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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Saving Friends: a Fool's Errand?

Did you ever have a friend who left your neighborhood, never to be seen again? Or a friend who had to go away for a long time, and you didn't know if you would see him or her again?

This is what happens to my lead character Ruby in part two of the Beat Street Series. Her best friend Sophie disappears, along with Sophie's mom Annie, to avoid having to testify against friends in 1958 who might have been considered Communist.

The story I'm writing takes place during the infamous Hollywood Blacklist, when actors and writers were asked by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee in Congress whether they or anyone they knew attended Communist meetings or gatherings or knew anyone who did. Many artists pleaded the Fifth, refusing to answer on the grounds that their answer would incriminate them.

Pleading the Fifth is perfectly legal, but if you did it, you were most likely put on the Blacklist, which meant you couldn't work in film or TV. That's what Sophie's mom was afraid of, and it's why Sophie and her mother had to leave New York.

Ruby spends much of the next few chapters looking for her friend and figuring out how to save her and her friend and her mother. While I haven't had Ruby's exact experience, I have spent a lot of time trying to save a friend (or two) - even when I know in my heart, like Ruby does, that it may be a "fool's errand" -- which in fact is the name of book two.

What is a fool's errand, exactly? It's really just a phrase that means what you are doing is something only a fool would do, and it's probably not going to work out. The legendary character of Don Quixote went on a lot of fool's errands, including battling windmills, but that never stopped him. And, I guess, I think there's still a lot to admire about Don Quixote.

That said, I've found it pretty impossible to save my friends. One even died while I was trying, and that was completely devastating. Still and all, I have no regrets about trying. None.

Because if you don't try to help your friends, what kind of friend would you be? I don't want to be that kind of person. So, neither does Ruby. I guess it's mainly a matter of how much we want to risk for our friends and/or how much they would risk for us. Soldiers often talk about how their experience revolves around helping or saving the guy next to them. 

I understand, even if it doesn't work, because you want to be able to tell yourself that at least, when all's said and done, you tried to do something. Which is why I guess I'm writing Fool's Errand.

Best friends photo: John D.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Want a Debt Free Kid? Helicopter Away

I tried, and failed, to get my son to avoid debt on his credit card. I would have modeled paying it off each month, but he was seldom around when I paid bills, and just telling someone to pay them off each month isn't enough, I've found, to get him or her to do it.

Now, he has run up about a $2,900 credit card bill and I cringe just to think of it. He has promised to pay it off once he graduates because his school is supposed to be giving him about $2,500. I hope so. I will let you know.

I've written about money before, but not credit card debt, because I wasn't aware of it earlier. Now I am, it makes total sense, since credit cards bombard our kids daily with offers and will always win unless we can figure out how to stop them.

Obviously, I did not.

I suppose I should have started early and drummed it into my son's head that you have to pay off each month's bills religiously. I was involved in trying to teach him so many other things, this one slipped through the cracks. But it sounds like all I'm doing now is looking for excuses, and maybe I am.

Never mind the shoulda-woulda-coulda stuff. If you can possibly stand to be a true helicopter parent when it comes to hovering over your kid and teaching them how to stay out of debt, I recommend it. The FIRST time they want something, meaning as little kids, start an allowance and make them save up to get it. Do this for at least one thing they want every year until they are close to ten years old.

And oh, make them work for it. Carrying out the garbage, raking leaves, cleaning the house (not just their rooms) are where I'd start. My house looked like a hurricane hit it for too long until I started paying my son to clean up his mess. But he should have been cleaning it up and doing a lot more than that. (What did I say about excuses)?

When your son or daughter becomes a tween, show them your budget and sit them down to make one. If I tell you how many times I wished I'd done this, you'll stop visiting me here. But trust me, you're going to want your kid to know how to budget better than mine does--I promise you.

If your kid wants more than one thing, tell them they have to choose one and defer buying the other until they've saved the money. Open a bank account that belongs to them and encourage them to save a little bit each week.

Finally, you can't keep the credit card companies from overwhelming your kid with offers when he or she goes to college. You CAN keep asking them if they are paying it off (and make that a mantra every night before they go to sleep, along with prayers or whatever they say at bedtime).

Thou shalt pay off thy credit card bills monthly. Thou shalt not run up a debt throughout the year.

Do this and you can avoid my excuses. And here's a few more tips for you on how to raise children who don't get into debt:

9 Ways to Teach Your Kids About Money

Teaching Kids About Money & Finance

20 Tips for Keeping Your Kids Debt Free

Credit card bill time photo: Jason Rogers

Monday, January 1, 2018

Not Last

I am sitting with my son, three days before the New Year brings 2018. He looks wonderful; bright eyed, funny, warm and friendly. I am sitting with him while he is home from school, watching him eat his dinner. We are having a wonderful time, talking about songs, singing, school, friends, everything.

"I think mine will be the last generation on earth," he says, still smiling.

I think he is kidding at first. But he is not. "There will be some kind of natural disaster that will kill us all," he says. And then I realize he is serious.

I  look at him, thinking about why he's saying what he's saying to me. It's not just that we've had a year of disasters ranging from hurricanes to monumental blazes; or that in our city it is at least 10 degrees below zero and we can hardly stand to be out in the air.

It's that I know our environment is getting more and more degraded by the day, and no one, even now, has the will to address it. I want to say something that will change my son's viewpoint, but I tread carefully because I don't want to be pie-in-the-sky cheery either, which I know he won't buy. I tell him I think he should have a more optimistic viewpoint of the future, because his generation will be running things and that gives us a better chance of getting there.

He sounds skeptical, which makes me sad. I think of the grandchildren I (secretly) don't tell him I want, and of all the children yet to come into the world, and what we owe them. I feel at a loss for how to make things change, but I know I need to do something. Voting and asking others to vote is one thing; conserving and recycling are another; both seem very tiny tasks in comparison to what I wish I could do.

Two days later, we go up to see my husband's family on the shore of Lake Superior for the new year. I tell his uncles what my son said, and they say "we said that too, and so does every generation." That sort of makes me feel better and sort of doesn't. But how, I want to say, can we turn things around so kids aren't worried about being the last generation anymore?

We are all so good at denying there's a problem, is the problem. But it can't just be up to my son and his friends to change things--it has to be up to all of us. I know this, but I don't really know what to do about it.

I just know I don't want to have another conversation like that with my son.

And I want his generation to outlast us all.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Hipster Christmas

Realizing my blog day falls on Christmas, and that I started the blog as an author of a book about the Beat Generation, the last thing I should be writing about is Christmas traditions--don't you think? No Rockefeller Center stories, big goose or turkey stories, posts about the Christmas spirit (or Spirits) or Hanukkah or other holiday traditions in the old-school way.

That doesn't mean I don't believe in celebrating--in fact I'll take any chance to celebrate anything--but my character Ruby and her friends are not exactly traditional people. So if they did want to do Christmas, it would have to be more off center and definitely hipster style.

If I have to imagine a Beat Generation Christmas, it would be going out to hear jazz or a poetry reading or gathering with friends to create jazz and read poems (some written by Ruby, of course).

No big dinners, but my menu of hipster snacks might include chips and salsa, cold gazpacho soup, crackers with olive tapenade, raisins and almonds with dark-chocolate chips, black teas, Irish coffees, incense instead of mistletoe (though maybe they'd have mistletoe), beer, burgundy and cognac--but no egg nog, please.

No Christmas carols, but songs, definitely, yes, and they'd have to be much jazzier than the typical songs we mostly hear. My list has old songs for Ruby's 1950s life, but not all the recordings are made in the 1950s. I listed them here with my favorite performers for each song and gave you one each for the 12 days of Christmas.

Boogie Woogie Santa Claus - Mabel Scott
Cool Yule - Louis Armstrong
Dig That Crazy Santa Claus - Oscar McLollie & His Honey Jumpers
Five Pound Box of Money - Pearl Bailey
Good Morning Blues (I Want to See Santa Claus- Count Basie
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Judy Garland
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - Amy Winehouse
Merry Christmas, Baby - Lionel Hampton
Santa Baby - Eartha Kitt
Santa Done Got Hip - the Marquees
Sugar Rum Cherry - Duke Ellington
What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin') - Louis Prima

Download some of these for your Christmas - and let me know your favorites, too?

Hipster Santa: Thunderchild7

Jazz Christmas photo: Roberto Cacho Toca

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Party Girl Not

I had a mother who loved to entertain. If she and my dad didn't go out to someone else's house for dinner on a Saturday evening, she would host one at our place. She loved cooking and baking and setting a table, and she really loved how everyone raved about her food.

I missed getting this gene. 

I've always loved going to a certain kind of party -- something with good friends who love being together and who are comfortable enough to be creative about creativity. One of my dearest friends used to have parties where we'd end up singing around a piano while her husband played it, like in an old-fashioned movie. Or we'd play the dumbest charades or do a reading of The Christmas Carol at holiday time.

Those readings were conducted at my friend Vay's place, which was under a gypsy fortuneteller's shop in New York City. I don't think anyone in the world could have attended anything at Vay's place without falling in love with it--and with her and the gypsy-actor-storytellers-singers who wandered through.

These days, I've had precious few parties, mostly because of time, and because generally I am petrified of cooking for people. A few years ago I read a spectacular book by Amy Sedaris about hospitality which manages to be both funny and true. I resolved to have more people over and failed miserably. (My husband, wonderful as he is, happens to be a lone wolf type, which doesn't encourage either one of us to open our doors to partiers).

That's not to say I haven't hosted a few gatherings -- though likely I could count them on both hands in the past few years. I'm still reading the book, though - but have to say it is for adults, and wouldn't be something you'd share with your children.

Which brings me to bringing up kids, and birthday parties, and teaching them to be social. (Especially if they're not old enough for Amy's book yet). We hosted our son's parties in other venues, except for the first one -- which was kind of a monster-themed party in the back yard, and one of my favorites. I hired an actor to play Dracula, though he looked like a fresh-faced choir boy from prep school, he tried his best to sound dark and told the children a Dracula story in the basement. No one got scared, which was a good thing.

In looking back on this period, I've decided children's birthday parties are in fact little lessons in hospitality and how to celebrate life with friends. For that reason, they're a lot more important than they seem. You don't need a lot of money to have a good one (and sometimes when parents spend too much, parties can turn about abysmally).

What Amy says (among many things) that I love is that a party is a chance to share a little of who you are with a group of people you like (or in some cases, love). She also says if you're not into cooking, order stuff or pick it up at your favorite deli (another reason to read her slavishly).

So if your child likes swimming, or rock climbing or reading or cooking or being a drama queen or king, it's important to let them set the tone for the day and choose everything around it whenever possible--food, decorations, activities, and whatever else is going on. Again, this can turn out to be how you decorate the back yard, so don't feel you have to pay tons of money to rent venues. In fact, DON'T do that at all.

Because in the end, I think parties are supposed to be about connections you make with friends and family--and how you want to show up for them. The best ones allow us to get closer to people and share a little more about who we are while we're on this planet.

I hope at least some of my son's birthday parties did that for him. I know the parties I've been to have done that for me. And (can I have a five year plan)??? --in the next three to five years, I hope to open up my doors again for more parties of my own.

And if you haven't read Amy's book yet, you need to ASAP - whether or not you want to have a party:

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Author Day on Beat Street: Cries from the Heart

My mother was sitting in the front seat and we were parked on a side street in Fort Lee, New Jersey. I was in the back seat, six or seven years old, and we were about to go shopping for shoes.

"I've tried all my life to be a good person," she said. "Why can't I be thin?"

It was the first time my mother had ever spoken freely to me about her feelings and I had no idea what to say. I just listened, I think, though I may have said, "I don't know" or "What?" To me, she was just my mom. I didn't notice her weight or care much about it.

As I got older, I learned more of my mother's struggles with weight and how quickly it would go up and down throughout the year. But what struck me most on that day was that she chose, for better or worse, to confide something that she would never say to most anyone else. As children, we generally speak openly about our deepest fears and desires. As adults, not so much, because we know we can be shot down so easily.

Playwrights and novelists are always looking for those moments because they make the kind of drama people will stand out in the rain to see. For want of a better phrase, I think the French call them "cri de coeur" -- a cry from the heart.

As an experiment, I decided to recall some of these cries (without identifying them) to share some of the moments that inspired me as a playwright.

"I really don't know the first thing about friends. I never had any."

"All I ever really wanted was a family."

"You don't follow rules. You just barge through them. I, on the other hand, never learned to live my own life."

"I've had a lot of sex, but a relationship? I don't know what that means."

"Do you think people like me?"

"You have the possibility to be great. All I have are my looks. And who knows how long that'll last?"

These are just a few examples, and though I haven't used them verbatim, I've kept them packed away in my bag of tricks because it's our job as writers and playwrights to capture stand-out moments and make them relatable to an audience.

If you are a writer, you look for those moments and hopefully, remember them. If not, well, that's what notebooks are for. And you don't need to reveal who the person is saying them-- fact it's best if you don't.

But hold on to them, for sure. They may open a door to even deeper stories and confidences. Including your own.

Before I go, I also want to share this link from Books Go Social with middle-grade and YA book ideas for the holidays--including The Beat on Ruby's Street. Hope you'll check it out!

Woman at window photo: Claudia Dea

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Standup in the Fifties

Some of you know that before I became a playwright I was an actor (do people say actress anymore)? When I worked at the Renaissance Faire in New York, I met a woman named Lois who wanted to be a stand up comedian.

One day on the bus to the Faire, a friend of hers asked if she was going to "work out" after the weekend. It turns out "work out" meant doing stand up in a comedy club when they opened the floor to newcomers.

I loved this idea and still wonder at the courage it took for Lois and her friends to stand up in front of a (hopefully) large-enough group of people and try to make them laugh. In earlier years, comedians had police to deal with, too.

This week I started watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and it's hitting a lot of sweet spots for me--set in the 1950s during Beat Generation days, with a great female comic character at its center. (And yes, I'm partial to funny ladies.) She is also in scenes with some extraordinary comics from the era--Lenny Bruce being one of them

While the 1950s are often thought of as super-squeaky clean, comedians like Lenny Bruce, Beat Generation artists and a raft of other people proved otherwise. Bruce, for example, was arrested multiple times for using "obscene" words and had to endure an obscenity trial. He was found guilty (though later pardoned after his death).

In the first two episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the lead character is arrested for obscenity as well. She too, is found guilty in court. I found all of this interesting as I am working on book 2 of the Beat Street Series, which centers on a female comedy writer who loses her job due to the Blacklist. (See last week's post for more on this).

In any case, seeing what happened to Lenny Bruce and what other writers and comedians went through in the 1950s makes me think the word "standup" has a double meaning. Comedians were standing up in front of audiences baring their souls while trying to be funny. They were also standing up for something else--the right to free speech.

Which mostly means (to me, and I'm not lecturing) that they gave us quite a gift -- whether they themselves were gifted or not. So by the time my friend Lois went to "work out" her monologues in front of an audience, she didn't have to worry about being arrested for using certain words.

I hope that's always true from now on... for all of us.

If you want to talk more about his, please join me at "Holiday Happiness" on Facebook next Saturday, December 9 at 4 p.m. Central time. We can talk about anything, really -- and you can win a free paperback of The Beat on Ruby's Street or a $5 Amazon gift card.

Performer: Blewt Productions