Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Evolution In Language

I grind my teeth at inappropriate apostrophe's, and have to work to keep my reaction off my mug when someone tells me how pleased they were that "the senator invited my wife and I to the ceremony." And hearing ragtime referred to as a musical genus was at least as painful to my ears as a badly-mangled piano chord in the middle of "Maple Leaf Rag." By gum, language is on its way to you-know-where in a you-know-what.

On the other hand, I've found erroneous apostrophes in well-regarded material from a hundred years ago, and I've read articles which claimed use of the nominative where you'd expect the accusative was commonplace in England two hundred years ago. And as for word choice, I could fill the rest of this page and several more with words in common parlance that used to mean something very different from what they mean today.

So last Thursday's newsletter from the Booked for Murder Mystery Indie in Madison, Wisconsin caught my eye. Sara Barnes, the owner, frequently includes sly and mischievous comments on language, and in this mailing, she presented some common texting terms to show that In the Beginning was The Word - but now it's The Abbreviation.

One of Sara's examples was lol, for "laugh out loud." The second time I ever came upon that particular linguistic abridgement was in pre-texting times, in an early email. When I asked the writer what it meant, she said, "'Lots of luck.' What did you think?"

I hadn't known what to think, because my first association with the abbreviation had been back in the 'sixties, as a medical intern at New York's Bellevue Hospital, where house staff talked about admissions having either the DOM or the LOL Syndrome - respectively, Dirty Old Man and Little Old Lady. (There was even a subcategory of the latter, the LOJL, where the J stood for Jewish. Check out Chapter 4, "The Chicken Soup For Lunch Bunch" in my book, The View From The Vue). And you can be sure, after a night's work, trying to keep a sick little old lady on this side of the River Styx, often in 90-degree temperature with humidity to match, laughing out loud was about the last thing an intern was inclined to do.

But there's evolution in language for you. Today, I'd be considered not with it if I thought lol stood for lots of luck, and thoroughly out of it if I thought the abbreviation had anything to do with little old ladies. So, go ahead. Do as you will to Mother Tongue. She's a tough old bird. She'll see us both into our graves. I could care less.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Let's Do Something Heroic

Hung up on the human condition, a novelist may spend years working up a story, picking away, trying to gain a bit of insight. But sometimes, even the best fiction can't compete with someone's narrative of his or her real-life story.

When one of my dear friends was only in her sixties, she began to show signs of dementia, and before too long, had become so badly impaired she needed to be placed in a care facility. For the next near-decade, this once-kindhearted, brilliant person became progressively more demented and hostile, often showering fits of rage upon family and friends who came to visit. Gradually, visitors stopped coming by.

But my friend's son David continued to go to the care facility every Saturday afternoon, and tried, without much success, to reach out to the person he used to know. Then one day, when he walked into his mother's room, she greeted him with a smile, and said, "Let's do something heroic!"

"What would you like to do?" David asked. "What would be heroic?"

She just shook her head. She didn't know. Didn't have a clue.

"All right," David said. "I've got an idea."

He took his mother out to the car, and drove her to a lovely heavily-wooded area not far from the care center. "I could actually see her relax," he said, "as if calmness were spreading through her body, all the tension melting away. We sat on a big rock and talked, and for a while, my mother was close to what she used to be. She really was still there. I'd thought if I could get around the fear and the anger, I could find her. Of course, it didn't last - I didn't expect it would - but giving her even a short respite seemed worthwhile."

Insightfulness, perseverance, ability to love, capacity for heroic deeds. Where does a novelist find a protagonist to match this one?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

When Fiction Comes Up Against Reality

For the past few months, I've been doing work that would have to rank at the top of any list of interesting activities for a historical novelist. After writing two books (THE RAGTIME KID and THE RAGTIME FOOL), which featured Sanford Brunson Campbell, the "Original Ragtime Kid of the 1890s" as protagonist, I was lucky enough to obtain three big boxes of items that once belonged to the real-life Kid, who died in 1952.

Imagine my feelings, reading autobiographical manuscripts describing Brun's adventures as an itinerant ragtime pianist during the first decade of the twentieth century, and his efforts during the last decade of his life to revive ragtime music and the reputation of his hero, Scott Joplin. There were also musical compositions unknown to current ragtime enthusiasts, 78rpm recordings of Brun playing his and Joplin's music, personal effects (including his barber's razor strop), business and tax records, and extensive correspondence with prominent musicians, entertainment figures, and politicians.

Brun was known as someone who never let facts get in the way of a good story - no wonder he was such a compelling figure to an historical novelist - and so, some of his written material was contradicted by well-established information. I think what inspired Brun to tell many of his tall tales was the desire to bring Joplin the recognition Brun (rightly) thought his old piano teacher deserved. As my Brun put it in THE RAGTIME FOOL, "Well, the way I told it, that's what Mr. Joplin deserved...That's how it should've been."

Brun did tell some good stories, and told them well. He had a very engaging voice. After five years wandering through the midwest, playing bar-room piano, he decided to go home to Arkansas City, KS, to visit his high-school sweetheart. "While I had been away," Brun wrote, "the local gossips had told her all kinds of stories about me and my ragtime career, the places in which I had played and other poisonous gossip. Some of it was true..."

"I arrived dressed in a loud checkered suit; cloth-top, colored patent leather shoes with pearl buttons, a light-colored hat with a loud hatband around it, and that ever-loving loud silk shirt, together with the loud-patterned necktie, about made my ragtime dress complete. When the natives saw me in that getup, I created quite a sensation.

"I thought my girl would faint when she gave me the once-over, and my mother stood dead in her tracks when she saw my loud clothes. But I was her darling boy and my appearance was soon forgotten by her."

I was pleased and not a little surprised to see how well my fictional Brun fit with his historical profile. But now, what? Some sort of nonfiction book needs to come out of this material, probably with a CD of a ragtime pianist playing Brun's newly-discovered music, as well as transcriptions from Brun's recordings. It'll take some time, especially having to fit the work in as I write my next mystery, and probably the one after that. But it's got to be done. It tickles me that the story of the story-telling man who worked so hard on Scott Joplin's behalf now falls to another story-teller. Gonna be a challenge to sort out what's reality in Brun's accounts, and what's fiction.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Second Baseman's Wearing Nail Polish!

When my daughter Erin announced that she wanted to play Little League baseball, the registrar tried to get her to sign up for girls' softball instead. Erin turned her self-described icy glare onto the man, and snapped, "I don't want to play girl's softball. I want to play Little League, like my brother did."

I could see this wasn't going to go well, so I volunteered to coach a team which would include Erin. When it came time for the coaches to select players, two other girls, Stacy and Susan, had also signed up, and none of the other coaches would take them. "You can have all three," one of them said to me. "I don't want a bunch of kids on my team who throw like girls." The other coaches laughed. So I had three girls on my team who threw like girls.

There's all kinds of talk these days about neurological hard-wiring that may explain some of the differences between males and females. And it does seem that most boys hurl a ball from the shoulder, while the natural inclination of most girls is to flip from the elbow, a far less efficient operation.

Erin's brother, Casey, offered to help me coach the team. I wondered whether that had anything to do with the fact that Susan had a killer smile and blonde hair halfway down her back, but I wasn't inclined to be overly analytic. He and I took the three girls out on the field, and after about a half-hour of demonstrations and guided arm movements, all three girls were throwing from the shoulder, slinging fireballs across the infield.

Not that their male teammates were uniformly impressed. Dean, a chunky little sparkplug with a blond pageboy haircut, looked Erin up and down, then tugged at my arm and hollered, "Hey, the second baseman's wearing nail polish!"

"You're right," I said. "She is. So what?"

Dean made a face. "Well, don't blame me if she gets beamed."

It didn't take long, though for the team to settle in. The first time Erin slapped a single past the shortstop to drive Dean in from second base, the little guy turned at home plate and continued on to first base, where he gave his teammate a whopping high-five. And after Susan whacked a triple down the right-field line, and Stacy, our first baseman, snagged a vicious liner and stepped on the bag to double off the runner, gender suddenly became a non-issue on the Magnolia Mets.

That was 33 years ago, before Little League became the first step to the majors for the best players. The idea then was to teach the kids some fundamentals, ground them in teamwork, and most of all, make sure everyone had a good time. But I'll admit, I felt some wicked satisfaction when, at the conclusion of the 15-game season, the Mets stood in first place and the young players received their championship trophies.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

More On Endings To Novels

Writing last week about endings to novels got me thinking about John Cheever, a writer whose work I've admired for a long, long time. A prep-school dropout, Cheever earned a solid reputation as a short-story writer, but he felt neglected and slighted by critics who thought him incapable of pulling off a novel. Not so. THE WAPSHOT CHRONICLE, published in 1957, and based heavily upon the author's own New England family, won the 1958 National Book Award. It's a story both wildly funny and indescribably sad, with characters who've refused to leave my mind over the thirty-odd years since I first read the book.

Religious faith was a linchpin of Cheever's life; though not a regular churchgoer, he was a committed Episcopalian. On the other hand, I have difficulty taking anything on faith, and the only reasonable reply I can imagine to questions on the existence or the nature of God is "I don't know. I can't know." So, how is it I find the last page of THE WAPSHOT CHRONICLE so deeply satisfying that I can quote it here from memory?

"Fear tastes like a rusty knife, and do not let her into your house. Courage tastes of blood. Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord."

That's the conclusion of a note titled "Advice to my Sons," written by Captain Leander Wapshot, the protagonist of Cheever's story, and found in the family Bible by Leander's younger son, Coverly, after the old man's death. When I read that passage, I smiled, closed the book - reluctantly - and said, "Yeah." Spot-on perfect exit lines for Leander, who struggled his life long with demons very much like those that afflicted his creator. Throughout the story, the Captain grappled for meaning, describing his troubled searches through quirky entries in a diary and letters to his sons.

My hat's off to Cheever. It takes formidable storytelling skills - especially character development - to get a serious doubter to rank a story which ends with "Trust in the Lord" among his all-time favorites. I've tried to learn from Cheever. I hope I've succeeded, at least to some extent.