A Year as a Penniless Writer

April 6, 2016

Last week my former colleagues were posting about the start of spring quarter and I have to admit that I got a sharp pang in my heart. It’s been officially a year since I left Portland State to focus on my writing and my family and not focus on endless battles with empowered psychopaths. There is nothing like the rush of the the first week of classes when everyone is sizing each other up. I would always front load my classes with bombast so students wouldn’t drop them for Badminton 101. They always seemed so restless after Spring Break.

A year ago we were furiously manning our Kickstarter campaign for my new book and I was here writing a blog about normative maleness and my daughter. We set a goal of $10,000 and raised over $11,000. The book is written and is with a copy-editor who will tell me I need to move some prepositions around and lay off the over-use of commas. I’m really proud of it. The Dream Police will make some waves when it is released. I like to tell people that it is about the sex lives of university administrators, but it’s about so much more. It is a twisted tale rooted in a twisted reality. Andrea had the idea of shooting some short promotional films for it, so I’m am currently looking for my cast. The book should be on people’s nightstands at the beginning of summer.

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In this year I’ve written over fifty pieces for this blog, some which have been published elsewhere, including in CounterPunch and The Gay & Lesbian Review. I’ve had a short story about Elvis published in an amazing collection and I’m working on a new piece about ant-like aliens that are using a guy’s butthole as a portal to take over the earth. (Hey, it’s my poetic license and I’m gonna use it. It’s a morality tale, okay?) The Mission of the Sacred Heart is still working its way through the Hollywood process and I’ve taken on the role as co-writer of the screenplay to help move it through “development hell.” I just keep writing and writing, waiting for something to land that will allow me to re-start Cozy’s college fund.

I certainly miss my regular paycheck and the benefits that came with it almost as much as I miss teaching and having a job that had such a direct impact on the community. The life of a writer is solitary and can be very lonely. Much of the time is spent inside my head. “What the hell should I do with this character? Maybe tie him to a weather balloon and set him free.” Sometimes I ask Cozy, but she just asks for a cracker or wants me to hand over my laptop because she knows Elmo lives somewhere inside it.

It’s a shock to the system to not have a captive audience three days a week, one that actually writes down what I say. Interviews on TV are not exactly the same. I can only hope that when an interview with me is on the 11 o’clock news, if people aren’t taking notes they are at least having sex. Make use of the time I have given you. But I’ve got a class at the University of Oregon coming up later this month, so I will encourage them to take notes (and not have sex) for my sake.

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I guess this is just a little diary to mark the moment. I can’t help but think of Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge (2001) as the penniless writer. In the great bohemian tradition the tale has a tragic ending, but the writer survives to turn the tragedy into a great story for future generations to gleam some insight from about love, life, and how to live it. That’s sort of what I’m doing. There’s plenty of joy in this house, with a long dreamed of wife who is as talented as she is beautiful and our perfectly perky baby, but there is also the long anguish of the unknown. Will all this writing pay off? Will the advance money last? Will Dad have to give his last Ritz Cracker to his crying child? Will the man be able to stop the alien ants from coming out of his butthole? Stay tuned and let’s find out together.

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My Little New York Patti Smith Dream

January 9, 2016

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I’m sitting in a bar on West 72nd Street in Manhattan. This is John Lennon’s block. John Lennon, the househusband and patron saint of this blog. I often come here on trips to New York, a solemn pilgrimage to consecrated pavement, blessed by his blood, thinking I will see him and his death will all have been a bad dream, conjured up by Rosemary’s devil-eyed baby. I walked the block, past the Dakota and thought about how many times he did the same. I’m sure it’s changed a bit since 1980. The Starbucks and the tour busses (“And to your left you’ll see the spot where Beatle John Lennon was murdered.”) weren’t there during the last days of the Carter years. And when it happened we thought our love affair with guns was finally done. On this Saturday the Dakota is draped in sheets and scaffolding. At first I thought it was a Yoko Ono performance piece as she still lives in the Victorian castle overlooking Central Park. Turns out the old house is just being cleaned.

But most of this short trip has been spent in Greenwich Village (although I did hike up to the East Village this morning for some perfect pirogues at Veselka Café that happily took their time melting on my tongue). As long as John has been in my life, Patti Smith has been there almost as long. At least since I read about her in rock magazines in my teenage bedroom in 1976 Stone Mountain, Georgia; the wild woman, chanting, “Go Rimbaud!”

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The dirty, nasty world of CBGB’s on the Bowery is where I wanted to be, not in my Ted Nugent-loving southern suburbia, draped in pink and blue Laura Ashley curtains. At age 14, I got the Easter album after hearing “Because the Night” on the radio and tried to dissect the poetry imbedded in what was then considered “punk rock.” High on rebellion. Words can carry you. Maybe I can do that, my pimply brain thought. Maybe I can write a line that will take on a life of its own.

After my piano-playing mother, Patti was my first exposure to the energy of the goddess artist. There was a raw feminist power to her, unrestrained by gendered expectations. Her hairy armpits were mocked on Saturday Night Live when Gilda Radner did her “Candy Slice” character. It was all wild abandon to boy trapped in the suffocating Bible Belt. I’d sit in front of my stereo speakers like Hendrix kneeling in front of his burning guitar. Give me more, I’d beg.

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The first time I saw her play live, I was in a state of ecstasy. It was at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland in 2001 and when she played “Gloria,” I ripped my shirt off thinking I was being ushered into a Roman orgy. There’s track from that show on her 2002 Land album. She’s reading from Ginsberg’s Howl and you can hear me screaming like a banshee. The only drug I was on was transcendence. And now my artist wife is deep under her spell. Our own Frida Kahlo with a rock band and a return to Portland on Andrea’s birthday.

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After seeing her last Wednesday night with Andrea, performing 1975’s Horses front to back (including the prose-rhapsody of  “Birdland.” Oh, how long I’ve waited for you!), I decided to take her new book, M Train, with me to New York, where I would be interviewing at a wonderful university. It’s a brilliant free floating tome about travels and not being able to write this particular book. It’s like her version of a Seinfeld episode. By the time I landed, I had the first hundred pages dancing barefoot in my head.

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As it turns out, the book unfolds around the world but mostly in Greenwich Village, near where I was staying in Chinatown. Much of it begins at Café ‘Ino on 21 Bedford Street, just past 6th Avenue. I must go there, I thought on the plane, and have black coffee and toast at her table! Of course, in rapidly transforming New York City, Café ‘Ino is gone gone. It closed in 2013 and now is a lovely Italian bistro called Cotenna, where I had a sumptuous penne al fungi and a glass of red wine and imagined her sitting by the window, scribbling in her notebook.

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The other Patti spot is Caffé Dante, around the corner on MacDougal. They didn’t open until noon and it was 11 am on Friday, so I walked up the block to Caffe Reggio, an old favorite of mine. I was traveling light, just my laptop bag with the Mac, M Train, a few pens, the latest issue of Beatlefan and the new Village Voice with a caricature of Donald Trump as a fascist demagogue on the cover.

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I found a seat surrounded by fellow literary travelers all enclosed in the café’s red womb-like walls, waiting to birth some brilliant thought or first line. A young guy next to me was reading Kerouac, an older fellow (who I’m sure I’ve seen there before) was reading Lacan: A True Genius and kept putting the book down with a “Holy psychoanalysis!” look on his face. I had my copy of M Train and a cappuccino, keeping one eye out the window in case Ms. Smith walked by. But my singular mission was to spend some time in her world through the pages of her book.

As my year of writing winds down it’s time to put myself back on the market. Parenthood demands a stable income, but my mind is still floating in the ether. A winning Powerball ticket bought on St. Marks aside, I’d really like Cozette to know her father as more than the guy sitting on the couch writing while drinking endless cups of coffee. So on MacDougal I developed a fantasy about running into Patti before my interview with the provost. I’d grab a seat next her at Caffé Dante and mention our prior meeting at Powell’s Books in Portland when I showed her my Cobain homage in my book of poetry to her Dylan homage in her book of poetry.

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“So what are you doing here in New York?” She’d ask.

“Hoping to land a job. I was a criminologist at a university in Portland for twenty years…”

Her attention would zip up a few notches. As it turns out, Patti is obsessed with crime shows on TV.  I remember when I first heard her mention this, at a concert at the Crystal Ballroom, I thought, What? Patti Smith watches TV??? I thought she only read poems by doomed bohemians. I watch TV! I wonder what else we have in common. Does she buy wine based on what the label looks like? Because I totally do that!

I’d continue with the story of how I was forced into a position to choose between love or my job and I chose love without hesitation, resigning my tenured post to become a stay-at-home-dad.

“That’s horrible,” she’d say. “I’ve heard professors can be targets like that.”

“It turned out for the best. I’ve had time to write and be with my daughter. But I’m ready to go back to work. I’ve got a meeting with a university here at 2 o’clock. Do you think you could give me a special blessing? It would mean a lot to me and my family.”

“Well, I’m not Pope Francis,” she’d say, “but okay.”  Then she’d make the mark of the cross on my forehead like she had holy water on her fingers instead of coffee and I’d be Joan of Arc, ready for battle. And that’s how our long friendship would begin.

A friend on Facebook reminded me that Patti was performing in Los Angeles the next night so I wasn’t likely to see her strolling down MacDougal, eating a falafel from Mamoun’s. Still, I felt her there, standing on the corner of 6th Avenue and Houston, sending me on my way as I mis-sang the lyrics to “Kimberly.” Give me your starry eyes, baby.

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I don’t want to mention the name of the university for fear of jinxing my chances (or the greater fear that evil conspirators in Portland will catch wind and work their black magic on it), but the interview went really well and the university administrator, as providence would have it, was a Patti Smith fan. On top of that, the AirBNB where I stayed in Chinatown had an autographed copy of Horses outside my room. All the stars of the northeastern cross were aligned.

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After the interview and lunch where Café ‘Ino once was, I went to Caffé Dante for coffee and a dessert that I felt I’d earned. I needed some writing time and got a few scenes for the new book down, including one deep discussion between the two main characters about farting in airport men’s rooms. (I’m not pretending to be Fredrico Garcia Lorca here.) I tried my rusty Italian on the waiter and he told me in slightly less rusty English how expensive this city had become but that there are still small places for artists.

New York seems warm for early January. Yesterday people tossed their Christmas Trees on to the sidewalks to be sent God knows where, but Christmas decorations still hang above Columbus Avenue and in Little Italy, near “my” flat. This morning at Veselka a group of young Russian immigrants came in and sang Christmas carols. The Russian Orthodox calendar must be different than ours, I half remembered. Maybe this would be a magical place to raise a child, I thought. The carolers wore wonderful costumes including a Grim Reaper. Joyousness!

My fantasy of New York has always been the dirty boulevard of Lou Reed songs. Trash and Vaudeville. But now as the parent I have to reimagine that fantasy. It’s horribly expensive and the school situation seems impossible, people tell me. And what if I lost Cozy on the A Train or in the Museum of Modern Art? (Although there are worse fates for a child.) But then again, she could grow up in the absolute center of the world and sit in cafés on Saturdays in the Village, maybe bumping into Patti Smith. Or John Lennon.

Addendum: I finished M Train on the flight from Newark to Seattle. I was laughing and then crying and then I just wanted to write. Read this book, but be sure to find a good café in which to do it.

Afterword: Well, the job ended up going to some kid fresh out of Harvard. I guess I could have used the blessing from Mother Patti after all.

 

Message in a Bottle: Watching the Wheels Turns One!

November 24, 2015

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This blog turns a year old today. It is officially a toddler. It’s definitely developed an attitude and occasionally runs away from me, leaving a trail of destruction. Since I started this little experiment, articles have been accessed over 280,000 times from nearly every country on earth. (I don’t know what’s the problem with Chad and Turkmenistan.) It’s been an opportunity to talk about things as micro as gender socialization of our daughter and as macro as immigration and refugee issues. I’ve tried to keep the theme of feminism in the forefront as it’s the paradigm that best helps me make sense of the world.

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A year ago Andrea was starting her job at Planned Parenthood, I was on parental leave from Portland State and Cozy was just a cooing infant. That first blog post was about channeling John Lennon to embrace being a stay-at-home dad. Now Andrea is working at an amazing law firm in downtown Portland, I’m on permanent leave from PSU and Cozy is throwing all sorts of shade about not eating her chicken dinner. In that year we’ve taken Cozy to Canada, Mexico, Los Angeles, and Atlanta.

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For the last year I have been writing like my life depended on it. We fully funded The Dream Police book and I’m wrapping up the seventh of nine chapters. My short story, “Elvis is My Rider,” was published in a great collection called A Matter of Words, and I try to get at least one blog post out a week, linking the big bad world to the tiny act of raising a baby girl.

Writing almost makes up for not teaching. It’s an inward act instead of an outward one, but it’s still about connecting the dots so you can connect people to each other.  The writer who is turning my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart, into a screenplay, Elizabeth Carlton Chase, suggested that I try my own hand at screenwriting and that I enter the Short Screenplay Challenge that she won in 2006. I thought, “More writing! Let’s go!” The challenge is a series of five page screenplays. They give you the genre, the setting and a prop. Oh, and 48 hours to finish.

I didn’t even know where to start. I had to Google what a page of screenplay looked like. My first round assignment was a drama on a toxic river with a doll. I wrote a little play called “Letting Go,” about a couple in southern Georgia who live downstream from a paper mill and lose their daughter to leukemia. It was an exhilarating experience. If it wins its heat, I go on to the next round in December. Winning it all gets your foot in the door in a big way.

All this writing keeps me grounded but it’s also a lifeline out of this mess. Like messages in bottles, I throw each page out into the world and hope something reaches somebody who says, “This is really good. Let’s give this guy some money so he can write more.” Like a musician sending dozens of demos out into the universe in hopes one lands in the ears of a major label A&R person having a good day, I write my lottery tickets. Then the story can be told of how the big break came from a funny blog post or a convincing Amazon review.

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When Mission first came out, I went down to LA to push it everywhere I could think of. I snuck copies on to the New Release shelf at Book Soup in West Hollywood and left a copy in the men’s room of the Directors Guild of America office on Sunset with the inscription, “This book will change your life.” It seemed like it would make a good story. I could hear Wes Anderson on Jimmy Kimmel saying, “There was just no good material out there and then I found this book about Portland in the bathroom of the Urth Caffé on Melrose…” And there’s Cozy strolling down the red carpet. A boy can dream, right?

I know my stuff is good on some level. I’m certainly no David Foster Wallace, but I’m also not overly tortured to the point of suicide. Having an author that you connect with can be such a rush. Every positive reader review I’ve had has been a dream realized. I want to do what my favorites did for me. My favorite writer is Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) and the fact that we both have books for sale at Powell’s is really enough. I’m just happy that there are still plenty of people who want to read something longer than a tweet and some of them seem to really like reading my musings. It’s an honor really, that anyone would spend any of their time with something that started out for me as a blank page. (If you’ve read this far, snap your fingers two times.)

So a year after this blog started (and went completely viral with the help of a full blown fascist named Donald John Trump), I’m still writing away. After The Dream Police is done, it’s time for a non-fiction book about feminist fatherhood. I don’t have a title yet, maybe Sit Down and Pee, but I’m doing a lot of research. I write because I have to and if someone wants to give me some money at some point, I promise I won’t lose my hunger.

Dad, the Provider – A request for a kick start

March 16, 2015

Whenever I lecture about traditional gender roles, I mention how, in our culture, man is supposed to be the provider. (Whenever you discuss gender roles, you should always specify which culture you’re talking about.) And women are supposed to be the provided for. Obviously that has changed a lot in the past 40 years. More women are working now than men – a weird nexus between feminism and Reaganomics.

So when I left my job at Portland State in January, I also left my role as the provider of my family. Sociologically, I’m fine with that. But as a socialized being (this is the intellectual vs. the emotional trip), it’s been very hard. The uncertainty of my family’s future is something I’ve worked my whole life to avoid. And here it is.

My parents divorced when I was 17. I know a part of it was my mom started making more money than my dad and I think he felt it undermined his position in the house. We all suffered because of that version of masculinity. I think I’d be fine if my wife was bringing home mad stacks of (vegan) bacon. I rather enjoy planning dinner for her. But the sad reality is that she just lost her job on Friday. (Hey, I thought the economy was getting better!)

So my work as a writer is even more important now. It’s not just a luxury to write. I’m writing for our future. I know there are bloggers who make a living on their wonderful blogs. I don’t think Watching the Wheels is there yet. But I’m hoping the fiction writing is the ticket. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart, did pretty well for a self-published book and has been optioned for a screenplay (and might actually generate some income down the road).

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My fabulous wife had the idea of starting a Kickstarter campaign to fund the new book. We picked $10,000 as a goal to pay for some of the cost, the rewards for funders (and the 8% of fees that gets taken out). It won’t pay the mortgage for a year, but it will give us a few months. Very quickly, friends started chipping in. $40 here, $100 there. We’re already over the 10% mark but these things go into a slump after the kickoff, which scares the hell out of me.

So I’m putting this project out there into the Dad blogosphere to help fund the book and the family. There are some great rewards for pledges, but if you can’t chip in $10 for a really cool book project, I’d appreciate if you can pass it around to your network. And if you ever loved Cheap Trick’s Dream Police album, this thing is made for you.

My wife and I are a total team on this project. She’s really helped make it happen. We are both trying to be providers. The next chapter is starting. Thanks!

Here’s the link: PORTLAND WRITER DREAMS OF DREAM POLICE

My first novel is available at Powell’s Books. You can just click the cover.

Is it time for a career change?

January 12, 2015

This might be a mid-life crisis (if I live to 100), but I’ve been thinking about a career change. I absolutely love being a university professor. I’ve got thousands of former students who are out in the world doing amazing things, perhaps influenced by something I talked about in a classroom or an idea I shared. One student, after my discussion linking the power theory of Ralf Dahrendorf to the genocide in Darfur, headed for Sudan after graduation to work with refugees. I have plenty of students like her.

That part of being a professor is infinitely rewarding. In my 20 years at my current university, I have created a legacy that has ripple effects around the world and will continue for generations. I know the world is a better place because of my work. But the part of the job that most people do not see is the bureaucracy that drives universities that is something out of a Kafka novel. I’m not one to tell tales out of school, just watch the Anthony Hopkins film The Human Stain (2003), to get a picture of the dynamic that pits administrators against faculty and students. It’s exhausting.

So I might do something different for a while. In 2011, I published my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart: A Rock Novel. It was loosely based on my own issues with depression at the turn of the century. I based the structure on an Electric Light Orchestra album I had when I was a kid called A New World Record (1976). I know you know the songs. Each chapter in the novel riffs on a song from the album. When I started writing it, I had no idea how it would end, but writing it saved my life.

It did pretty well for a self-published novel. (50 Shades of Grey started out the same way.) It made it to #2 on the Powell’s Small Press Best Seller list and has been optioned by a very talented screenwriter in Hollywood for a film. It’s a long road but you might see me walking Andrea and Cozy down the red carpet someday. Hey, I’m a Pisces. Let me dream!

But the feedback from that book was been it’s own reward. Singer Storm Large was an early champion of the Kindle version. The reviews were all pretty amazing. But best was a military veteran who told me the book convinced her not to commit suicide and stick around for life. That’s enough. I could never write another word and have that.

But I love to write and university politics and committees have eaten into my writing space. There is no joy like sitting in the coffee shop with a blank page (or screen) and just letting it come. When I free myself from the technical requirements of academic writing, something transformative happens. The Irish call it the muse (something Bono once told me about). It’s a stream that you can just step in and let it take you away.

She might not be a literary giant, but my true influence here comes from singer Susanna Hoffs, of The Bangles. We were spending a lot of time together in the 80s and she asked me what I really wanted to do after college. “Be a writer,” I said. I was writing a lot of music journalism and had fantasies of being a new Jack Kerouac.

“How often do you write?”

“Uh, what?”

“Randy, if you want to be a writer, you need to write everyday.”

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That was the start of my tenure as a poet and I got good. I hosted a popular monthly reading in Atlanta and got to put together some of the spoken-word events for Lollapalooza ’94. In 2011, when The Bangles came to Portland, I gave Susanna a copy of the novel and thanked her for getting me started on this path.

So now it’s time to write again. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been writing. I’ve been working on a book on 4th Wave feminism and a memoir about my rock star friends (Hi Bono and Susanna!) and I have a short story about the ghost of Elvis coming out this year. But it’s time to really write.

Cozy and I just got back from my favorite Portland coffee shop, Random Order. She stared out of her stroller while I wrote the first page of the new novel. It’s called The Dream Police and uses the Cheap Trick album as a structure. It picks up with some of the main characters from Mission and their struggles to come to terms with some of the suffering of life in modern America. There are no aliens in this one, but there is some time travel. It will be more post-modern this time. (I was hugely influenced by Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad (2010), which made me just want to write like a madman.)

So I’m going to take a break from being a professor for a while. I know the university will be there when I’m ready to go back. Maybe I could find one that’s run by students, or elves, or bags of rocks. Sometimes your soul needs a break from the fight. There are other ways to reach people, and this book is gonna be great.

OK, here is the opening sentence: The dark expansive room was knee deep in steaming water, coming in waves from all angles.

These books were mentioned in this blog post. You can buy them at Powell’s by clicking the cover images below.