My public library is sad

I didn’t know I lived in such a small town until, after 10 years, I finally walked into my local public library and found a depressingly thin and deficient collection. Sure, there are several dozen books of fiction and non-fiction, poetry and reference, but the choices are odd and lacking in nutrition.

The search for something enriching is arduous. Since space is at a premium, I was told, the library can’t store as many titles as one might expect. In other words, I guess, they keep what people want to read, and one look at the collection makes the entire experience that much more depressing.

On my first visit, I found, buried on the bottom shelf, “The Anatomy Lesson” by Phillip Roth. Good book. Not his best, but it’s Roth. Today, I wanted to pick up Richard Ford‘s “Canada,” which seemed simple enough, only to find that the library didn’t stock a single Ford title.

“Well, he has a Pulitzer,” I said to very nice woman at the desk. “Surely, you’d have one of his books.”

“Oh, a Pulitzer.”

Moving on then. Amid the scores of J.D. Robb and Janet Evanovich and James Patterson and Nora Roberts titles, I struggled to find but two Roth books, a couple of Dennis Lehane works, a pair of Cormac McCarthy titles, one whopping Jonathan Franzen book, a single Thomas Pynchon book, one Ernest Hemingway, one lonely William Faulkner and nary a trace of Mark Twain or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Chaucer or Dante or even Don DeLillo.

I get it. It’s a small library with precious little space and it can’t have everything. However, what has been chosen for the public (based on what that reading public wants) smacks of a massive shortcut. Get what’s hot on the best sellers list and there you go. No, they can’t house all the classics of the world. No, they can’t eliminate the tripe-y supermarket titles, either, but if this is what the public wants, what does the future hold for the public? On the other hand, if the reading public can’t find what it thinks it wants, maybe it would try something different/new/better.

All of this worries me.

Some of you may be thinking, “Hey, I like J.D. Robb, you pretentious jerk!” More power to you and maybe you’re right. I have no problem with books of any kind and the people who read them. The issue, though, is that this is a public library and it should not cater to the masses as much as it should act more like a museum, a house of worship of books, no matter how small the budget or the building.

A public library that chooses to eliminate what I was told are “the older titles people aren’t really looking for” is doing a disservice to the community. I’m sure this isn’t just happening in my local library, but across the country. You know, if you want junk food, don’t go to a fine dining restaurant and if you want fine dining, don’t go to the drive-thru. Maybe that isn’t the best analogy, but you get the point.

I suppose there is an argument against my position to be made, and it probably goes like this: If public dollars go to supporting a public library, then it should house what the public wants.

I hear that and I understand it but it’s unacceptable. Maybe that’s what scares me the most, that the public wants the sizzle and not the steak.

Wow, that was one terrible yet fitting cliché.

A public library, no matter how big, should aim higher and to try in any way possible to better the world. A library with a limited budget in a small town might want to try to rise above the rest of the other libraries across the country with bigger budgets and more diversified readers.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m in denial. Am I?

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Journalism today: Should we expect more, demand better?

These days, I feel both proud of and appalled by the state of journalism, especially when we consider such subjects as politics, energy, economics and even sports. It seems that journalism is skewed, or at least suspect of being too subjective and driven by agenda. In all fairness, there are plenty of outlets that offer the straight news, the Who-What-Where-When-How reporting we should expect and demand. There is also always a place for opinion; the op-ed writers and columnists own that ball field.

However, amid the Republican and Democratic conventions, the looming elections and the economic and employment concerns still hovering over us like dark clouds, there is too much control by reporters and their networks or publications, too much control of the news, of the truth. It has now become clear that we are not trusted to form our own opinions. In the minds of the gods of journalism, opinions should be doled out like so much candy, opiates, and we are forced to choose which truth to believe.

I prefer interviews and facts, though even those wild cards can be altered, blurred to steer the perspective of the readers or viewers.

As a writer, I don’t feel comfortable working with an agenda on my shoulder. I use the word “integrity” cautiously for fear that it might appear as though I am breaking my arm to pat myself on the back. Opinion is one thing — and valuable at that — but omitting or skewing facts in the name of perpetuating an agenda is not my thing.  That’s for taking sides, which is also a good thing but not in the name of what amounts to a journalistic lie and the short selling of one’s integrity.

Worse still is that it has become increasingly difficult for the non-journalists, the people of this country and most of the world to just get the news as it happened, the facts being straight and crisp and completely absent of subjectivity or hidden agendas, much like a well-starched white shirt.

Instead, these days, it’s all about speed over alacrity, style over substance, attention-grabbing over righteousness. The blogosphere has hijacked news in its most basic format and cable news, which has exploded since 9/11, has become a battleground for the Right, Left, Center… all with ratings being the ultimate prize, the captured flag.

I don’t like it. All I can do, all any of us can really do, is mine for facts, take in all opinions, overcome the noise and the lies and the bombast and demand the truth, tossing away any outlet that refuses to give it to you.

To paraphrase an old and well-worn cliché: There are three sides to any story, only one of them is true.

Are writers crazy… or courageous?

Are those of us who write — with the purpose of being published and read by strangers — out of our minds?

I ask this of myself many times, since writing, fiction or not,  is hard enough. Unless you’re already under contract, your the one who gets to decide when the project is ready for public consumption. You have to put the word out, market yourself, tell everyone and anyone about your book or store. Brag.

Lunacy or abject bravery?

You write a book and bark out, “Look at me! I made this! I wrote a book!”

You’ve never heard the sound of crickets laughing?

“Well, I know you don’t know me, but I promise it’s good! I mean, hey, it’s on Kindle so it has to be good!”

Well, that’s way too many exclamation points, someone said.

Piss off!

Then someone reads what you have done — wife, father, friend, complete stranger — and you realize that you just exposed yourself and your precious creativity to the outside world. That you want the reader to like the book is an understatement. You want the reader to love it, almost as much as you want that person not to hate it, because if they do and they’re part of your inner circle, you’ll get an awkward but polite smile and a halfhearted pat on the head. If your reader is a stranger…look out.

Many believe that the hardest part of writing is the re-writing, the editing. I say it’s the promotion. The selling. It feels so good during the writing process (at least it does for me), why ruin things by having to get out there and grind away at trying get other people to read your most personal work? What are we, a public service? Who cares if anyone sees it? Is it all about money? Ego?

No.

Whether it’s romance, pulp, sci-fi, fantasy, chick lit, satire, literary fiction, sports, current events, SEO-heavy web content, biography, articles, blogs or even advertising copy, there is still one common thread, one reason for it all to exist: Telling a story.

We as living, thinking creatures have told stories since cavemen drew on walls, since writers and painters worked under the weight of poverty and never finding fame until their bones had turned to dust. Storytelling is an effort to relate or elicit emotional responses, to find out that we’re not alone in our thoughts or fears and that there is something connecting each of us.

I plan to continue telling stories to anyone within earshot until I turn to dust, crazy or not.

Then there’s this other thing…

Okay, some of you have been reading my food blogs, done mostly to exercise my blogging skills as well as just have a little fun. Some of you are in this space for the first time.

As the comedy troupe, Monty Python, once dubbed a film: And now for something completely different…

Sometimes, I write for money (being paid or not is another story). Most of the time, I wear the hat of sportswriter, covering football, both pro and college. However, for the purpose of this particular blog entry, I also write fiction and there are a few things I need to share.

You see, a while ago, my father, Dave, a far more prolific writer than I am, was working on a novel. He had hit a wall, it seems, since I hadn’t heard him talk about it in quite some time.

“So, how’s the book coming?” I asked.

“Eh, I’m kind of stuck.”

I paused, not knowing what was behind the door I was about to open.

“I’ll help,” I said.

A few days later, I was in the middle of an adventure, both on the page and in my life. Of all the writing I had done, I had never touched anything that resembled a geopolitical action-thriller. And yet, there I was at the computer, reading his outline, trying to expel the delusions of literary grandeur from my mind… it was time to grind it out.

The result, finally, is the novel, “Tel Arad.” It’s written by the two of us and the cover features a shared byline. I cannot, nor can he (I imagine) describe the significance of that fact alone. We did it together and now it’s real.  I don’t know how many times my name has appeared in print under a headline, but the co-authorship of this book is worth more than anything.

I don’t know what readers will think of “Tel Arad.” I hope they like it. I hope we do well with it. The real glory, the true value, was found in the work. It cannot be judged or taken away. Someday, the book will be forgotten by others, maybe even ourselves, but the teamwork, the father-son effort it took to make something together will live on forever.

While we toiled, there was a dusty pile of papers under my desk, calling out: “Don’t forget about me.”

And so, I did not forget. When the work on “Tel Arad” was done, and we saw that it was ready for public consumption, I broke out that pile of papers, which in truth was a “dusty” computer file, made some changes, tightened up a few loose ends and sent it out into the ether as an e-book.

“Clean Like Tomorrow” was written too long ago and instead sat marinating in my own fears. I sent it out once to about 10 agencies. The responses ranged from “Well-written… but not for us, thanks,” to the equivalent of a blank stare. I meekly put it away. Don’t ask me about its category because I have no idea where it should fall, though it’s all about a woman, a son, a friend, lives in crises and characters trying to reconnect by changing their lives.

For those of you read one of my earliest posts (hell, there aren’t that many) I am working on something new and different. Hopefully, I will be done writing in a few months, the complete story finally revealed to me and ready for I-don’t-know-what. E-book? A literary agent? The empty spot under my desk?

And now for the advertising portion of this tale: You can find “Tel Arad” on Amazon as POD or Kindle, and “Clean Like Tomorrow” on Amazon Kindle with POD coming soon.

Another night of cooking (local) by the beach

We welcomed friends, a formerly local family now living the life fantastic in southwestern France, to our tiny beachfront apartment the other night for dinner.

Question 1: Cook a French-style meal, to give them a taste of their new home and us of the Old World? A good chance to practice the technique.

Question 2: Give them a real New Jersey shore meal to show off what we here can do within a mile or two of the Atlantic Ocean when it comes to perfect food. A taste of what they’d left behind, if you will.

Yeah, Question 2 was answered clearly and resoundingly: YES!

Since my favorite seafood and vegetable markets are less than a mile from our place, not to mention the herb garden on the deck, this would be easy.

The local ingredients included: clams, chiles, corn, lemon thyme and scallions for the entree. A little olive oil and butter, garlic, onion, the white part of the scallions, chiles and a dab of bacon fat went into the pot to start cooking out the rawness before the clams made their entry. In a smaller saucepan, a corn cob simmering in water to build a quick sweet corn broth, the corn that I had cut from it waiting in the wings. Grand finale: clams in, corn in, broth in, beer in (I used lager, some ales and stouts can make the dish too bitter).

The result, which was served over spinach and fresh pasta, looked like this:

Our new favorite summer salad is as simple as it gets: local tomatoes, both heirloom and basic Beefsteaks, a cucumber, shaved red onion, good olive oil, lemon juice, cracked black pepper and flaky sea salt.

Here’s what “easy” looks like:

When the food was gone, the conversation began…

THIS.

Time flashing back and forth in my mind today, slicing shards of memories, disjointed, out of context and questionable in accuracy.

Tomorrow night — yes, I think it’s tomorrow night — I will attend my high school reunion, again, this time the event will mark 30 years since graduation.

Thirty years. Impossible.

I can’t say that I think of my entire high school tenure fondly or remember everything all that well. There are names disconnected with faces in my memory, now thrust at me via social media as the information flies through my eyes and my ears ahead of this… this… thing.

And as I ponder my high school years now — Did I know him? Why don’t I remember her? Did we really do that? — I can thankfully, blessedly, fortunately ease back into the comfort of knowing two things, deep and softly into what have become pillows upon…

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Thirty years gone… but the loves, the friends, and the music are still with me

Time flashing back and forth in my mind today, slicing shards of memories, disjointed, out of context and questionable in accuracy.

Tomorrow night — yes, I think it’s tomorrow night — I will attend my high school reunion, again, this time the event will mark 30 years since graduation.

Thirty years. Impossible.

I can’t say that I think of my entire high school tenure fondly or remember everything all that well. There are names disconnected with faces in my memory, now thrust at me via social media as the information flies through my eyes and my ears ahead of this… this… thing.

And as I ponder my high school years now — Did I know him? Why don’t I remember her? Did we really do that? — I can thankfully, blessedly, fortunately ease back into the comfort of knowing two things, deep and softly into what have become pillows upon which I can rest my weary mind, tired heart and aging body.

  1. Without realizing it then, I had already met my future wife in high school. It took decades to find her, find us, but it happened.
  2. To this day, I can count on four men as my closest and most important friends. We have known each other for 33 years; a few of them have known each other even longer. Loyal. Vital. Absolute.

Saturday night, 30 years and about a month later, we will gather. There will be small talk and big talk. There will be laughs and, due the saddening and maddening realization that we have lost too many of the class already, there could be tears. And there will be the attempt by many to relive the lost glowing and out-of-focus days of our youth. People who barely spoke those years ago will be, for a night, friends.

Someone asked me the other day if I was popular in high school. Hell no, I said. But I had my friends, and we were popular to each other, easily shifting between the cliques and the sides and the groups without fitting into just one. We were our own group, our own armada of teenagers looking out at the world with varying degrees of wonder.

My high school served grades 10, 11 and 12. I moved into the town in time to begin that first high school class there, the one that joined two other junior high schools and transfers like me. Many kids already knew each other, but not all. There was a definite, palpable division between those who attended Junior High School A and Junior High School B. I floated between the two, which was good since there were no preconceptions and no baggage. Of course, I was also new, so no one really had to care about my presence.

What did she say, the kid sitting next to me asked.

I have no idea, I replied. We have been friends ever since.

Struggling now. Get the brain moving again, deeper, clearer…

Funny, what sticks out in my mind the most about high school — other than the obvious  wife and friends thing— is music. I picked up my first guitar in high school, and my appreciation of music deepened with their help and diversity of thought. As an even younger boy, well before the big move, I used to dig through my parents’ album collection to find Sinatra, Doo Wop, Carole King, James Taylor, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Big Band. High school brought the blues, more jazz, alternative rock, heavy metal, what was becoming the New Wave. I opened up to it all, and we took it all in, happily finding sanctuary.

Again, that was all 30 years ago. As much out of curiosity as out of a desperate need to refresh my memory, I sought out listings of albums released during my senior year of high school. And while some of you might remember that Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” single, a hang-over release from 1981, was the Number One single of ’82. If you liked it, so be it… but, yikes.

I also found that Rick Springfield felt it necessary to release his follow-up album to “Working Class Dog,” which gave the pop world the simple but everlasting “Jesse’s Girl.” Why he and his record company every thought that 1982’s “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet” was a good idea, I’ll never know.

I have to confess that I never liked Michael Jackson’s music, but in 1982, the kid from the Jackson 5 put out the iconic “Thriller.” In hindsight, I commend that album, but still don’t like it very much.

There were some fine albums released that year, ones that changed the music industry forever. Some of them directly altered my personality and the way I would look at life.

Here now are the 10 albums dropped on the world 30 years ago, the ones that mattered, to me if no one else:

10. The Jam, “The Gift” — I never heard anything like “A Town Called Malice” before.

9. Sonic Youth, “Sonic Youth” — They didn’t need to say anything more with the title, and I, too, have nothing more to say.

8. The Talking Heads, “The Name of this Band is The Talking Heads” — A game-changer.

7. Modern English, “After the Snow” — Maybe not the greatest album of the alternative era, but “I Melt With You” is still with us and still great in its painful honesty and simplicity.

6. The Clash, “Combat Rock” — Maybe this was not The Clash’s best entry. Fair enough, though it was still very good and among the best of the year. I mean, come on. “Straight to Hell” is this one.

5. Bruce Springsteen. “Nebraska” — When we really got to know the real Bruce Springsteen. He changed his image forever here.

4. Marshall Crenshaw, “Marshall Crenshaw” — “Someday, Some Way” isn’t enough?

3. The Psychedelic Furs, “Forever Now” — The title track and “Love My Way” open this killer post-punk classic.

2. X, “Under the Big Black Sun” — L.A. punk at its finest. I had never heard such music, such poetry, such anger before.

1. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Long After Dark” — Life-altering music from a band of artists already molding my taste and appreciation for perfect execution, melody, harmony and musicianship wrapped around distinctive voices and approachable lyrics. Thank you, Tom.

Thirty years is a long time. I’m happy, lucky to have been able to carry many treasures with me along the way.