Monthly Archives: October 2018

A Year of Memoirs

I’ve been reading memoirs for year or so with the idea that, sufficiently informed, I’ll be able to write one of my own.

Why write a memoir? What makes me think that my story is that interesting? The first thing that comes to mind is the tagline to “Naked City,” a police drama from the late 1950s and early ‘60s that went: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This is one of them.”

As a journalist, I discovered that’s pretty accurate. Get to know someone well enough, and inevitably there’s a good story. I met and wrote about a lot of famous people, but I also met and wrote about a lot of people who were not famous, but who had or did one thing that distinguished them and made them interesting.

I think of the guy who owned the biggest tow truck on Oahu. I interviewed the mothers of Hunter S. Thompson and James Taylor. I met a British guy who twice rowed across the Pacific, crashing once on Maui and then on the Great Barrier Reef. I met the co-author of a book called “The Secret Life of Plants” that inspired a Stevie Wonder album.

I interviewed the chief scientist at IBM, a poet teaching school on Molokai, a photographer who did books of aerial photographs. I met puppeteers in Kentucky, a horse whisperer in South Carolina, and a high school kid in Connecticut who gave a bootleg graduation speech and got a blank diploma. That last story won a national award.

Challenging and Risky

My own story isn’t just all the famous and interesting people, although they have obvious appeal. What I’ve realized is that for a guy who considers himself risk-averse, I’ve had far more than my share of challenging and even risky experiences.

That includes two life-threatening experiences, neither of which were among the three shootings I witnessed. It doesn’t include flying in an F-4F jet fighter — that was the ride of a lifetime, but never life-threatening — but it does include kayaking the Na Pali coast of Kauai, and being pushed helplessly toward the rocky coastline while the other person in the kayak worried about getting her nails wet.

My year of reading memoirs began when a friend loaned me Stephen King’s “On Writing,” which is a memoir and King’s take on writing. Being averse to terror and horror stories, I’ve avoided King’s books and the films they spawned. But I’d seen references to “On Writing” and I’m glad I took the chance.

I found King to be likable, open and honest, and his lack of pretense encouraging. The biggest problem I have with the idea of writing about myself is that I keep thinking I’ve got to get better somehow, that I don’t measure up yet. It’s my mother saying, “Stand up, you’re slouching.”

King was encouraging in that regard, even admitting that when starting a project, often all he can do is lie on the picnic table in his back yard until the words start coming. I’d buy him a beer on the strength of that alone.

Conroy, Gaiman, McCourt

I’m no fan of Pat Conroy’s fiction, but in “My Reading Life” and the posthumous “A Low Country Heart,” he is at his open-hearted best, celebrating the justifiable joy he feels at making it as a writer. He also lavishes praise on every other writer he ever knew or read, whether he met them or not. No one was more generous than Conroy.

Neil Gaiman’s “The View from the Cheap Seats” was a surprise. I tried reading one of his fantasies and one of his graphic novels, but couldn’t stay with them. “View,” on the other hand, is a wonderful omnibus of journalistic pieces, reviews, speeches, and reminiscences that reveal his versatility and off-hand artistry. I was particularly impressed that he could be so honest and vulnerable, considering his British upbringing. Gaiman has no trouble being Gaiman, although given his brilliance who could blame him?

I’d seen Frank McCourt’s name over the years, but knew nothing about him. Then I happened upon a used copy of “Tis,” and now I get it. He’s an amazing writer with a touching, soulful style that makes non-fiction read like the best fiction.

It also reminds me of a joke I heard years ago from a visiting Irishman: “God created alcohol to keep the Irish from ruling the world.” That’s not to say that McCourt’s an alcoholic — although he admits to loving a drop — but rather to endorse that wonderful Irish personality.

Alda, Katz, Forsyth

I read Alan Alda’s “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed” primarily because I do some acting and I thought I might pick up a tip or two. I did, and it works equally well in life: listen carefully to the other actor and respond, not because it’s time for your line, but because you’ve connected at a deep level. Then the next line comes naturally.

Also, I loved Alda’s description of the M*A*S*H cast as a close-knit family.

Jon Katz’s “Running to the Mountain” was helpful in seeing how a former CBS producer clung fiercely to his dreams of being a writer and succeeded, against all odds and his own self-doubt. I wearied of his devotion to Thomas Merton, but honor his love of nature and dogs.

Finally, Frederick Forsyth’s “The Outsider” was a fast and engaging read, and especially meaningful since he spent so much time as a journalist. Forsyth was a prodigy with amazingly supportive parents and earned his Royal Air Force wings before he was 19. He wrote “The Day of the Jackal” in thirty-five days at 40 when he was flat broke. And then, to please a publisher, he came up with the ideas for “The Odessa File” and “The Dogs of War” in four days. Hollywood ought to turn “The Outsider” into a movie.

I also read — very belatedly — Peter Mayle’s Provence memoirs and Frances Mayes’ Tuscan ruminations, and all of Anne Lamott’s non-fiction.

At this point, I’m running out of memoirs to read … and reasons for not writing.

Throwing Strikes

Photo by

I was watching the Atlanta Braves’ playoff game Sunday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers with a lady friend, and, as usual, Braves’ pitcher A.J. Minter was wild.

His pitches were landing everywhere but in the strike zone, an affliction that has bedeviled him and other Braves pitchers all season. I was trying to explain why it was so frustrating, how it’s been going on all year, how these guys are professionals and ought to be doing their job better.

My friend’s response was that it’s easy for someone on the sidelines to be critical, and that Minter was doing the best he could.

She was right, of course, but for sports fans there is a certain tolerance for booing and criticism as well as for cheering and praise.

To be a fan, generally speaking, is to commit oneself to hope and expectation — after all, “fan” is short for fanatic — and over the past several years the Braves have been disappointing.

This year, however, they have been far better than expected. That they are even in the playoffs is a miracle. But being a fan, I’m greedy for more. I want it to continue, I want the players to be at their best, right through to the storybook ending and winning the World Series.

I also know that’s unrealistic. It would be a glorious ending to a terrific season — walk-off home runs, amazing defensive plays, a brilliant supporting cast and team celebrations so riotous and exuberant you couldn’t help but feel part of it.

So it was gratifying to see quick shots on TV of fellow fans in varying degrees of anguish as the Braves eked out a victory. This was my tribe — or one of them, anyway — and I was surprised at how much better I felt at seeing others experiencing the same emotions I was feeling.

That’s the fun of being a fan.

A Legacy of Pessimism

But my friend’s response reminded me that my critique of Minter was self-referential, and the better response would be, “How are you doing?”

As a fan — “you,” in this case — I’m twisting and tortured by doubt. I’m thinking, “It’s not going to work. I know the Braves are going to let me down.”

That doubt, that pessimism, that expectation of disappointment, didn’t just show up overnight. It’s a lifetime habit. I’ve felt it everywhere I’ve lived — Michigan, Rhode Island (twice), Connecticut (twice), Kentucky, Tennessee, Hawaii, Georgia.

It’s a legacy, an heirloom passed down through the family like grandmother’s dishes, black-and-white photographs and scarcity thinking. Pessimism was embedded in the consciousness of my parents and grandparents from their own experiences and by the Great Depression.

If my family had a coat of arms, the legend would read: “Waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Discomfort and Hope

So, if the Braves falter and fall, that’s the narrative I grew up with. And it would be true regardless of what I was observing, whether an athletic event, a public speaker, a surgeon in the operating room, a lawyer in court … all judgment is a reflection of the one who judges.

This is where it gets uncomfortable … and hopeful. The emphasis in “How are you doing?” shifts to the verb, and wisdom arises from a pair of aphorisms.

“When I point my finger at someone else, three other fingers are pointing back at me.” And, “If I’m not the solution, there is no problem.”

As a fan, I have no control over my team. There’s nothing I can do to help Minter or Newcomb or Toussaint or Gausman throw strikes. I can’t help Camargo hit even a foul ball, for crying out loud.

I am a victim of my expectations. A willing victim, to be sure, but a victim nonetheless.

The Action Figure

But in terms of “doing” I am also the action figure. And in that sense, pointing at Minter is an invitation to look at my own job performance.

And — hello! — I’m not doing that well.

I’ve got a manuscript to send to a writer who has generously offered to read it. I’ve yet to start the final chapter of that book. I’ve got two other projects awaiting my attention, and a request from an editor looking for stories.

I’m not throwing strikes, either. Move over, Minter, you’ve got company.

I’m not trying to take the fun out of spectating; too much navel-gazing will make anyone dull and uninteresting. But taking care of my own business can do a lot about the way I feel about myself and the Braves. Then I can watch without complaining, and appreciate what a great year it’s been.