Friday, January 30, 2009

What bad economy?

Here's the latest news from the world of publishing, my absolute favorite industry, one that continues to survive despite having no perceptible business model or the skills to run even one legitimate P / L on anything it produces.

Publisher's Weekly reports that a literary agent at major firm is "shopping around" (which means 'trying to sell' if you live in world that is not connected to publishing), a memoir by one Diane Keaton. Ms. Keaton's mother died about a year ago, after what PW called a "lengthy" battle with Alzheimer's disease. The story will be told "through the lens of [Keaton's] relationship with her mother."

As an aside, let me simply say that referring to the proposed book as a "memoir" more or less indicated to me that of course it would be told from Ms. Keaton's point of view. Maybe someone else is writing her memoir. But wouldn't that make it a biography? Does no one care about language anymore? Wouldn't you think a magazine devoted to publishing would? So would I.

Anyway, getting back to the title of this post, 'what bad economy?' here's the kicker. As of now, the entire book proposal consists of ten pages, and I'm going to guess that seven of those ten outline the reach and popularity of Ms. Keaton and the fan base who will line up to purchase anything with her name on it. I don't know who wrote this ten page "sample" but I'm going out on a limb here and guess that Ms. Keaton didn't sit in front of her laptop and labor over them. Of course there is a chance she did but somehow, I doubt it.

The rumored "offer" for this book? Two million dollars. TWO MILLION DOLLARS. For Diane Keaton's memoir about her late mother's Alzheimer's.

Has no one in publishing heard about the state of our economy? People are losing their jobs all over the place and some editor at some major publisher has the money to pay TWO MILLION bucks for this book?

Can someone explain to me why Diane's mother's Alzheimer's is of any more interest than anyone else's experience with a relative's Alzheimer's? Why is it worth a publisher paying her TWO MILLION DOLLARS to tell the story? The sad truth is that because we worship celebrities, more people will take notice of this disease because of Keaton's book. Maybe that makes it worth the money they're spending but somehow I doubt the publisher's motivation is that altruistic. If they'll pay two million they expect they'll make much more. And unless Ms. Keaton's planning to donate her advance and her royalties to Alzheimer's research, the whole thing is nothing but aggravating.

Look, I know the pain of watching a relative suffering from Alzheimer's. It is heart-breaking and difficult and frustrating and one of the saddest things there could possibly be. The energetic, entertaining, intelligent, fun person you knew and loved for years is gone but somehow not gone. She's mostly locked away, behind a wall of silence but looks out at you, offering nothing more than blank stares of non-recognition. At least you think she's probably gone. It's the unanswerable question. Is she still there? Does she know what we're saying and doing and telling her? Does she know exactly what she wants to say and is horrified to learn every single day that she can't tell you even one thing that's on her mind?

Ms. Keaton and her family have my sympathy. Alzheimer's is a horrible disease and watching it claim a loved one bit by bit, year after year, is terribly difficult. I hope her motivation for "writing" the book is to help others through the pain, to help them see that the disease can claim anyone, anywhere.

It's that two million bucks on the table that has me not quite convinced.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Another in the unending series of things I don't get....

Touch of Gray...I think that's what it's called. And no, I'm not referring to the Grateful Dead song. It's the latest innovation in grooming products developed to help women feel old and inferior to men in a whole new way.

Used to be that there was one thing a certain group of women (and men) of a particular age shared was their aversion to going gray. Because many (most?) women are just needy and insecure enough to obsess about matching our specific hair color down to the last spec on a single strand, hair color companies are delighted to produce scores of boxes in scores of shades to feed our obsession.

Men who were concerned about losing their natural hair color to the ravages of time needed exactly one product to tint their hair and it was called something that had exactly nothing to do with air color: Grecian Formula. God knows. The Greeks usually have a decent head of hair? And it's dark, not gray? Whatever.

That has changed, according to the latest commercial I've seen for a new men's hair color product. Apparently, while a LOT of gray is bad, some gray is good. We've heard this for years - the distinguished sideburns, the salt and pepper bon that look is in a bottle.

The models (model? Maybe it's the same guy with two different looks) in the commercial make me laugh. The one with the fully gray / white head portrays this geezer kind of guy with one foot in the grave. The young guy with the lovely dark locks is chipper and 'ready to roar,' in the words of Prince, someone, I suspect,who has never and will never touch a drop of hair color.

But hey - why look like an old coot or an inexperienced young jerk? Have the best of both worlds by using Touch of Gray. The tagline at the end - where we find the perfectly coiffed guy with the perfect number of gray hairs on his head - is something like: "My look says experience" (the gray guy). "Mine says energy" (the brown guy). Now you have the best of both worlds.

I can't quite remember the end of this story because I'm annoyed and envious. For women, a touch of gray may as well be a helmet of gray. There is no middle. And now there is a product that allows men to practically count the number of gray hairs they want on their heads to create the right look of distinction for themselves.

I suppose women could buy touch of gray. I wonder if the company tried testing it with women? If they did, I predict they were laughed out of the focus groups.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

He's Baa-ack

One month after he arrived home for Christmas vacation, my oldest son left again earlier this week to return to college.

Having him home again was, most of the time, delightful. It made me extremely happy to walk by his bedroom and see the door closed. Isn't that weird?

Before you think he's some kind of freak, he's not. He's just 19. And the door wasn't always closed. The reason I'm positive the door wasn't always closed was because I can clearly visualize the damp towels on the floor and unmade bed.

The experiences we had at home started off with almost cliche-like situations, where we heard phrases like "I'm not a baby" or "No one else needs to be home when I do" whenever we discussed what might make a reasonable time for him to return home after an evening out. I've read about this and heard about it but it was uncomfortable to actually live through it. It didn't take long to settle into a 'time to come home' agreement that made all parties concerned more (that would be us) or less (that would be him) content. The push-back was almost inevitable, and absolutely manageable.

For me, the very best part of my son being home with us was the fact that within reason, I could give him a hug or talk with him anytime I felt like it. Sure, he spent time with friends and his girlfriend but there were many occasions where I could go hang with him and chat or hop online or whatever. It was nice.

But just a few months after we made an emotional parting as he began his college career, we had another parting when I dropped him off on Monday. It felt entirely different to me. The 'missing him' feelings and the constant thread of "please be careful" thoughts that weave their way through some part of my consciousness at all times: those were still there. The sliver of unoccupied space he would leave in his absence was still there. I missed him already.

But this time, I dropped him off and ..what was this? Unbelievably, uncomfortably, improbably and inexplicably for me, it felt almost like I was dropping him off where he belonged. It's hard for me to believe that's true but it's starting to feel true.

I'm not sure who changed but I suspect it's me. And I wasn't expecting it. I wasn't prepared. Part of me wonders if that makes me a bad mother. Or maybe not bad - but at least - a detached mother. That's not quite the correct term either but it's something like that. Is it possible that I could start to accept the new reality in my life - one of my children moving on, moving away, moving toward complete independence - in a matter of a few months?

I've never thought of myself as "detached" or whatever the correct word is. Maybe it's the very pragmatic part of me asserting itself. I wish I were more "romantic" or whimsical about life but the truth is, I'm not. I tend to be your classic Capricorn (although astrology is ridiculous.) In case you're interested, here's what astrology says about Capricorns: "On the downside: Cold, Miserly, Indifferent, Rigid. Your good qualities include: Practical, Self-disciplined, Responsible, Reliable. Controlling your abilities, ambitions, destiny, and priorities will be your life's work." A barrel of laughs, right? Somehow, this particular string of words make admirable qualities like self-discipline, reliability and responsibility sound miserable. I'm not touching the feel-good words in the description, words like miserly, cold, indifferent and rigid.

All this to say, I'm still not exactly sure why or how I developed this unspoken and mostly unwelcome perception of myself as the mother of a son who is ultimately and irrevocably heading out the door and possibly, just possibly, being okay with that. I know I haven't quite reconciled that persona within myself.

It's sort of interesting to ponder..although yes, there is still a bit of me that wishes we could stop time and find a place that feels comfortable and livable and stay there. But the question is: comfortable for who? For me? For my sons? I suspect we'd choose different moments to freeze if we could.

That wouldn't work, even if we could do it. I'd miss the future, if you know what I mean. In my better moments, I think it's possible that we'll all get to a new place together.

But the boys may get there just slightly ahead of me.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"...people are really good at heart."

I think those words - or something like them - appear in the the final entry of Anne Frank's diary. And like Anne, the world has shown me that despite everything to the contrary, there are those who are truly good at heart.

In this week's Morning Call column, I wrote about the milestone I would reach in 2009: turning age 50. The point of the piece was really about the idea of looking outward for a change, instead of conducting our typical intense, relentless and harsh assessment of our own lives. It's not as if I don't want to somehow mark the occasion; it's just that this could also give me a chance to think about everything I don't need and a few things other people do.

If you're so inclined, check out the link and read the column. But if not, you should know that enough people have read it, responded to me in the kindest way possible, and restored my flagging faith in our ability to care for each other. Each one of them is everything Bernie Madoff and the people who emulate his behavior are not: compassionate, sincere, unselfish and kind.

And the truth is, that's really all any of us seem to crave these days, isn't it? The idea that we can still believe that people are good at heart? Over the past few months, the news has been filled with nothing but stories of how one group or even one person chose to act in a way that brought harm to many. I'm tired of hearing bad news and believing the worst about yesterday, today and tomorrow. I'm tired of thinking there is no way out of the climate of distress that surrounds us.

And the good-hearted people who responded to the column made that weary, defeated feeling go away. Not all of it - but a lot of it. And that feels pretty good.

Monday, January 12, 2009

More on publishing aggravations..then I'll let it go for a while.

At age thirteen, I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time. I’m not going to describe the moments that stayed with me over the years, or add up the number of times I’ve opened the book since then. I will tell you this: I remember thinking long and hard about the flap copy that accompanied the book. Along with some author background, it included this startling little story from Salinger himself: “I’ve been writing since I was fifteen or so. My short stories have appeared in a number of magazines over the last ten years, mostly – and most happily – in The New Yorker. I worked on The Catcher in the Rye, on and off, for ten years.”

At that time, I hadn’t worked on anything, off and on or otherwise, for ten years. And since the book covers little more than seventy-two hours in Holden Caulfield’s life, I found myself wondering: how did Salinger create so seamless a narrative if he worked on it for so long? What was he thinking when he went back to the manuscript over those years and found his place – “Where was I with this? Oh, that’s right, Holden had just gotten out of Horwitz’s cab.” How could he keep up his belief in his creative process? How did he keep the characters so focused when Salinger’s own life experiences had to have been growing exponentially over that decade?

I come back to his revelation often, particularly when a new writer seems to grab hold of our collective literate consciousness and rattle the publishing world. I thought of it again as I recalled the story about the Kaavya Viswanathan / Megan McCafferty conundrum. (Many people saw too many close similarities between the novels of the previously published McCafferty and the acclaimed new novel from the young, fresh Viswanathan, a situation that took place in the past year or two.)

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m all for overnight success, as long as it happens to someone who has worked long and hard to get it. But then I learned that only a few years ago, Ms. Viswanathan’s parents hired a college placement counselor to help secure a spot for their daughter in an Ivy League college. Fine. Lovely. Why not?

Then the counselor fortuitously “discovered” this student’s writing ability and connected her to an agent – why not? – at a little shop called The William Morris Agency. Who then connected her to a packager who connected her to Little Brown. So by age nineteen, Ms. Viswanathan finds her debut novel, with what many believe was a generous leg up from author Megan McCafferty, climbing various lists.

Question: What? How do you have no publishing history - I believe I’ve heard it called a “platform” – and get a deal represented by The William Morris Agency to have your first novel published by Little Brown? This is the same publisher who gave us The Catcher in the Rye more than fifty years ago, presumably to reach Salinger’s fans who had been reading him for about ten years in, what was that magazine again – oh yes, The New Yorker. I guess that’s the difference half a century makes. Fifty years ago you may have needed the equivalent of ten years worth of New Yorker stories to get a publisher to look at your novel. Today, you may need little more than a guidance counselor with connections.

The larger question for publishers isn’t about plagiarism. More than a few articles over the past few years have given us laundry lists of books gone bad once plagiarism and/or outright lies were discovered well after the books had hit the shelves. And while I haven’t read “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” nor have I read either of Megan McCafferty’s novels that provided so much “inspiration,” I have no doubt they were written with passion, and frustration, and joy.

But at times like this, I’m wondering if in the case of ‘Opal,’ it’s too much too soon. I can’t help but recall the advice a brilliant editor gave me years ago: “Don’t publish your first book until you absolutely can’t stand NOT to. It will always be – no matter what else happens - your first book. It should be the foundation that builds your career.”

When I tell the story – some day – about my first book being published, I’d like to remember it as pleasant, satisfying and exciting, and begin with Holden’s words to us as he sits outside the carousel in Central Park: ‘I wish you could have been there.’ I’m guessing Ms. Visawanthan, and everyone connected to her story, wishes they could say the same.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

If it's wrong, it may be right. Depending on your ethics, of course.

After years of trying, I may have finally figured out how I've gone so wrong in terms of looking for a book publisher. I thought I was doing it right: I wrote a great proposal, and completed several chapters. I connected with an amazing literary agent with a fabulous track record of sales and successful authors. Perfect, right? Wrong.

Based on what I read these days, my problem seems to be that the stories I tell in my book about my life are true. And in case you're confused about what that means, let me elaborate: the stories I tell are true because they happened to me, in my personal life, in my experience, in my own reality. Are we clear?

Two recent news stories about authors and publishing seem to prove my theory. According to Publisher's Weekly, and additional coverage of the same story in The New York Times, author Herman Rosenblat didn't tell the complete truth in his "memoir" titled Angel at the Fence. His moving story related how he met his future wife (the "angel" in the title,) when she would toss apples to him over the fence of the concentration camp in which he was imprisoned. Amazing and incredible and in fact, untrue. Since the facts emerged about the story, Berkley Books has dropped the title but a smaller publisher may be picking it up and publishing it as fiction.

In a similar story, author Neale Donald Walsch, just admitted that his lovely little Christmas story, which recently appeared on Beliefnet, wasn't exactly his story. Sure, it came from a personal place. He recalled his son's kindergarten pageant rehearsal, and wrote a moving essay about how reversing one letter in a sign held up by children delivered the true message of Christmas. (The children were supposed to hold up letters that spelled out "Christmas Love" but the letter "m" appeared upside down so the message appeared "Christ Was Love."

Well, the truth is the story happened to someone else (Candy Chand) who wrote about it ten years ago. Walsch says he loved the story, had told it many times over the years and somehow "internalized it as my own experience."

If I wanted to be as generous as my sons were when I related this "mis-remembering" story to them, I could marvel at the flexibility of the human brain and what we are capable of convincing ourselves is true. I don't really have any ill will toward Walsch; it's just weird. How do you actually remember a kindergarten pageant your son participated in that never happened?

Let's get back to the title of this post. I suppose if I wanted to put my ethics on hold for the year, I could write a memoir that tells some of the most interesting, most moving, most courageous stories I've ever heard and make them my own. Unfortunately, I live the same life as countless millions, and happen to write essays about it. As it now stands, my book is a collection of such emotional hot buttons as how much I hate Victoria's Secret, the tumult and turmoil I endured when I learned how creating something called an "edible landscape" for a 4th grade science class can ruin a perfectly good Tuesday evening of Law & Order and the heartbreaking reality that I endured when I realized that visiting a Pottery Barn (or even paging through their catalog) could plunge me into a deep depression.

I'd love to write a book that captures the hearts and minds of millions. Or even hundreds. One that people can enjoy so much that when they put it down, they feel like they've just made a new friend. A book that will create a little community of people who relate to each other's experiences and wisdom. But I don't want it badly enough to lie.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

and a few more teary moments

Over the holidays, and to help celebrate my time away from the office, I spent some time watching movies, or more correctly, watching parts of movies. The only new movie (meaning: a movie I hadn't seen before) I watched over the holidays was "Miss Potter," the story of children's book author Beatrix Potter. I didn't know much about her other than the fact that her stories delighted my children for a few years. Turns out she was a little more complicated than I thought and much more independent than one might have imagined given the climate of her time.

But nothing in that movie made me cry. No, the ends of two other movies did that for me: the very end of the original "Rocky" (if you can believe that) and the end of "The Color Purple."

It's true: I tear up when Rocky stands in the midst of the mayhem in the boxing ring at the end of the match and calls out for the woman he loves. Both Rocky and Adrian are depicted as "losers," with Rocky eking out a living as the muscle for a loan shark in Philly and Adrian working in a dingy pet shop, hiding in the shadow of her formidable and domineering brother. Each of them have very little in terms of material things - in fact, they personify the working poor - and even less to celebrate in a personal way, until they meet each other. The vulnerability they show as they begin their relationship and the fact that these two lonely and sympathetic characters learn to love each other makes the end of the film very touching, at least to me. So I tear up every single time.

And then there's the end of "The Color Purple." Everything about those final scenes is perfect. The flowers, the fields, the colors, the characters scattered about on a gorgeous sunny afternoon, and the brilliant colors of the African garb that waves in the breeze when Celie's family steps out of their car. All of it is gorgeous and moving, and the my emotions begin to well up within me when Celie's sister, Nettie, introduces her to the grown children she never knew. But nothing gets to me as much as the shot of Albert, Celie's estranged husband, walking in the field next door. After years of fostering the separation of the women, he somehow learns what is right, what is just, and his actions are behind the reunion that means so much to everyone involved. And I'm wiping my eyes every time.

And I had one more tearful moment this holiday season, but this one came courtesy of real life, not film. It was on Sunday, December 28, when I learned of the accident involving the Parkland students and recent graduates. Two of the boys are our neighbors, including Josh, who died as a result of the accident. Garrett is home and recuperating but it will be many weeks before he is fully recovered. One of the other boys sits with two of my sons at lunch and they were horrified to hear he was in the group and badly injured as well.

I cried at this news. News of any accidental death as a result of a car crash is tragic - but this was happening only two doors away from us. To a group of kids who planned to do nothing more than spend an evening together at the movies. On the same foggy night my oldest son left the house to pick up his girlfriend and go out to dinner. The difference is that they both arrived home safely at the end of the evening - courtesy of providence and nothing more.

I've tried very hard over the years to remind myself that all of today's hassles and annoyances that come with raising children will not last. The missing term paper, the practice that isn't happening for the weekly voice lessons, the scraps of information you have to beg for in order to know what's going on anywhere with anyone - as aggravating as all of it is, it doesn't last. What will last is the relationship - good or bad - that we build with our children.

I hope they know that even when I'm angry, I love them. I hope they know that loving people sometimes anger each other. That I'm far from perfect and I don't expect perfection from them. And that when I insist on a hug goodbye as they leave, and I murmur yet another in my series of "be carefuls" in their ears, or when I ask for a phone call if they're going to be late, it isn't just to be annoying, or because I think they're babies or because I don't trust them. I'm thinking positive but also listening to the tiny little scary voice that whispers about "what might be" should the universe turn against us one night.

You can't control the world. You can't really control the actions of your children when they reach a certain age. You can't even control the scary voice in your head. You can only hold it at bay, one night at a time. And when the scary voice turns out to be telling the horrible, unspeakable truth one night - like it did for some parents on Sunday, December 28 - you can only cry.