Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Guilty pleasures

1. Amazon.com. While I was shopping online for some stuff for my daughter, I came across a DVD of old black-and-white mystery movies. Four movies on one disc. It was about the price of a rental. I added it to my cart.

2. Old black-and-white movies. So last weekend my wife and I popped the DVD of old mysteries into the machine. We had seen (and liked) "The Kennel Murder Case," with William Powell as private-eye Philo Vance, before, so we skipped right to something called "Eyes in the Night." It starred Edward Arnold as wealthy private investigator Duncan "Mac" Maclain, whom I'd never heard of. Well, not only was it a pretty good little flick, but Mac happens to be blind. Now, before the PC police get on me, the disc did not have Closed Captioning or Descriptive Video. Nevertheless, I thought the depiction of disability was pretty cool. He doesn't have superhuman hearing or smell, but he is constantly under-rated, especially by the bad guys. He does things like turn off the lights to disorient the bad guys. Naturally, the darkness has no effect on him, so he can knock them all out. Which is improbable, to be sure, particularly because Edward Arnold was pretty pudgy. But as I say, he's not superhuman. At one point he's rescued by his well-trained guide dog. (I wonder if all the movies on this disc involve dogs. I'll lecha know. )

3. Old TV shows. The blind detective led me to think about "Ironside," the old wheelchair-using detective series I loved as a child. And not just because Raymond Burr was even pudgier than Edward Arnold! I discovered the first three seasons are on hulu.com … and I've been addicted to them. I realize it's totally unrealistic--the dude ends up in all kinds of places, including, say, the second floor of a two-story house, with no explanation as to how he got there. In fact, he never calls ahead to check on access, which was even more of a necessity in those days than now. And the things he's able to do with his upper body and arms make me wonder why he's not using crutches instead. But there is a ramp in his apartment/office. And he does have a lift-equipped van (a lift-equipped truck, actually, in the first two seasons). By the end of the series, a decade or more later, I think he was driving the van himself, though I don't recall any hand controls shown… Again, not the best depiction of disabilities, but I can't help loving it. Something about seeing this guy in a wheelchair living a more-or-less normal life--bossing everyone around, no less!--feels good. Or maybe it's just nostalgia.

If you have favorite disability portrayals, or other guilty pleasures you care to share, please send them to me at bmattlin@post.harvard.edu

Thursday, March 24, 2011

And the verdict is in…

To follow up on my previous post, Amanda Hocking, the self-published novelist who was seeking a traditional publisher, just signed with St. Martin's Press for--$2 million.

For her, it's not just about the money. (Yeah, sure.) She was tired of the demands placed upon those who self-published and self-promote.

"I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc.," she's quoted as saying, in the New York Times. "Right now, being me is a full-time corporation."

Which has always been my complaint about blogging. To do it right, it's a full-time job.

Curiously, public radio's Marketplace program just did a piece about another successful self-publishing venture. This time the author seems to have launched his own publishing company to get his book out there!

His point, to summarize: self-publishing is no longer a last resort for writers. It is increasingly the first resort.

By the way, keep your fingers crossed. I'm juggling (well, agitating for) two new NPR commentaries. And my book proposal is in submission at two new houses!


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Recent Observations & Random Thoughts about Book Publishing

The current issue of the New Yorker magazine has a funny cartoon I can relate to: a child looks up from her computer at her puzzled father and explains, "I'm not wasting my life online--I'm building my brand."  (March 28, 2011, p. 96.)

For many of us, that's what it seems to have come to. Or is supposed to come to. We're supposed to go online to build our brand identity, our public persona, our following, our platform.

If that seems utterly ridiculous, that's because it probably is. But then again, just the other day came a story about a young woman who has self-published a number of sci-fi novels with such great success--entirely through online branding and promotion--that she's on the brink of signing a contract with a traditional publisher for, at minimum, $1 million.

Is it any wonder folks like me are scratching our heads? And I shampooed just this morning! (OK, I don't really scratch my own head, but don't be such a stickler!) What does it take to get a new author out there?

No one says it should be easy. After all, nobody invited us to the party. We came on our own. And as everybody knows, books are a dying art anyway.

Some of us are hooked on the idea nevertheless.

Not that we are all voracious readers. In fact, I've always felt that I'm a particularly hard-to-please reader. I'm not one to consume books in big hungry gulps. I read slowly, thoughtfully, carefully. I easily get bored. I don't mean I need to read thrillers, because they can be pretty boring too, if they're not well written.

For me, I guess it has something to do with the language and the thoughts and feelings behind it. Hard to say exactly.

But this impatience or persnicketiness makes me want to write the kind of book I would want to read and haven't found yet. So I decided to create it myself.

As one writing pal recently observed, though, the writer's life is often lived within one's own head. And if you want to be read, you basically want others to live within your head too.

So I guess it takes a lot of gall or self-confidence or something to assume anybody else would want to live in your head.

Or to put it another way, you don't have to be crazy about books to want to be a writer.  You just have to be crazy.

New Yorker 3-28-11, p. 96


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Anti-Smoking's Monsters

Here's a column that never got printed or aired –

A recent Public Service Announcement on TV features a girl of about 12 lighting up a cigarette and then morphing into a wheezing, raspy-voiced woman with a hole in her throat.

Disturbing, yes. But for me, the real problem is the woman at the end looks and sounds an awful lot like me. And I've never smoked.

I'm a lifelong wheelchair user because of an inborn neuromuscular weakness called spinal muscular atrophy. Which, among other things, makes me especially susceptible to breathing difficulties.

The ad I'm referring to comes from California's anti-smoking effort, but similar ones appear elsewhere. No doubt their messages are clear and effective. And nobody is a stronger supporter of the cause than I am. But when I see them, I can't help feeling these images are a public DISservice to people like me because they exploit people's fear of disabilities.

I'm sure those involved mean no harm. They simply want to get their stories out there. The actress with the tracheotomy hole, Debi Austin, for example, says she likes to scare people about smoking. She's made a kind of career of it. But why choose this particular method for imparting this important message? Why not X-rays of cigarette-blackened lungs, say, or gravestones? Instead, these commercials paint severe physical disability as your worst nightmare. A fate worse than death itself.

It's not just the lung-cancer brigade that does it. An anti-drunk-driving ad several years ago showed a young man in a wheelchair as a similarly frightening symbol of the dire consequences of carelessness, stupidity, or hubris. Like Dorian Gray's portrait, these images reflect remorse, or punishment – horror stories even more real than the witches and goblins of old fairy tales, which were created to teach children not to talk to strangers or venture into shadowy places without adult supervision.

Yes, people with physical deformities have been exploited as cautionary totems for a long time. But aren't we supposed to be more enlightened and inclusive nowadays?

Don't get me wrong. I don't want to ban cautionary PSAs. Cigarettes are especially bad for those of us with breathing difficulties, who can suffer terribly just from being in the same room as a smoker. But that doesn't justify frightening kids away from people who look and/or function differently, just to educate them about very real dangers.

My two daughters learned Cigarettes Are Bad before they learned to ride a bike! There ARE ways. The old "this is your brain on drugs" ad taught a similar lesson without depicting drug users as grotesque creatures to shun and avoid.

So I'm hopeful. When I was a kid, in the 1960s and 70s, you didn't see mixed-race families on TV. Things can and do improve. Perhaps when my kids are my age, we'll recognize that real people – with warts and all – shouldn't induce fear. In fact, sometimes the most dangerous threats are the ones that aren't unattractive.

Hey! There's a message I could support! That would be a real Public Service.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

Like Seinfeld, It's Really About Nothing…

I have learned something surprising (to me at least) about teenage girls.

They talk about breasts--and breast SIZES--even more than young teenage boys!

Who's got big ones.  Who's got small ones.  Who thinks she does but doesn't.  And so forth.

Which I had thought was impossible. Really. I mean, teenage BOYS talk and think and giggle and dream about--well, you know. Am I right, dudes?

But girls do too?  Yup.  Girls do, too.  Even more so.

Plus, young women even use what I used to think of as slang-ish terms not suitable for so-called "mixed company"--primarily "boobs"!

Is it a sign of the times? Or was it ever so?

Of course, I never had sisters. Now I have two daughters. Teenage daughters. So I'm coming to understand many, many, MANY things I never did before.

I relate all this not only to improve my Google scores (and apologies for disappointing you porn-seekers), nor to demonstrate that I am now--in my advanced state of maturity--actually able to say the word "breasts" with a straight face, more or less.

I say all this as an example of Things I've Been Learning About. The advantages of the passage of years … the knowledge--dare I say wisdom?--that comes with age.

Speaking of the passage of time, I've been off-line for several weeks. I've had deadlines, then got behind. So I became a complete working stiff. Doing nothing all day every day including weekends but work on the work.

When this happens, I become like a bricklayer. A factory. Absolutely no solitaire. No crosswords. No Facebook. Hardly read the newspaper online.

But now, that is past. At least for the moment. Deadlines are met. I have others, but they seem doable so far. I'm back among the living.

Yet I find that's not as automatic an adjustment as one might suppose. It requires a somewhat conscious effort. Call it decompression. You know:
  • Reading and answering old e-mail.
  • Remembering to do the things I like, the pleasant distractions. Such as reading books & the paper.
  • Reacquainting myself with my literary side.  
  • Getting back to my book-in-progress.
  • Coming up with new ideas for articles and essays.
  • And of course, catching up with my online pals.
Which reminds me: I received an e-mail from someone who recently posted a blog about how to interview counselors and psychotherapists. An interesting idea. There IS a glut of social workers and licensed counselors and such, after all, at least in my neighborhood. So one can and should be choosy. Why not interview a therapist as you would a gardner or housekeeper, to decide if he or she is the right one for you?

Not sure why the blogger contacted me or felt there was an overlap in our interests or audience. Maybe I was just on a list. But, hey, the Web is for networking, right? For building community. For overthrowing tyrants. Whatever.

So here's the XXXX [link removed by request, two years later.  Strange world.]

More publishing news soon, I hope. Meanwhile, happy Mardi Gras!