Entering Act III

Recently, I read  about millennials finishing college, finding a job, closing in on 30 and getting serious about their life. And they are struck with all sorts of realities: being single means being lonely. Being married means sacrificing. Having children means saying goodbye to whatever life you thought you had. Work is a grind. Life isn’t fair. And friends drift away, seldom to be replaced by new friends. And nostalgia doesn’t seem so stupid after all. (The creators of How I Met Your Mother knew this — and the show lasted nine seasons.)

Turning 30 is big. To me, though, it’s just the end of Act I.

It’s what I’ve come to think about life, and how things go. Let’s say life is like a play, and if a person is lucky enough to get their three score and ten, and maybe a little more, it’s easy to see how it can be broken into three acts.At_Computer_silloette
Everyone’s life is unique, so there are no hard-and-fast rules to this. Speaking for myself, my first act ended at 31. It was the last year I was in New York, working for a newspaper, unhappy with my life, unable to shout down or ignore the voice inside me saying “Go out and see the world, it’s your last chance!”
I had been lucky in the seeing the world bit: Caribbean, Mediterranean, Baltic, North Sea, eight countries in a six month cruise — and then I was ordered to Asia.
It was heaven for someone who knew in his bones that he wanted to write. Not knowing what, or how,  didn’t seem to matter. Working as a journalist seemed to be a good way to get my feet wet. So from traveling to journalism school to newspaper work — and all I could think of was how I missed traveling.

Enter Act II.

I went to Japan, and my life changed in ways I could  not image  ways unimaginable. Simply put, I found myself in Tokyo, working as a copy editor, teaching conversation English, editing English language textbooks, falling in love, and in the blink of an eye, becoming a husband and father. Totally unprepared, mentally, emotionally, financially. One thing I knew was as big a schmuck as I probably was, what I’d be graded on for the rest of my life was ‘was he a good father?’ I spent the next 20-plus years trying to live up to that. My jobs in the newspaper industry really didn’t amount to much because deep down the guy who wanted to write novels battled the guy who was editing newspapers and moonlighting for extra cash and taking jobs every few years to be closer to his son. It was all I could do to muster what little brainpower I had to get through the day. But, time passes, kids graduate high school, then college, and the angst of raising children becomes a memory. Now son and father are launched into the world. He’s beginning his own Act I.

For me, it’s time for Act III. And like the storytelling gurus suggest, there are things from Act I and Act II that are the key to Act III — admitting that I’d rather write fiction than work in the news business, admitting that back-to-back  job loses that resulted in an anxious move to a new town really did turn out well, after all. Realizing surviving long-ago health issues that became to big too ignore will put one in a grateful frame of mind. Coming out the other side of those episodes whole and better helped me decide that, like the old gent in Slomo said,”Do what you want to.”

I hope that everyone, in their own Act III, finds a grateful place, and do what they want to.

 

 

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Sato and Abe are called to a murder scene

(An excerpt from The Gangster’s Son, a Shig Sato Mystery)clip6275

The police inspector knelt over the dead woman. He gently tilted her young, battered face. Her hair, dusty with debris, fell at odd angles. Sticky crimson blood oozed out her nose, ears, and mouth. One eye stared into the night, and what remained of the other was a swollen bloody mass. He pressed his finger against a plum-colored cheek split open. Some bone was still intact.

As he got up, he noted how her legs were oddly twisted beneath her. The sleeveless silk blouse and short black skirt she wore did not look disturbed. Nothing lay beside her. In the harsh crime scene lights, he thought the girl looked like a broken mannequin, carelessly discarded and alone.

It was a still, humid Tokyo evening, past midnight. Detective Ken Abe watched Inspector Shig Sato. Five minutes had passed since Sato said he wanted to take another look at the body. Abe wondered if his friend had lost his ability to concentrate, with his wife so ill, and this being his first night back in Criminal Investigations after two years of diplomatic security duty.

“Inspector?” Abe believed he hid the concern in his voice.

Sato raised his hand to shade his eyes from the blinding lights.

“Yes?”

Abe pulled a cigarette from his lips.

“So?”

Sato took another long look at the young woman, walked over to Abe, and said, “She was probably surprised, then beaten and left for dead. Probably dropped to the ground where she stood.”

Abe was relieved to see Sato focusing on the crime, putting what he saw into some sense of order.

“You said she’s a waitress at the jazz club?” Sato asked.

“Yep. Right in there,” Abe said, pointing at a neglected brown door. “A jazz club. Called the Down Low.”

There were many scattered anonymous doors along the alley. Some led to long, narrow, dim bars selling grilled chicken and beef on sticks to whet the appetite of the tired businessmen drinking beer after lonely beer. The meat’s lingering aroma, the grease, the alcohol, the sweat of the cooks, all clung to the thick night air. Behind other doors, sushi denizens had watched countermen slice their tuna and eel and octopus, caress their roe and rice, priests preparing their offerings. In tiny cabarets with low and plaintive jukeboxes, hostesses rested their aching feet while night managers quickly counted the evening take after rousting patrons from their drunken stupors.

The inspector saw these doors, once open in the vain hope of catching a midnight breeze, now closed tight against the bad luck that came with a dead body.

“It is too quiet here,” Sato said to himself. He did not like the quiet, not in that part of Tokyo, on the fringe of nightclubs and cabarets and bars and restaurants, that place where two alleys met, where a girl lay dead.

Sato took another look at the dead girl, then turn toward the medical examiner.

“It looks like somebody struck her across the face so hard it snapped her head back against that concrete wall,” the doctor said. A slight, bald, fidgety man, the doctor was truly at ease only when performing an autopsy. He hated making definite statements at crime scenes, but knew Sato needed to hear something. “Blunt force. Caused some type of bleeding in the skull, I’d say. And then maybe something snapped. She slumped to the ground, and that was it.”

Sato looked back at the body, then at the doctor, and paused before asking, “No one moved her, touched her in any way?”

“No!” If it had been anyone other than Sato, the doctor would have been insulted.

“Any signs of resisting? Bruising? Rape?”

“I don’t know.” The doctor hesitated, scratching his ear. “Her underclothes don’t look like they’ve been disturbed, and there’s nothing strange about her thighs or buttocks. I mean, there’s no strange marks or bruises. Like I said, it looks like she just dropped. Some kind of smack in the face, her head hits the wall. Probably burst something in her brain. Anyway, it probably shut down her central nervous system. That’s probably what killed her. We’ll know more later.”

Abe watched as Sato talked to the medical examiner. He watched Sato’s face harden as the doctor gave his assessment.

“She was pretty,” Abe said.

Sato turned to look at the girl once more.

“What was she doing in a dark alley so late at night?” he asked. “What could have happened that would lead to this?”

“This is Roppongi,” Abe said. “She probably liked the excitement. Nightclubs. Music. Lots of strange new people.”

“People.” Sato grunted.

“This club has a lot of foreigners come listen to jazz.”

Sato frowned. “Foreigners.”

“Young girl looking to meet foreigners, maybe have an adventure.”

“Adventure.” Sato shook his head.

“Hey, Tokyo’s booming,” Abe said. “It’s 1991. Things are good. Lots of people come here from all over the world, looking to make money, have a good time.”

“Maybe she had a boyfriend,” Sato said. “Maybe a jealous boyfriend.”

“Maybe a secret admirer,” Abe said.

“Yes, maybe.”

(Read more here.)

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The Times are A-Changin’

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death was reported so nearly instantaneously it boggles my Philip Seymour Hoffmanmind. It shouldn’t. In this day and age, someone with a smartphone can take a picture and send a tweet and take over a news cycle.

Hoffman’s death is Exhibit A. And I offer the Farrow-Allen saga as Exhibit B.

An event months in the making, pro football’s Super Bowl dominated our media culture one cold February Sunday until these stories broke. And how.  Both the Hoffman story and the Farrow-Allen story came from different places: Hoffman’s untimely death was news. The Farrow-Allen story has been around for 20 years. Each commanded attention, and in a way print or broadcast journalism cannot compete. Because it’s not ‘right here, right now.’

The tragedies in Newtown and Boston gave the world examples of up-to-the-minute reporting for all its good and its faults. What’s different about the Hoffman story is how it evolved, from a tweet to a story on the web to as-it-happens details from police and other officials, all of which painted a bleak picture of Mr. Hoffman’s recent past and last hours.

The Farrow-Allen story is the type of story that simmers, then boils over when something new occurs. I don’t know that the new in this case is news, and I don’t think the rehash of sordid details does anything except reopen wounds and creates a climate where public figures must endure the harsh criticisms of strangers.

Most evenings I’m at my day job – a newspaper. Anachronistic, you might say. In this day and age, it seems so. So many people now are tuned into social media that one person saying one thing at one moment can take over the mediasphere.

Has technology changed the way we get and use information? Yes. Has it changed the news business? Definitely. It’s arguable that no other industry has been as affected by this type of change. What has changed in my business since the late 1990s is the volume and variety of information available to readers and the speed in which they receive it.

I use the examples of Hoffman and Farrow and Allen and Newtown and Boston because I don’t believe people get the whole picture of a situation or event when they receive it in bits and pieces. People who are familiar with Hoffman’s or Farrow’s or Allen’s troubles may be able to piece together what they hear with with what they know and believe and make a conclusion, but is this really what the story is about?

People believe what they want to believe. But I don’t think the public is served by someone tweeting something and as a result, the media herd mentality taking over.  I believe that taking a step back and allowing a story to percolate, take off, settle or disappear is a good thing. News doesn’t go stale as quickly as you might think.

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Diligence is the word

I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order and thdiligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.
- Charles Dickens

Some writers can only write when inspired. Some suffer from writer’s block. Other’s cave in to popular culture or conventional wisdom. So, when they get around to writing words, they write words that are false, sentences that are flat, stories that are dead the moment the final period is placed on the page, then wonder why their their writing isn’t up to scratch. These writers become dejected, and repeat the process again and again. I know I have.

I think this because for writers, even young writers, the enemy is time. We are all guilty in luxuriating in the nonsense that is ‘waiting for inspiration’ or ‘ I need to research this in order to understand the subject’ or ‘when I accomplish ___________ then I can REALLY get down to writing.’

My first notion of writing a story came at 6 years of age. I wrote my first story at  10.  By age 14 I had written, in large print, on white ruled paper, nearly 100 pages of forgettable juvenile nonsense. I knew I had writing deep in my bones, but allowed interests in other things to overwhelm me – I lacked punctuality, order and diligence to keep at writing regularly.

And when I acquired a modicum of those habits, I really had no idea what to do with them, so far as writing went. Because I had no sense of urgency. I still believed I had time on my side. Then I turned 40. Time had slipped through my fingers, and I had nothing to show for my efforts but notebooks and short stories and a life contemplating writing without really doing anything about it. So I set out to write what was in my heart and on my mind. I resolved to be published in my 40s and earn my living from my stories  by the time I was 50.

I’m 56. Things are just now starting to come together.

It’s inevitable that one’s life takes over one’s art, unless one’s art is one’s life. I’m not talking about earning a living, raising a family, or being a productive member of society. It’s making time to write, or paint, or compose, or build, or cook – whatever it is – because, as every athlete or musician or painter or writer knows, it’s all about practice, practice, practice. And that takes habit, punctuality and diligence.

Jeff Goins says that  in this new year, writers need to focus on resolve: that a write needs to commit, to develop new habits. I agree.

Still, I think Charles Dickens said it best.

So, diligence is my 2014 word of the year.

Time to get back to it.

What about you?

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Brave New 2014

I hate to say goodbye to 2013.

It was a year of personal triumphs, paternal pride, and the year my Shig Sato Mystery series was launched. I accomplished many of my goals. As this year ticks into history, I am satisfied.

So what do I do for an encore?free-food-clipart-4

Very helpful people have been sharing excellent advice. I’ve been deep into “Write. Publish. Repeat.” Joanna Penn at The Creative Penn is nothing but a treasure trove of information. Rachel Thompson at BadRedheadMedia has the snark and common sense patter down — I always try to follow her advice.

My writing group is just the best. Nikki and Steve and Lizzy and Angel and Robby and past  members all helped me to keep putting one foot in front of another, stay the course, and continue on my writing journey. I received valuable assistance from Dianne, Ellen and Beth. Ann is always there for me.

Getting closer, going further: the closer I get to my reaching my writing goals and living the writing life, the further I go into this wild adventure.

I am so ready for 2014.

Who’s with me?

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Christmas on the El

ElSnowSunday, first train, 7 a.m.

Standing on the train platform all alone, the attendant snoozing in the ticket box below. I was early. I felt the cold wind against my face. At that moment, I became aware of the wind chill, and my backpack burden, and the need to fill my time between now and the twenty minutes before the train’s departure time.

And so I found myself sitting on a bench on the platform waiting for the sun to rise, waiting for the conductor to open the train doors, waiting for my Sunday morning to begin.

That Christmas morning was clear and sunny, and on the Harlem/Lake platform the wind cut through you. Thank God it was sunny, a real treat for Chicago in winter, and the trains were nearly deserted, but still running on time. From here, the Harlem/Lake Green Line “El” would make its way to the Loop and then down past Bronzeville, Soldier Field, the museum campus, down into the South side, one train splitting off 63rd to the east, the next one west. But at this end of the line, heading east into the city, it didn’t matter which train you took if you weren’t going any farther than the Loop.

You’d think that on Christmas day there’d be such a dearth of riders the CTA would have an even-more-infrequent schedule, but no: about every 20 minutes, a train pulled out of the station. And there I was, catching a train to a job I wouldn’t have much longer.

The deal had been stuck the Wednesday before: Polite words were spoken, but it was clear the people who hired me did not know what they wanted. So this was the deal: work through late December, get the comp days, pick up an extra week’s pay, and then start another job, in the suburbs, at less money than the paper downstate had paid. One step forward, two steps back, after moving to the city four months ago, all expenses paid.

Sitting on a train on a Sunday, pulling out of a station, riding an El I’d no longer be riding, I stated to feel the loneliness of the holidays and the anger and frustration of being let go from a job that I’d left a lot behind for.

Saint Nick had a lot of explaining to do.

Sitting on a cold train platform, getting on a train that had no heat, the waiting passengers were typical: a bum, who’d mooch money sooner than later; a tired-looking middle-aged black woman obviously working two jobs, raising a family, not knowing if she was coming or going, even on Christmas. There was an acne-and gell-haired androgynous pre-adult wearing as little as possible, defying convention and winter, and a middle-aged black man, wearing an old Army field jacket, looking bored and unhappy.

As a regular passenger knew, it was all a matter of taking a seat, avoiding eye contact by peering out the window, focusing on a landmark out the window, shielding eyes from the glaring midday sun.

The the train operator appeared, a blue bundle of unhurried efficiency. His holiday was workday, same as mine. I knew his stroll, his gesture. Holiday pay, no matter what else there was to do. It was better to put the ‘no matter what else’ out of your mind. Do the job. Get through the day.

It took only a moment for the empty train to come to life, the doors open, and the passengers to embark. Then the doors slammed shut, the train lurched, the tape-recorded message began, and another 22-minute ride to the loop and a doomed job.It was the same drill. Avoid eye contact. Withdraw into one’s own cocoon. Even on a Sunday. Even on Christmas.

At the first stop a couple walked on board, looking Sunday-morning fine and easy in each other’s company. The middle-aged black man sitting across from me noticed that he and I were noticing the couple at the same time. He looked my way and nodded, and asked, “What brings you out this time of day?” It was a friendly question.

“Work,” I replied, adding, “Work I’m not going to have much longer.”

He shook his head in that low-down-dirty-shame way. “Ain’t that something,” he commiserated. “Who you work for?”

“Sun-Times” I said.

He was surprised, raising an eyebrow, asking, “That right?”

I silently nodded my head, not wanting the conversation to weigh on my situation, so I quickly asked,

“What about you?”

“Oh, I was at meeting,” he said.

I dreaded the answer. I didn’t feel like talking about Jesus, even on Christmas; I wanted to feel sorry for myself.

“A.A.” he said, announcing the first letter of the alphabet clipped and quick, noticing my expression and seeing I didn’t catch his meaning.

“Oh yeah?” I asked, noticing his clothes were work-a-day and for the first time he might be too young to be looking as old as he seemed.

“Fifteen years,” he said. “Hines outreach campus, over by Lake. V.A.” He again said the last to words like the letters of the alphabet. Vee-Aieh. A veteran.

Some look of recognition must have come over my face because the next question startled me.

“What branch you in?” he asked.

“Navy”

“Army. Vietnam,” he said.

“Not me,” I said. “Too young for that. Just a fleet sailor. In the Pacific.”

“Twelve months in ‘Nam,” he said, like it was a line from his resume. “Came back here all screwed up. Drugs. Booze. Took me fifteen years to get straightened out.”

I nodded my head silently, but I could tell he was still reading my face.

“Going to my daughter’s,” he began, “I’m going to her place today. Didn’t see her for twelve years, never really around much. Her momma died. Her brother died. She’s got a boy, four. He’s my man.”

I could only swallow, feeling like a jackass for feeling sorry for myself. I never told him I had another job lined up, and felt like a heel for letting him think I was out on my ass in a week. He was reaching out to me, and I was turning him down, because I didn’t need his help, and he didn’t know it.

“But she knows I have my meetings and I help with the V.A., talking to other fellas,” he concluded.

“Yeah, I know some fellas in V.A.,” I said, assuming it was code for some of the guys who weren’t exactly making it on the outside, for whatever reason. I added, “Must be nice to see your family.”

“Family’s all I got,” he said.

“Hope you have a good visit,” I said.

“Thanks. Good luck,” he replied.

By this time the train had stopped several more times, and was crossing over Garfield Park. The gold dome of the conservatory reflected a blinding Sunday morning sun. The bum who had been sleeping at the commencement of our journey had made his way up to the first car, plying his panhandling, and was now working his way back to mine. He was a regular, I saw him often, and I knew he recognized me, and not just because he called me “boss.”

For some reason I knew he was going to ask me. The V.A. man saw him and the bum knew not to ask him just from the look on his face. The bum took a step toward me and began his usual ramble when I thrust a five-dollar bill in his hand and said, “Merry Christmas.”

The bum’s glassy eyes lit up, and his smile shifted to something genuine, and he repeated “God Bless” on his way to the back of the car, to take his seat and rest before leaving the train at the next stop.

The V.A. man gave me a look of curious wonder, because he’d seen the bum was holding a five, and after a moment he asked, not unkindly, “what line did he use on you?”

I said, “No line. I see him all the time. It’s Christmas.”

His look turned to a quiet, smiling, knowing one, and he just closed his eyes and nodded, “that’s right, that’s right.”

The remainder of the ride was quiet and uneventful; at my stop I turned to say good-bye to the V.A. man but he was no longer there. I was a little disappointed I hadn’t had the chance to say “Merry Christmas” to him, but the moment had passed. Walking over to Wabash to begin my last week at the paper, I’d forgotten about the cold, and the wind, and the fact I was a lame duck. A Christmas carol popped into my head, the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, and “angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plain” skipped over to the part we had fun with, years before, back in choir: We would sing ‘in eggshell’s with mayo.’ It was silly. And childish. And it made me think that I wished I’d said something to the V.A. man before he left, to let him know I was OK. And I was. I would be. I would be seeing my son at the end of the week, and I had a job waiting for me the week after that. I was all right.

I just wish I’d had a chance to tell him “Merry Christmas.”

But the moment had passed.

I don’t take the train downtown every day any more. It had been months since I had been on the train, especially at 7 a.m., on a holiday. But the riders always seemed to be the same, people with someplace to go, someone to see, caught up in their own world, not knowing or perhaps caring about their neighbor’s doings.

But occasionally, at a certain moment, a stranger will reach out, make small talk, and leave an impression so lasting one cannot help but think of him, whether he ever rides the El again, or not.

 

 

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NaNoWriMo Don’ts

Ever since I heard of National Novel Writing Month some dozen years ago, it was something I wanted to try. This year was the year, I decided. And like a man checking items off his to-do list, I signed up for NaNoWriMo. nanowrimo

My word total ended at 15,000 plus. I haven’t entered a word since the 19th. At the end of October I knew this was a possibility, but I forged ahead.

There are a lot of motivational messages from well-intentioned word pros about what to do during NaNoWriMo. From my recent experience, I’d like to offer a few don’ts.

If you want to improve your chances at reaching the 50,000 word goal:

Do Not be assigned election coverage if you work at a newspaper: I do, I was.

Do Not schedule gall bladder surgery seven days into the month. I did. This led to several more don’ts …

Do Not have visitors stay with you for five-day stretches to look after you after surgery. I did. I got very little writing done.

Do Not take pain medication while recovering from gall bladder surgery. Good idea for trying to get some sleep, bad idea for trying to write coherent sentences.

Do Not spend time working on the novel outline once you’ve decided you’ve painted yourself into a plot corner. I did, and instead of just writing, hoping to use the words later, I stopped. I plotted. I planned. I solved a few problems. I contributed little to my word total.

Do Not work on Thanksgiving. Nor the day before. Nor the day after. Those big blocks of writing time that come with the average vacation (if you’re not assigned to be chief cook and bottle washer) evaporate.

Do Not plan a book launch on the 25th day of the month. I downloaded my first ebook in October, and used a pre-launch period to get the word out a little bit. With everything else going on, I discovered that I downloaded a dirty copy of the manuscript. A friend found a dozen typos on a .pdf copy I sent to him. The first 75 or so downloads to friends, relatives and the curious contain the dirty copy. The clean copy is there now. By the time I found out, I was too tired to be embarrassed. This leads to my one piece of NaNoWriMo advice:

Do Not schedule extra work activities, surgeries, visitors, medication, Thanksgiving, or book launches any time during November if you want to achieve NaNoWriMo success and hit the 50k mark and enjoy NaNo success.

That’s my plan for next year. Congratulations to the NaNoWriMo winners, and good luck to you all, wherever your writing takes you.

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