Another Review on Pridemore

29 Aug

I have been so very fortunate to have received lots of praise for A Plot for Pridemore. Currently on Amazon.com there are 16 consumer reviews that give the book the maximum five stars, which is almost a little embarrassing. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by comparison, averages a mere 4.3 stars on Amazon. There is no way my book is five-star worthy, but I do appreciate the enthusiasm.

The big banner will travel with me this summer as I share the good word about Pridemore.

The big banner will travel with me this summer as I share the good word about Pridemore.

The book has also been fortunate to have collected some positive press in Foreward Reviews, The Kansas City Star and my hometown LaGrange Daily News. The most recent review is from Southern fiction blog Dew on the Kudzu. I don’t know that the writer enjoyed my book very much. She found many of the characters to be unlikable, which I can understand. Everyone in A Plot for Pridemore has a dark side, some darker than others. All in all, it is a pretty cynical tale.

At any rate, I am grateful for what publicity I can get. I’ll let you know if I see any more reviews of Pridemore posted in the near future!

Uptown Reunion

22 Aug

billy-joel-christie-brinkley-kids-lg
Remember the rock video from about 30 years ago in which the auto mechanic meets this gorgeous blonde supermodel? He and his buddies serenade her and attempt a few awkward dance moves, and somehow the supermodel ends up riding off with the mechanic on his Harley. Remember that one?

Well, the mechanic and the supermodel stayed together for a few years, had a kid, then split up. A week or so ago, the two of them briefly reunited for the above photo.

The 60-year-old supermodel still looks gorgeous. The auto mechanic still looks like an auto mechanic. Good luck to both of them!

Pridemore Excerpt: Pete Schaefer

13 Aug

One of the key characters in A Plot for Pridemore is a young, frustrated newspaper reporter named Pete Schaefer. As a journalist, it is his job to peel aware the layers of what could be most scandalous story in the history of Pridemore, Missouri.

This is NOT Pete Schaefer.

This is NOT Pete Schaefer.

There is no reason, however, to believe that Pete is up to the task. He spends most of his time mired in loneliness and self-pity, occasionally summoning the ambition to scroll through job listings in the latest edition of Editor & Publisher.

As a former small-town reporter myself, I can relate to Pete’s anxieties, although he is not a carbon copy of me in my 20s (at least I hope not). Anyway, here is how we first get to know Pete in A Plot for Pridemore

____________________________

Expelling a long, low groan, Pete Schaefer slapped the facsimile from Edwards Funeral Home on the computer clipboard and started typing:

Naomi D. Elbert of Marshall City, formerly of Brush Hill, died Sunday, May 25, at Truman Retirement Center. She was 81.

Before anything else Monday morning, Pete’s job required him to type the obituaries of everyone who died over the weekend – often a lengthy assignment given the number of blue-hairs in the region. Right now he was on Obit No. 8, his mind so far removed from what he was doing that he’d unwittingly invented two new ways to spell Naomi.

Pete found it hard to concentrate on the obits, or “Oh-bitches,” as his coworkers sometimes called them. After a year at the Pridemore Evening Headlight, the formula was so ingrained that he would merely slap the funeral notice on the clipboard and let his fingers clack away at their 50-words-a-minute pace. This freed him to contemplate the newsroom’s avocado green decor, the fluorescent light that flickered annoyingly over his head and a faded poster that advertised the Affair on the Square arts and crafts show from 1986.

Funeral services will be held 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Edwards Funeral Chapel with the Rev. Edwin Hodge officiating. Visitation will take place prior to services.

Edna Bright fastened one of her Jimmy Carter grins on Pete as she waddled past his desk. It was a rare morning he beat her to work. Plump and cheery as a Christmas ham, she was the Headlight’s society editor and probably the most contented person Pete had ever met. Watching her swing an oversized purse around the back of her chair while singing an off-key version of “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” he wondered if Edna Bright wasn’t the source of the old notion that all fat people are jolly.

Pete kept his head down, pretending to focus on his work: Survivors include one sister, Maureen Dowell of LaGrange; two sons, John Elbert of St. Louis and Duane Elbert of Wellsville; and a daughter, Yula Mae Lowry of Forest Park.

Edna nibbled a doughnut and slurped her coffee while reading the St. Louis Intelligencer, occasionally clucking an “Oh, my,” or a disapproving “Ewww!”

Then silence. No slurping. No ewwws. Peter sensed her beady eyes, dark as night, watching him.

“Hiya Pete,” she said when he finally looked up. “How’s your morning?”

Slowly turning from his computer, Pete decided to shock her with a smile of his own. Not one of those put-on numbers he gave the cut-and-paste girls in production that even they could see through, but a real, genuine smile.

“How are you, Edna?” he asked so naturally as to make you think he said it every morning.

Edna wasn’t surprised. If anything, she seemed encouraged.

“Say Pete, did you catch The McClusky Files last night?”

The McClusky Files,” he said, vaguely recalling the show in which an aging actor plays an aging detective. “Is that the one that’s set in Miami?”

“No, you’re thinking of Randy Slaughter, Medical Examiner,” she said. “McClusky Files is in L.A.”

“Of course.”

“I just really love that McClusky, don’t you? I mean, he’s nice and polite like a gentleman should be, but he’s tough, too. He always gets his man and he’s not afraid to call a spade a spade, if you know what I mean.”

Edna smiled. “I can tell that’s probably the way he is in real life, too.”

Pete gave one of those half laughs that most people would read as a sign of disinterest. Not Edna.

“Last night was one of the better ones,” she said. “McClusky and these other people are guests on this millionaire’s yacht, you see. And, almost as soon as they all get on board, the millionaire disappears.”

“Really?” Pete said.

“So all of a sudden, people just start disappearing: the millionaire’s wife, the movie star—”

“—the professor and Mary Anne?” he offered.

Edna giggled to show she caught the reference, and went on.

“Usually I’m pretty good at picking out the murderer before everyone else. But I didn’t have a clue on this one. Jerry thought it was the millionaire, but what does he know? I mean, he’s the only guy in Rotary who thought O.J. was innocent, you know?”

“Right.”

“Just when we’re at to the part where McClusky’s gonna nail the bad guy, I get this phone call from my daughter, Alicea. She’s about your age, you know.”

Edna was shaking now, her banshee cackle filling the mostly empty newsroom.

“So I get off the phone and I rush back to ask Jerry whodunnit. Well, he’s already switched the channel to SportsCenter. Took me six phone calls to find out it was the Portuguese deck hand who strangled ‘em all with a piano wire and threw their bodies overboard.

“Ewwwww,” she said. “I almost strangled someone myself last night!”

“That’s funny,” Pete offered in a tone that suggested he didn’t think it was funny at all. He gave her a tight smile and returned to his computer.

Edna let out a huff and left her desk for another cup of coffee. Peter felt pretty evil for leading her on like that. He could be pretty mean when he was depressed, and he was depressed nearly all of the time lately.

He thought about starting another conversation when Edna returned. But the other staffers were ambling in and he needed to call the area cops to see if there‘d been any overnight car wrecks. Obits and road fatalities – it was some sweet gig he’d scored for himself more than a year removed from journalism school. Woodward and Bernstein had better watch their jocks.

From the corner of his eye he watched Edna settle into her seat. He’d come up with something thoughtful to say to her first thing tomorrow, even if he had to watch network television to do it.

____________________________

The afternoon sun sprayed rivulets of light through the dusty blinds that hung over Pete’s futon. Angela sat up, crossed her skinny legs under the sheet and watched Pete sift through the dirty clothes, old magazines and sports gear that cluttered his bedroom closet.

“What are you looking for?”

He smiled as his fingers grazed the beat-up leather briefcase.

“My soul,” he said, pulling the briefcase out of the closet and opening it.

“Wow,” she said as he pulled out a fistful of typed pages. “You wrote all
that?”

“It’s nothing. Maybe 200 pages in all, double-spaced.”

“That’s nothing?”

“Not for a book,” he said. “You heard of Schubert’s unfinished symphony? This is Schaefer’s unfinished novel.”

“Wow,” she repeated, plopping next to him on the floor. Save for the three-legged recliner that tilted like a sinking ship in Pete’s living room, there were no chairs in his one-bedroom apartment, so the two spent most of their time on the futon or the floor.

“You never told me you were a writer,” Angela said.

“I’m a newspaper reporter. You know that.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t know you were a writer,” she laughed, folding her arms across her chest. “What’s it about?”

“Oh, your typical Coming-of-Age, Loss of Innocence, Love Story.”

“Sort of like Great Expectations?” Angela suggested.

“Yeah,” Pete said, and he gave her a soft kiss. “Except with zombies.”

“Can I read it?”

He flicked through the pages before finding a chapter he liked, the one in which Sully and Bart take Bettger down to Creepy Woods for one last bong hit. He ran his hand through her long hair and studied her crinkled brow as she read, making note of whether she smiled at the funny parts. She giggled once or twice, always a good sign.

It was that giggle that reminded him of Angela’s current status on the high school varsity cheerleading squad. Most of the time, Pete thought her comparable to the somber, artistically inclined women he’d dated in college. The crinkle in Angela’s brow gave her a thoughtful look that seemed older than her years and she could quote whole passages of Dickinson or Thoreau. He would almost start to take her seriously until, in a beautifully unguarded moment, she’d relate a fart joke she learned in study hall or clumsily pick the chords to “Smoke on the Water” on his guitar. That’s when the giggle came out and it was suddenly Saved By The Bell time at Pete’s place.

He loved and detested that giggle. Loved its affirmation that he could make someone laugh at a time in his life when he didn’t laugh much at all. Hated how it reminded him that what he was doing with Angela went beyond the bounds of acceptable adult behavior. He’d tried many times to tell her this. Well, once or twice. But Angela would just giggle and kiss him and tell him to shut up, and Pete would mind his manners as they crawled back onto the futon.

They met in October at a downtown festival called Olde Pridemore Days. He’d seen her around town a couple of times, hanging at Truman’s Malt Shop with her high school buddies or passing through the newspaper office to drop off her “Teen Beat” column. But Olde Pridemore Days was the first time they really talked.

He remembered almost every detail of that day: she wore a spaghetti string halter top and a pair of ripped-up blue jeans, edgy stuff for a Sunday in Pridemore. They spent the day walking around, eating Sno-Cones and funnel cakes, making fun of the lame country/western act on the main stage. They talked about books and music, and how cool it would be to move to Paris, just living and writing like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and those other Lost Generation guys.

They made out that night on the courthouse steps, an encounter that soon led to Angela’s afternoon visits to Pete’s apartment when she could slip out of her independent studies class. The first four visits, Pete was able to pull back, throw on his jeans and mumble something about getting Angela back to school before the start of seventh period. The fifth time they reached the precipice, an unseasonably warm February day when Pete was supposed to be covering a livestock show in Hodgeville, Angela straddled his waist, grabbed his shirt with her fists and said in a husky voice, “I’m not taking no for an answer.”

Pete gave in. He hated himself for it, but not enough to stop meeting Angela at his place most Wednesday afternoons. He was weak. He was stupid. But mostly he was bored. She was the only girl he’d met since moving to Pridemore, and he was tired of pretending he didn’t like having her around.

“How long ago did you write this?” Angela asked when she finished the chapter.

“It’s been a while. I haven’t really touched it since college.”

“You ought to finish it,” she said, pulling him close. “I mean, think how much you’ve improved as a writer since then.”

“Really?” he asked. “You think it needs work?”

“I dunno. I mean, this part about the guys drinking and partying, making all the pop culture references – it’s funny, but it’s kind of played out, you know?”

She wiped a strand of hair from her mouth and gave a half-smile.

“It kinda reads like a beer commercial.”

He was still reeling from the blow as they drove to the high school in his beat-up Ford Explorer. Kinda reads likes a beer commercial. This from someone who ate Oreo cookies icing first, who’d only recently shifted her musical allegiance from Beyonce to Taylor Swift. It was a mistake letting her read his book, he thought. Did he expect an educated response from someone who was struggling to maintain a B average in junior English?

Come to think of it, this whole thing was a mistake. And driving Angela to school was beyond dangerous. They were getting very careless, Pete thought. He watched her light a Marlboro while grooving to a pop song on the radio. It was amusing to watch her smoke because she hadn’t mastered how to tap the ash off a cigarette.

“What did I tell you about smoking in my truck?” he asked.

“That I’m allowed to do it except when you’re pissed over something I said about a book you wrote.”

“I’m not mad.”

She leaned across the gear shift and kissed his cheek.

“I’m such a meanie,” she said with a pout that was both cute and condescending. “I guess when you’ve been reading Crime and Punishment for two weeks, everything else reads like a beer commercial.”

“Oh, so now I’m not even as good as Dostoyevsky?” he said, breaking into a grin as they approached their drop-off point near the gym.

She gave him a kiss that surprised him with its deepness. It was the kind she planted on him that night at the courthouse steps.

“I love you,” she said in a throaty whisper. “I know you hate that, but I do.”

“Okay,” Pete said, handing Angela her books as she stepped out of the truck. “Just don’t tell your daddy.”

____________________________

Pete was explaining his premature baldness to a waitress when his buddy, Headlight sportswriter Dave Felton, walked into One-Eyed Willie’s, the only Pridemore establishment left with a liquor license since the Lizard Lounge closed.

“Yeah, my brother’s losing a little on top himself,” the waitress said. “He’s pretty freaked out about it.”

“It’s genetic, you know,” Pete told her after a sip from his longneck. “It’s passed down from your mother’s side of the family.”

The waitress pondered this for a minute.

“My mom’s not bald,” she said.

Felton and Pete exchanged the same weary look they shared in the newsroom whenever Edna referred to the president’s anti-terrorism policy as The War on Towel Heads.

Like two strangers in a strange land, Felton and Pete clung to each other almost out of necessity. They were both about the same age and both St. Louis natives. They both enrolled in journalism school with grand thoughts of someday working for The Washington Post or The New York Times, and they both graduated into a crappy job market with $18,000 salaries at a newspaper they’d never heard of (“This,” Felton said after a couple of whiskey shots one night at Willie’s, “is what is known as paying your dues.”).

Meeting once or twice a week at Willie’s had become something of a social highlight for Pete. He cringed to think what Pridemore would be like without having a friend around.

He nodded toward the baseball highlights on the overhead TV. “Cards took a pounding today.”

“No pitching, yet again,” Felton replied.

Pete ordered a Bud Light and surveyed Willie’s decor of birds, bayonets and batting helmets. It beat looking at the clientele, which this night consisted of two utility workers and a woman with mall bangs dancing alone. The jukebox was playing its usual mix of Three Dog Night, BTO and, in a token nod to the ‘80s, Night Ranger.

“Larry asked about you today,” Felton said. “He’s starting to wonder where you’re spending your Wednesday afternoons.”

“I’m spending them at home,” Pete said with a shrug. “Comp time.”

Felton shook his head and laughed. “You’re an idiot.”

“What?”

“He’s gonna find out.”

“I guess I’ll be out of a job, then.

“It’s kind of like detonating a highly sensitive explosive,” Pete added after some thought. “You never know when it’s going to just blow up in your hands.”

“Don’t romanticize it, Schaefer. You’re screwing your boss’s daughter. Your boss’s 17-year-old daughter.” He laughed as he fished his shirt pocket for a lighter. “You’re just an idiot, that’s all.”

“You said that already.”

The door creaked open, and Felton and Pete glanced back as if they expected Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansson to drop by for drinks on their way through town. But it was just some grubby guy in a shirt with his name on it. The dancing woman left her spot at the jukebox to give him a lingering hug.

“Done any work on your book lately?” Felton asked.

“Looked at it today, that’s all,” Pete said with a sigh. “How’s yours coming?”

“I can’t summon the muse,” the sportswriter said. “Every night, I sit there, blinking at a blank screen. I end up watching re-runs of Seinfeld and falling asleep on the couch.”

Pete laughed. “It’s this town, you know? It’s sapping our brains.”

“Yeah,” Felton agreed, mashing his cigarette into an ashtray. “I need to get out of this fucking town.”

Pete looked at the TV, which was flashing highlights from the previous night’s Marlins-Phillies game.

“Florida would be nice,” Felton said, reading Pete’s mind.

“I’ve got an uncle in Jacksonville,” Pete said. “We could crash at his place until we found jobs. Maybe we could open a hot dog stand on the beach, or whatever.”

“Felton’s Franks, we’d call it,” Felton said.

“That could give us some cash until our novels got published. We’d open for lunch at eleven and close around two so we could get some beach time—”

“—and watch the sun go down each evening with our beautiful, bikini-clad girlfriends,” Felton added. “When do we leave?”

“Tomorrow,” Pete said instinctively. “How much money you got saved up?”

“About two hundred – give or take a hundred.”

“I’ve got about five hundred,” Pete said, really thinking now. “So we’ve got enough for the drive and maybe a week after that.”

“Should we give two weeks’ notice?”

“In two weeks we’ll lose our nerve,” Pete said. “It’s gotta be now.”

Felton took a thoughtful drag from his Camel and grinned. Meatloaf was on the jukebox now, wailing about how two outta three ain’t bad.

“You don’t even have an uncle in Florida, do you?”

The door opened. Felton and Pete glanced back, in case a starlet appeared.

The Crayon Box

8 Aug

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I met Michael Schwartz during my first semester at the University of Missouri in 1989. We shared an English class with about 10 other easily startled freshmen. Our instructor was a slightly mad fellow by the name of Aristotle Baklava, who did everything in his power to turn English 101 into a left-leaning political science course. Each week, he had us write term papers on different chapters from a book called Courage of Their Convictions: Sixteen Americans Who Fought Their Way to the Supreme Court. We wrote about gay rights, freedom of religion, freedom of expression and the uniquely American right to burn the country’s flag at the Republican National Convention. I have to admit I learned a lot about writing in that class. Once my terms papers started taking on a decidedly liberal slant, my grade average magically rose from a low “C” to a solid “A.”

I digress. When you’re in a class that is being led by a crazy man, it is natural to bond with the other inmates, um, students. Michael and I got to know each other because he decided to hit on one of our female classmates. One Friday afternoon, shortly after we were dismissed, he approached Jen, a bubbly girl with long, dishwater blonde hair, and asked if she would like to go with him to a movie that night.

“That sounds great, Mike,” she enthusiastically replied.

Then Jen turned toward me.

“Hey Steve,” she said, “would you like to go to the movies with me and Mike?”

“Sure,” I immediately said, oblivious to Mike’s withering glare. I was an out-of-state student with no friends at school, so the idea of taking in a movie with other people was positively irresistible.

We went to the movies. We saw Sex, Lies and Videotape. I must say, if Mike intended to take Jen on a first date, he could not have selected a more awkward film to watch.

After the movie, the three of us wandered the streets of Columbia, Missouri, talking about our respective upbringings. It turned out that Mike and I had a lot in common. We both came from the South with dreams of hitting it big in journalism. We liked history and politics. We shared an appreciation for dry, sarcastic humor. All in all, Mike and I had a really nice date.

I am not sure what became of Jen. I think she left Mizzou after fall semester to study botany at North Dakota State. Mike, however, is still one of my best friends. Our friendship has survived several moves around the country, careers in newspaper reporting and broadcast news, and get-togethers in Las Vegas, Birmingham, Colorado Springs and Memphis.

Today, Mike has a video production business in San Francisco. He loves the Bay Area, but his time there has come with some challenges. Mike has been blind in one eye since he was a teenager, and his sight in the other eye has continued to deteriorate. He now faces the prospect of losing his vision altogether.

Mike, being the most positive and resilient person I know, has taken a will-do approach to this setback. He recently started an outstanding blog that outlines his next project: to see different parts of the world that he has always wanted to visit. The plan is to experience these places while he can see them for himself. Though his writings on the blog, Mike will take us along on his adventure.

When you have a moment, I strongly recommend you check out Mike’s blog, which is called The Crayon Box. You can also find his twitter feed here.

My college buddy is an excellent writer, and the way he frames up his next challenge is truly inspiring.

I’m Not a Big Fan of the Suburbs

5 Aug
The suburban parks are pretty, but often under-utilized.

The suburban parks are pretty, but often under-utilized.

First off, I admit it: I live in a self-contained neighborhood with lots of cul-de-sacs and two community pools. So even though my address is technically within the limits of a major U.S. city, my environment could be considered suburban. I prefer to think of it as more of a rural area. There are two-lane routes and cow pastures on three sides of our neighborhood. On a warm, breezy day, you can open the windows of our house, hear the cows moo and sometimes inhale the faint scent of manure.

Still, some people would say I live in the suburbs, and I’m okay with that. But I certainly don’t live in The Suburbs, with its high-end shopping, beige tract housing, mega-churches, soccer complexes, and obsessive attention to zoning ordinances and the city master plan. I know I don’t live there because, currently, I work there. Each morning I drive about 40 minutes to my job in a suburb called Lenexa, Kansas. I like my company. The work is challenging and fun. The people I work with are bright and cheery, even when the temperature dips below freezing outside. I’m not so crazy about Lenexa, however. After 5 o’clock each evening, I am happy to see it in my rearview mirror.

Lenexa is in the middle of Johnson County, Kansas, which is the most affluent, fastest-growing part of the Kansas City metro. Most people who live in Johnson County seem to love it. The area has lots of trees, well-maintained lakes and parks, and all the retail and restaurant franchises you could possibly want. The highways are newly paved and there is a QuikTrip on every corner. There is even a natural history museum and a playhouse that employs sitcom stars from the 1960s and 70s.

Johnson County is nuts about youth soccer. Nearby Overland Park is home to U.S. National Soccer Team star Matt Besler. There is a soccer complex near where Matt grew up that is roughly the size of Belgium, and it accommodates thousands of little soccer players and their minivan-driving parents every single Saturday morning. All of these people are bright-eyed, blonde and lightly tanned. They are all trim and athletic-looking, and most of them wear something with the University of Kansas Jayhawk emblazoned on it. It is almost like there is some kind of social experiment going on in the Johnson County suburbs.

Suburbanites seem breezy and beautiful when you pass them in the soccer complex parking lot, but beneath that placid exterior lurks an angry beast just waiting to pounce at the first mention of the word “rezoning.” Just contemplate building a charter school, health clinic or even a Panera’s near a neighborhood entrance, and watch the stylishly dressed men and women of suburbia descend upon the city council public hearing armed with their legal pads, photocopied blueprints and prepared speeches. When I was a reporter I covered these hearings, some that were longer and filled with more pomposity than a Third World dictator’s speech. I once watched one well-heeled woman break down in tears when contemplating the impact that a planned auto mall might have on her home’s market value. Her husband walked the woman slowly back to her seat, where she dissolved into a sobbing mass of blonde highlights and Ralph Lauren apparel.

The people are not what bother me about the suburbs, however. What I dislike is how the suburbs are laid out. Years ago, I interviewed the city planner for Overland Park, and he was one of the most somber, boring individuals I have ever met. The rigid grids of Overland Park and surrounding communities mirror his lack of passion and personality. In fact, they seem to be the work of a deeply depressed control freak. Every single four-lane thoroughfare in the suburbs is split by a big, concrete median, as if people could not possibly be trusted to keep their cars from swerving across the center line. The medians can be frustrating when you are trying to navigate you way across one of the boulevards to pull into a McDonald’s drive-thru and get your ambitiously named Southern Style Chicken Sandwich. If you don’t know exactly what you are doing, it could take you three right turns and two lefts just to work your way around all those infernal medians.

Of course, all suburbs were planned for the automobile. Some of the nicer suburbs, like the I one work in, designate areas for foot traffic as well. Most of the streets of Lenexa are lined with sidewalks that are wide enough to drive a golf cart on. There are some lovely parks, including one with a man-made pond that I visit sometimes over my lunch hour. The sad thing is, you rarely see folks walking around and enjoying the natural beauty. There always are a handful of parked cars. These cars are occupied with people staring at their phones, getting some sleep, or enjoying a stolen moment with a co-worker or, possibly, a spouse. No one emerges from the cars. They pull into the park, hang out for a while, then return to their desk jobs.

That’s the irony of The Suburbs: walk just a few paces from the noise and commotion of the four-lane thoroughfares, and you’ll find yourself completely alone. You can hear the birds chirp and, sometimes, from a distant soon-to-be-developed field, you can hear a cow’s plaintive moo.

Stephen Roth is author of the humorous novel, A Plot for Pridemore. Be sure to “like” his author fan page at https://www.facebook.com/StephenRothWriter

Pridemore Visits the Southland

31 Jul

PlotForPridemore (2)I have always considered A Plot for Pridemore to be a Southern novel, even though the fictional town of Pridemore is set in Missouri. A lot of Southerners do not recognize Missouri as a part of the American South, and I can understand their feelings about that. A couple of years ago, when the University of Missouri’s athletic program joined the Southeastern Conference, a lot of SEC diehards took offense. I think some of them still do.

Missouri is one of those states that has a bit of an identity problem. It’s not quite the South, and it’s not completely Midwestern. St. Louis has the style and feel of an East Coast town, while Kansas City looks more toward the West. Springfield, Mo., is like an extension of Arkansas. Branson is its own island of patriotism, homespun values and camp, a sort of Las Vegas for Baptists. In terms of the state’s most famous residents, Mark Twain seems like a Southerner to me, while Harry Truman is staunchly Midwestern. Tennessee Williams was from St. Louis and a frat boy at Mizzou, but I feel like he should have been from Louisiana. Brad Pitt is from Missouri and so is Sheryl Crow, but they both live somewhere else now.

The state can’t even decide if it’s Democrat or Republican. Missouri’s perpetual swing-state status garners a lot of attention come election time, when it gets more visits from presidential candidates than most states not named Ohio or Florida.

Despite Missouri’s vague geography, I see the characters of Pridemore as very Southern in their values, quirks and stubborn sentimentality. Maybe it’s because I’m from Georgia, and I wanted to write the book with a Southern point of view. I don’t know.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that I am thrilled and very honored to be invited to a couple of great book conferences in the South this fall. The first one is the Southern Festival of Books on Oct. 10-12 in Nashville, which features readings and panel sessions with about 200 authors. The next stop is the Georgia Literary Festival on Nov. 7-9 in Augusta, which will feature Georgia authors like Terry Kay, Raymond Atkins and Philip Lee Williams. I do not know what I am scheduled to do at these conferences yet. I will share more details about them soon.

In the meantime, I am also doing a reading from Pridemore at 7 p.m. Friday, August 15 in Kansas City. I will be sharing the stage at The Writers Place with another Kansas City author, Catherine Anderson, and poet Alarie Tennille. It should be a wonderful evening event!

That’s all the news I have about my book at the moment. If you’re interested in learning more, you can find information here, here and here.

10 Amazing Reasons why Facebook Sucks

29 Jul

Once upon a time, Facebook was a happy place. Friends shared cute photos of their kids or their pets. People wrote witty little observations or mini-stories in 100 words or less. Occasionally, someone would ask for a restaurant recommendation. Maybe they would explain why they liked a certain movie or song. The response among friends would be instantaneous and usually thoughtful. Unlike Twitter, Facebook was truly interactive. Reactions and conversations fueled Facebook’s growing appeal.

That seems like a long time ago. Today, Facebook is like a once-thriving neighborhood now littered with payday loan stores, political campaign signs and ugly billboards. The sidewalks that were once filled with friendly pedestrians are mostly vacant. Neighbors don’t venture outside to talk to one another much anymore.

untitledI’ve come up with a top 10 list of things I dislike about Facebook mostly because lists seem to be the only way we can communicate and process information these days. Maybe you will agree with some of my observations. Some of them you will certainly find to be cranky and old man-ish. Anyway, here they are–10 Amazing Reasons Why Facebook Sucks:

#1. Personal Branding. Participating on Facebook has become less about sharing information and more about managing your own personal brand. I’m as guilty of this as anyone and probably more than most. The past several months, I have been using Facebook to promote my novel to an extent that even I am now tired of writing about it (it is delightful book, by the way). Even if I didn’t have a product to pitch, I would still probably spend way too much time thinking about my Facebook persona. A few weeks ago, Father’s Day rolled around and I felt this strange obligation to post something about the holiday. Why would I feel that was an important thing to do? It’s not like I’m paid to write about Father’s Day, or than anyone beyond a dozen people would care about my thoughts on the occasion. Ten years ago, I would not have considered sending out a blast email to all of my friends and contacts about Father’s Day. Why do I feel pressured to do so now, to compete against other peoples’ personal brands with my own Father’s Day post? It doesn’t seem healthy.

#2. Advertising. It is no big revelation that Facebook uses your personal data to sell you things. This was first revolutionized by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, when he used bookselling as a tool to learn peoples’ personal tastes and how to market to them. Facebook is just following suit. Still, it is irritating to scroll through my news feed and see one ad after another for the Dollar Shave Club. I don’t go Facebook to buy stuff. I want to find out what my friends are doing.

#3. Politics. Hey, friend who used to write amusing posts about his family, sports and pop culture–I get it. You hate the Republicans. They’re destroying the country. I may agree with you on most points but that doesn’t mean I want to read every single article you share from The Huffington Post, Politico or MSNBC. I’ve got news for you, political friend. You are talking to the same circle of agreeable buddies while everyone else has tuned you out. You have not changed anyone’s mind about the important political issues of the day.

#4. Shares. It seems to me that most of us on Facebook have migrated from writing original posts to just sharing news articles, memes or surveys that we find amusing. Now, we can even share streaming videos that stream whether the viewer wants them to or not. The result is a visual cluster with no rhyme or reason. Just glancing at my feed right now, I see “29 Terrifying Panorama Fails That Will Haunt Your Nightmares,” a meme about getting up when life knocks you down, an ad about paying off my mortgage and “26 Struggles Anyone Raised Catholic Will Totally Understand.” Some days, finding a text post in your news feed that actually tells you what somebody is doing with their life is like discovering a rare, precious jewel.

#5. Misinformation. I was guilty of this the other day. I shared a piece about how much time people spend on their phones that was, upon closer examination, probably made up. I’ve also seen a quote about funding for the arts attributed to Winston Churchill that he never said. There is a lot of bogus stuff on the Internet, and we all get fooled every now and then. Lately, however, I’ve noticed “friends” trying to trick each other with misinformation. For example, an article about a celebrity death that you click on only to find the headline, “You been owned!” Shame on me for having a morbid curiosity about one of the stars of The Walking Dead, I guess.

#6. Narcissism. This one is nothing new. Facebook and other social media have made all of us more narcissistic. Still, I believe that the problem is evolving from “self-absorbed” to “totally lacking in self-awareness.” Yes, you may be a good friend, but that doesn’t mean I want to be updated four times a day about your latest adventures in Cancun. It just makes me jealous. Also, sometimes it’s a little irritating to be part of a mass layoff from a company you worked at for eight years, and then read posts from former your co-workers gushing about how cool it is to work for that company. That’s my bad, of course. I don’t have to read those posts and, in the future, I won’t be friending as many co-workers on Facebook.

#7. Unoriginal Narcissism. Back when everyone got digital cameras on their phones, some people truly believed that the quality of experimental photography would explode. What we’ve gotten, instead, is people taking the same damn types of pictures as everyone else, in addition to a gluttony of photo-bombs and selfies. I really don’t care to see your feet, even if they are landscaped against a beautiful Caribbean beach. That photo has been done a million times before. The only feet I really care about seeing belong to my wife and my child, and that’s it.

#8. Anger and Negativity. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to use social media to complain about your problems, take shots at a former spouse or cuss about that stupid thing Obama did. I just think it reflects poorly on a person’s character (just like writing a 1,300-word screed about Facebook probably reflects poorly on my character). It is also important to note that those comments never really go away. Even if you delete them, which Facebook now allows, those posts are floating out there somewhere. Someday, your angry vents on Facebook may work against you. Also, if negativity becomes an important part of your personal brand (see #1 above), even your friends will stop reading and caring.
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#9. Meddling. Based on what you share and with whom you interact, Facebook thinks it knows you better than you know yourself. That is why only certain friends, products and stories keep showing up in your news feed. Eventually this can become a form of mind control. If I haven’t interacted with my friend George for six months, his updates and shares will disappear from my feed. Since I never see anything from George, I assume he is no longer active on Facebook. Pretty soon, I stop thinking about George because, unless I look up his profile, I am not connected to his life. Ultimately it’s my fault for not picking up the phone and giving George a call, but Facebook still plays a subtle part in bringing us closer to some friends and distancing us from others. That power over what and who we care about is frightening.

So there you have it—-nine reasons why Facebook definitely sucks. Wait, did I say there were 10 reasons? Well, I can’t think of a 10th reason.

I guess Facebook really isn’t so bad after all.

Stephen Roth is author of the humorous novel, A Plot for Pridemore. Be sure to “like” his author fan page at https://www.facebook.com/StephenRothWriter

A Dog Named Keiko

28 Jul

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On July 31, 2005, my wife and I adopted a dog. It was not an easy decision. We had two cats at the time, and adding a dog to the mix was certain to cause some domestic unrest.

“I’ve had dogs before,” I told my wife. “They need a lot of attention and can be a lot of trouble.”

We were not planning on getting a dog in the summer of 2005. One evening after work, we got a phone call from my wife’s cousin. He told us about this dog he had rescued from a co-worker who could no longer care for it. The dog’s name was D.J., and it was some kind of a border collie mix.

“You should come look at her,” he suggested. “She’s really pretty.”

The cousin lived near our house, so we went over that night. It had been raining earlier in the day, and we found D.J. running around the backyard with our cousin’s Siberian Husky. Both dogs were covered in mud but were friendly and wanted to put their paws all over us. The dog we came to see looked to be a tri-color, but it was hard to tell because of the muck on her coat. Our cousin told us he thought that D.J. was about six months old, and had been chained to a tree most of her life.

“What do you think?” the cousin asked. “You want her?”

“We’re going to have to think about it,” I said.

The cousin stroked his Van Dyke beard and nodded. “You’ve got ‘til tomorrow. After that, she goes to the pound.”

Later that night, my wife and I talked about the dog. One thing we agreed on was that D.J. was a horrible name. We couldn’t agree on anything else, however. My wife wanted the dog. I said I didn’t think that this would be a good time to add another pet. “Dogs take a lot of work,” I said.

The next day around lunchtime, I got a call at work. It was my wife.1551625_688030671289809_1451067226906476272_n

“I had a dream last night about that dog,” she said. “I really don’t want her to go to the pound. I think we should take her.”

“Your cousin isn’t going to take her to the pound. That’s just a bluff,” I said. I have to admit now that I did not know my wife’s cousin as well as she did.

“Can we please get her?” she said. “I just can’t stop thinking about that dog.”

I agreed. How could I say no? That night after work, we took the dog, gave her a bath and bought all the necessary dog things–two bowls, a leash, dog food, squeaky toys, and a big rubber ball that we tied to a low-hanging branch in our backyard. As it turned out, the dog’s coat was a beautiful white, black and tan mix. She also had different-colored eyes–one brown and one very light blue.

“Isn’t that unusual? Is she blind in one eye?” we asked the veterinarian a few days later.

“I don’t really know,” he said.

“She’s really pretty, isn’t she? What kind of dog is she?” we asked.

“I’m not really sure,” the vet replied.

We soon learned that she was not blind in her blue eye, and we eventually discovered that she was an English Shepherd, which is a fancy name for a border collie/Australian Shepherd mix. After a few days of trying out names, we decided on “Keiko,” which means “blessed child” in Japanese and was also the name of the whale in the movie, Free Willy. My wife picked Keiko, however, because she liked how it sounded. The dog seemed to respond to the name as well. At the very least, she liked it better than being called “D.J.”

Nine years later, Keiko is still going strong. The photos above were taken earlier this month after a recent grooming appointment. Keiko has been everything we could have wanted in a dog: smart, happy, fun, energetic, sometimes mischievous, always hungry for a treat. We worried about having a high-energy dog around little kids, but Keiko turned out to be a wonderful companion for our children–always gentle and patient, and very often protective.

July 31 is not the date of Keiko’s birth, but we remember it as the day her life began with us. She has brought us so much joy and helped us to navigate life’s ups and downs. She has always been there for our family. For me, she has been a regular walking companion, a reliable playmate, and the only dog I could ever teach to catch a Frisbee.

So, happy 9th birthday, Keiko! We love you so very much.

Herbie Goes Bananas

14 Jul

A70-3309My best friend in third grade was a ginger-haired, freckley kid named Rob Fairchild.

Even at nine years old, Rob had a swagger of someone who expected success. He won at every sport he played, and was one of the best golfers for his age in the state. He was a straight-A student who finished his homework each afternoon before getting off the school bus, and whose diorama book report on Charlotte’s Web was something the teachers raved about for years after the fact.

He was a good-looking kid, a kind of a 1970s, bowl-cut version of Ronnie Howard, whom you could easily imagine yelling “Hey Kool-Aid!” in those ads than ran between our after-school cartoons.

The teachers loved Rob. The parents admired him. The girls wanted to do the Hokey Pokey with him at the Skate Inn every Saturday afternoon. The boys liked Rob as much as you could possibly like someone who towered over you in every measurable way.

“Sure,” they’d say, eyes twitching around the schoolyard to see where he might be lurking. “Rob’s pretty cool.”

We didn’t have a term for it back in third grade, but Rob was an Alpha Male. Years later, he applied all that charisma and confidence toward becoming a successful entrepreneur. He patented a bath towel with a Velcro strip that make it easier to wrap around your waist. He called the invention The Belly Hugger. Rob sold millions of Belly Huggers on late-night television and became a minor celebrity in the process. I understand he now has his own island now somewhere near the Caymans.

Rob and I had little in common in third grade. I was a “B” student whose mind wandered into a world of talking cars and space adventures at the first mention of multiplication tables. I played soccer, which in those days was the sport of choice for kids not coordinated enough to throw and catch. I also took piano lessons, which was not real high on the coolness meter back in elementary school.

We were best friends mostly because our dads had management jobs for the same company, and we were the only two kids our age in the still-developing neighborhood between the local golf course and the lake. Nevertheless, Rob and I shared a bond. We used leftover lumber from the home construction sites to build a network of little forts in the woods that surrounded our houses. We stockpiled pine cones to hurl at Rob’s sister on the rare occasions she tried to play with us. We fished, we swam, we rode our bikes and we built rock dams in the creek beds. We often played until sundown and then got yelled at by our moms for tracking red clay into the house. It was a Tom Sawyer-Huck Finn kind of life, and it didn’t seem to matter that Rob could already drive a golf ball 120 yards while I was lucky to get mine past the ladies’ tees.

Things were different between us at school. Rob was aloof and standoff-ish around me. During recess, he was more interested in playing sports than Kick The Can or tag with me and all the motor skill-challenged kids. Then he got mean, heckling me when it was my turn at the plate in kickball, teasing me when a teacher caught me not paying attention in class. Of course, he managed to do all this in a disarming, Opie Taylor sort of way that made the teachers want to do little more than squeeze his freckley little cheeks.

I didn’t get it. Rob and I were best friends back in the neighborhood. We were “blood brothers,” like Bo and Luke Duke. Why would he turn on me in front of the other kids? Many times I wrote the friendship off, certain that Rob Fairchild wanted nothing to do with me, and I with him.

Every afternoon after school, however, my phone would ring. Even before picking up, I knew it was Rob.

“Whatcha doing?” he would ask.

“Nothing,” I’d say, still miffed about the latest schoolyard indignity.

“Come up to the house,” he’d say. “I just found my dad’s Playboy.”

Or something to that effect. I usually went because there wasn’t much else to do but watch a re-run of “Happy Days” or play with my Star Wars figures. And each time I went to Rob’s house, it was good times again: exploring the woods, jumping our bikes off rickety ramps, snagging lumber from a construction site to build our latest fort. Rob and I, to borrow a phrase from America’s most beloved simpleton, were like peas and carrots again.

But the school days were bad, and I tired of my friend’s split personality. The sensible thing would be to ask him to stop being such a jerk. But you just didn’t do that in the Boy World. It was much better, I felt, to conspire against him and plan his eventual demise.

The summer of 1980 was a troubling time. There were hostages in Iran. The oil crisis was looming. Dudley Moore and Burt Reynolds were considered major box-office attractions.

It was also the summer I declared war on Rob Fairchild. It started with a phone call.

“Watcha doing?” Rob asked.

“Nothing.”

“Come up to the house. I got a new tetherball set.”

“No.”

A pause. “What did you say?”

“I said, ‘no.’”

“Why ‘no?’”

I took in a deep breath.

“Because,” I said. “I don’t want to.”

He let out a little gasp, as if this were the first time anyone dared defy him. Then he hung up.

Oh, it was on after that. Rob and I recruited foot soldiers from around the neighborhood for the inevitable showdown. I got Marcus McLaughlin, a soon-to-be-second-grader whose chief skill was screaming at an intolerably high pitch. Curt got Aoki, whose family just moved in from Japan and who spoke about three words of English.
Marcus and I struck first, trashing a fort in the woods behind Rob’s house. Then Rob and Aoki ambushed us with a brutal pine cone attack. Then we had a wrestling match near the creek bed, which ended with Rob hurling a large rock at me and Marcus as our moms called us home.

It was a high point in the campaign, to be sure. But to claim total victory, I wanted to beat my enemy at something he held dear. Rob played 18 holes of golf almost every day that summer, usually with boys much older than him. He was becoming something of a local legend, and he almost won his age group in a statewide tournament that year. If I was to bring Rob down, it would have to be on the links.

I was under no illusion that I could do that myself, of course. But I had a friend, a ringer, whom I knew Rob despised and couldn’t resist playing. I set up a four-hole tournament between Rob and Jason Payne, with the prize being a packet of orange Titleist balls. My ace-in-the-hole was a little rule that, for every cuss word one of the players uttered during the event, a shot would be added to their score. Rob’s cussing addiction was well-known by then, even by the adults. I was confident he couldn’t play four holes without swearing.

I was right, sort of. He said, “God-dangit,” after teeing off on the third hole, which cost him a stroke and the match. There was a hot argument at the final green over whether or not this qualified as a true cuss word before Rob pinned my friend to the ground, grabbed the tournament prize and ran home.

Furious, I marched over to the Fairchild residence to retrieve my golf balls.

“You know, Rob won the tournament fair and square,” Mrs. Fairchild said when she answered the door.

“Yes ma’am,” I replied.

“He’s upstairs crying right now. He’s very upset.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am.”

“I’m giving you your balls back because I don’t want any more trouble between you boys. You used to be such good friends.”

“Yes ma’am. I know.”

I felt bad about the tournament. If I could have articulated it in my soon-to-be fourth grade mind, I would have said the whole thing made me feel petty and foolish. I had taken things too far, and I thought that maybe it was time to make peace with Rob Fairchild. Beside, another school year was looming around the corner, and I soon would be in the same room with him seven hours a day.

A week or so after the tournament, I bumped into Rob at the swimming pool, waiting his turn to go off the high dive. He sat on a concrete bench, making little white marks on the armrest with a spare golf tee.

“That’s pretty neat,” I remarked. “I didn’t know you could draw with a golf tee.”

“That’s because you’re stupid,” he said. Then he climbed the diving board and made the coolest back flip anybody had ever seen.

A few hours later, I was at home, watching an old episode of “F-Troop,” when the phone rang.

“Watcha doing?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“Wanna go see a movie?”

I paused before answering. “What’s playing?”

Herbie Goes Bananas.”

In those pre-cable, pre-Internet, pre-everything days, you didn’t turn down an invitation to a movie, even from your nemesis. It just wasn’t done. Besides, I had always liked ol’ Herbie and had seen multiple advertisements about the new movie on TV. For a night, anyway, Rob and I could be friends.

“Okay,” I said.

Sitting in the front row of a theater watching a movie about the Love Bug breaking up a counterfeiting ring in Mexico might not seem like quality entertainment to you, but to a nine-year-old boy in 1980 it was about the most exotic thing imaginable. Rob and I ate our Sweet Tarts and chewed our Lemonheads, and there was no mention of our three-month war as we took in the talents of Cloris Leachman and Harvey Korman. Afterward, Rob and I sneaked into The Blues Brothers and got to watch the scene where the National Guard and about 50,000 Chicago police chase down Jake and Elwood. The car crashes, we both agreed, were top-notch.

“Whatcha doing tomorrow?” Rob asked before his mom dropped me off at my house.

“I dunno,” I said. “Watching TV, I guess.”

“Come over to my place. I got a new Sea Monkeys set.”

I pause for a moment, suspecting that we were falling back into a familiar routine.

“Okay,” I finally said, “that sounds cool.”

Book Review: The Harrowing

8 Jul

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The author of this book, Kenneth W. Barber, was a classmate of mine at LaGrange High School in Georgia. Back then, we knew him as Kenny. He was a funny, all-around good guy who worked with me on the high school newspaper, The Granger Blues. So even back then he was interested in writing. None of us had any idea of the dark, fantastical images that were lurking inside his head, however.

Now we know. The Harrowing is an apt title this suspense thriller that contains many vivid moments of gut-wrenching gore and nightmarish violence. This is Kenneth’s first book, but he already displays a knack for the genre as well as an uncommon talent for scene-setting and description. When private investigator Zoe Flynn notices a distant, darkly cloaked figure everywhere she goes, you can envision the cruel, demented grin hidden just beneath the figure’s black hat. Here’s how the writer describes it:

Across the rain-shrouded street a figure stood, watching. It was impossible to determine if it was a man or a woman. The clothing was all black and the brim of a large, black fedora obscured the face. A long, black trench coat wrapped the stranger in a veil of indistinctness. The rain had slacked to a misting wall of moisture that danced with wisps of fog and obscured the mysterious face to a wraith-like state.

At 265 pages, Harrowing is a fast-paced, entertaining journey. I had a hard time putting the book down as I tried to figure out what kinds of creatures were tormenting poor Zoe and her family, and why they were doing it. The battle being waged over the detective has many unexpected turns and takes a deeper look at human existence and spirituality than many horror novels. I found The Harrowing to be an engaging, thought-provoking first novel by a promising author. I’m looking forward to Mr. Barber’s next book.

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