WAVES during World War II.

I convinced myself that the situation was good for my writing career, and indeed produced two modest best sellers during this time, all the while supplementing my income with museum and exhibit design – work I could do from home. But recently, along with the economy, my writing career has lost its traction. It seems like I am being slowly strangled here at home and my concentration suffers because of it. My life used to be a rich tapestry of color and design; now it’s a gray, disheveled bathmat. As a result, I go through bouts of resentful anger and depression that almost kill me, because now that she’s losing her mind, the only pleasure I could take from the situation is disappearing along with it.

As Stevie Smith might say, “…not waving, but drowning.”

And I’m terrified.

MY CUP RUNNETH OVER – WITH BLOOD

26 May

I’ll admit right up front that I love Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books. Somehow her combination of the undead and fried pickles works. I like to think that the Sookie books lie somewhere to the opposite of Anne Rice’s elegant, gorgeous creations. If Rice’s works are symphonies of operatic lyricism, Charlaine Harris’s books are a country jamboree.

“Deadlocked” is Harris’s twelfth book in her “True Blood” series and it is one of the better ones. (This is surely not to say that there were ever any duds, for Harris is a continually inventive writer whose talents shine even while utilizing the same characters and locations almost ad nauseum. Unlike Janet Evanovich, whose Stephanie Plum ran aground in the series’ sixth book, Harris still has some steam left.) “Deadlocked” is described as the “penultimate book in the Sookie Stackhouse series”, with the magically numbered thirteenth volume (released next year) to be the final one.
Here’s my next confession: I’ll be glad to see the series come to an end.

Because good as Harris is, as imaginative and readable, she’s been holding this same note for so long she’s turning blue. Magic and the supernatural imbue her every page, just as surely as in any Harry Potter book; and, like JK Rowling, Harris has created a rich and heady universe where almost every magical creature meets in the town of Bontemps, Louisiana – vampires, werewolves, witches, Wiccan, shape-shifters and the Fae, who are the most deadly of all. Somehow Sookie has become the prism through which they all manifest, and we are meant to believe that Sookie’s own fairy blood is somehow responsible. She in fact seems so essential to the existence of the supernatural forces that one begins to suspect that without Sookie they never could have come to Bontemps in the first place (or “out of the coffin”, as Harris said about her vampires).

A couple of books ago I wondered how Charlaine Harris could possibly balance so many characters, so many supernatural worlds and lore, so many plot lines without Bontemps simply tipping over and sliding into a bayou from the sheer weight of them all. When she closed the “fairy portal” that connected the Fae to this world, I relaxed a bit and thought – thank God for Charlaine! One less adversary to worry about! But in “Deadlocked” the fairies are back again, as mean and conniving as ever.
And Sookie is getting mighty tired of it all. She’s tired of the viciousness and cunning of her supernatural friends, who always manage to embroil her into their power-hungry schemes.

And frankly, I’m tired too.

I want the books to end. I want to know how Sookie deals with it all. This tantric exertion of delaying gratification is getting on my nerves, just as it is Sookie’s (and, I suspect, Charlaine’s as well.)

A few books ago Harris hinted that Sookie was losing her humanity, for she was becoming almost too quick to resort to a “Let’s kill them all!” strategy. Perhaps it was because of all the vampire blood that she ingested during her relationships with vampires Bill Compton and Eric Northman. One drop too much, Sookie realizes, and she could spontaneously “turn” into a member of the undead clan, something she definitely does not want to do. But perhaps that blood limit has been reached and Sookie is indeed losing her humanity (and humanness) in the process.

Will Sookie become a vampire at the end of it all, as Bella did in the loathsome “Twilight” series? I don’t think so. Charlaine Harris is too good a writer for that. I like to think that like Dorothy in Oz, Sookie will simply find the equivalent of clicking her heels together and the world will become magically denuded of magical creatures. It might be the only way she and the world can survive.
I can then go on from there, happy and sated. Then it will be my turn to finish my own vampire series, “The Chronicles of the Sanguivorous.” (You can buy the first volume on Amazon for only 99 cents! And relax – I’ve outlined a mere seven books, and have a definite end in mind.)
Yet, after everything is said and done, and though I wish Harris had streamlined her own story, I have to admit that I have enjoyed every one of her books. I have been charmed and titillated by them. I have stayed up into the wee hours reading them. I have eagerly discussed them with friends. In short, the books are everything good books are supposed to be. And I will be among the first to order my copy of the last in the series.

You’ve earned a well-deserved rest, Charlaine. Go with the Angels.

(Which, when you think of it, is one of the few supernatural species she left alone.)

How to Write for Television and Film (Revisiting an Earlier Post on Writing)

7 May

I wrote this when I first began blogging months ago and wanted to share with new readers. Let me know what you think of the advice, or if you have any specific questions. I’ll be happy to elaborate!

While I wait for my newest novel, The Stand In to be available via BookBaby on Amazon and iBooks and eBooks… (It’s available now, you can buy it here…) I thought I’d give you a taste of what it is like to be in my classroom. I teach writing at Mount San Antonio College and have been astounded at the degree of talent in my students. This was the last lecture I delivered about Professionalism in the Entertainment Industry…

As a writer you will have two tasks of equal importance – writing something, and then selling it. Both are difficult.  Each are equally important.  Because if you don’t have an audience, you may as well be whispering in the dark.  Both take different skills.  Both are creative. BUT, of the two skills WRITING IS THE MORE IMPORTANT.  Because there are so few truly great writers, if you become one agents will fight to represent you, and producers will pay you gobs of money to produce you work.  If you are a magnificent sales person, but only a so-so writer, you’ll maybe sell one or two screenplays at best.

What are the characteristics of a PROFESSIONAL WRITER?

First of all, no one asks to see your diploma.  No one cares if you went to college.  Your diploma is actually the screenplay they are reading.  They will quickly find out if you know your field, are intelligent, well-read, unique.

How do you become a GREAT WRITER?  Not in classrooms.  I’m only here to teach you the fundamentals, format, structure, character and dialogue.  The rest is up to you.  YOU LEARN WRITING – BY WRITING!

Writing is like a muscle.  The more you write, the stronger the writing muscle becomes. And discipline is key.  You set aside time, preferably the same time every day, and you just write – even if it’s only staring a blank page, get into the habit of discipline.  Remember, good writing is probably the hardest work you will ever do.  Bad writing is really easy.

Rules of the game:  Watch films, old and new, learn what works and what doesn’t.  There’s a real reason I force you watch these films in class – they are inspirational.  Never be afraid to copy another film’s technique or style.  YOU WILL LEARN YOUR OWN UNIQUE STYLE SOON ENOUGH.

And, most importantly, READ, READ, READ – Magazines, newspapers – tomorrow’s headlines or features are the basis of excellent stories.  But most of all READ BOOKS.  When you read, you read sentences, and when you read a lot you will begin to think in sentences, and then you will be able to write both by example and by mimicry.  Soon you will find your own style.  And chances are that if you run into a problem with your writing, Homer probably solved it for you three thousand years ago.  Be curious.  Find out about people.  Ask them questions.  Remember, a writer is a spy, a psychologist, and most of all – a thief.  Everything is available to you to use.

And go to IMSDB and read other screenplays.  Study how the writers constructed them.  See what works – and what does not.

But take heart from one piece of advice – good writers are so rare that they will almost always prosper.  So for those of you so inclined, keep writing every day, including Sundays.

FINDING AN AGENT –What does an agent do?  He or She is your go-between in your relations between a studio, a producer, and all the rest who will read and consider your scripts.  They are the ones with the contacts, they know who is the best producer or team to send your work to, and they will protect you when the shit starts coming your way.  They really earn their ten percent. Unfortunately it’s hard to get an agent.  They usually want experienced writers.  How do you get experience?  Sell a script.  But to sell a script usually requires an agent.  And to get an agent you need to have sold a script.  You can see the conundrum.

WGA signatories – look up those who will take unsolicited inquiries.  Write them a glowing letter describing your background and an even more glowing synopsis of your work.  Remember how I said that the first ten pages of your screenplay were the most important?  Forget what I said – your inquiry letter is the most important.

WRITING FOR A TV SERIES

Don’t do it.  TV series have writing staffs.  They have years’ worth of scripts already written, and they know how the series will arc years from now.  You do not.  But if you must…

Write a sample script.  Rarely will it get bought.  But it might impress the staff enough to hand you an assignment, or to buy your concept.

NEW SERIES – DON’T.  First year is hell.

MOVIES OF THE WEEK:  Your best market.  Market size unlimited.

THEATRICAL MOTION PICTURES:  Your second-best market.  Lots of prestige, but market size is limited.

ADAPTING A NOVEL:  The scared producer.  William Goldman says that nobody in the industry knows anything.  Thus, if a novel has been a success, they at least know one thing – that it sold in another medium.  They like that.  But legalities are involved.

Successful writers are goal oriented.  They know how to take constructive criticism well, learn from it, and they also know how to ignore rejection or unconstructive criticism.  REMEMBER, No one Knows Anything.  If someone didn’t like your work, someone else might.  In spite of everything, you must persevere.  And remember, it’s a numbers game.

Another 5-star review for my mystery, “The Stand In”… thanks for making my day!

4 May

I thoroughly enjoyed The Stand In. I have just returned to living in LA after living in the Southeast for 25 plus years. I was in the mood for something “LA-ish” and with the feel of old school like the Noir films I used to love to watch. The Stand In hit the spot- Beagley’s knowledge of LA made the read really fun and the twists and turns as he unfolds the mystery kept me entranced and interested in where the story was going. I highly recommend this book!

Trafficking with Movie Stars– Meeting Elizabeth Taylor

29 Apr

I’ve always needed to meet the people whose creative work has profoundly influenced or touched me.  I want to see how they behave, to know what’s inside their heads, to discover how their temperament differs from mine, etc. etc.  Those of you who read my blog know that the movie “Cleopatra” and its writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz were profoundly influential on my life.  When I saw the film for the first time, when I was twelve, I became infatuated with the actors, it’s true, but soon I wanted to know about the man who created it.  Why had the film so affected me?  In film school, in my college years, I produced an award-winning thesis, “When ‘The Movies’ Went Out of Style”, in which I interviewed many members of the cast and crew, including Joe Mankiewicz, and over the years I became the person known as the “unofficial cast member of ‘Cleopatra’”.  I have been a “film historian” in two documentaries about the movie, which are being packaged with the release of the blu-ray.  (Talk about having a whim of iron!  I now co-star with everyone!)  Roddy McDowall in fact became a friend and even visited me in Washington, D.C., when I lived there.

But I had always managed to avoid meeting HER.

Truth is, I really didn’t want to meet her.  I was quite content to know Elizabeth Taylor through her performances.  When you meet stars and celebrities, you always run the risk of major disappointment.  They can be dull and vaguely stupid a lot of the time.  Or so dominated by their loathsome agents and managers that all you want to do is run screaming from the room.  And, being a historian at heart, they certainly don’t want to meet me.  Stars never want to be known as an artifact from another time.  They are NOW, they are HAPPENING, they are RELEVANT.  It doesn’t matter if they haven’t made a film in thirty years, everything is about TODAY!  (Only Roddy McDowall truly had a sense of history, and knew his own place within it, and that was the basis of our friendship – he loved to talk about his days as a child star and all the famous people he had worked with.  Even his Cadillac’s license plate said “EX MOPPET” on it.)  The technicians and craftsmen are the interesting ones – the behind-the-scenes people always have the best stories.  Stars – rarely!

In 1997, however, I finally got to meet Taylor through the intervention of Roddy McDowall.  We had gotten permission from Twentieth Century-Fox to at long last mount a search for the missing footage from “Cleopatra”.  Mankiewicz had delivered a five-and-a-half hour film, from which the studio removed about an hour-and-a-half.  (You can learn the story behind the film’s editing on a new documentary that I’m in, packaged with the blu-ray, called “Cleopatra’s Missing Footage.”)

Though Bill Mechanic, then-president of Fox, had said “yes” to the project there was one hitch to our plans.  The film was still owned in part by Elizabeth Taylor and we needed to get her permission to go forward.  (This was but one of the many unprecedented clauses in her contract with Fox, and never to be seen again in any celebrity contract.)  Roddy said that he would handle her, and he set a time for the meeting.  At the last moment he asked me to come along, saying that I could speak for the recently deceased Joe Mankiewicz.

I was filled with trepidation, not only because of the reasons stated above, but because Taylor scared the hell out of me.  Everyone I had interviewed had talked about how intimidating she could be, particularly if she sensed you needed something from her.  (Stars are always being approached by people seeking money, gifts and favors and they are deeply suspicious of any stranger.)  Even Richard Burton, who I talked with on the telephone, told me that she alone had taught him “how to squeeze the balls of the executives” in his dealings with film studios.  I was fond enough of my balls in their current position and did not relish the idea of her being anywhere near them.

Well, anyway, I went to the meeting.  Really – wouldn’t you?

We traveled in Roddy’s Cadillac up to her surprisingly small house in Bel Air, and proceeded to sit in her living room for over an hour.  She was upstairs and apparently did not mind keeping her very best childhood friend waiting.  I got to look at her Van Gogh up close, however, and that helped to pass the time.

Finally, she appeared.  She was white-haired at that phase in her life and swept grandly into the room.  I remember that she was barefoot beneath a long white caftan.  Roddy introduced us and she said in a slight English accent, “It’s so-o-o-o-o gude to meet yew.  Joe Mankiewicz – ”  (she was the only person I knew who ever pronounced it Mahn-kuh-vitch) “ – spoke so highly about yew.”

Nervously I launched into my spiel.  “Well, thank you, Miss Taylor – it’s because of his memory that I’m here.  We’ve finally been given permission by Fox to restore ‘Cleopatra’ to his first cut and we need your permission before we can do it.”

Gone in an instant was the English accent.  Gone was any pretense at friendliness.  The sand-papery voice became charged with Virginia Woolf volume.  “Blow it out your ass!” she screamed at me.  “I never made a DIME off that goddamn movie!”

She had in fact made $7 million from overtime on the production alone.  Later, when Fox had sued her after the film came out, claiming that her and Burton’s “immoral” behavior had proved “detrimental to the financial performance of the film”, she had actually won that suit, and another $2.6 million dollars (10% of the film’s actual budget, proving Mankiewicz’ claim that the film never cost $44 million as the studio claimed) was settled on her – with the stipulation that the books would be closed on “Cleopatra”.  This is why the film is always shown as making only $26 million; it will forever be seen as only breaking even, and never going into profit.  Taylor’s additional ten percent of the gross income of the film, once again guaranteed by her contract, was to be covered in the $2.6 million payment.  “Cleopatra,” however, went on to make money all over the world in various international markets and later by sales to television and home video – the profits of which were denied Taylor by the court settlement.  This was one of the few times that a studio had out-maneuvered her and was she bitter!  Though she had “not made a dime on that goddamn movie” she had actually made almost $10 million – and in 1960’s dollars!  Dimes are obviously of different value to stars of her magnitude.

So what did I do when she told me to “blow it out my ass”?  I’m afraid I laughed out loud.  This was perhaps the only thing that saved me, because she was not expecting it.  Apparently other people cringed before her tempers – Eddie Fisher once told me that she had taught him how to scream for anything that he wanted – but I knew right then that I had a great story suitable for any cocktail party, and one that I could dine out on for the rest of time.  I didn’t need her, you see – I was under contract to Disney at the time, and frankly they didn’t take too well to the fact that I was consulting to a rival studio.  It was her film, and if she didn’t want to do the project, well…it was no skin off my ass.

But Roddy calmed her down.  “Now, Elizabeth!  Elizabeth!” he purred.   He finally maneuvered her to the point where she growled, “Okay – but I’m gonna get my lawyers on it!”  Once again he dissuaded her, saying that such a move would destroy any chance we had for finding the footage.  He convinced her instead to wait until the work was finished before she initiated any legal proceedings.

So that was my encounter with La Liz.  I never met her again.  But then I didn’t want to, either.  Once was quite enough.  Besides, it was never my goal – as it is with so many others who get into show business – to have lunch with movie stars.  I wanted to make stuff, to tell stories, to work with great talents – not hover in the celestial orbits of the rich and infamous.

Check Out This Review of “The Stand In” from Cassandra Parkin

11 Apr

I’m thrilled with this lovely review, it really makes my day. I also enjoyed reading Cassandra’s blog. Indie-authors could not ask for better readers and thoughtful reviewers…

“The Stand In” is a lovely, tightly-plotted, perfectly-crafted sliver of Hollywood noir. Rising Hollywood superstars and former lovers Rick DeNova and Lola Chandler are locked into starring roles in Centurion Studios’ production from Hell – a prestige vanity-project to bring Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities to the big screen…The Stand-In” would be worth reading even without the shock of discovering the author really has been cleverer than you, because it’s very, very well-written and it’s worth it just for the journey to its inevitable and well-foreshadowed ending. But finding a book that really has lived up to the “you won’t see this one coming” hype? That’s just delightful.

Have You Read, The Stand In?

27 Feb
Couldn’t resist sharing my latest review on Amazon! Have you read it? You can download it on Kindle, Nook and iTunes for iPad.
New! B. Maxwell reviewed The Stand In
 Grabs You From Page One February 24, 2012
Given to me by a friend, I couldn’t put this book down! On its surface it’s about a 50’s Hollywood movie idol who uses his celebrity to seduce and kill young women until his studio mogul boss begins to suspect him. Instead of going to the police and risking his #1 asset, the mogul decides to secretly replace him with an innocent young actor with an uncanny resemblance. But will his true role be replacement or fall-guy? Along the way the plot twists and turns, drawing you in with characters that, true to life, are both seduced by their dreams of success and love, and battered by the reality of what this town does to you. So what author Geagley ends up unspooling is a seductive thriller with wry insider’s view of Hollywood. Oh, and you’ll never guess the ending.

Inspiration–What inspired you to become a writer?

6 Feb

What inspired you to become a writer?  Believe it or not this question came up last night for me when I was watching Madonna during the halftime show of the Super Bowl.  Her appearance, drawn on a moving float pulled by gladiators and costumed in cloth of gold, was –well, what was it?  An homage?  A parody?  A rip-off? – of Cleopatra’s Entrance Into Rome seen in the 1963 Joseph L. Mankiewicz film starring the late, great Elizabeth Taylor.

(I will pause here to express my awe-stricken appreciation of Ms. Ciccone’s exceptionally inflated ego, in that she would actually attempt to insert herself into Taylor’s place.  My stunned reaction was precisely reminiscent of my first sight of her in the “Material Girl” video, where she was costumed as the late, great Marilyn Monroe.  I was tempted to ask myself, as I did then, “What’s wrong with this picture?”  Madonna seems terminally undersized when she sets herself up in opposition to those truly great icons of 20th Century film stardom and it’s sad that she can never – quite – become what they were.  It must be so disappointing to her.  The fact that producers and executives are forever lavishing money and venues on her so that she can try again and again seems just another sign of our age’s own cultural impoverishment.  But – and I freely admit it – this attitude just may be me at a cranky 61 years of age, lamenting the “good old days” which usually weren’t.)

But Madonna did get me thinking…

In her wonderful biography of Maria Callas, Adriana Huffington (then Stassinopoulos) wrote that she had been caught by Callas’ magic when she was twelve years old.  She went on to philosophize that, for most creative people, something usually appears on the horizon at this time to interrupt the placidity of childhood, something that grabs you by the throat and yanks you out of babyhood into the world of adult appreciation.  Suddenly your world is no longer bounded by your neighborhood streets.  Instead, your world has become all wonderfully huge and, best, unexplored.  For Ms. Huffington, it was Callas.  For me it was “Cleopatra”.

Of course, the groundwork had already been laid.  I had always loved history, particularly Egyptian and Roman history.  The first movie I can remember seeing was “Land of the Pharaohs,” which starred Joan Collins as Nellifer, whose “treachery stained every stone of the pyramid!” (as the movie posters screamed.) The first adult book I remember reading, at ten years of age, was “The Egyptian” by Mika Waltari.  And then there were all those films like “The Robe”, “Demetrius and the Gladiators”, “Ben Hur” and “Spartacus”, all of which became my own personal fantasy worlds.

Then, when I was twelve years old, “Cleopatra” came into my life and everything abruptly came into focus.

I had not heard much about it, which is strange because the film’s tumultuous production and the adulterous love affair shared by Liz and Dick had been the most reported news events of 1962, generating more articles than even the Cuban Missile Crisis.  I remember that I was sitting in a chair at the La Mirada Shopping Center’s barber shop, waiting for my turn to get a haircut, when I picked up the Life Magazine that featured the cover story, “Cleopatra Barges in at Last.”  For the first time I underwent what could only be called an out-of-body experience. I literally fell headlong into the black-and-white production stills and was aware of nothing else.  The buzzing sounds of the electric shavers and the snips of scissors faded away into nothing. I don’t think I even responded when my name was called – for here was my fantasy world come alive at last.  They were photos of a past-life that I only suspected I had lived – and even the patterns on the costumes seemed thrillingly familiar.

In short, I was hooked.

I literally saw the film again and again and again.  Though many people find it turgid and slow, I became aware of wonderful words for the first time.  Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ script taught me that the beautiful placement and rhythms of speech can be as exciting as any car chase or yellow explosion.  And, more, these famous personages from history became instantly recognizable as more than mere historical placards; instead they were thinking, feeling, and achingly flawed people – just like me.  (In fact, the dysfunctional relationship between Cleopatra and Antony that Mankiewicz depicted was that of my own parents, but we won’t go into that today.)  In other words, I knew these characters; I lived with them.

What I want to say is that Joe Mankiewicz taught me how to write.  At first I slavishly copied him, endless rewriting “Cleopatra” in various teen aged forms.  But like the students of the master painters, who copied even the brushstrokes of their mentors, I gradually became free to develop my own style.  My first two books, “Year of the Hyenas” and “Day of the False King” were my own versions of those sex-and-sandal epics from the 1950s and 60s.  And, having written them (and successfully, too) I felt free to finally do my own work.  I’ve both been inspired by and have now exorcized, “Cleopatra”.  My newest novel “The Stand In” is the first in which my truest voice can be read, and it’s wonderful to know that even at 61 I am capable of growth and change and refinement.

So here’s to Joe Mankiewicz, Elizabeth Taylor, and even Madonna.  Without you I couldn’t have been who I am today.

My question to you readers is – what inspired you?  What opened your world?  What made you want to write and write and write?

Let me know.  And if it was “Cleopatra”, that’s fine too.

 (Have you downloaded my newest book, The Stand In? It’s on Kindle, Nook, and the iPad. Enjoy my five starred mystery for less than a latte and you’ll help support this indie-author so I can continue to inspire.) 

Hall Monitors of the Internet

29 Jan

I remember a girl from grade school whose name was Vickie, and she came to class every day looking as though she were going to church – her hair was perfectly curled, she wore scuff-free Buster Browns, and her skirts stuck straight out from her sides, held stiff by several rustling petticoats (it was the 50s, after all).  She didn’t own a lunch box, as most of us did, but carried her lunch in a neat little satchel purse that matched her perfectly-polished shoes.  In other words, her mother had literally dressed Vickie as a living doll.  The trouble was that Vickie towered over all the boys and possessed the general build of a linebacker.

Perhaps this dichotomy of style and physique is what turned her vicious, for Vickie was a depressingly enthusiastic tattler and blamer.  The moment one of us in the classroom committed an infraction – passing a note, whispering to our “neighbor”, reading a smuggled-in magazine instead of our text – Vickie’s hand shot up to inform the teacher of our trespasses.  Instead of minding her own business, Vickie was constantly monitoring ours – and woe betide any child found lacking in her own strict code of moral behavior.  Every one of us in that classroom knew, resentfully and with absolutely certainty, that Vickie’s eye was on the sparrow.

I remember the sheer glee that lighted her face when she caught me peeking at my neighbor’s paper during a math test.  (Math was like Urdu to me and I was more to be pitied than censored.)  I silently pleaded with her to ignore it, the blood draining from my head as I saw a demonic light come into her eyes.  She had me in her sights and wasn’t about to let me go.  As though moving in slow motion Vickie turned in her seat and the dreaded hand reached upward.  Vickie was responsible for sending me to the Principal’s Office that day, where I had to inhale stale cigarette smoke and endure a lecture on honesty.  Because she was a girl, I couldn’t take her out by the baseball diamond and beat the shit out of her, as she deserved, and I’ve nursed a burning, bitter enmity toward her ever since.  (I’m 61 now and subscribe to Robert Kennedy’s dictum – if you’ve got to hate, hate BIG.)

Inevitably she was elected Hall Monitor by the class, if only to get her out of the classroom for an hour or so and off the playground.  I think even our teacher was relieved to see her go, for she had taken to answering Vickie’s omnipresent raised hand with a resigned and somewhat dolorous, “What is it this time, Vickie…?”

To this day, I cannot understand Vickie’s wretched zeal to correct the transgressions of her fellows.  Mine is a much more laissez-faire attitude; if someone is sinning, it just isn’t interesting enough for me to do anything about it  unless that sin directly affects my own well-being.  The wagging forefinger is about the most nauseating gesture there is, as far as I’m concerned, much worse than the third finger held aloft.  I simply am left amazed that anyone would presume – or have the time –  to sit in judgment over other people, much less glory in it.  What do you get?  What do you win?  Isn’t there something better to do with your time?  I’m pretty certain that the same impulse to correct and amend other’s behavior gave birth to the Third Reich – scratch a hall monitor and you’ll find a fascist, I say, anxious to blame and punish.

I’m sure you’ve met Vickie sometime in your life.  After all, she was in all our classes and, later, our offices.  The toady, the prig, Little Mr. or Miss Perfect – s/he goes by many names.  Over the years I’ve often wondered whatever happened to Vickie.   And then, just the other day, I found out:

She’s on the Internet.

As most of you reading this blog are aware, I’ve written a new novel called The Stand In and have chosen to go the self-publishing route.  Most of the effort at this point goes into making others aware that my book exists.  To that end, I went to a Kindle fan site, since Kindle is where most of my sales are generated, and posted a small blurb about my book.  (No more than two lines, really.  Maybe three.  Okay, four.)  Well, it turns out that the Kindle site I had happened upon was not about books, per se, but about how to operate the Kindle.  (Incidentally – just a random observation here – the people who had posted on it seemed to all possess “Harry Potter” nicknames – not that there’s anything wrong with that).  But they had no wish to talk about books at all, but merely the Muggle apparatus that displayed them.

Well, in about an hour I checked back and only then discovered my mistake.  Instantly I took the comment down and posted it in its proper venue.  But it was too late.

Vickie had caught me.

The next morning my email box was flooded with emails from her and her minions (who are legion, it turns out) chastising me for my grievous mistake.  Some merely were content to point out my error – “No self -promotion on this site!” – while others descended into old-fashioned abuse – “Can’t you read, idiot?”  The rest of the Vickies assured me in the sternest of possible voices that they would never – never! – read my novel, no matter how entertaining it was!

I was a bit shaken.   It wasn’t so much the loss of dividend I mourned (I figured that with Amazon’s cut factored in, I was out about $2.50), but I was trying to think – why are they so upset?  Then it came to me, with flashes of Vickie’s hand going up, reawakening what I thought were long-dead memories:   I had been BAD.

Somehow I had utterly shaken their universe, just as I had Vickie’s so many years ago, and I was to be roundly excoriated for it.

Always one to take on any guilt, I decided that perhaps I really had done wrong to them, that somehow I had inadvertently infringed on their need to express something profound with my cheap shot at promoting my novel.  So I went to their own websites and Facebook pages and Comment Threads to see what grand thoughts they were thinking.  There I found posts such as “OMG – like I am so totally on board (sic) with that!” and “LOL!  I hear you!” and “Awesome, dude!”…well, you get the picture.  (My alternate title to this blog was “Making the World Safe for OMG”.)

Don’t you just love these people?  Can’t you just picture them sitting at their computer, absolutely poised to pounce on every imperfect act, every sin, every flouted Internet law?  (And, silly me, I thought the Internet’s power lay in the fact that it had no laws!)  Yet thank God that those people are there – but for them, I’d never know what a truly horrible person I am.  Or so quickly.

So, after much rumination, I’ve decided to respond with this blogging equivalent of an upraised middle finger (the same one I raised to Vickie all those years ago – after school).  To Sherry, Fred, Gillian, and all the other Vickies out there – I can absolutely assure you that if you didn’t like what I did before, you’re really not going to like what I’m doing next.

Finally, my question is this – and I’m throwing this out to my readers – am I the only one to have noticed and suffered the wrath of these self-appointed Internet gatekeepers?

Write to me and let me know.  Perhaps we can foment a small revolution of our own.

Bette Davis was Right, “Old Age Isn’t for Sissies”, Deal with It

17 Jan

I Remember Nothing is Nora Ephron’s latest collection of essays.  I like Nora’s writings better than her movies, because she instinctively brings up the very same things I’ve been wondering about and then proceeds to give her riff on the subjects at hand.  In I Remember Nothing, she is mainly wondering about getting old.

I’ve been wondering about that a lot lately, too.

For those of you who read my blogs, you’ve learned that I just turned 61.  This is a fact that gives me considerable pause.  How did I ever get this old?  What happened to my forties – hell, what happened to my fifties?   They seem to have dropped effortlessly into the great oozy haze of my past, from which I can extract individual memories but to which I can no longer assign an exact time frame.  Everything seems to have happened yesterday, or the day before.  Or maybe earlier this morning.  Sometimes when I’m writing a check I will fill in the day and month correctly, but in the space for the year I’ll write 1987.

Really?  Is that the year where I’ve been marooned for the last two-and-a-half decades?  It seems about right.  I think that’s just about the time when I hit that oil slick and have been sliding giddily toward death ever since.

But here’s the funny thing – I don’t feel old at all.  In fact, I’ve never been more in touch with my younger self than I am now.  It’s weird.

Let me try to explain.  Yes, I certainly feel the effects of aging on my physical self.  I have attacks of psoriatic arthritis mainly in my feet, and sometimes my left knee, that are true miseries in their own right.  When they occur, I hobble about like Walter Brennan playing Grandpappy Amos in “The Real McCoys” (other 61-year olds will understand that reference; anyone younger – forget it).

Everyone has told you all along how miserable aging can be, that your body and mind become frailer and that the old coot looking back at you from the mirror is actually – gasp! – you.   Or that the youngest person in your life has just turned 44, and you begin to mentally calculate that if s/he is that old, then that makes you – Oh, my God!  I do remember one thing from my fifties – I was able to tell people my true age and everybody would rush in to compliment me on how young and fresh I seemed, and how no one would ever guess – !  Now when I tell someone my true age all you can hear is the crickets. (In tepid response, I have banned flash photography from my life – the cruelest reminder of your age that has ever been invented.)

“Old age isn’t for sissies!” Bette Davis used to proclaim in interviews, and that’s certainly true.

But no one tells you how fun it can be.  Things that bothered you for years don’t bother you anymore.  You are finally out of that dog-eat-dog competition that passes for youth; and it’s not that you can’t compete anymore, it’s that you don’t care to.  The only thing with whom you’re competing is yourself and your own expectations.  The great job, the great house, the great car, the great restaurants are nice to have but not if it means that you’re working only to pay for them.  Who owns who at that point?  Somehow, by 60, you internalize all this.

I used to always accept invitations to parties because I actively feared that if I turned it down I’d never be asked back.  Now I’ve learned that wherever I am is where the party is.  I don’t have to be surrounded by merriment to be merry.  And people ask me back because they genuinely like to have me around.  (Of course, there are some people that have, regrettably, banned me irreversibly from their lives because something in my character genuinely irritates or intimidates them; well, my response to that is – tough titties.  I’m not going to put on a disguise anymore just so you’ll like me better.)

Simply, I don’t have the energy anymore to be something I’m not.  And that’s the most fun thing about aging that no one ever tells you about.  You don’t go around like a whirling dervish anymore, trying on this mood, playing with that attitude, taking up this belief, or assuming that pose.   You think instead – and truly believe it – that this is who I am. This is what 61 looks like.

Note to the rest of the world:  Deal with it.

All of this, of course, is manna for a writer.  Being 61 actually means that I have real human truths and emotions to write about, things that happened to me personally, incidents and observations that I can exploit in a myriad of ways.  I don’t have to experience things second hand in books or films anymore.  I have sinned, I have raged, I have triumphed, I have shone, I have succeeded, and I have failed – and it’s all grist for my personal mill.  I’ve become my own emotional and experiential Wikipedia and my writing only grows better because of it.

Pearl Buck believed that a writer had to be at least 30 before they had anything serious to say.  For me, I was in my 50s, but I’m a slow learner.  Maybe you’re 30 and have learned all you need to learn to become a great writer; and I say unto you – mazel tov!  But for those of you, like me, who clung to every belief that was forced on you until you had to shed it almost by force, here’s the good news:  By 60, nature does it all for you.

And the best thing of all…?  I can write what I want to write.  When I worked at That Entertainment Company for many years, I was forced to write for their characters, all the while making sure that nothing new (or interesting) was ever done to them.  It was exhausting.  Writing is hard enough to do when you actually like what you’re doing, but not when you despise it.  At 61, I’ve earned the right to tell my own stories and every day is like a gift given.  I can make what I want to out of it.  (Believe me, that was certainly not true when I was young.  Youth may be wasted on the young, as George Bernard Shaw said, but I’m damned well not going to waste my old age, too.)

I have to end this with an absolutely true story.  When I attended my first mystery writers conference in Toronto, I knew I had found the right place for me to be at that time in my life.  Know why?  Because the author who won “Best First Novel” at the conference used a walker to go claim his trophy.

Isn’t that great?

 

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