Wednesday, January 16, 2019

An author's dilemma: should we hide the truth to avoid embarrassing relatives of evil people?


If you think of New Haven and education, there's a good chance you'll think of Yale University, a superb educational institution and part of the Ivy League. New Haven's public schools, however, frequently did a terrible job educating students.

I was the victim of some terrible teachers in New Haven's schools. Some were merely ignorant or incompetent. Others were absolutely nuts, evil, even sadistic and physically abusive. (Some, however, were OK or even superb).

Back in sixth grade, way back in 1958, I suffered from Julia Quinn, a particularly horrid teacher. I complained to my parents but they insisted that I must respect her because of her position—no matter how evil, incompetent, lazy or deranged she was.



I promised myself that someday I would tell the world what my parents refused to listen to. It took me over 50 years, but I kept the promise with my bestselling memoir, Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults).

I can still visualize exactly where I was standing when I made the decision to write about Quinn. If I go to hell I’m going find Quinn and beat the crap out of her. But I may have to wait in line for my turn because so many others suffered because of her. If you think I didn’t like her, you’re underestimating my passion. I hated her fucking guts. And I still do.

Some people, including my ultra-cautious wife, warned me to not use real names in the memoir. I saw no need to disguise or minimize evil. Here's some text from the book:




When I was in high school, another teacher, with the silly rhyming name of Herman Cherman, repeated a silly rumor to the school's disciplinarian—our assistant principal George Kennedy. Herman said that I had traveled to school on a winter day, sitting on the convertible top of my best friend Howie's Triumph.


Not only would it have been very cold up there and hard to keep my balance, but I would probably have broken the top and fallen in on Howie and caused us to crash.


The assistant principal believed Herman, and made a school-wide amplified announcement summoning Howie and me to the detention room.

Fortunately the school cop, Joe Manna, came to our defense. He told Kennedy, “These are good boys; they would never do anything like that.” In the one time he was ever nice to me in three years, Kennedy said, “I wish Cherman would mind his own damn business. I have enough real problems to deal with without him making up fake problems.”

Recently in a Facebook group that deals with New Haven, one of Cherman's kids asked if anyone remembered her father. I responded with the story of my unnecessary embarrassment caused by his lying. The daughter then attacked me, calling me disgusting, evil and a liar. She pointed out that Herman won awards for his teaching.

Her father may indeed have been a wonderful teacher and father—but he was not my teacher or father—and in his only dealing with me, was an evil, lying busybody who caused unnecessary pain to my best friend and me.

I will never know the motivation for his lie. I assume he was trying to win points from Kennedy.

The daughter, in a second generation of embarrassment, publicly called me a liar. But her father was the liar; and she, unlike me, did not witness the incident.

I responded that I had no reason to make up the story and that as Shakespeare and others have pointed out, "
the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children."

She has good memories of her father. I have a bad memory of the same person. That's life. I have no reason to hide the truth to shield anyone.


Wednesday, January 9, 2019

I just bought a printed book. After years of ebooks, it's weird to read it.


Above: my first and most-recent hardcover books, separated by about 70 years

Books have always been extremely important to me. As the photo shows, even as a little kid, I used the bathroom as a library so not a moment of potential reading time was wasted. In 2019, the only piece of furniture I can visualize from the Bronx apartment my parents brought me home to in 1946 is a mahogany bookcase. I share my bed with my wife and usually my iPad or Kindle Fire.

Before TiVo gave me the ability to fast-forward, I always read during TV commercials. I read at most meals—even at restaurants. Some people think it's rude. I think it's efficient.

I've been accused of being addicted to reading. Like other kinds of addicts, I've resorted to sneaking and cheating to satisfy my addiction.
  • When I was in first grade, I had a ridiculous 7:30 PM bed time. I got into bed, pulled the blanket over my head, and read with a flashlight.
  • Later, maybe in third grade, when my technical skills improved, I came up with a better solution. I put a bright light bulb in my bedroom closet and it was bright enough to illuminate a book when I was in bed. I attached a long string to the pull-chain that controlled the light, and put a tennis ball at the end of the string. When I heard my parents approach, I yanked the string to shut off the light, and tossed the tennis ball and string into the closet to hide the evidence, and made believe I was asleep.
  • The ultimate evolution of my scam occurred around sixth grade. I installed a photoelectric cell in the garage, aimed outward. If my parents were out for the evening, and then came home when I was supposed to be asleep, the car's headlights would trigger the photocell which then rang a bell in my bedroom—so I could shut off my light and shut my eyes.
  • Later on, my parents didn't care how late I stayed up, and I often read until midnight, and started again around 4 AM. 
  • In my senior year in high school, my English teacher required us to read and report on one book each month, with a bonus if we could read one book each week. I half-jokingly asked her what would happen if I did one a day. She half-jokingly said she'd give me an "A." I read the books, wrote the (short) reports, and got my "A."
  • When I was in college, I was still building book shelves a week before I was going to move out of my apartment and go to New York to be a magazine editor. (Assistant editor, actually.)
I've always had a strong reverence for books. Maybe it comes from my parents, who were avid readers. As a Jew, I am part of "the people of the book." 

When I see books in the trash, I rescue them. When a friend's older brother and his buddies gathered around a barbecue grill at the end of the school year to burn their school books, I tried to rescue the books, but was blocked by superior force. Assholes!

I seldom think of sin, but if sins do exist, book burning is certainly high on the list.

A few years ago I figured out that my house has nearly 400 linear feet of book shelves, which means I must have (GASP!) nearly 4,000 books. There are also books in cartons, and in drawers and in my car, and on my phone, computers, Kindle Fire and iPad. In the old days there would be books on UPS and USPS trucks heading to me.

I order books from Amazon at least once a week.

I'm a fast reader, but I can't possibly read fast enough to keep up with the inflow. The only obvious solutions were to become a faster reader (unlikely at my age) or buy fewer books.

Instead, I started giving away books, and began buying ebooks only. I save space, and can resume reading anywhere.

A few days ago I was in a dollar store. I couldn't resist looking at the one-buck books. The store had about a dozen titles. Four seemed interesting. One was purchased. I started reading it as soon as I got out to my car, to wait for my wife to finish shopping.

I was able to prop up the book on my steering wheel as in the old days—but I tried "swiping" pages with my fingers to flip the pages. It did not work. I was also unable to highlight text or look-up words, and I had to remember to take the book from the car into my house.

I suppose I have become an e-guy.  

Friday, January 4, 2019

My nominations for the most disgusting bits of literature



Would you want to read any more of Rainbow Gliding Hawk and the Last Stand of the Patriarch by Doug Lambeth after encountering the first page of the first chapter?

The vomit warmth reaches through the shiny leather and as my toes begin to sweat, I pray that rental tuxedo shoes are water/puke proof. I wonder if they’re Gore-tex lined? “It’s just puke,” I say, and to punctuate the point Dirk retches his remaining stomach contents onto my feet.



The next gem is from The Wayward Comrade and the Com­missars, by Yurii Karlovich Olesha.

How pleasant my life is. Ta-ra. Ta-ra. My bowels are elastic. Ra-ta-ta. Ta-ra-ree. My juices flow within me. Ra-tee-ta. Doo-da-da. Con­tract, guts, contract. Tram-ba-ba-boom! (I wrote a book report on this one when I was in junior high school.)

It's probably best to minimize the disgusting stuff unless you're writing for doctors or children.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Authors: consider an "out-of-town" tryout for your book. Don't let it flop on Broadway.



Traditionally, theatrical productions that were headed to New York's Broadway "tried out" out-of-town, often in Boston and New Haven. In those cities the writer, director, composer and producers could observe audience reactions and make changes before the show was presented for the New York audience and critics.

When I was in junior high school in New Haven in the early 1960s, I saw many tryouts at the Shubert Theatre. My friends and I paid $1.20 to sit in the second balcony, and sometimes sneaked down to better seats—even box seats—if no one else claimed them.
  • Self-publishing authors have an advantage over authors who work with traditional publishing houses because they can have an "off-Broadway" tryout, just like a drama or a musical.
With minimal expense, you can get a few dozen copies of your pbook or ebook, and distribute them to friends, relatives, librarians, booksellers, consultants, agents, other writers, teachers, experts—anyone whose opinions you respect.

You'll probably get lots of good advice that will influence your final text and covers, and you might even get compliments that can be used as "blurbs" to help promote the final version of the book.

One of my books had a limited release in late 2008. While I was pleased with it, and it got consistently good reviews, I realized that the title confused some readers (it's a quote from one of my crazy teachers). I also realized that one chapter should be replaced with other material and I should shift some of the front matter to the back so people would reach the "meat" of the book sooner.

I also decided to add some material and I lowered the price. The new book has gotten great reviews and thousands of copies have been sold worldwide as a paperback, hardcover and ebook.

If my "out-of-town" version became my "Broadway" version, the book would likely have been a flop.



(Top illustration from old Shubert program at the University of South Carolina)