Tuesday, July 28, 2009

New York Hospitality

My kid brother, an MBA who is deeply into social media, told me I better update this blog or scrap it. In the spirit of trying to expand my comfort zone with new technology, I'm giving it another shot.

I went to New York City for the first time in my life a few weeks ago. A writers' conference called ThrillerFest was being held in Midtown Manhattan at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. My publisher, Variance Publishing, picked up the tab for registering me at the conference and for two nights at the Hyatt. I used frequent flyer miles to cover my transportation and I got a good deal for two more nights at the Omni Berkshire Place Hotel on a discount travel site; I wanted to attend an event at the conference that wasn't directly connected with my publisher's interests. So I picked up the tab for the lodging those two nights.

As the date for ThrillerFest approached, I began to think of what it would be like to visit New York City for the first time. We've all seen TV shows and movies set there, but film by its nature, and its editing, exaggerates things for both good and ill. What was it going to be like to see the real city?

I wasn't exactly overawed by the prospect. I'd been born and raised in Chicago. I lived in Los Angeles for ten years. I've visited London and Paris. I know big cities and I like them. Other than a winter trip to a white sand beach with clear tropical waters, a big city is my preferred travel destination. But this was New York, a place whose self-regard is as high as its skyline. Was I going to get along with the natives? People known for being in too much of a hurry to bother about manners.

Maybe I was really lucky, but in my four days in Manhattan I found New Yorkers to be sweethearts. Starting out at LaGuardia Airport, looking for the shuttle bus that would take me into town, people couldn't have been more helpful, airport employees and fellow travelers both. The people working at the Omni and the Hyatt were great. Even the weather, which had been rainy for forty days and forty nights before my visit, was wonderful. Sunny, low seventies, with a pleasant breeze.

If you're from a small town or even a mid-sized city, you'll probably find the traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, to be a bit much. But if you've spent time driving anywhere in L.A. or walking in downtown Chicago, you'll feel right at home. If anything, I thought New Yorkers set a somewhat more leisurely pace afoot than Chicagoans.

The thing that set the place apart for me was its sheer density. Every building adjoins its neighbor with no intervening open space, not even an alley, and the default size of those buildings is the high-rise. After a while, all those hard surfaces looming over you and all that concrete under foot give you a real hunger to see some grass, flowers, and trees.

So I got up early one morning, before the rush hour was in full swing, and did a six-mile walk up to and into Central Park, walking as far north as 76th Street. Central Park is a wonderful place, and I know I only scratched the surface of what it has to offer. The topography rises and dips, there are huge rock formations scattered about, people are relaxed enough and their dogs well-mannered enough that the pooches are allowed to run free. But it's the contrast to the city outside the park that's so intense it almost makes you feel giddy. Like you're a kid again on your way to play a pickup game of baseball without a care in the world.

About the only cliché I found to be right on the mark regarding New York is that the city is stunningly expensive. It's not as pricey as Paris, where I visited last year and also found the locals to be charming, but NYC seems to be trying its best to catch up. Unless someone else is picking up your food tab on a visit to Manhattan, plan to bring plenty of money for even simple fare such as a hamburger. P.J. Clarke's makes a tasty burger and presents it on a plate only slightly bigger than the bun. Price: $8.95. If you'd like a small Coke and fries to go with that, you'll be out another $7.50. At the Stage Deli, you pay for a turkey sandwich on an a la carte basis: turkey, $14.95; roll, .50; lettuce and tomato, $1.00. On the other hand, at the California Pizza Kitchen at 404 Park Avenue South, the tomato and basil spaghettini, with bread included, and a refillable soft drink, is only $13.78.

As for the two hotels I visited, I preferred the Omni. It's old but quite nice, built on a pleasantly human scale. When I asked for a room on a lower floor, I got room 308. When I made the same request at the Hyatt, the best they could do was the seventeenth floor. Still, the Hyatt was convenient to the shuttle stop for the bus going to Newark's airport, my point of departure. I was surprised, though, that I couldn't get a late edition of the New York Times at the Hyatt. It doesn't come out until 9:00 a.m., and I was across the river and into New Jersey by then.

Had to make due with a Chicago Tribune when I landed at O'Hare.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Citizens' Summits

If you'd like to visit the White House these days, you don't need an invitation. You can take a free tour, which is a pretty cool thing given it's the place where the most powerful man in the world lives. All you need to do is have a request submitted by your Member of Congress, usually a member of the House of Representatives, but if you know a senator, that will work, too.

There's a whole paragraph of things you can't bring along when you take the tour. Most of the prohibited items are easily imagined: guns, ammunition, martial arts weapons, knives. A few things are more surprising: hair brushes, combs, lip or skin lotion. (For a complete list, visit: www.whitehouse.gov) If you're carrying anything on the no-no list, they turn you away.

My wife and I took the tour back in the days of the Reagan Administration. The academic and historic details of the Red Room, the Green Room, and rooms the other colors of the rainbow are a blur. Interesting at the time, but forgettable after a while. What I remember clearly, though, was where we got to depart from the usual path. A couple weeks before we visited Washington, my wife was injured in a T-bone car crash. A fractured pelvis. So she was hobbling along on crutches when we entered the Executive Mansion.

Crutching the White House didn't meet with Secret Service approval; my wife was put into a wheelchair. People in wheelchairs, and their significant others, get to use an elevator that isn't available to the ambulatory crowd. You also, at least back then, got to cut through the White House kitchen. Of course, all this off-road trucking occurs in the presence of your own Secret Service escort. No opportunity to swipe one of the president's brownies as you pass through the kitchen.

Still, it felt pretty cool to get the behind-the-scenes glimpse of the place. I wouldn't have had more to say than, "Good morning," to Ronald Reagan if he'd been down in the kitchen restocking his jelly bean jar…but recently I got to thinking it would be interesting to spend an hour discussing current events with Barack Obama in the White House.

A citizen summit of sorts.

Over the past few weeks, President Obama has met with over ninety world leaders, or so NBC news told me tonight. So why shouldn't he have some everyday Americans over to the house to see what they (we) have to say?

Here's what I'm thinking. When you put in your request to visit the White House, you should have the option of asking for an Issues Quiz. You could choose your issue: the economy; the war in Iraq; the war in Afghanistan; health care; energy independence. Any of the biggies. Each quiz would have ten basic questions on its topic. Answer all ten questions correctly, and you win a prize…potentially.

Because once a month or so the president and the party leaders of each House of Congress would gather at the White House to sit down with six quiz winners taken at random from the White House tour line. The pols would get to make their pitches to interested citizens; regular American (who had displayed their interest and knowledge by taking the quiz) would get to respond directly, ask their own questions, maybe even make their own suggestions.

There would be no TV cameras allowed into these citizen summits, so nobody would be playing for tube-time, but there would be audio recordings and transcripts made, and both the people and the pols, if they chose, would be able to give video interviews afterward.

None of the everyday people taking part in the summits would be asked their political affiliations in advance, but in the interests of fairness and diversity, they would be asked their political leanings—liberal, moderate, conservative—and two of each group would be chosen for the citizen panels.

This idea would be easy and cheap to implement. It would give voters a chance to look at, listen to, and question the nation's political leaders up close, and it would allow the pols to hear what a random cross-section of the populace really thinks of their ideas.

Yeah, I know. It makes too much sense to ever happen.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Joys of the Writing Game

I got up at 5:15 a.m. yesterday to take the early Amtrak train from central Illinois, where I live, to Chicago, where I was scheduled to do a book signing. Necessity dictated that I take the 6:30 a.m. train instead of the 8:30 a.m. train because the signing started at noon, travel time was three-and-a-half hours and you have to allow for an hour's delay for every 100 miles you travel on Amtrak.

I'm a big fan of proposals to build high-speed rail lines in the U.S .

Much to my surprise, Amtrak's early train did an unexpectedly good imitation of the Eurostar—a great way to travel between London and Paris—and arrived only five minutes late. Which left me with almost two hours to kill before the signing. That turned out to be a good thing.

Not five minutes after leaving Union Station, I was walking east along Adams Street in the pouring rain when a westbound taxi roared through a puddle big enough to hold one of Steve Alten's sea monsters. The wave that arose was not quite as high as the nearby Big Willie (formerly the Sears Tower), it only seemed that way from my point of view. I'm happy to say my reflexes are still blink-of-an-eye quick; I regret to say my umbrella wasn't adequate to stop the approaching deluge.

Though I managed to shield my head and upper body, I was doused from the waist down. I didn't think showing up for a book signing in wet pants would make a favorable impression. I needed a place to dry off. I squished into a nearby Panera cafe and ordered a chocolate pastry, a small orange juice, and 300 napkins.

The young woman behind the counter was accommodating, but said even on a rainy day the limit on napkins was twenty-five.

I did what I could. Strangely enough, I wasn't too upset. It had occurred to me things could have been a whole lot worse if the taxi had hydroplaned and tacked to port. I could have wound up as a hood ornament. Perspective is all.

The indoor heating dropped the humidity level in the café below that of Death Valley in July and the dry air soon began sucking curb water out of my pants. As I'd arrived between the breakfast and lunch rushes, I was allowed to lollygag for an hour and forty-five minutes without making any additional purchase.

Then I headed out into the still-pouring rain to go to the signing. I was welcomed to the Books A Million store at 144 S. Clark Street by store manager Jeff Burakowski. He'd graciously set up a table with a display of copies of my new book, The President's Henchman. He provided me with pens to inscribe the books, a bottle of spring water, and said I should feel free to browse the nearby display rack of magazines.

Outside, it was raining harder than ever. The temperature was 36 degrees. The wind was gusting to over 30 miles per hour. It felt colder to me than when I'd last been to Chicago at the end of January. In other words, it was a perfect day for the Chicago Cubs to play their home opener of the 2009 season. Which they did, winning on a one-hit shut out.

As for people going out to book stores on their lunch hour, things could have been better. There were people in the store, but not a lot. There were people buying books, but not too many. At the checkout stand to my immediate left, I saw two customers buy titles by James Patterson and Stephen King, respectively, but in paperback not hardcover.

Long story short, I sold exactly one book. Again, though, I didn't feel too bad about it. The woman who made the purchase, Anne, was friendly, enthused about my book's premise, and looking forward to reading it. Luckily for her, she worked in an office above the store and didn't have to get soaked to make the buy. Which isn't to say, the day being what it was, she didn't have problems. The first pen I used to write the inscription ran out of ink, and the store had trouble running her credit card. I switched to another pen, someone gave the card reader a whack, and all was well.

Except that I faced another Amtrak ride to get home. In unprecedented fashion, though, not only did the train leave on time, this one, too, experienced a delay en route of only five minutes. Amtrak must have had its Swiss crews working yesterday. And after I got home I learned that another five-star review of The President's Henchman (that makes twelve out of thirteen; the other was four stars) had been posted on Amazon.com.

It really is a terrific book, my latest, and it's being discovered bit by bit. Critical mass is going to be reached.

Someone once said you can't stop talent. You can slow it down for ten or twenty years. But eventually the sun will come out.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Race, Bigotry & Tribes

If there's one thing a writer loves almost as much as a whopping book advance, it's finding exactly the right word to convey what he has in mind. Choosing the right word is the literary equivalent of not only finding but threading the needle in the haystack.
Using the wrong word, especially a word the writer should know is wrong, is the mark of a hack. Or a propagandist. It is a stick in the eye to the discerning reader.

That's why I so often grind my teeth when I read or hear the word race in a news story. If someone were to ask me my race, I'd say, "The 1500 meters." Though I'm not as fast as I used to be, I can still complete the metric mile in a respectable time.

I would never describe my race as white. That would not only be chromatically inaccurate—I'm too ruddy—but skin color does not define a person's race. Obviously, there are those who disagree. For some people race is all about skin color.

So let's take a look at that idea. Back in the 1950s, the heyday of Jim Crow segregation, the "racial" classification Negro not only applied to people whose ancestry traced back to sub-Saharan Africa but also to people living in Pacific Oceania (Melanesia). Both groups have dark skins and certain other physical similarities.

The problem with this racial classification is that the Pacific "Negroes," on molecular and genetic levels, are more closely related to mainland Asians than Africans.

So if color is useful in distinguishing between crayons but not people, what is?

Before we get to that, let's extend the vocabulary of this discussion. What the layman calls race, the scientist calls subspecies. (The overarching species to which we all belong is Homo Sapiens, Latin for wise man. In  many cases "wise man" is a vast overstatement of who we are, but it's our working title.) Subspecies are population groups that have distinctive features as a result of evolutionary development. Just for fun, though, subspecies are sexually compatible.

Oh, and those distinctive evolutionary features that define a subspecies, scientists say there should be several of them and they should be genetically based. You see what I'm getting at here? It's a darned hard thing to have your own race.

Buying into a concept of race is an especially knotty problem for those who don't believe in evolution. From a Biblical point of view, if we're all descendants of Adam and Eve, and there have been no evolutionary forces at work since the time of Eden, it's a mortal lock we're all members of the same club.

Being members of one big family should bring us all some measure of comfort because there's at least one subspecies science definitely recognizes: Pan troglodytes. Chimpanzees. Wouldn't want to put the sexual compatibility idea to that test, though.

So if race is just a social fiction, how can anyone be racist? How can you discriminate on the basis of someone being a member of the same species you are? Doesn't make any sense.

Nevertheless, racist and racism have become far too powerful as literal curse words to be discarded any time soon. These words have been imbued with the power of magic. To utter them against a person or a form of behavior is to cast a spell, one that puts its target beyond the boundaries of decent society.

A much better word to describe an intolerance of those whose looks, speech, prayers, tattoos, and body piercings differ from our own is bigotry. Bigot, bigoted, bigotry. Strong words. Accurate words. Well chosen words.

They're not magical like racist or racism, but they're still able to cause ostracism if applied vigorously. Blatant bigots are not to be tolerated in polite society, and I'm polite enough to agree with that. I want those people out of my tribe.

Of course, there are people who adopt bigoted behavior to exile themselves from polite society. Other people want to carve out elbow room for themselves and kindred spirits without leaving the mainstream altogether. There may be only one race of human beings, but there is an infinite number of tribes, and it's routine to belong to several at once: the professional or occupational tribe; the political tribe; the choice of news media tribe; the sports fan tribe; the hobby tribe; the type of car you drive tribe. The list is endless.

Trouble doesn't simply occur between members of different tribes, it occurs between people who have too few tribes in common. Or too many that are antagonistic.

So the next time you're tempted to use the word race, give subspecies or tribe a try instead. If you have an impulse to think someone is racist, refine that thought to bigoted or maybe tribalist, if you can. That's what someone of my tribe would do.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

B-School Reform?

I don't know if I'm a man ahead of my time—probably not—but I got a month's jump on the New York Times. On February 15, 2009, I posted an entry on this blog titled "The Only Schools That Matter." In it, I discussed the fact that many of the bigwigs who delivered the current economic debacle to this country, and the rest of the world, are graduates of our most prestigious business schools. I also wondered, even if/when we get past the present crisis, what is there to prevent the next crop of MBAs from screwing things up all over again, and probably worse than it is now.

In its March 15, 2009 edition, the Times has published an article with the headline: Is It Time to Retrain B-Schools? The accompanying art is a picturesque photo of the Harvard Business School. Click here to read article.

Among the highlights of the piece are:[T]hey (B-school students) graduate with a focus on maximizing shareholder value and only a limited understanding of ethical and social considerations essential to business leadership." Gee, who'd have guessed?

"The new logic of shareholder primacy absolved management of any responsibility for anything other than financial results." So as long as management was boosting share prices and lining its own pockets with umpteen millions, downsizing and outsourcing were okey-dokey.

"A study of cheating among graduate students…found that 56% of all MBA students cheated regularly—more than any other discipline." The authors of the study said the high rate of cheating was due to "perceived peer behavior." Meaning they thought everyone was doing it. So not only was money the only object here, it was okay if you cheated to get it. Explains a lot about our present fix, doesn't it?

"In surveys that the Aspen Institute regularly conducts, MBA candidates say they actually become less confident during their time in business school that they will be able to resolve ethical quandaries in the workplace." Great, so if a person enters B-school with a shred of decency, it probably won't survive till graduation day.

The article goes on to say some schools and outside institutions are trying to improve this awful situation, but their efforts are just beginning, not every school is on board, and they're not sure of the best way to go about reforming things. But they're still cranking out graduates who will become new members of the business elite. Makes me want to fall to my knees and pray.

Another idea, though, is to start rating and profiling these people by name online. Just the way you would a hotel or, nowadays, your family doctor. The docs, I've heard, really hate this. Just imagine how the MBAs would react. But, hey, isn't it about time the outsourcers and the downsizers and the general screwups were put in the spotlight? At least until the really bad ones can be put in the slammer.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Meeting and Working with Philip José Farmer

A long time ago, in a town a couple hundred miles up the road, I stopped into my favorite bookstore, Kroch & Brentano's, at lunchtime and headed downstairs to where the paperback novels were kept. The place was a cultural Fort Knox to me: row after row, shelf after shelf, of great reads, each and every book face out, titles, author's names, and cover art all screaming, "Buy me!" That day, one book called out more clearly than any other: Philip José Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

It's the ultimate story of reincarnation. Everyone who ever lived on Earth is reborn as a young, vigorous adult along the banks of the Riverworld. Food, drink, and drugs are all provided free of charge by Grailstones. Maybe that's not everybody's idea of paradise, but it's an intriguing take on the theme. Close enough to say, "Here you go, people. Let's see what you can make of this." Reading what Phil Farmer made of it was a real joy. As was rereading it many a time.

Years later, having had two novels of my own published, with a third on the way, a lady named Maggie Nelson called me. Maggie did publicity for the Peoria (IL) Public Library. She asked if I would be interested in writing a chapter of a round-robin novel (a different author for each chapter) to be called Naked Came the Farmer. The proceeds from the sales of the book would benefit the library. Being a lifelong lover of libraries, I said yes.

Great move on my part. The guiding light of the project, and writer of the first chapter, was Phil Farmer. Meeting him was like a rookie being introduced to Hank Aaron. You know you've got a long way to go before you might ever be mentioned in the same breath. Philip José Farmer published 75 novels over his lifetime.

Phil passed away last Wednesday, February 25, 2009. He was 91 years old. It was reported he died peacefully as he slept.

In the handful of times I got to spend with Phil, I found him to be smart, funny, unassuming, and generous. On the occasion of the release of a new edition of To Your Scattered Bodies Go, my wife, my daughter, and I traveled to Peoria, where he lived, to hear him speak (at a branch of the public library, naturally enough) and to buy a new copy of his book and have him sign it for me.

Phil had previously honored me by purchasing a copy of my third book, The Next President, and asking me to sign it for him. Then he took matters a step further. He sent me a handwritten letter to let me know what he thought of my book. I lifted a line from it to use as the first review I posted on the home page of my website.

The way these things sometimes work is you cherry-pick the words that make you look good and omit the rest. But what follows is the entire message:

Dear Joe,
"Your near-future novel, The Next President, riveted me. It's been a very long time since I've read such a vivid and intriguingly complex novel of 3-dimensional characters coupled with such a murky mystery. Congratulations!"
Philip José Farmer

If sharing that sounds a bit self-congratulatory, it is. But ask yourself if you'd keep quiet if Hank Aaron complimented you on how well you hit a baseball.

Thanks, Phil. I only wish I'd met you sooner.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Redeeming the Rich

In the February 22, 2009 edition of the Chicago Tribune, Don Esmond, a U.S. sales executive for Toyota, in analyzing the state of the current car market, is quoted as saying, "Even the people with money are holding back."

That's quite a thought to conjure with, especially when you remember that over the Bush years there was an ever greater concentration of wealth at the top of American society. This aggregation of so much money among so few people has been compared to the Gilded Age of the nineteenth century robber barons.

We've all read about the wretched excesses of the ultra-rich; cataloging it has long been a staple of celebrity publishing and TV shows. We get glimpses of cars, yachts, planes, and houses that are the stuff of fairy tales for 99.9% of us.

There are, of course, people of immense wealth who have dedicated themselves and their fortunes to making the world a better place. Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet come quickly to mind. They are donating tens of billions of dollars to helping people in dire need. God bless them.

But what our country needs today is a great many billionaires, and even demi-billionaires to step forward and emulate the fictional John Beresford Tipton. He was the semi-retired industrialist who handed out checks for $1 million to everyday people on the TV show The Millionaire. The show aired on CBS from 1955 to 1960. The $1 million Tipton gave away in 1955 would be roughly the equivalent of $8 million today.

For his time, Tipton, giving away the equivalent of $8 million a week, was a one-man stimulus plan.

Now, I'm not suggesting that the denizens of the country's various Gold Coasts start handing out multi-million dollar checks every week, but if Mr. Esmond is right and you're holding back, stop it! Start spending, as crazily as you normally would, but not on yourselves.

The American people are sorely aggrieved by the grandees in their midst. So now is the time to redeem yourselves in a Tiptonesque way that will help the economy.

Go out to middle-class restaurants one night and buy dinner for everyone present.

Go to a college book store and pay for every text book a student brings to the counter that day.

Go to a car dealer and do an Oprah: buy a car for every customer on the showroom floor.

Go to a bowling alley and not only treat for the beer frame, pay for the lines of everyone who picks up a ball.

Go to a department store like Kohl's and pay for the purchases of everyone in line between noon and two p.m.

Go to a public library and buy all the books they'd like to have but can't afford.

Go to a Boys' and Girls' Club and buy a gymful of new sporting equipment.

Go to a high school Scholastic Bowl tournament and buy the winners a team bus; buy one for the last place team, too.

Whatever you decide to do to help someone, and thereby stimulate the economy, do it the way Tipton did: anonymously. That's far cooler than taking credit for it. So don't hold back, rich people.

Get out there and commit random acts of conspicuous consumption—for someone else.