Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Fix It, Don’t Junk It

Thirty-nine years ago this month, the teachers of Port Clinton City Schools went on strike. They wanted better pay--shocking, I know--and more say in curriculum and class scheduling. After two weeks, the school board negotiated a settlement which gave them some of what they wanted. At the time, teachers in rural school districts like Port Clinton rarely went on strike like their urban counterparts. Their relative success in the strike of 1980 paved the way for teachers in other small districts across the state, for better or worse. Although the strike lasted only a handful of days, I recall vividly the weird, often absurd, lengths the school administration went through to keep the schools open through it.

Unions were still strong in Ohio in those days, and probably half the students were kept home by their parent on principle. Since my friend Carl’s father was the superintendent of schools and my mother was a non-union cafeteria worker, I felt a responsibility to show up. Plus, I was a senior in high school, on cruise control until graduation and wanted to see how this was all going to work out.

The "substitute" curriculum the high school rolled out was based on short courses taught by decidedly non-educator "subject matter experts." To a large extent, this involved glorified book reports on popular tomes of the day. Some of these were valuable, a discussion of Bob Woodward's book, The Brethren, which was about the Supreme Court, taught by a local attorney, for instance. But it also included some laughable attempts. One that sticks out in my mind was called "Fix It, Don’t Junk It,” and consisted largely of students bringing in non-operational small appliances and watching as a guy who ran a handyman business in town fixed them. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for more STEM classes and a respect for the trades, but this wasn’t really a class. The handyman didn’t teach us how to repair the items (which would have been useful) or even explain what he was doing (which would have been interesting, at least), he simply repaired them in front of us with an occasional off-hand remark like, “that’s really on there tight.” I'm sure some parents were grateful to get the old vacuum cleaner up and running again, but from an educational standpoint, it was pretty iffy.

A few days into the strike, Carl and I had had enough and decided it would be a good time to make some college visits, so off we went on a whirlwind tour of tiny, expensive private schools that Carl was considering and I certainly couldn’t afford. I was however, happy to eat free in their cafeterias and stay free in their dorms while being talked up by the recruiting staff. By the time we got back in town the strike had ended and normal school started back up a few days later.

It was a minor distraction that I suspect most town folk have largely forgotten. In fact, when I went out on Google to check facts for this post, I was surprised to find that there is virtually no record of it other than a brief mention an article about one of the union leaders, Nancy Dunham. Ah, Mrs. Dunham, now that's a whole 'nuther story.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Wouldst Thou Like To Live Deliciously?

I watched the movie “The Witch” on Netflix last week as part of my Halloween horror flick viewing. I had seen it a couple of years ago when it came out on DVD, but we were having trouble with the contrast on the TV back then and parts of the film, which is rather darkly shot to begin with, were just shadows moving across the screen, and it was difficult at times to understand the context of the dialog.
Okay, now I get it. Thomasin was talking to a goat. Somehow that is significantly more frightening than just the disembodied voice of Satan. And the goat following her as she walks naked though the forest toward the caterwauling of the coven is even creepier.
Sometimes the details make all the difference.
I am frequently asked during my book readings and signings where I get my ideas. The truth is, I don’t really know. They just... happen. I am completely unable to draw, and think the talent to take what one sees and convey it into a two dimensional representation is nothing short of miraculous. But when I ask artists how they do it, I always get the same answer... I don’t know, I just draw.
I get ideas in one of two ways. The first, and most common, is what I call “rearrangement.” Rearrangement is taking a basic idea found in some other work and asking myself, “how would I have written that?” My unpublished short story “Blue Ruin” is an example. It takes place in the same universe as "The Walking Dead," but posits the question; how would survivors living on the coast with easy access to the relative safety of the seas handle a zombie apocalypse. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when the "Fear The Walking Dead" spinoff tackled the same question. I disagreed with their sea-going storyline - I still believe a boat is the safest place to be - but I get why finding a safe place and continuing a horror story are two different goals.
The short story “Uncle Augie’s Blind” from my latest book, Ben and the Art of Lawnmower Maintenance, was similarly inspired by an obscure Stephen King story, “Uncle Otto’s Truck,” I read in Yankee Magazine when I was in college. The plots are completely different, but the setup and style of storytelling is similar.
I call the other way I get ideas the Eureka! Moment. In this scenario, something new, and often nonsensical, comes to me out of nowhere. I was hiking in the mountains yesterday, for instance, and the phrase, “ring me up for souse” popped into my head. Now, I’m pretty sure I haven’t heard that anywhere else, and I’m equally sure it’s of no practical value, except as the punchline of a joke or maybe the topic of a blog post, but there you have it. These Eureka! Moments are usually not fully realized concepts, but often just a title or a name. The title of the book I am currently working on, Craven Fork, came to me that way, as did the name of the main character, Owen Sinclair. The rest of the characters and the plot just sort of “unfolded” as I thought more about them.
Circling back to "The Witch," I have always liked the scenario of a colonial family scratching a living from of a plot of ground on the fringes of a great and mysterious forest, but I’ve never discovered the story or the voice to tell it. Maybe someday.

Monday, October 29, 2018

How The 2015 NFL Season May Have Ruined Sports

The factoid flashed across the bottom of the screen: “The last time the Red Sox won the World Series a loaf of bread was 7 cents.” It was a cool fall night in 1986 at my apartment in suburban Perrysburg, Ohio and the Mets were coming to bat in the bottom of the 10th. The Red Sox had scored two in the top of the frame for what appeared to be a comfortable lead. If you’ve read this far, you likely know what happened next, so I won’t dwell on the details. Let’s just say that the price of bread would go up by a few more cents before Boston would win a World Series.

The thing that is often lost in the “Curse of the Bambino” discussion is that Boston did not put many good teams on the field between 1918 and 2004. The Red Sox teams that did manage to make it to the World Series during that period were fluky, not overly talented pennant winners who always seemed to go up against much better teams in the postseason; a Gibson-led Cardinals, the Big Red Machine, and the 108 win Mets. That Boston was able to take those series to seven games was itself a minor miracle that only intensified the feeling that they were ultimately cursed.

The 2018 Red Sox, like the 2013 and 2007 editions, however, were not underdogs putting up the good fight against superior competition. They were, far and away, the better teams in those series, and that creates its own sort of pressure. After winning 108 games in the regular season and cruising through the AL playoffs, there was a sense of inevitability to Boston’s World Series push, but I’ve experienced that feeling before and frankly it may have ruined sports for me forever.  

After a choppy start to the 2015 season, the Carolina Panthers hit their stride and won 15 of 16 games, losing only to the Atlanta Falcons by a touchdown in week 15. In the playoffs, they steamrolled the powerful Seahawks and Cardinals and were prohibitive Super Bowl favorites against a Denver Broncos team that had looked inept on offense for much of the season before riding a strong defensive performance to an AFC Championship game win against the New England Patriots.

The 2015 Panthers had a modus operendi that year of getting out to large first half leads and then nearly blowing them in the second half. While that’s a dangerous recipe for winning, their two losses actually came in hard fought, low-scoring affairs that found them with the ball and a chance to go ahead in the closing minutes.

I thought the bad feelings about Super Bowl 50 would subside after a few months, but they never really did. I thought the excitement of remembering that magical 15-win season and those awesome playoff wins would one day add balance to the disappointing way the season ended, but to date it hasn’t. It’s HARD to make it to a Super Bowl. You need a really good team and a few breaks along the way. That a team, a very good team, could get so close, then fall to a lesser team is depressing. The Panthers also made it to the Super Bowl in 2004, a game against the Patriots in which they were huge underdogs. They played admirably, though and actually led briefly in the 4th quarter. In the end, Tom Brady orchestrated a short drive to get New England into field goal range and Adam Vinatieri, who coincidentally set the NFL total points record on Sunday, pushed through a kick as time expired. That loss, while painful for a few days, felt okay once the confetti settled. The Panthers had put up a good fight against one of the great football dynasties ever. They were, for practical purposes, all those Red Sox teams that somehow managed to keep it close against better players. The 2015 team was more like these Red Sox; anything short of a championship would forever taint their memory.

And that’s why I’m really glad the Red Sox put an end to the Series Sunday night. I’ve come to the point in my sports experience where the agony of defeat is starting to outweigh the thrill of victory. The Panthers are having another good season, winning Sunday afternoon to push their record to 5-2 and keep them firmly in the playoff conversation. I'd love for them to win a Super Bowl one day, but I'm not getting any younger.


Fix It, Don’t Junk It

Thirty-nine years ago this month, the teachers of Port Clinton City Schools went on strike. They wanted better pay--shocking, I know--and ...