Saturday, December 15, 2018

One Writer's Journey: Epiphanies and Confessions

I've been watching Stranger Things and The Haunting of Hill House, not because they are horror stories or stories of otherworldly creatures and ghosts, but because they feature young teen and pre-teen protagonists. I'm not normally drawn to such stories, but, since I wrote a book called The Power Club, which features similarly young heroes, I find a lot in common with these tales. 

One aspect I admire is that these series don't soften the material or talk down to the audience. Truly horrible things happen to these kids--and sometimes they cause horrible things to happen to themselves and to each other. Friends betray each other. Family members turn their backs on each other. And some kids are downright evil.

And that's to say nothing of the otherworldly creatures and ghosts.

After watching the second episode of The Haunting of Hill House--in which the middle child, Theodora, bravely looks after her siblings as a child and other children as a psychologist (the story is told both in the present and in flashback)--I reflected on what it truly takes to be a hero, how I wanted to be a hero so badly when I was a kid, and how I fell short.

I thought of Kelly.

Kelly (not her real name) was a girl I went to school with. She was large--not heavy, just large--plain and awkward, a frequent target of teasing from other kids. She lived across the street from me, and we hung out a lot. She had a Johnny Cash album which included "Daddy Sang Bass." She had the Marvel Comics tabloid adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, which I also owned because I received it as a gift from Marvel but hated because it didn't involve super-heroes.

Kelly was the first and only girl I kissed. We were wrestling in her living room when I wound up on top of her. I bent down and gave her a smack on the cheek. I remember her exclamation of surprise. We were 12. 

Shaun (not his real name), an older boy who lived in the neighborhood, did not see the kiss. But he did see me leaving Kelly's house. He teased me mercilessly about her being my girlfriend. That was more than my fragile ego could take. I envisioned myself as a super-hero or bridge officer of the Enterprise. Such manly figures were not made fun of for having girlfriends. They were not made fun of for having Kelly as a girlfriend. I stopped hanging out with her. I ignored her at school. Bewildered, she called to ask what she had done wrong. I hung up on her. I refused to tell my mother why I was so mean to Kelly. But mean I was.

I don't know when she moved out of the neighborhood.

I encountered her once or twice as an adult. Once was in a department store. We were cordial to each other, but I don't think we even addressed each other by name. 

When I began writing The Power Club some eight years ago, I began with the precept that I wanted to write about kids as they really are, not an idealized version of kid heroes. I wanted my heroes to be real. I think I naively assumed that people are inherently good, and that kids, though they may do things that aren't so good, will eventually come to the truth. Having powers gives them an extra incentive to find their true selves. However, in writing the book and its still-in-progress sequel, I've often had a hard time finding the heroic side to some of my characters. This is because I did not behave heroically at that age.

If I possessed a super-power or a Starfleet commission, I would--my thinking went--have the power to do the right thing. 

But I did not do the right thing, not even with the "powers" I was given. I put my insecurities above Kelly's feelings. I chased after the "cool" kids, from whom I wanted acceptance, and ignored someone who liked me for who I was and who wanted to hang out with me. I knew Kelly better than other girls. She was a real person, not an imitation of a super-heroine or Hollywood actress. She was not standoffish or mean, like other girls at school could be. She deserved better.

Having an innate power or ability does not make one heroic. Heroism is a choice to do the right thing even when it is unpopular to do so.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Requiem for a "Miracles" Man

And through an open window where no curtain hung
I saw you
I saw you
Comin' back to me
--"Comin' Back to Me," Jefferson Airplane (written by Marty Balin)

Marty Balin died on September 27. Balin was co-founder and singer of Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship--for the latter, he wrote and sang lead on their biggest hit, "Miracles" (1975). For the next few years, he crooned on other hits, such as "With Your Love" (1976) and "Count on Me" and "Runaway" (both 1978) before leaving the band. On his own, he scored two hits, "Hearts" and "Atlanta Lady" (both 1981).

By the time I became a fan of Jefferson Starship in 1979, Balin was gone and so was the romantic pop direction he had guided so successfully. I discovered the band after it had transitioned into a hard rock unit with the soaring high tenor of Mickey Thomas at the helm. But I explored Balin's contributions through the band's radio hits and albums. Balin, whose name sounded so much like "ballad," the kind of music he was most noted for, had an unmistakable voice that combined passion and earnestness. He could make even the most treacly love songs sound genuine. Balin also reminded me of a friend I had, who possessed the same earthy, dark appearance, the same suave demeanor, and who, by 1979, had also moved on.

I woke this morning to an earworm of "Count on Me" playing over and over in my head. This song, more than even "Miracles," expresses to me the sentiments of the Balin era of the band. Even before I knew anything about Jefferson Starship, I had heard "Count on Me" on the radio. Its plaintive promise of a love that cannot be abandoned warmed my soul, inspiring my own images of what love would look and feel like. I was 14--prime time for developing such images and yearnings, though also at that age when such notions are best kept to oneself.

I nearly had a chance to interview Balin once. In the late '90s, I wrote bios and reviews for a fan site with the unpretentious title, "A Jefferson Starship/Airplane Site." Through that site and a JA/JS newsgroup, I interacted with Jeff Tamarkin, a well-known music journalist who was writing a book on the band. We exchanged information on the group, and he offered to put me in touch with Marty Balin's father, then 82, who could put me in touch with Marty. However, there comes a point where you get a little too close to your dreams, your ambitions, your fantasies. Getting too close to a star is like touching a lit sparkler on the Fourth of July. Some things are better admired from a distance. I never followed through on the offer.

I do not see that as a missed opportunity. I got to hear and read Balin's story through numerous interviews and books, and I got to experience that incredible voice through numerous songs. Checking up on his story--and the band's story--over the years helped ground me as my life changed course in ways I couldn't have imagined at 14. The JA/JS and its various members were like old friends I'd check up on now and then, friends who reminded me of something of core importance: a sense of family in all of its messy configurations.

This sense of family was both invented and real. Rock bands in general create a sense of belonging for disaffected teens and young people who feel at odds with their own families and communities. Rock bands say, "Come and join us. You can be who you are or whatever you want to be. You can succeed in your wildest dreams, and we will be there to help and support you." For many bands, this is nothing more than an illusion--a projection of teenage wish fulfillment. But for a select few bands, there is something real under-girding this illusion. The Beatles had that "something"--call it honesty or integrity: a willingness to expose their less attractive sides and choices. A willingness to say, "This is who we are and what we choose to do (even break up), even if our fans don't like it."

Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship had that "something," too, and I felt it mirrored my own relationships: feelings of not being understood or appreciated for who I was, having to conform to expectations that did not suit me, wanting to chuck it all and leave--to start over with new people and relationships. I imagine Marty, during his various comings and goings, felt all of that at one time or another.

Yet Marty returned to the band time and time again. From 1993 until well into the 2000s, he sang with a new configuration, dubbed Jefferson Starship--The Next Generation. The only time I got to see him perform live was during a JS--TNG show in 2000. Fittingly and with great appreciation from me, he sang "Count on Me."

The stage was almost vacant except for him and keyboard player Chris Smith. I can't recall if other band members played on the song, but I remember that Paul Kantner did not. Kantner, who had co-founded the band with Marty in 1965, was the only other member from their hit-making days present in the millennium configuration. I wasn't sure what to make of his absence during Marty's solo. (Marty joked that Paul must be taking a leak.) In my fantasy interpretation, he should have supported Marty as he did in the videos. But perhaps Marty wanted it that way. It was his solo.

Families are messy and incomplete. They overflow with resentment as much as love. And what is love? Balin and JA/JS often sang about love as if its nature were beyond question: a force that made our lives better. Love, in Balin's world, was sexual ("Miracles") but also full of world-weary hope ("Comin' Back to Me," 1967). Even broken hearts cannot truly dispel love ("Hearts").

Or families.

Art credit:

Saturday, July 21, 2018

A Poem for Air Conditioning

I luxuriate 

in the frigid morning

under warm covers and 

blissful remnants of fading dreams.

No future

No past

Just this glorious moment:

The simple love I felt 

As a child


A mother's care

A father's safety

A brother's company:

"I am a flower blooming in the desert--a ray of light in the wasteland."

The sheet rubs against my shins, confining

yet setting me free;

There is nothing else.


A memory of absent paradise:

In summer, my family slept downstairs.

We could afford only one air conditioner. It perched 

in the window of our living room, 

transfiguring downstairs into heaven

while the bedrooms above baked and suffocated.

Mother and father took the couches

Under cathedral windows

While we dragged our tiny, plastic

mattresses from upstairs and sprawled out

under the soft rumble 

that emerged from round vents, 

like engines of a starship

conveying us to a new world.

I had no fear of the dark.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

THE POWER CLUB Nominated for Award!

I'm pleased to announce that my book, THE POWER CLUB, has been nominated for the 2018 Readers Choice Awards contest by TCK Publishing!

Please vote for it under the YA and Middle Grade Book Category at
TCK Publishing 2018 Readers Choice Awards

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Power Club Book Signing on Feb. 3

Parkville Coffee is an intimate coffee shop located in Parkville, MO. I've hung out there with friends many times, and even wrote a few chapters of THE POWER CLUB in the upstairs nook. Parkville Coffee has graciously agreed to host a dual author signing with myself and Miranda Nichols, who just published her debut novel, Blood Awakening. This is your chance to meet two local authors and get signed copies of our books!

As an added incentive for coming out, there will be a chance to win a free e-reader. Scrumptious treats will be served.

The Dual Author Signing begins at 1 p.m. on Saturday, February 3. The address is 103 Main Street, Parkville, MO.

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Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...