Saturday, December 18, 2010

Intellectuals in Bubbatown

A Canadian online literary magazine called Qarrtsiluni will be posting a humorous essay I wrote in their next issue. (Yes, I will post a link when "Intellectuals in Bubbatown" is available.) They also wanted a recording of me reading it.

So I read it onstage during Saturday night's show at the Marlton (NJ) Comedy Cabaret. I think I lost the audience somewhere between the references to Miguel de Unamuno and Donald Barthelme.

I knew I should have added some knob gags.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What I've Learned About Freelance Writing

Last night I was on a panel about freelance writing for the Main Line Writers Group of King of Prussia, PA. The event drew 20 attendees - about twice the usual number. It seems that there was some interest in the topic, so I thought I'd write down the main points I covered.

1) Editors change jobs often: try to keep in touch with them. My co-author and I sold three books to three different publishers - all through the same editor, as he switched from one job to the next.

2) It is vitally important to deliver your work on time.
Harlan Ellison used to complain about editors who complained "I don't care if it's good, I want it Tuesday!" Not all editors feel the same...most want your work good and on time. If you must deliver your work late, don't wait until the due date; let your editor know at least a week in advance.

3) You need a marketing plan to sell a book today.
And social media is a big part of marketing. That's why I have 3,000 + friends on Facebook.

4) Finally, it's tough to make a living as a freelance writer.
You can go months without collecting a check. It's good to have an additional source of income. Get married, get a part-time job, get an investment portfolio. Or move to a country where the cost of living is cheaper. Me, I'm considering doing all four.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

I Must Not Be Doing It Right

I am not naturally a social person. When thrust into a group setting, my natural inclination is to hide behind a large potted plant, muttering to myself.

However, over the years, I have mastered some social skills. I thought I had gotten to the point where I could socialize with other writers. Especially if there was alcohol involved.

But apparently I'm not doing it right (according to The New Yorker).

Reporting on a dinner that included British authors Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchins, writer Lauren Collins revealed that the guests started off with various word games. They couldn't even begin to talk about Iraq and Nicaragua and Tiananmen Square until they proved how witty they were.

When I get together with my writer friends, we do little but complain about how bad newspapers have become. (This may have something to do with the fact that most of my writer friends are ex-newspapermen.) We do not play word games. We do not talk about Iraq or Nicaragua or Tiananmen Square (although I do recall a conversation about New Guinea).

But, so I'm prepared for dinner with Rushdie or Hitchins, I'm practicing my palindromes and Botticelli. Just in case.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Capricious Muse

Yesterday, the writer's muse granted me three good ideas for short stories. Unfortunately, yesterday was an absurdly busy: I rushed from appointment to appointment with no time to site down and write. All I managed was to scribble a few notes while standing in line.

Today I had more time, so I sat down to flesh out the three story ideas. But the muse is capricious. I failed to cherish her gifts yesterday, so today she took my talent away. (I don't suffer from writer's block, but on bad days I just grind out dreck.)

When my talent returns - tomorrow, I hope - I will get some decent stories out of these ideas. In the meantime, I've been given a warning. I must write, write every day, every damn day until I die. Then I can stop.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


I have no idea why, but I've seen more hawks in urban settings than in rural ones. I've gone on hawk-viewing expeditions to Hawk Mountain, PA, and managed to miss every raptor. Yet I've spotted several hawks feeding on the lawn at my parents' house in West Chester, PA. I even saw one getting entangled in a scrubby pine tree next to a parking lot off Route 70 in Cherry Hill, NJ.

At present, there is a live webcam showing three eyassers (baby hawks) in a nest in Philadelphia, PA. This nest of Red-tailed hawks is on a window ledge of the Franklin Institute. You can see the busy traffic beyond the nest on the Franklin Parkway. There is also a Facebook site for the Franklin Institute hawks, called Franklin Hawkaholics. It's worth a look.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Two Beers

It's opening day for the Phillies, who beat the hapless Nationals 11 to 1. Plus, Duke won the NCAA and the Eagles traded Donovan McNabb. With that much sports going on, you've got to have a beer or two.

Of late, I've been trying different beers. Several younger friends of mine have had to give up drinking beer, so I realize my alcohol-swilling days may also be numbered. Or maybe it's just an excuse to drink more.

I already have some experience with a variety of beers. I once managed a bar that sold 90 different kinds of beer, and I tired every one. The place also had an all-female staff, except for me. (That sounds more fun than it actually was. As the only male, I was the doorman, bouncer, and had to change all the beer kegs.)

Tonight I want to make note of two remarkable beers that I just tried:

Innis & Gunn Original Oak Aged Beer is a fine lager from Edinburgh. Its taste is pleasant...but its scent is astonishing! Its aroma is so strong that you'd swear you wear a child again, suspiciously sniffing a beer and wondering how anyone could drink such a stinky thing! It's a grand experience.

Rogue Old Crustacean Barleywine Style Ale is from Oregon's Rogue Brewery. I never thought I'd encounter a beer that I couldn't drink, but here it is. It's as bitter as coffee left in the pot for six hours. Barleywine Style Ale is one of my favorite types of beer, but I can't stomach Old Crustacean. The 750 ml bottle is pretty cool, though: black, with a replaceable stopper.

But do try the Innis & Gunn if you ever get the chance.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Bill Hicks Story

Comics are always asking me, "what was it like to work with Bill Hicks?" (Hicks was a wildly-inventive, uncompromising comic who died young of pancreatic cancer). I was reminded of this story while setting my clocks forward when daylight savings time resumed two weeks ago.

I was the booking agent for the Comedy Workshop in Houston, Texas, between 1984 and 1986. This meant I was the de facto agent for all the comics who made that club their home base. This included such acts as Sam Kinison (who was before my time), Brett "Grace Under Fire" Butler, Fred Greenlee, and - of course - Bill Hicks.

Now, no one doubted the talent of Bill Hicks. I had no trouble booking him in other clubs - once. But they usually didn't want him back because of his behavior. Hicks was doing a lot of drugs at the time. He'd insult anyone who he felt wasn't worthy of his talent (audience members or club owners). And he wouldn't get off stage on time. Sometimes he'd go an hour long!

So, sometime in the spring of 1986, I booked Hicks in Oklahoma. I can't recall if it was Tulsa or Oklahoma City. It was a week-long booking, Tuesday through Sunday. In fact, I supplied all three acts: MC, middle act, and Hicks as headliner. I arranged plane tickets for all three acts, and told the Oklahoma manager what time to pick the comics up at the airport - sometime around 3 pm.

Hicks came into my office on Tuesday morning. I handed him his ticket. I told him, "Bill, it's getting so I can't get you booked back anywhere. Please, please try and get through this one week without pissing off the management."

Hicks smiled and said "Sure." And left.

Around 3:30 that afternoon I get a call from an angry manager in Oklahoma. "They weren't on the plane. Where are they?"

Frantically, I started making phone calls. This was long before cell phones; a lot of people didn't even have answering machines. I couldn't get hold of any of the three comics, so I called their friends. No one knew anything.

Around 7 pm I got another call from the Oklahoma manger. "They're here."

Hicks had convinced the other comics to turn in their plane tickets for cash, rent a car, and drive to Oklahoma. And he didn't tell anyone!

He'd managed to piss off the Oklahoma manager before he even got there!

He ended the week in the same way. Hicks and the other two comics forgot that daylight savings time began that Sunday. They all showed up to the club an hour late. With no comics there, the manager had canceled the show.

I resigned as booking agent of the Comedy Workshop two weeks later.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Midnight Disease

I awoke at 4 am and couldn't get back to sleep. I was worrying about my mother. We put her in a nursing home last week. No option, really. She has Alzheimer's and had to be in a lock-down facility. She kept trying to leave the house she'd lived in for 40 years to go to her childhood home in Manayunk (a Philadelphia neighborhood). She thinks her mother is still alive, waiting for her there.

Fifty years ago, HER mother was doing the exact same thing. Except that, back then, nursing homes didn't have keypad door locks or put monitoring bracelets on the patients. My grandmother escaped and made it to the bus stop several times.

So I couldn't get back to sleep. No matter. In Michael Chabon's book Wonder Boys, the narrator calls insomnia "The Midnight Disease" and claims it often afflicts writers. My rule for insomnia is this: if I can't get back to sleep in a half-hour, get up and write.

At 5:30 am I hear a neighbor leave for work. It reminds me of my own early-morning jobs, some twenty years ago. I remember working construction, showing up at the contractor's office at 6 am, being on the jobsite by 7 am. I was a plumbing apprentice. I had permanent bruises on both shoulders from carrying 22 foot lengths of pipe. Come to think of it, that's when my problems with my knees started.

It's 7 am now. Soon the school buses would make their rounds. How many times have I been on deadline, writing all night, only noticing the time when I hear the school buses in the morning? Too many to count.

The muse rarely inspires me late at night. My midnight writing is quotidian, workmanlike. Nothing brilliant. Just grinding out page after page. But that's what much of the writer's life is about. If deadlines permit, you can insert brilliance in the rewrite. It beats the hell out of writer's block.

Alzheimer's is also a midnight disease. I'm sure my mother awakens at night in the nursing home, not knowing where she is. But she was already doing that in at home, not recognizing her husband of 56 years. So she's no worse off. And now, perhaps, my father can get a full night's sleep. But it will take him time to get used to sleeping alone.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Explaining US Health Care to a Hapless Brit

I have a head cold, so I went to the drug store to get a decongestant. I wanted the stuff that actually works, containing pseudoephedrine. In my home state of Pennsylvania, you have to go up to the pharmacist's counter, show ID, and sign a release to purchase this. (Even if I wanted to, how much meth could I cook up with 18 tablets?)

In front of me at the counter was a British expat. He was astounded that his HMO had changed the rules on him as of January 1st. The medication he wanted would now cost him over $100. He was going on about how his HMO could be allowed to do this.

I stepped in to explain it to him:

Friend, you have to remember that health care in this country is a for-profit business. American health care is the same as other for-profit businesses, like the gambling industry or porn. Only with less integrity.

The pharmacist was not happy with me, but I got my decongestant. Business marches on.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The French vs. the British vs. the G-spot

An article in The Washington Post reports that British researchers conclude that the G-spot does not exist. (Or, if it does, it is "completely subjective." This is a term one uses with people who believe in, say, unicorns or gay Republicans, rather than saying "it's all in your head.")

In response, approximately 1,000 French gynecologists assert that the English need to "keep looking." This is more impressive than it sounds, because the French gynecologists were apparently at a convention about the G-spot. If they concluded that the G-spot didn't exist, they might want their convention fees back.

My guess is that the G-spot exists on the continent, but suddenly disappears when you enter Great Britain. But feel free to prove me wrong.