Friday, April 27, 2012

Why I Hate My Publisher

In theory, a book update should be the easiest thing in the world.  I’m doing this, and writing this, and, and, and…

And then it should be over.

And yet, I’ve been writing this post, and wiping it out, over and over and over for about three weeks now.  And I can sum up why in two words:

I’m tired.

A couple weeks back, I went to see New York Times bestselling author Patrick Rothfuss speak.  He was hilarious, and his books are great, and you should read all of them.

But he hit on something.  He said, roughly, that writing is like having a garden.  If you do it for fun, it’s a win all the way around.  You get out in the sun, you have some fun planting seeds and watering and such, and at the end, maybe you get some yummy eats.

But, if you get into gardening with the expectation that you must get a certain amount of yummy eats, the whole endeavor is stressful.  Too much rain, not enough rain, bunnies in the vegetable patch, and suddenly all your hard work (not fun, work!) provides little or no reward.

And that’s writing.  If you do it for fun, you get to de-stress and create, and at the end maybe you have something cool you can show to people.

Unfortunately, being an indie author means that you double (or triple) the work of being an author, but with a strong chance that you’re not getting much in the way of a harvest at the end.

Consider: When Patrick writes a book, he finishes it, then send it to his publisher.  The publisher finds someone to make art for the cover.  And brings in an editor or two or three.  And tries to figure out how to get the book in front of as many people as possible.

When I finish a book, I have to do all that stuff myself.

Right now, books and the stuff that goes with them is Patrick’s only job.

I, on the other hand, have to work at a regular job at least 40 hours a week.

We’re both dads, so Patrick gets a pass on that one.

In the last year, Patrick put out one book, and he didn’t have to publish it himself.

I put out eight.

(I say none of this to fault Patrick.  Having met the dude, he’s nice and funny and a good egg.  He’s just at the tip of my brain because of his metaphor.  I mean him no harm.)

And so, to sum up?  Here are those two words again:

I’m tired.

The fact is, I’m still working pretty steadily.  I just finished writing what was supposed to be a short story, but turned out to be a novelette, and I hope it fits into a compilation a friend of mine is putting out. 

Of course, I have to get it copyeditied first.

That’s been holding me up quite a lot, lately.  If you don’t know already, copyediting is my wife’s super-secret ninja power.  And she generally enjoys my writing.  But trying to find enough time to sit her down and edit something I wrote?  It’s easy to put off.  It’s too late.  She/I/We are/is too tired.  There are two-dozen things in our household that need to be taken care of (as in all households) and editing often gets tossed to the bottom of the pile because, frankly, it can.

It can because there isn’t a publisher, or thousands of readers, clamoring for it.

And that’s where it gets even more complicated.  Patrick finishes a book, it goes to the publisher, and they take over a big chunk of the work from there.

In my case, I’ve pushed the rock up the hill, and finished the book, and now?  There’s another hill.  And it’s a marketing hill.  And I am not a brilliant marketer. 

Which makes the second hill ever more of a slog than the first hill.

That’s the issue, really.  When I finish a book, it’s an object, and I generally feel I know when I’ve done good work.  So I feel good about that.

Then I put out my book, and it just kind of does okay, and then I’m not really able to feel as good about the book.  It is actively difficult to separate my inability to market all that well with my ability to write an entertaining read.

See, I’m also working on a new novel called Frank, the Lonely Unicorn.  I let a Twitter buddy of mine read the first third of it, and she really likes it.  And that makes me happy, so I’m pushing through with it, and already the marketing side of my brain is going, “Why bother?  It’s not like anyone is going to BUY the thing.”

Some will, yes.  But it’s like the opposite of the Old Testament story where the guy bargains with God, and says, “If I can find one good man in the town, will you spare the town?”  Only it’s, “Do I write this book is only twenty people want to read it?  How about fifty?  A hundred?”

That same issue has held me up editing But the Third One Was Great.  I’ve edited 583 pages of manuscript so far.  But I still have several hundred pages to edit, and probably another 50 pages to write.

Then I’ve got to get my editor to edit it, and she’s not a horror movie fan.  So pushing to finish it, my brain is fighting me the whole time, like so:  “It’s going to take forever to edit this, and then it’s going to come out, and you’re going to have a bear of a time selling it.”

The movie-making book?  We’re 80 pages form finishing the edit, and we just keep pushing it off for other stuff.  It’s been that way since Christmas.

In all honesty, I’ll probably get all these books finished by a year from now.  But it’s all been getting held up by the part of my brain that’s supposed to be a publisher.

And that’s why it’s taken so long to write this post, I think.

Because when you type all this stuff out, it sounds kind of whiny, and I’m not really a complainer by nature.

What I am is tired.  Because I write and write and write and I get to feel happy for ten minutes and then?  Everything after that is even more work, on top of the writing and on top of being a dad and on top of working 40+ hours per week at a real job.

I see people I know who sell 10,000 copies of their book, or start making more than they do on their day job, and quit their day job, and I’m happy for them, and I think, “Why not me?”   And I know it’s that my marketer isn’t very good.

And that’s me too.

So that’s it, really.  I’ll keep writing, and stuff will come out, and the people who like my stuff will be happy, and I’ll get that little hit of happiness from that.

And then my sales will slow down again, and I will sigh, and decide to write another book, and try to figure out why my marketing efforts are for naught.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Books I Love: Memoirs

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I have this thing for autobiographies/memoirs.  Mostly of famous people, though sometimes not.  I once spent a summer going through the music biography section of my library, picking up whoever looked interesting.

I’m not entirely sure why I gravitate towards those kinds of books, mostly because the idea of “famous people” is one I find confusing.  A person in a local theater production is an actor, and so is the guy on my TV, but because the guy on my TV is seen by more people, I should buy his book?

Nah.  This is why I get most of these things from the library.  They’re generally short, contain quick entertaining stories, and more often than not have giant print so you think you’re getting an actual 300 page book when really it’s more like 100.

I enjoy them, for the most part, but right after I’m done reading them they sort of fall out of my brain.  But there are a few that have stuck with me over the years.

So, if you ever find yourself in a mood to read about famous/semi-famous people, here are some books to consider:

Meatloaf: To Hell and Back:  Not a brilliant book, but he’s clearly honed his favorite stories to a fine point, and he lays them out randomly, but entertainingly.

Tom Green: Hollywood Causes Cancer:  I never watched a lot of his show, and his movie was pretty awful but after reading his book I at least knew why.  (He was trying to imitate Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, which even the Python guys think is pretty dang flawed.)   Green writes with honesty, a little anger, and not a lot of ego. 

Frank Zappa: The Real Frank Zappa Book: Part biography, part political screed, and one of those things your read and think, “This guy is the smartest man alive, or completely bonkers.”  Most interesting, he laid out how iTunes would work in about 1988.  Before the Internet actually became a thing.  I just reread it and its’ scary how right-on he was.

Michael Ian Black: You’re Doing it Wrong: It’s rare you see something this strangely honest.  To the point where one of the chapters of his book was called, “I Hate My Baby.”  Dark. But fun dark.

David Sedaris: Me Talk Pretty One Day: Get the audiobook, if you can.  And listen to Jesus Shaves, wherein a bunch of people speaking bad French attempt to explain Easter to each other.  “One may eat of the chocolate.  One may also eat of the ham.”

Mankind/Mick Foley: Have a Nice Day.  Mick Foley is a weird little dude.  He portrayed a complete freak on WWE wrestling.  He did things like wrestle in a ring strung with barbed wire.  Not fake barbed wire.  The real stuff.  And then he wrote this book, which is massive and surprisingly entertaining.  Then he went on to write three more books about his wrestling days, plus two novels and some children’s books.  None of them are as good as the first one.

Paul Reiser: Couplehood, Babyhood, Familyhood: Paul Reiser has, over the years, evolved from this nice guy who everyone kind of likes to something like of a punchline, and I kind of see both sides of the equation.  On one hand, he created Mad About You, which captured some aspects of marriage and relationships so well that it was really kind of freaky.  On the other hand, he starred on a TV show for five years, wrote two books mostly taken from his standup material, and then stopped working for about a decade, just because he could.  This is the kind of thing that wins you no fans, which is why, I’m guessing, that his new TV series vanished without a trace.  Still, the books are solid examinations of relationships and parenting. 

Robert Rodriguez: Rebel Without a Crew: Any time someone tells me they want to make a movie, but don’t know where to start, I tell them to read this.  $7000, and the guy came out with El Mariachi and a career.  Great stuff.  Even people I know who don’t want to make movies tend to fall in love with the book, then go out and do something cool.

William Goldman: Adventures in the Screen Trade/Which Lie Did I Tell?  If you want to know how movies don’t get made?  Read these books.  They’ll tell you.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Like So Many Threads: Thoughts on Oingo Boingo

In 1988, if you were anywhere between the ages of 11 and 18, you were by law required to go see Tim Burton’s take on Batman.

The movie has aged okay, though not perfectly, and parts of it still work. The biggest and best bit is the opening credits, with the swooping shots through the Batman symbol.

And that music. Oh, that music.

It was from that movie that I learned the name Danny Elfman.

I’m not much of a hipster. I read music columns that cover everything under the sun, and when I do, I discover that my musical tastes are quite shallow. And like most folks, as I’ve gotten older it’s gotten worse as opposed to better, as most of my discoveries and tastes slowly angle towards middle of the road.

But in that moment, I got to make a kind of discovery, and it was pretty awesome. I wasn’t much ahead of the world when it came to the discovery of Danny Elfman, but I was just far enough in front of everyone that, for maybe a year or two, instead of going, “Danny Elfman, who’s that?” I got to say, “Oh, I love Danny Elfman. I have all his stuff. All of it.”

And for a period of several years, I did. I got myself a list (pre-Internet!) of all the scores he’d ever written, and I went to my local Indie record store, and I filled out slips to have them get everything Elfman had ever released on CD. Ever.

I had to pay a dollar per CD, as a reserve cost. Five or six years later, I finally got a refund when they couldn’t find me a copy of Wisdom. That was an awkward conversation.

Somewhere or another, I heard that Elfman also had a band, though I couldn’t find the name of it. For some reason, I was under the impression it was another group called Giant Steps, though for the life of me I can’t figure out where I got that information. Which was wrong.

Somehow, thanks to some magazine or another, I did get my hands on the name of his group. Oingo Boingo.

I had to know more. I was deeply in love with this man’s movie music, and I had to know what he created when he was in an actual band.

As it happened, my local library had two Oingo Boingo CDs. The first was Dark at the End of the Tunnel. The second was a Best Of called Skeletons in the closet.

I came home. I put Dark in the player. I listened for about five minutes. I started flipping through the songs. And I was done. Whatever it was that I liked about Elfman’s movie music, I wasn’t finding it in there.

Then I put Skeleton’s in the Closet in there.

I want to say that the moment was somehow revelatory to me, that my world was forever changed, but mostly I found myself puzzled. I lived in a top 40 world, where everything was carefully stuffed into boxes for easy consumption.

There was no Richard Marx or New Kids on the Block or Neenah Cherry or Madonna or even Prince to be found here. These were people who sang about love and lust and relationships. Maybe they’d tell a story sometimes.

Skeletons, on the other hand, started with horns. Just a big old horn-style introduction, not unlike the 20th Century Fox theme. And then… what? Keyboards. Bass. A riffy kind of guitar, but not really chords.

And then the lyrics: “I love little girls, they make me feel so good. I love little girls, they make me feel so bad. When they’re around they make me feel like I’m the only guy in town.”

Even typing that now, I’m not totally sure what to make of it. Madonna and Prince were considered “dirty” at the time, but this… what was this? Satire? A song about the joys of very, very young girls? Was it tongue in cheek, or serious?

No idea.

And that was one of the more straightforward songs. On the same CD, you’d find the song Insects, whose chorus is, repeated again and again, “Those insects make me wanna dance (dance) they make me wanna dance…”

Or Whole Day Off: “Have you seen my girlfriend? She lives in a pig pen.”

And so on. There were also songs about the book 1984, and a tune talking about using your brain (Grey Matter) and so on, and so on, and so on.

I couldn’t parse out the musical style to save my life. Punk? No, too much stuff going on. Ska? Kinda. But what was with the keyboard riffs? Most of the music I heard day in and day out, there was the main instrument (guitar, or piano) and everyone else just kinda filled in, falling in behind. You could strip everything out but the primary thing and the song would have still kinda worked.

But not here. Here we had horns, and then an answering keyboard, and then an answering guitar. Drop any one of the three and there would be a huge hole.

I didn’t really know what I was listening to, but I did know that I needed to listen to it some more. So I broke the law, taped a copy, and started walking around the house with it in my Walkman. (There will be no jokes about ancient versions of MP3 players here.)

Skeletons, as it turned out, pulled music from the first three Oingo Boingo releases, which I eventually went out and grabbed. I learned about, and joined, the Oingo Boingo fan club, and learned there was more to find. Boi-ngo. Dead Man’s Party. Dark at the End of the Tunnel. A two-CD recorded-live on a soundstage thing that contained a couple of lost songs, and allowed Oingo Boingo the chance to make more money off their previous “hits” which were now on a different label.

And wonder of wonders, there was a Danny Elfman solo album(!) that was actually recorded with the band(?).

In contrast to the early albums, Boingo began to develop a bit more of a pop sound. The nasty snarl of punk was replaced with… something else. The lyrics sometimes still bordered on beat poetry, but they were less and less about using the rhythm of the completely random, and more about setting a mood.

And I encountered the first Boingo song I would describe as pretty, and kind of heartbreaking. We Close Our Eyes, from Boi-ngo, with words like, “I looked Death in the face last night, I saw him in a mirror. But he simply smiled. He told me not to worry, he told me just to take my time.”

That and Dead Man’s Party bridged the gap. My love of those discs brought me all the way to Dark at the End of the Tunnel, which now felt like a progression, instead of like a rock album that didn’t quite work.

To be sure, it was (and mostly remains) the weakest of the Boingo recordings, but at least I finally understood it, and there were some gems there, in particular Out of Control, which is lovely enough that I’m surprised it was never covered by a pop star and turned into a hit.

And then? Then it was filling in gaps, mostly. There were, as it turned out, a couple of greatest hits collections, with extra liner notes and songs. I got on the internet, and “met” a couple of people who were, out of the goodness of their hearts, putting together compilations of lost remixes and bootlegged tracks, many of which were wonderful and enjoyable and impossible to come by.

And there were two more releases.

The first, Boingo, came out when I was in high school, and it was kind of magical to me. These other recordings had been out for a while. And while I knew no other fans (I still know very few, and most of them were created by me) this was my first chance to, you know, get there first.

I bought. I listened. It was another step forward, really, and you could hear all the work Elfman had been doing creating musical scores in there. The horns were mostly gone, and in their place was, quite frequently, an orchestra.

And then. Then there was the talk of a break up.

Boingo was famous for doing Halloween shows every year, something I knew from the various newsletters. They did a couple more that year, after announcing they were breaking up, bringing the horns back and doing songs that went as far back as their only available on cassette first release.

I was trapped in Indiana. California might as well have been on the moon during those shows.

But I got the CDs. And the video. And I watched them, and they made me kind of happy, though I felt a sense of loss there too. Danny would go on to score lots and lots and lots of movies, and I’ve bought some of those scores over the years. But as the band has gotten further and further into the past, I find that his gift for giant, sweeping, fun to hum melodies has been replaced with more tricks, like counterpoint and variation and making his themes smaller and smaller and more into musical wallpaper and less like, you know, MUSIC.

It demonstrates growth and progression as a composer, yes. But just once, I wanna see him come back and do something like Edward Scissorhands, with its lovely, singable melodies.

It was Edward that brought me back to Boingo a few days ago. I was getting rid of my old car, and the very first music I ever listened to in that 14-year-old near-beater was Edward. And so I popped it in on the drive to pick up my new car. The speakers had been damaged by years of weather and overuse, and the notes hummed and crackled as I drove.

As I came home in my new car, though, I heard those strings and notes and bells better than I had in years.

I was stuck what to put into my car next, and I thought I’d pull out some of my old Oingo Boingo and see what I thought of it today.

How do I explain it?

Years later, on a much better stereo system, the mixes often sound thin. And at 35, I find I have often forgotten just how surreal the lyric choices are.

But, well, you know. You put it on. You listen. You remember. And I’m my younger self, sitting and hearing and pondering and wondering just what to make of what it is I’m hearing. And that makes me happy.

Because, dangit, those insects DO kind of make me wanna dance.

I Miss My Waitress

About six months ago, I discovered a new eatery near my workplace. I won’t name it (simply because who wants the hassle?) nor am I going to name my waitress, just because I can’t ask her permission.

So let’s call her H.

I first wandered into the restaurant in question roughly the way I wander into all of them: With a sense of trepidation. I’m not a total creature of habit, and I enjoy trying new things but this place was a lot more “sporty” than I usually like. And places with a theme of that kind tend to have overpriced food that can only be improved through the consumption of booze.

I was presented with a menu, which included reasonably priced lunch options, and I ordered a burger, because those are hard to screw up. I’ve had a lot of burgers I didn’t love over the years, but none that I’ve ever hated.

And so I sat.

I didn’t really take notice of my waitress at first. This not a knock on her in any way, shape, or form. It mostly had to do with the fact that I was still trying to get a sense of the space I was in. Despite the fact that it had a sporting theme, no sports channels were blaring on the multiple televisions. And the place was just about empty, which doesn’t usually bode well for a business that thrives on foot traffic.

My drink came. And then my food. And somewhere in there, I pulled out my ever-present book and started reading.

You need to understand that I am not exaggerating when I say “ever-present.” Since I started writing more, the majority of my reading time occurs during my lunch time, or the three minutes before I pass out in bed.

So I was kind of half-paying-attention when H said, “What are you reading?”

Let’s talk about this for a second.

I’ve probably consumed a work-based carrying-a-book meal in over 100 eateries in at least two different countries. The number of times a waitress or server has asked about my book? I could probably count them on one hand.

Even then, it was a polite chit-chat thing. Like when a waitress asks how you’re doing. Honestly, if you told one that a relative had just passed away, they would at best offer some condolences, before asking what you want to eat. It’s doubtful you’re getting a reassuring hug or a long discussion about how that person was really special.

Again, I’m not knocking the waitressing profession. It’s a tough gig, wherein you must appear alert and friendly at pretty much all times. I’m just saying it’s a temporary contract, wherein you ask for things, they provide them, and then money is exchanged.

I told H the name of my book, and she asked what it was about. This surprised me. Again: Hundreds of eateries, and she was the absolute first waitress to ask about the content of my book, instead of just the title.

I told her what it was about, and she countered with the title of a book she was reading. And the next thing I knew, she was sitting on the other side of my booth, and we were chatting back and forth about what we were reading, had read, and were going to read.

It was kind of magical.

At the end of the meal, she brought me my bill and asked me my name and told me her name. And I’m not gonna lie, I overtipped her by a wide margin, just because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had that much fun eating lunch alone.

I went back the next week, and she was there again, and she remembered my name (which surprised me) and I remember hers (which surprised me more, because my memory for names is just about useless) and even though it was a lot more busy this time, she still found a couple minutes to sit and chat about reading material with me.

And so it went.

After about two months, I was barely even ordering anymore. I’d come in, and she’d bring me my usual drink. I knew the menu pretty well, and would choose from one of the four things I had tried and liked. And if there was time, we’d talk books.

Eventually, our conversations drifted to other things as well. She talked about her previous job. I told her what I do, and talked a bit about my indie novels. We both have kids, and we talked about the fun and challenges they provide. We talked about our significant others.

In a sense, it was like paying to see a friend. Or going to an eatery your buddy works at. It got to the point where, even when I didn’t sit at one of her tables, the other waitresses knew my name and would send her to me.

And then. One day. The sign.

Under New Management.

This is, of course, a signal, though most people don’t talk about it. What it means is, “The food here used to be bad, and the service was worse, but now new people are in charge and Things Will Be Better.”

It is a beacon that tells people who didn’t like it to come on back and give it another shot.

I went in. My waitress wasn’t there. For that matter, I didn’t recognize any of the other servers, either. I figured it was her day off. I was served acceptably by a nice waitress who did not know my habits, and who seemed a little new on the job.

I should have realized what this meant.

I went back twice more after that, and each time, I looked on as waitresses I’d never seen before walked by me, again and again and again.

H was gone.

She appears to be gone completely.

And this saddens me.

One of the last times I dropped in to eat, she did a little wave as I sat down, and said it was nice to see me. I responded in kind.

And then this happened:

“Well, you know, it’s not real until we’re Facebook friends,” she said.

I smiled. But inside my head, I was flummoxed. I liked this waitress, a lot. She was fun to talk to. And honestly, I would have had no objection to being Facebook friends with her. I’m Facebook friends with lots of people I know only tangentially, and some of them have become actual friends, given time.

But my brain, while analytical and intelligent, has serious problems with reading certain people. And H was a waitress, which means that the plastered-on smile came as part of the outfit.

I finally decided to play it safe. “Are you Facebook friends with lots of people who come here?”

Her eyebrows furrowed. I could tell I had touched on something.

“There was the one guy,” she said. “He kept asking me for my last name while I was serving him. I told him I wasn’t allowed to tell him.” She paused, just for a second. “He sent me a friend request later. I’m not quite sure how he found me.”

I shrugged. “Well, he had your first name. I’m sure he just punched it in and found your picture.”

“My Facebook page doesn’t show a picture of me,” she said.

I shrugged again. “Are you one of those moms who puts up pictures of her kids as her avatar?”

She shook her head. “No. I have a picture of [Famous Actress] there.”

Facebook, of course, is something of a meme factory, and for the period of about a year, it seemed like every week there was something going around that involved changing your picture. Pictures of you with your spouse. Pictures of you with your kids. Pictures of you when you were five. And there was one where you were supposed to put up a picture of whatever famous person people said you look like.

“I suppose you look a little like her,” I said.

“Nah,” said H. “I just think she’s hot.”

On the other side of the eatery, someone waved a hand and H smiled, offered me a small “buh-bye” wave, and went back to work.

And I went back to my book.

The food at this particular restaurant was never what I would call great. But it was always fresh and reasonably priced, and for that I would happily take a chance on a reasonably priced meal just to get five minutes to talk about literature with someone.

After H left, and the new managers came in, the food has been… just okay. And it might have been just okay before, too.

I briefly considered looking up my waitress on Facebook and just shooting her a message thanking her for the weekly book chat. But when I got as far as typing her name into the search function, I stopped.

The fact of the matter is, H was smart, funny, and a reader, which are all qualities I admire in a human being. But she was also, in the end, my waitress. It was her job to fill my order as quickly as possible, while making me feel appreciated and welcome.

I’d love to spin this whole essay off into some kind of grand statement about the complications of friendship in the modern world. Barring that, I’d love to know where H is serving now, so I can go there, and tell other people to do the same.

Instead, I find myself feeling a little lost and sad about the whole thing. Not unlike when I was a kid, and a friend moved away, and I didn’t understand why they had to leave (what’s a job opportunity?) or where they were going (where’s Iowa?).

Those losses healed quickly. There were other friends, and at the time, letter-writing seemed alternately confusing and time-consuming.

And so this loss will probably heal fast as well. Or maybe not. Great waitresses who like to talk books are a rare thing , and we should all appreciate ‘em. They might not be curing cancer, but they make the world a brighter and more fun place.

And we all need that too.

Friday, April 13, 2012

14 Years of Hard Road

Two days ago, my tire blew.

This has happened to me before. In fact, it happened about two years ago, and it turned out that my tires were old and worn and needed to be replaced, but I didn’t know that because I almost never drove, because I was under-employed.

So I called up the fix-it place, and they said they would order me two more tires, and I could drop by the next day.

Then, yesterday morning I woke up, and turned on my car, and my parking brake light was on.

My parking brake was not stuck. I tried it and it worked. And when I let the car drift a little, it stopped with no problems. So I drove to work.

I Googled the problem, and was informed that it was either old brake pads (possible) or I was low on brake fluid. I checked the level, and it seemed right, but hey, what do I know about cars? Nothing. And I was already headed to the shop.

So I drove.

My old tires were replaced with new ones, and the guy at the shop told me my other “old” tire was still just fine, so he put it in my trunk.

That was nice of him, but I sort of wished at that point he had only sold me one tire.

And then? Then he showed me a paragraph of stuff that was wrong with my car.

The scary thing was, it didn’t really scratch the surface.

The body has been rusting for a while now. Before too long, the integrity of the actual car will be in question. Some rubbery grease-filled things were broken, and the grease was gone. Which isn’t good. I did, in fact, need new brake pads, but also all the parts and pieces that go with them.

My clutch is getting bad.

These are the things they pointed out to me.

Here’s what they didn’t.

The air blowers don’t work on level 1 and 2, only on level 3 and 4. Sometimes when you start the car, it will stop unless you press on the accelerator right away. The side view mirror shell was broken off almost a decade ago, then put back on with super glue. Only the glue gave way, and the bottom half of the shell went flying off on the highway a couple of years ago.

I have subsequently been afraid to take it through a car wash, for fear my mirror will be torn off.

Years ago, I caught the front bumper of the car on a rock, and tore it off my car. In Pennsylvania. I got it back to Wisconsin thanks to duct tape. I got it fixed. Then, a week later, it got caught AGAIN.

The nice man who fixed it screwed it back on, said things would be fine. Nope. The bumper cover sags, and the paint has been peeling off, inch by horrible inch. For years, I thought about fixing it, but practicality outweighed vanity. By a country mile.

And when the car is idling, sometimes it lets out an insanely loud squeal.

In all honestly, I planned to get rid of the car more than two years ago. The plan was to pay off my wife’s car, then get a new van, so we would be ready to expand our family from three members to four.

But I lost my job. And when that happens, you don’t buy anything. I took our tax money that year and paid off my wife’s car. After that, we just kind of held on.

My car broke down twice over those two years. We spend something like $1500 to keep it running. Money that otherwise would have gone into getting that new van, if I had been working.

The fact of the matter is, the car is ready to go. It’s a 1998 Nissan 200SX. It has 14 years and 153,000 miles on it. It’s pretty ugly, both inside and outside. And the underside has a looot of rust on it.

And yet.

My wife and I got married in August of 1999. On our anniversary, we will have been married for 13 years.

I got the car the summer before we got married.

For a lot of years, it was “the good car.” There was my wife’s old beat-up Toyota that was falling apart, had been dinged up just a whole lot, had hit a deer and survived, and only had a tape player.

Then there was my car. It was the last of the 1998 Nissans on the lot, as the 1999 models were coming out. It was a manual transmission. It was a two-door. I suspect they just wanted it off the lot.

My brother had owned two cars up to that point. One was a beater my uncle sold to him for a dollar. The second was a used Geo my parents bought for him when the beater snapped an axle after my brother hit a curb with it.

I had never owned a car, up to that point.

Part of the reason I wanted one so badly was our family work schedule. I had to drop my dad off at work at 7 AM. He worked across the street from me. Then I would drive home, nap for 30 minutes, and go back to work, where I had just been an hour ago.

My dad got off work at three, and had to get a ride with a co-worker to get home.

These were not indignities, really, but they were inconvenient. It was my first job out of college, and winter was coming, and soon the drive would take longer due to ice and snow, and it wasn’t like I could sit in the parking lot reading a book waiting for my shift to start.

I needed a car.

So I went to check out Saturns, because I hate haggling. And today Saturn is gone. And the Saturn in my price range kind of sucked.

I bought my Nissan off a car lot from the father of a childhood friend. I had never met the dad before, because my friend was raised and adopted by his stepdad. He wouldn’t shake hands with me because he had a bad cold sore.

Despite the cheapness of the car, I asked for another $1000 off the price as a first-time buyer, and as a recent college graduate. Only because my mom had told me that you could get those discounts. I have no idea why. Maybe they thought if you graduated from college there was a better chance they wouldn’t have to repo your car.

They knocked $750 off the cost.

It took me nearly a week to put 100 miles on it. I took a picture. I took another one when I hit 1000.

The first CD I ever played in that car was Edward Scissorhands.

I went to visit my grandparents, just to show them my new car. My grandma loved it, and actually came along for a ride with me. She noticed how quiet the car was.

She was right. It was a quiet car.

Until it developed the horrible squeal, anyway.

There are other memories tied up in the car, of course.

The first time I used it to drive to Indiana to see Kara, and fill out our marriage license. A nine hour trip, taken alone.

Our first trip to Pennsylvania, to spend time there with Kara’s grandparents and to go to the first of many family reunions.

Several trips out of town, from the two years when I spent two weeks a month on the road doing installs and educations for my work. It was before GPSs were everywhere, and once I drove through the town I was trying to arrive in. I called using a pay phone, and discovered I was an hour outside of the city I was supposed to have stopped in.

Then there was the CD player, which would play CDs with no problem. Until, that is, one day, when it decided you could only eject CDs when you stopped the car. Long road trips got painful as you listened to the same disc over, and over, and over again, because we were trying to get somewhere and didn’t want to have to pull off the road.

For a long time, the car leaked oil, and a dozen parts had to be replaced before Nissan figured out the actual problem.

My dad accidentally hit my car’s back bumper with his car. He offered to fix it, but it was two small dings. Years later, another woman actually hit me on an on-ramp to the highway, and a section of my bumper tore off and lodged in her tired. Getting it fixed was a pain in my behind.

I remember when we first started talking about getting rid of it. We were bringing a baby home. A two door car and a baby don’t really go together.

And yet, we’ve made it work for almost five years, as the baby has become a toddler, and then a small person.

As I sit here writing, I want to feel nostalgia for this car, the place where so many different things happened. But it isn’t a person. It’s a thing. My kid has grown up in it, sure, but it is not a magical play-place. It’s a box with wheels that took us where we needed to go.

Sometime in this next week, I will get a new (though probably just to me) vehicle, and it will feel weird not to crouch and buckle my kid into it. And I will finally have more than a tiny trunk to use to store groceries when I shop.

But mostly, I’ll be glad that the old box with wheels is gone, along with its broken heating and cooling system, and peeling paint, and rust.

But only mostly.

Friday, April 6, 2012

John Carter, Shirtless Failure

Recently, a couple of friends sent me a link to an article wherein people tried to explain why the movie John Carter was such a huge failure.

What truly interests me, however, is how the failure of John Carter wasn’t just vivisected, but predetermined. Read one article about how the movie flopped, and you will find links to five or ten more, all of which talk about how the movie is going to crash and burn before it even came out.

So here’s the part that bothers me: I think they got it wrong.

Oddly, I think it was the people in the comments of these articles who seem to have a firmer grasp on what happened, and one idea in particular set me on what I think is the right path, as far as the failure of John Carter goes.

But let me start here: First, I don’t think that John Carter was a failure. Whatever you read about the movie, and whatever you think about it, Disney now owns the John Carter franchise, and even if it takes 100 years, the movie is going to make money for them. Even if Disney collapses, and the movie goes to another company, it will make money. Movies make money forever, and a big movie like this will get a new cover every few years, and a 3D release, and a big push on cable networks, and a run on a major network, and on and on and on.

Movie companies love to pretend they lost money on movies, because then they never have to pay out to people who are owed a percentage o the profits. The author of Forest Gump had to sue the folks who made the movie, because they kept saying the movie last money, even though it pulled in 600 million dollars. (My memory of exact numbers might be incorrect here.)

For that matter, Peter Jackson had to sue to get the rest of the money owed him for The Lord of the Rings, a movie that no one could argue lost money.

Trust me. John Carter will make money. It might take a while, but it will happen.

So, okay, now that we’ve established that, what made the movie “flop?”

Well, lemme tell ya.

First of all, people claim the first trailer was bad. They are wrong. That’s not a bad trailer. It’s not a GREAT trailer, but it’s not a bad one.

If you want to see a bad trailer? Go find a copy of the very first Pirates of the Caribbean trailer. It’s awful. It mostly looks like stock footage, is based on a Disney ride, tells you nothing about the movie, and contains only one shot from the film. Skeleton feet underwater. It tells you nothing.

I recall that movie did okay. Unless you’re owed money on the profits for the film, in which case it lost money. As did the three sequels, I’m sure.

My point is, one bad trailer didn’t sink John Carter.

Let’s go back to the comments, which is what led me in the right direction.

Ask yourself this: Why are there no John Carter TOYS?

Again, let’s compare this to Pirates. Which is everywhere. They’ve got LEGO sets for Pirates. And action figures. And… well, frankly, lots of stuff. But really? The key thing? Toys.

There aren’t any.

Which announces, loud and clear, that Disney KNEW this movie was in trouble. Totally knew it, going way, way, way back (because these toy lines are getting set up at the same time the movie is being made, believe you me).

So that’s the first key, right there. And that’s a big one. The day you see a Pixar movie, or a Disney animated picture shoot out the gate with no toys whatsoever behind you, you know they know they done screwed up real bad.

Here’s the second key: How did they know they were up a creek without a paddle?

Now, that part, you can find in the trailer. But it has nothing to do with special effects. It has to do with a shirt.

Namely, halfway through the trailer, John isn’t wearing one anymore.

It sounds like nothing, but it’s everything.

At least, it’s everything when combined with the Disney logo.

That single article of clothing? The missing shirt? The moment Disney saw that, I’m positive they made a call and cancelled their toy line. They knew they had already lost the war, and only a single shot had been fired.

Because a shirtless dude does not say “family friendly Disney movie.” It says, “Conan the Barbarian.”

Which makes a whole lot of sense, when you think about it. The Princess of Mars, the first John Carter book, featured a naked princess. It was written in 1917, and the first Conan stories started coming out in 1932. Both of the books, around-about 1970 or so, had covers painted by Frank Frazetta, which generally featured really, really well-built dudes and mostly-unclad women.

Whether these two kinds of stories are, in fact, the same is somewhat irrelevant. Modern brains familiar with both of them in a cursory manner will, consciously or unconsciously, equate them.

Which brings me back to Shirtless John.

Now that you’ve established that at some point the guy is going to be shirtless, you’ve now set up two very conflicting expectations.

On one side of the equation, you’ve got men (and women, yes) who want to see a big-budget version of Conan. They want the adventure, the violence, and the naked, writhing flesh.

And then, on the other side of the equation, they see that’s it’s being released by Disney, and is rated PG-13.

Back in the early 80s, there was a bloody, violent R-rated Conan movie. It was called Conan the Barbarian. It’s still well-loved today, and it was a hit back when 40 million dollars at the box office was a hit. (This blows my mind.)

After that, there was a PG-rated Conan the Destroyer. Today, it’s better known as the Conan movie no one really likes.

Now, granted, the PG rating was one of the many flaws in the film, but that PG rating did some serious damage, as it removed some of the things people really enjoyed about the original.

And here’s John Carter. A former cover with a scantily clad female. An unclothed princess in the novel itself. And on the screen? She’s clad. And all the violence? Toned down to Disney levels.

So all the men (and women) who want THAT movie? You’ve lost a large chunk of them.

On the other side of things, you’ve got the families. They see Disney. They see wide-open vistas, and flying ships. They think, you know, this could be fun like Star Wars (which makes sense, since the original novel was an influence).

Then they see John Carter, Shirtless Dude.

And those people are out too. Because they don’t see the Disney label. They see Conan, a movie that, even with a PG rating, they’re highly wary of taking their kids to.

And subconsciously, I think parents noticed that there were no John Carter toys. Parents take their kids to stuff like Batman, even though that’s a highly dubious idea, because stuff that’s make into toys is, supposedly, safe for kid consumption.

So as you can see, Disney was stuck with a movie that was more-or-less made for nobody. At a cost of 250 million dollars.

Could they have saved it? Not after a certain point. If they CGIed a shirt back onto their hero, they might have had a chance. And I dunno how the female outfits looks in the movie, but in the trailer she looks pretty well covered. They might have had to do some work there as well.

I think in the end some really great reviews might have saved the flick being branded a failure. But based on what I’ve read of the critics, and what friends of mine have said, the movie is somewhere between okay and good, with few people stating that it’s VERY good.

And if you’ve got a movie people are unsure about, anything less than VERY good turns the movie into a rental.

And one last thing: The title John Carter did no one any favors. John Carter of Mars at least sounds interesting. John Carter sounds like Oscar bait.

My suspicion is that these issues will shake themselves out on home video. Some movies must ultimately leak themselves into the public mind, and I’m sure this one will be a slow-burn hit on cable and home video, after the parents deem it’s okay for (some) kids and action fans determine that, even though it’s low on gore and other carnal delights, it’s still a great deal of fun.

Some number of years ago, I read that Waterworld, one of the great punchlines of modern cinema, had finally made all of its money back. (Unless you’re supposed to get a percentage, of course.) I have no idea if it’s true, nor do I remember where I read the information. But I suspect that, yes, the epic flop that was so heartily mocked is now, on some set of books, in the black.

Ultimately, John Carter will probably get there too.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

American Idol: The Cuts Keep Happening

And so it was that I mostly let things go on Idol over the last few weeks. I’ve talked about it with friends and my spouse, and I talked a bit here without making any new predictions…

And somehow, my very first list has proved to be frighteningly accurate.

Ultimately, I misjudged (kind of, but I’ll come to that) two singers out of 12, which is surprising even to me.

So, let’s talk about who is left:

Hollie: It scares me sometimes just how closely Jimmy and I are in our thought processes, to the point where I’ve started checking my house for microphones. Hollie and Jessica are essentially the same performer… only Jessica is much, much better. This marks the third week that Hollie has given a really weak performance. She needs to go.

Honestly, I feel bad for her, as when she’s on, she’s on. But lately, the only thing she’s been able to nail have been choruses. I suspect she’d have a great career as a chorus-singing backup girl on rap records.

She was one of two people who I misjudged out of the gate, as I felt from the start she should be higher up in the competition. Of course, I said someone might flame out. Looks like it’s her. This is good news for Jessica, as all the people who abandon Hollie will run to Jessica, assuring she stays safe for weeks to come.

Elise: Honestly, I’m still blown away that Elise has gotten this far. Not because she’s bad, but because she was way, way down on the bottom during the opening weeks. She pulled herself out of her pit mightily, and it’s been fun to watch her.

People saying she did a bad job last night? That she picked the wrong song? Nah. I don’t buy it. She made two critical mistakes, though. Sticking to the original Lite FM arrangement, which makes it hard to give the song a peak, was the first. The second was starting the song low so she could do a key change and FAKE a peak was the other.

I suspect if she’d come out and let someone back her up on a solo piano, guitar, or best of all an old Fender Rhodes, there would be less complaints. Regardless, I thought it was nice. Not great, but nice.

Deandre: This is where we stop losing people who had an off week here or there, and start losing people based on good will and whether or not their performances were PERFECT. Not just great, but PERFECT.

Deandre was a save, and he’s divided viewers of the show who alternately love or hate his sweetness and super-high, super-crazy falsetto. He did a great job this week, even managing to convince my wife, who hates his style of music, that he put on a truly great performance. That’s saying something.

All that said, he can’t hold on for very much longer. He’s been close to the bottom, and the shark is coming up to devour him. Still, a great run for someone who was saved in the first place.

Colton: Colton truly is my Hayley this year. I’ve really not enjoyed most of his performances, and I think his biggest problem is that he doesn’t realize what kind of artist he is.

That said, I dug his performance this week. He finally hit his “rock” sweet spot, which is not actual rock, but Coldplay rock. He even did a solid job with Skylar. My wife and I think the two of them should form a Lady Antebellum-style group and go on the road.

Now if he could just figure out where his actual strengths lie, I’d like him a lot more.

Joshua: ‘S funny. The judges love him, and that’s nice, but while Hollie and Jessica are tapped as being the same, no one seems to get that Joshua and Jessica are also the same. But Jessica looks comfortable up there, and Joshua is still talking about his comfort zones. That’ll kill him, and all his voters will move to Jessica.

Phillip: Originally, I had Phillip dropping out a lot earlier, and I can still see it happening. The boy has an attitude problem. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s just a touch too blunt to go all the way. And this week, the judges fawned over him again, and you know what?

He was flat. He was flat for most of the song, trying desperately to scoop his way into higher notes he didn’t have the range for. As a bonus, he didn’t have a range for the low notes either. Which kind of proved something I’ve noticed about the show. If you see a singer having a problem with a song during coaching, 99% of the time they STILL have that problem later.

This week, everyone was all, “Phillip wasn’t quite there when he came in. But we know he’ll get there!” No. He won’t. The song was too high in rehearsal, and Phillip was not going to add two or three notes to his upper range over a few days.

The guy seems to genuinely enjoy performing, to the point where he’s having surgery and then coming in and doing his thing. But he really showed how limited his range is now, and that’s going to haunt him.

Skylar: Skylar took a song that’s pretty much a punch line these days, and sang it so well certain people got tears in their eyes. I told my wife weeks ago that she could really take this thing, being a country-rock girl with an impressive range. And at times like this, I suspect I’m right.

Jessica: Jessica scares me a little bit, with her talk of alternate personalities and her impossibly huge voice. I remember reading not long ago that Whitney Houston was that good at around that age, and then I see how Whitney turned out, and I shudder inside.

She may or may not deserve to win, depending on how you feel about this, but the recent deaths of Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston kind of haunt me on this one.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Striking Out in Tee-Ball

There’s a theory in psychology that all the things you’ve ever learned or seen are still inside your head, but that they’re misfiled. The example I learned in class was that our primary memory of, say, your third birthday party might be the grass you saw outside that day. And how green it was.

Subsequently, your third birthday party gets filed under “green,” and you can never find the thing.

Somewhere around my 35th birthday, I started having what I’ve started labeling as flashbacks. Sudden reminders of things that happened to me when I was younger. Stuff I’d forgotten about, but which my brain now feels compelled to offer up, for reasons that are often a complete mystery for me.

Recently, my five-year-old and I were at a store, and she asked me a buy a plastic bat and ball. Summer is coming, we really need to spend more time outside, and the cost of the bat and ball was all of two dollars. So I bought them.

We went home, opened them up, and started playing. My my brain took a dive down the rabbit hole.

What most surprised me was not how deep the hole was, but how the one big hole led to a dozen other side holes. Things I simply didn’t remember were down there.

The first thing that sprang to mind, much to my surprise, was not the times I spent in my grandfather’s backyard playing with various wiffle balls and bats. In addition to the skinny bat and regulation-sized ball I got for my kid, he also had a larger bat and ball, designed to help the un-athletic kids like myself hit a ball from time to time.

By time to time, I mean, “almost never.” Which was still better than never, I suppose.

But I digress. That was not my first real memory of baseball.

No, my first real memory is playing tee-ball.

What bothers me a lot of the time about the memories that my grey matter dredges up is that they lack almost any context. I grew up in a house that didn’t watch football (the holy sport of Wisconsin) or baseball, so I didn’t, and still don’t, understand why my parents decided to get me involved in an organized sport.

The thing is, I was a fairly compliant kid. Once, I found some of my mom’s old sheet music, and drew a staff, and wrote down some notes, and asked my mom to play them. My only goal was to learn what the black dots on the page meant. From this, my mother decided that I wanted to learn how to play the piano.

This was not the case. I had no real interest in learning how to play. And yet, I took lessons for years, because it never occurred to me to explain to my parents that even after 30 minutes of practice almost every day for seven years, I was a really, really, really mediocre pianist.

Even now, after 25 years of playing, I am a terrible sight reader. My only real ability lies in the fact that I am a decent (not good, not great, but decent) pop pianist.

My memory of getting “the talk” is much the same. I have no recall of asking, or expressing any interest in knowing where babies came from. But my mother, sensing that it was time I had the information, sat me down and read me a book that explained how flowers, chickens, and humans made babies. Today, a vaguely recall a drawing of a rooster mounting a hen, and a second drawing of a man and a woman lying next to each other, blankets up to their shoulders, implying that under the covers, they weren’t wearing anything.

My mom asked if I had questions after we read the book. I told her I didn’t. I did not say that I wasn’t sure why we had just read the book together, which was the actual question I had.

But back to tee-ball.

Ultimately, my big issue was not that I was there at all. My mom had taken me, my only real job was to show up and play. Were there practices? I don’t recall any. Was there coaching? There must have been, but I don’t remember it.

I do remember that I only had one fear: Striking out.

Now, if you don’t know what tee-ball is, you wouldn’t understand how laughable this concept is on its face. Tee-ball is so named because the ball is placed on a tee (just like golf, only the tee is at mid-torso level) and all you have to do is hit the ball off the tee.

The ball is right there, unmoving. There is just about no way that you can miss it. Granted, you can hit it badly, tapping the top or the bottom, or perhaps bashing the tee itself, but you should be able to hit the ball.

More importantly, you should be able to hit it without having to take three swings at it.

Frankly, if you saw a kid in a movie missing that ball more than once, you’d write the scenario off as ludicrous, unless it had been previously established that the kid was blind, or had a major depth perception problem.

Regardless, I was assured that I would not be allowed to strike out.

A cursory glance at some Googled tee-ball rules indicate that this is true. The object of playing tee-ball is not so much to play a game, as it is to teach kids the basics of baseball while encouraging sportsmanship. The object is not to hit the ball well, it is to hit the ball at all. Each inning, every kid gets a chance to bat. Score is not necessarily kept. Games are 4 innings or 1 ½ hours, whichever is shorter.

It is not a game. It is a practice with two opposing teams who are not actually opposing.

And yet?

I have a distinct memory of striking out.

What’s strange is that, though this memory is perfect and clear, I don’t remember what happened after I managed this seemingly impossible feat.

First, I remember sitting on a bench, waiting for my turn to bat. I do not remember caring how well the other kids played, mostly because I don’t remember any of the other kids. I suspect I was there to make friends, but these kids were there because they wanted to play, and I was there because we had arrived and I was expected to do my part. I was at a location, and this was required of me, so I was doing it. The outcome didn’t matter.

When my batting time arrived, I got up, picked up a bat, and walked up to the ball.

At that point, I had hit the ball before, and been told to run. Of this I am sure.

I aimed, I swung. I missed.

I aimed, and swung, and missed again.

Had it been real baseball, I would have already had two strikes. The adult monitoring the proceedings did not inform me of this. I simply knew that I had two strikes against me.

So I reset my stance, shouldered the bat, and swung again. And I missed.

This much I remember: I looked at the coach, trying to determine what was supposed to happen now. I knew that he wasn’t calling out the word strike, but I now had three, and that was when, in baseball, you have failed and should return to the bench.

It is here that things get fuzzy.

I do remember that the coach waved at me, letting me know it was okay to make another attempt.

I also remember trying to hit the ball. Multiple times. As though the ball and my bat were polar opposites, incapable of meeting.

And then: a blank space. I can envision myself walking back to the bench, shamed, having managed the impossible. Striking out in tee-ball.

But it’s equally probably I finally managed a pathetic hit, and someone caught the ball, or tagged me out, or otherwise prevented me from gaining that first base.

Regardless, I know for a fact that I missed the ball three times. The stationary, seemingly impossible-to-miss ball.

And then there’s another memory bounce. To Cub Scout softball.

Weirdly, my memory elides past this, taking me first into high school. I am a senior, and I am trying to become an Eagle Scout. This must happen before I turn 18, which will occur June 16th. To beat the clock, I am trying to plow through getting 10-12 merit badges in order to reach a certain required number.

With some badges, much effort is required. Others, not so much. Most of my fellow scouts got Basket Weaving because, to get it, you have to weave a basket, and prove that you could weave a chair seat. The latter task takes about two minutes. The former takes a couple of hours over an afternoon.

My birthday is drawing nigh, so I am desperately hunting for badges that have requirements I have already achieved. The Music merit badge is a total gimmie, after 8 years of piano lessons and many years in choir and a year spent learning how to write my own music.

I want to get the Public Speaking merit badge, but this requires that there is a mentor in the local Boy Scout office contacts list, and there is not one. So my mom signs on as a mentor, and I walk her through the requirements I have already fulfilled in various English classes.

If this is ethically dicey, I have no qualms about it. My troop has almost no Eagle Scouts in it. I myself joined with a group of nine boys, all of whom were gone by the time I reached my sophomore year of high school. I have been availed of stories about other troops functioning as virtual Eagle factories, pushing kids through the necessary badges in mass groups.

It is Not My Fault that there is no one else I can go to and explain that I have been forced to give speeches for years, and that I may as well get a badge for it. Still, I get the sense that my mother is reluctant to help me out in this manner.

And then comes the weird one. It is a Sports merit badge. Is it called Sports? Sporting? Sportsmanship? Another Google search takes me to Sports.

I am trying to tear through the earning of these badges, and all that is required is that I prove I was involved in a sport. Reading the current rules, checking against my faulty memory, I find that it is actually two sports. One was Judo, which my parents put me into, once again for reasons I am not clear on.

The other is Cub Scout baseball.

In both instances, I am not spending a season of play carefully monitoring my wins and losses. I am playing detective, trying to put together a list of losses, failures, and last place ribbons with the word participant on them.

Digging through my collection of softball memories, I find very little relating to the actual game.

I remember a practice where I was asked to play catcher. The batter hit the ball almost straight up. A pop fly. I get up off the ground, and move six feet to the left to catch the ball. The batter also moves six feet to the left, and hits the ball again. The batter hits me as well.

I am not hurt badly, just startled, and confused why none of the adults call him out for doing this. Instead, they let him run the bases.

I remember J (I have removed his name, though I suspect it doesn’t matter now), who dropped something on the wrong side of the fence. He decides to climb the four-foot fence to retrieve it. The rest of the kids warn him not to rip his pants. He says he won’t.

He rips his pants.

Later, I will see the pants again. They are sewn back together, not in an artful, professional way, but in the way of someone who needs the pants, and cannot afford new ones, and does not really know how to sew.

This is the same kid who will go to a week-long camp, but forget to bring socks. Instead he washes his socks in a sink every day, and dries them over a fire. I don’t know if anyone ever thought to have him call home, and have some socks mailed.

Another year, this same kid will complain all week of homesickness. His mother finally comes to get him on Friday. The rest of us go home on Saturday.

When he learns his mother is coming, he informs various kids that he can’t wait to go home, to go to the Boys and Girls Club, where, we are told, for a dollar he can play all the video games he wants for the day.

I remember feeling perplexed by this. We are leaving in less than 24 hours. Why is he telling us about the video games? Is it to make us jealous of him? Or is he trying to paper over his cowardice, and make us appear to be the chumps for not wanting to go home and play unlimited video games for a dollar.

As I think about him now, I remember him telling me a number of things that were inappropriate at best, and confusing at worst. There was a filter missing on that kid, who did not seem to realize that there were things you don’t talk about in public.

I suppose I should emphasize he never told me anything that was illegal, or perhaps should have spoken to an adult about. It was just uncomfortable.

Back to softball.

My first year, we lost all of our games except for two, both times defeating the same team.

In all the other games, it isn’t even close. We are slaughtered every time. In theory, because softball isn’t timed, even if the winning team is 100 runs ahead of the losing team, there is no reason not to continue. The opposite team could make up all those points in the next inning.

But on our field, if one team gets a certain number of runs ahead, the game is ended.

There are no ribbons and no celebration. One of the adults tells me that we were “put into the wrong division.” I take this to mean we were playing older boys, but I don’t know this for certain, even now. Perhaps we just sucked.

That year, I live in right field, which is where you put your worst player in order to decrease the damage he can do to the team. Even as a right fielder, I am terrible. Balls bounce past me, or roll between my legs.

My coaches tell me to keep my glove on the ground, but I can’t do that. The ground is covered with rocks and acorns, and I am concerned the ball will bounce and hit me in the face.

I am told this can’t happen. It does. At least twice. Both times, I am hit directly in the nose, and if anyone sees this happen they offer no comfort or apology for being wrong, even as I hold my aching face.

(I am reminded of something else. I am in Elementary school, and a large, doughy kid named M asks me to play soccer. Not because I am good, but because one of the other players is out sick. I pass on this.

(I am asked why I don’t want to play. I do not have the words to explain that I am bad at sports, and view playing as another opportunity to be humiliated at something I have no skills in. Instead, I say I don’t want to get hit in the face.

(M assures me that no one ever gets hit in the face. I pass anyway.

(Minutes later, M is hit in the face, hard. I feel vindicated.)

My second year playing softball, efforts are made to give everyone more time at different positions. I still spend much of the first few practices in right field, but I’m given a chance to be a catcher, to try other field positions, and to attempt to hold my own on second and third base.

Oddly, it is discovered that I do have one position I am okay at. Not good, nor great, but okay. Shortstop.

Shortstop is, in many ways, the perfect position for someone whose interest in the game is minimal. In right field, there is almost no action, and your mind wanders. As a shortstop, there’s a strong chance a ball is going to come your way, and soon.

More importantly, you have a lot of coverage. The second and third basemen are nearby, ready to pick up misjudged catches. And if the ball has some heat on it, the guys in the outfield are also there as backup.

The year I am upgraded to shortstop, two things happen that are memorable.

The first is, one year after being in second-to-last place, we end the season in second place. I can take little or no credit for this. We had a number of athletes who carried the team, while guys like me stayed out of their way.

Still, it is second place, and part of me is disappointed when games, and the season, don’t end the way they do in books and movies. In pop culture, good games end in pizza parties, or ice cream sundaes. A great season ends with a big party. None of this happens to me.

My other memory is the time I have exactly one super-amazing catch.

I am standing in my spot as shortstop. The ball is hit. It’s angled up, little more than a line drive, but high enough that it should be an outfielder’s job.

On a whim, I lift my arm as high up as it will go, and the ball claps into my mitt. The batter is out.

Given 100 chances to perform this trick, I would never be able to replicate it.

There is nothing to mention about my third year. After the spectacular comeback from second to last to second place, we drop to fourth or fifth. Good, but nothing amazing. Most of us move from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts. Within two years, only I remain.

And then four years have gone by, and in my mind I am back with my mentor, talking before school starts, hashing out whether or not I deserve a merit badge.

The mentor explains that I should really be in some kind of “new” sport, so that I can report back to him. I explain that there will be no new sports. I do not have the time. He can sign the papers or not.

In the end, he signs the papers. I am not sure why.

My life in organized sports ends there.

In college, I play one ill-advised basketball game against a friend. He slaughters me, though I am trying very hard and it is clear to me that he’s barely working up a sweat. He finally admits that I am not a very good opponent. I grin, and say, “Toldya.”

During one long January in college, I learn that some of my friends have gotten very into racquetball. I join them for several games, and we have fun, and I consider buying a racket. But I know once college is back in full session (we are in Winter Term, with just one class per day) I won’t have time to dedicate to suiting up and coming down and finding someone to play with, and playing.

After I get married, my wife and I take some tennis rackets and tennis balls my parents have stored on their porch and try playing tennis to get some exercise. We spend more time chasing the ball and trying to remember the rules than we spend hitting the ball back and forth. It is the rare time we actually manage a volley that lasts more than two hits.

And then I am back on my lawn, throwing a wiffle ball at my little one. The bat is huge in relation to her, and hard to swing. I am bad at aiming my pitches. And yet, more than once, she smacks the ball past me. This is her cue, untaught by me, to yell, “Home run!” and go racing around the house.

For one moment, I see my grandfather’s old house, and remember that I used to do the exact same thing.