Sunday, March 28, 2010

Inspired at the Tucson Festival of Books

Recently, we attended the 2nd annual Tucson Festival of Books, a two- day happening advertised as having over 400 notable authors. It was held on the University of Arizona campus and was well attended and totally free. We went on Sunday and were able to see two panel discussions and a venue where Scott Simon of NPR interviewed Elmore Leonard and his two sons, who are also writers.
The first panel discussion was called “History as Bestseller” and was made up of three authors of popular books on historical people and events-- Hampton Sides whose books are about the Bataan Death March and Kit Carson, Jeff Guinn who wrote about Bonnie and Clyde, and James Donovan whose book is about Custer and Little Bighorn. One of the main topics discussed was the gap between writers who write straight history, e.g. textbooks, and those who write “popular” books on history. All three authors fall into the second category and all agreed that their target audience was the general population of readers and not just academicians. The moderator, Paul Hutton, a history professor, represented an author of a more straight historical perspective.
When in college doing research for papers, I remember becoming totally absorbed in finding more information about a certain subject. I felt alive, caught between obsession and joyous commitment. These 3 authors all loved the research part of their work and admitted that they often get so involved in research that they have to force themselves to get down to the actual writing of the book. They were guided by a commitment to the actual events and especially bringing to life the essence of the historical figures.
The second panel discussion consisted of three authors of fiction based on historical events. The panel title was “Bending the Truth”. It consisted of Jamie Ford who wrote The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a novel that takes place during the time of the internment of Japanese citizens from Seattle. Laura Fitzgerald is the author of One True Theory of Love about a white American woman who, during a time of change, falls in love with an Iranian man. The third panelist, Jennie Shortridge, wrote When She Flew based on a newspaper article about a Vietnam veteran raising his daughter out in the woods because of his own war induced paranoia.
These authors were all inspired by an historical event or time but did not concern themselves with writing straight history. They were more interested in using fictional characters to tell their stories. They all did extensive research and said it was important to be accurate when referring to historical places and events. They agreed that historical fiction when done well can often bring out the underlying truth better than factual history. One example is Jamie Ford’s main character. As a little boy he is forced by his father to wear a button on his coat written in English, “I am Chinese”. This actually happened to Ford’s father and it becomes a poignant symbol in his book. Every morning when he leaves for school his father checks to make sure he is wearing it. This forces the reader to continually experience the mixed emotions of the time and especially of the Chinese boy over the treatment of his Japanese friend and her family.
The Scott Simon interview of Elmore Leonard and his two sons was entertaining. Scott Simon is a great interviewer and showed his respect and liking for the Leonards. Elmore Leonard has written best sellers for over forty years. He was by far the most successful author we heard speak. His sons talked about how their father was happiest when he was working at his craft. Elmore said he couldn’t imagine doing anything else with his life and said he still loves writing even after all these years. During the question and answer period, he was asked why he stopped writing western novels. He had a successful career in this genre and the questioner was clearly disappointed that he abandoned it. His answer was simple. To paraphrase he said, Westerns weren’t popular anymore and there wasn’t any money in it, so he switched to mysteries. He was the most casual and eccentric of all the authors. He excitedly talked about enjoying watching TV game shows. The audience laughed thinking he was joking, but he was trying to convey something he saw of value in these shows having to do with the contestants and how they behaved. I thought this could have been an opening to how the mind of a great writer works but Scott Simon let it drop moving on to the next question. Elmore, like a pro, allowed the interview to move on as well, without concern. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the future we see an Elmore Leonard novel with characters on a game show. It will probably become a movie as well.
All the authors, without exception, admitted that writing was hard work but the most satisfying activity they have ever done. Several even compared it to sex to accentuate their point. They all seemed to enjoy the fame and the money that went along with being published and commented on how excited they were when they saw their first book in print. But the consensus was that the real value of writing is in the process itself--the daily discipline that gives birth to the creative flow.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hippies and Jonesers

Cruising the internet, I ran across a USA Today article by Jonathan Pontell. He divides the baby boom generation into two distinct cultural groups, those like myself, born from 1946 to 1954 and younger boomers born from 1954 to 1965. He proposes that each group has different values and interests. He’s even given the younger group a name, Generation Jones or Jonesers. The parents of the Jonesers are of the silent generation, those who came of age after World War II but before the 60’s.
The Jonesers are currently between the ages of 42-53 and make up more than a quarter of our population. Early boomers, people ages 54-65, make up only about 15%. Most Jonesers would have been too young to be part of the original Hippie movement and also too young to worry about the draft, which ended in 1973. It was opposition to the Vietnam War that shaped the counter culture movement of the 60’s, but the majority of Jonesers were too young to be involved.
Being identified as a different group has struck a chord in these younger baby boomers. Pontell states that he has been overwhelmed by emails from them in support of his classification. Evidently they have felt left out, not being a part of the “60’s” or “Woodstock” generation and not identifying with Generation X either. Woodstock happened in 1969 which means the Jonesers were between the ages of 5 and 14. Generation Xers born from 1965-1980 have their own unique identity problems and reasons not to be associated with "Boomers". So for a long time this population of young baby boomers have been "Jonesin'" for their own identity and now someone has given it to them.
I saw on the news that Fess Parker died the other day. He was a phenomenon in the 50’s and 60’s. He played Davy Crockett on the “Disneyland” TV program which ran from 1954-1955 and had a later series playing Daniel Boone from 1964-1970. His Davey Crockett character was hugely popular with early baby boomers. Kids had coon skin caps, Davey Crockett BB rifles and Davey Crockett lunch boxes. I cherished my Davey Crockett doll. This distinction actually could be one in a series of litmus tests to see if a person is an early boomer or a Joneser: Do you remember Fess as Davey Crockett or Daniel Boone? Jonesers were too young or not born yet when he played Davey Crockett and when he was Daniel Boone, early boomers were out saving the world or fighting the war.
Other litmus test questions (besides the obvious one, When were you born?) could be:
Is Elvis the King of Rock and Roll or just a fat entertainer in a flashy jump suit who played Vegas?
When you were a young boy did you have a thing for Annette Funicello or Marsha Brady? (This one can be a little tricky. Younger boomers could have seen Annette in her later beach blanket bingo movies with Frankie Avalon, and older boomers who have seen recent pictures of Maureen McCormic may be developing a thing for her at a later age.)
Is the song about Mr. Jones from a Dylan album after he went electric or by the group Counting Crows? (The 1972 song about Mrs. Jones by Billie Paul should be recognized by both groups).
Anyway, I’m sure we will be hearing a lot more about Generation Jones, especially from advertisers who are trying to sell them merchandise and politicians who want their vote.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Two Kinds of People

I have this theory that there are two kinds of people, Roots people and Nomads. Roots people want to live in a place they are thoroughly familiar with. They want steady long lasting relationships and regular predictable activities. Nomads on the other hand feel restless when they are in one place too long. They begin to look for a new places where they can see new things and meet new people. When Nomadic people go on vacation, they are sizing up the area as a possible place to move to.
Katie and I have definitely been Nomads throughout our 30 years of marriage. We’ve lived in about 20 different homes in 7 different cities. Each time we moved, we were both ready and excited. Roots people, as hard as they try, have trouble understanding our nomadic ways, but other Nomads have no trouble at all. Roots people think we Nomads don’t know what we want and are always looking for "it" in other places. The grass is always greener somewhere else. Just when we start to settle in and make a life that looks attractive to them, we ruin everything by moving. If Roots people complain to Nomads about their neighbors or their jobs, immediately the advice given will be, “Why don’t you move?” or “Why don’t you quit?”. Of course, that usually isn’t the best advice. To Nomads, Roots people seem stuck.
To my knowledge this theory has no empirical data to back it up. It is just something I’ve been formulating in my head. Probably most of us are not strictly either Roots people or Nomads, but a blending of the two, and maybe at different times in our lives we are more one than the other.
I first started thinking about this theory when telling a friend of mine about my upcoming retirement and possible move to Arizona. He liked the idea of retirement, but was having trouble understanding the moving part. He had spent years establishing himself in the community. He leads a drumming group and sets up and runs the weekly folk dancing group. His family gets together several times a year with other families and has a big picnic. He lives close to his extended family. He has cultivated a private practice over several years. He likes the mechanic he takes his car to. He likes his doctor and has finally found a dentist he can tolerate. So when I talked about moving to Arizona, his interpretation was,“It would be like having to start my life all over again.”
But to me the move signified a fresh start. We would meet new people and be able to travel to new and interesting places. It would be fun and challenging to live in a different house. We could set it up in a southwestern style with bright colors and Mexican accessories. Sure we have friends and family that we will miss. But they will be able to visit us in this new and exciting place.
You’ve probably seen the Chinese Yin/Yang symbol. Within the white is a black dot and within the black is a white dot. The theory seems to hold true for Nomads and Roots people. There are times when we, as Nomas, are a little envious of Roots people. They get together with friends they’ve known for a long time doing familiar activities. They are able to talk about shared past experiences. When someone gets sick or dies, they all show up in support. They feel part of their community and know how it has evolved and changed over time.
Roots people probably have moments of envy for us as well. How we can pickup and move without a lot of fretting, anxiety or hassle. The way we are able to make changes in our lives more easily. Our life style enables us to experience new friends, places and activities. But heaven help a Roots person who is married to a Nomad and vice versa. It can’t be easy.
Ultimately Nomadic people and Roots people need to learn to tolerate and appreciate each other. Like Venus and Mars, we need to validate each others' different perspectives. But, you Roots people do seem a little bit stuck!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ready for the 82nd Academy Awards

We chose not to have TV reception for the past 8 months and were feeling somewhat pleased about it. Recently at a garage sale, Katie and I met a retired woman who said she hasn’t had a TV for over 20 years. We were impressed. She had definitely earned a certain amount of status in the eyes of other “children of the 60’s”. Well, last week in a moment of weakness, I called Cox Cable, gave them our credit card number and signed up for cable TV. What led to my downfall you ask?
Katie has been in Hawaii visiting relatives for the past two weeks and I’ve been home alone with many very long, quiet days and nights stretched out before me. And, I reasoned, technically I’m not a child of the 60’s, but a child of the 50’s, so those “giving up the TV” rules may not actually apply to me. I remember when my family first got a TV set in around 1953. It was an exciting day. There weren’t too many TV’s around at the time and our new acquisition became a neighborhood event. I used to live for Saturday mornings; The Howdy Doody Show, Fury, Sky King and The Lone Ranger, and evenings with the family watching Gunsmoke, The Ed Sullivan Show and Andy Griffith. Andy and Matt Dillon were like father figures to me along with Robert Young, Fred MacMurray and Ozzie Nelson. And before I entered High School or went out on a date, I got valuable tips watching Ricky Nelson, Tony Dow, and Tim Consadine successfully go before me.
The main reason I gave in to the temptation of TV was that the 82nd Academy Awards were coming up and I really wanted to watch it. I’ve probably missed the Oscars a few times in my life, but not many. Movies have always been a big part of my life. There was only one Movie Theater in Ferguson, Missouri where I grew up, the Savoy. An older boy accompanied me the first time I was allowed to go without adult supervision. It was a double feature, The first movie was The Blob. It came to Earth in a meteor as a small blob, but quickly grew bigger and bigger the more people it consumed. During the scene where it oozed through the vents of a movie theater, I thought I might actually die of fright and then my parents would get really upset. I can’t remember the name of the other movie, but it involved scary looking creatures with two big veins running down their front. Like the Blob, they also attacked and devoured humans. Unlike the Blob, which had to be frozen and wasn’t fazed by guns or artillery, these creatures could be shot. When they were shot, they melted into what looked like liquid pizza.
Just like the rest of the kids at the matinee, my friend and I bought snacks before going in. We shared a box of popcorn and I got for myself a giant square of fudge. The second movie was in living color and before it ended I had to run outside to avoid upchucking all over the kid in the seat in front of me. I didn’t return to see the end of the movie but thought it wise to stay outside in the fresh air. My friend filled me in on how the Army came to the rescue and killed all the monsters. Secretly I was glad I left when I did. This experience, however, did not dissuade me from going back to the movies. I remember deciding that I needed to choose my movie snacks more carefully. If the movie was going to be about disgusting, oozing, gelatinous monsters, I probably should pass on the fudge. I follow that rule to this day.
I don’t know if we will continue to receive cable TV in the near future, but the Academy Awards are on tonight and I’m ready. I’ve only seen a few of the movies, but I’m rooting for The Hurt Locker for best film and Kathryn Bigelow best director, Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart for best actor and Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia for best actress even though she’s won a gillion times. I will be disappointed if Avatar wins everything, but I did think it was very entertaining. I liked looking around at the audience during the movie because we all looked like Buddy Holly impersonators. Also I hope Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin are good hosts. Steve Martin did a good job in the past, but my favorite hosts were Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal.