Can I Make A Phone Call With This Thing?

Why don’t we have doorbells that make a knock-knock sound instead of ding-dong? The technology makes no sense. I mean, people were knocking on doors long before anyone rigged a bell outside their door, right?

A hundred years ago, few people had telephones. People wrote letters. If it was urgent, they sent a telegram. But as more people acquired telephones, those without became socially isolated. Eventually, anyone without a phone was considered odd. Until last week, I happily got along with a simple flip-style cell phone. Had it for years. Gradually, the technology surpassed what my phone was capable of and I couldn’t even access the internet to check the weather. I figured it was no big deal. I seldom used the phone for anything but phone calls. I was finally forced to join the rest of America when my brother sent me a text from his smart phone and it took me half an hour to respond. Click-click-I, click-click-m, click-click-n. You get the idea. For a person who can type 114 words per minute, that amounts to waterboarding. People would send me emails and wonder why I didn’t respond on the weekend. Plans were made and changed, and I was blissfully unaware. Everyone was talking but me. I had become socially isolated.

Now I have a smart phone with far too many features. I can text, check the news, post on Facebook, and read and send emails. It’s a damn PC with an irritatingly short battery life. Yeah, I know. There’s an app that will extend the battery life. Logical woman that I am, it occurs to me that saving power should be an automatic function and not one you have to download. It does take great pictures, though. If I could figure out how to transfer them from point A to point B, I’d be making serious progress. Don’t try to help me figure it out, I will only make you cry.

One thing I do like is the memo function. I can jot down story ideas anytime. But to be honest, I’m keeping the little notebook I’ve been carrying around for years. I don’t have to plug it in.

To Hell With You!

I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, “To hell with you!”  Saul Bellow

That quote is from a book titled For Writers Only by Sophy Burnham (Penguin). It’s one of those books I turn to when the muse has locked itself in the bathroom and refuses to come out.

According to Ms. Burnham, back in the eighties, a best-selling author decided to demonstrate how hard it is for a new writer to break into the business. He sent his already-published manuscript to several publishing houses, including his own, and it was rejected every time. I find this both fascinating and appalling. What I get from this is that getting a manuscript published is largely the luck of the draw. Why would a publisher love a manuscript enough one day to publish it, and then hate it enough to reject it? Did a different person grab it from the slush pile? Did the same person read it after having a bad weekend?

Trying to get published or land an agent is sort of like storming a castle in your underwear. The guys in the castle have all the power, and you’re running around in your tightie-whities waving a manuscript and projecting an intimidation factor of zero.

We’ve all heard that an aspiring writer has to have the hide of a rhino to survive the criticism and rejection. True enough. But it seems to me we need more than that, and maybe something that’s better for us as artists.

Look, there are people in this business who make us feel like we don’t know what a good story is. Maybe they want us to feel that way. It takes the power out of our hands and places it in theirs.  I can’t tell you how many interviews I’ve read with agents and publishers who seem hell bent on talking people out of submitting picture book manuscripts. Mind you, they represent and publish picture books. They go on and on about how hard it is to write a good picture book, as if they, and not the author, had done all the toiling and agonizing over just the right words. Don’t tell me how hard it is, sweetheart. I’m the one in the trenches here. I am the writer. You are not.

A tough hide allows us to stay on our feet while people to take shots at us, which is great. But it’s a defensive posture. At some point, we need to go on the offensive. We need to take the seemingly illogical stance that what we’ve created is great, even in the face of being rejected or ignored. We have to believe in ourselves and our work.

I don’t mean to say we should be unwilling to take an fresh look at a manuscript after it’s been rejected to see if it can be improved. We have to be honest with ourselves and true enough to our craft to make that effort. But there are times when you just know that what you’ve written is terrific and worthy of print, and that the intern going through the slush pile just doesn’t get it. That knowing is the weapon we have to use to storm castle after castle.

Do YOU believe in what you’ve written? Then keep storming those castles and wave that manuscript with all the confidence you know it deserves. The non-writers up on the parapet will try to discourage you out of it. Don’t let them.


I’ll Only Ride a Blue Bike

In my family, you didn’t get your own bicycle until you were eight years old and had made your First Communion.  It was a rite of passage.  My two older sisters chose pink and purple bikes.  I wanted no such girlie colors.  My bike had to be blue.

On the great appointed day, my father and I walked up to the Times Square hardware/sporting goods store where all the neighborhood kids got their bikes.  It was a crowded, dimly lit store with dirty floors.  We made our way to the corner of the store where the bikes were on display, following our noses to the rubbery smell of bicycle tires.  And there it was–an electric blue Savoy with a white banana seat, sissy bar, stingray handlebars, and coaster brakes (hand brakes were for rich kids).  It was all mine.  I didn’t have to share it with anyone, like I had had to share the red tricycle with my little brother for years.

I didn’t know how to ride a bike and don’t remember having training wheels.  I used to take the bike out and balance alongside the wrought iron fences outside the row homes that lined the sidewalk.  Keeping one hand on the fence, I would inch along, trying to keep the bike upright.  Eventually, it worked and I was keeping up with the older kids with ease.  I rode that bike with a small group that included my siblings and friends from the apartment building we all lived in.  We weren’t allowed to ride in the street.  It was a busy bus route.  We were limited to one city block most of the time, but in Brooklyn that’s a pretty good area.  The sidewalk was pretty much ours until about five o’clock when office workers, in slightly disheveled suits and ties, came in clusters out of the subway station on Fourth Avenue and created an impassable mass of humanity off and on for about an hour.  On hot summer days, we would lock up the bikes long enough to run upstairs and gulp down a glass of grape Kool-Aid, watching a cartoon or two while the sweat dried on our skin.

Sometimes, we got to ride our bikes along the bike path that led from the 69th Street pier and passed under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  We sometimes rode them in Owl’s Head Park, starting at the top of Dead Man’s Hill and riding on the side of the tires in a death-defying lean.  We had to take our feet off the pedals because we were going way too fast for our feet to keep up with them.

Our bikes were usually locked up at dinnertime, the summer evenings being dedicated to games of kick-the-can, tag, or stoop ball.

Every kid in the apartment stored their bike in the cellar.  Opening the heavy green door, you were hit with the stench of garbage and cat pee, sort of an olfactory one-two punch.  It was a creepy and dangerous place with cave-like walls and dark recesses concealing monsters only a small child can imagine, and only the big city can actually produce.  I think they found a dead bum down there years ago.  That was the rumor, anyway.  Eerie as it was, it was a treasure trove of furniture, baby buggies, and odds and ends left behind by long-gone tenants.  It eventually become a sort of clubhouse for us, but that’s another story.

One day, one of the kids came up to my apartment to tell us that all of the bikes in the basement had been stolen.  My electric blue Savoy was gone forever.  I turned and saw my mother coming up the stairs.  When she got to the second floor landing, I gave her the news of the theft.  She looked at me for a second, put her head down, and climbed that second flight.  The look on her face wasn’t one of despair but of defeat and exhaustion.  She had just come back from her first visit with the divorce lawyer.  There would be no money to replace those bikes.  I didn’t react to the theft the way you would expect.  I was pretty matter-of-fact about it and never brought it up again.  I guess all the rest of the garbage going on that day made the loss of my Savoy seem less important.  Looking back, the theft of our bikes was something of a harbinger.  There were a lot of angry and hungry days ahead.  We would do without a lot more than bikes.

A couple of years ago, I went to the store and bought myself a bike.  For the first time in years, I have a bike of my own.  It’s electric blue and it has coaster brakes.