Perfect for a Book Club

I really liked this Amazon review by Eugenia Kaneshige. I’m speaking to a book club next week and look forward to meeting other groups of readers.

In “A Floating Life,” Tad Crawford offers us an incredible jewel of a novel–an intriguing story that is both profound and whimsical, a mystery that doesn’t become a mystery until it’s solved; a morality tale that doesn’t moralize.

It’s a rich tapestry of life by a skilled weaver and philosopher, who has given much thought to the important issues of a life worth living–love, friendship, and marriage; freedom and liberty; power and control; and growth of the human spirit. Perfect food for a book club, it will trigger spirited discussions about all these and more.

A great storyteller and master of the tall tale, Crawford entrances, seduces, and teases us with soul-searching riddles, serving them up to us on a silver platter full of whimsy and suspense. Unafraid to go wherever his inventive mind leads him, this creative illusionist takes us on a whirlwind in which the ordinary becomes bizarre, and vice versa. Although his book is a cornucopia of wisdom and messages, he never spoon feeds his readers but asks us to `taste’ the answers.

Seldom do I read a book more than once, but I re-read this one not long after I read it the first time, and then I read it again. This haunting, visionary, and impeccably executed novel left me pondering its secrets long after I’d turned the last page.

The Rewards of Baseball

Managing my son’s middle school baseball team is rewarding in many ways. In our last game the School of the Future Bulldogs were losing 8-1 after 4 1/2 innings. But our cleanup hitter hit a tremendous grand slam in the bottom of the fifth. Still behind 10-7 going into the bottom of the sixth (the last inning), our clean up batter hit another long distance home run to tie the score at 10-10. My son followed with a single, stole second and third, and scored the winning run on a throw to first base. Baseball is a lot of fun, exciting, and certainly offers a lot of lessons–never giving up being only one. Here’s an article about the rewards of coaching that I thought you might enjoy:

The Beauty of the Dreaming World

Today’s post is a short story.

Morning Glories at small farm (2843771811)

I rouse myself, still lethargic, from my light slumber in the warmth of the sun.  My father and I sit side by side in zero gravity beach chairs that recline to support our legs as well as our backs. In front of us is the blue-green pool and beyond that a pedestal holds a bust of the god called Mercury, the messenger who moves between the heavens, the earth, and the world beneath. Behind Mercury is a bit of lawn, then a wooden fence covered with morning glories whose white-blue blooms have vanished now in the afternoon. Large forsythia bushes whose blooms have long since fallen are on the far side of the fence, then comes a country road, pines and maples on the road’s far side, and beyond that a giant field where each day for such a long time my father has walked a mile and more. We took a walk on my last visit, my father holding my arm for balance, stopping every so often for him to breathe and gather strength. We didn’t walk a mile, but at least we walked.

This summer afternoon, the umbrella above us for shade, we sit with the arms of our chairs together. Sometimes we talk, but for the most part we’re at peace with the quiet. For a while I hold my father’s hand. The birds are winging from branches with needles to branches with leaves. My father drowses from time to time, waking to speak a fragment of some sentence imagined in his sleep. We have nothing to accomplish today. I haven’t the excuse of his age or his cancer, but at times I feel myself pulled under some wave of sleep, my eyelids flutter until at last I allow them to seal shut. My father admits that he sleeps a great deal now, and I find myself freed from the polite inhibition that would keep me awake. I drift in and out of consciousness with him.

“What do you remember of me,” he asks, “from your childhood?”

Here he’s seeking reassurance that I remember him before he left my mother and me. I gather fragments that I hope will please him. After the flood, that long ago day, he and I walked the rocky bank of the stream and found a brown and a rainbow trout trapped in a bowl of rock and pulled apart the rocks to free them. How I watched when with muscles taut on his lean physique he leveraged the large, flat stones from the stream to build a patio that came to the edge of the flowing water.

“How did your mother tell you that I had left?” he asks.

“She didn’t tell me,” I answer, “She said you had to stay overnight for your job. Maybe she was hoping you’d come back. Finally, she did tell me.”

“Did she tell you about the other man?”

“Yes, not then, but much later.”

I look at his wrinkled face, the skin like ancient parchment. His flesh has wasted. Easily I imagine the skull beneath that wrapping of flesh that makes him who he is to me. Even his eyes are strange, beautiful, contemplative now that he sees only outlines, colors, distortions. I’m uncertain whether these eyes look out or in. My mother imagined that she could tell him about the other man and try to save the marriage. It’s such old history. I’m so much older than they were when they married or when they divorced. Looking back, I no longer feel that sorrowful anger that took me over as a child. I have my own marriage, my own son. I don’t dwell on that long ago childhood.

He drifts, forgets what he has been talking about, responds to my prompt, finds another topic that for reasons beyond understanding has surfaced again in his memory, loses a word that he wants to say, is finally able to speak the word and flesh out the memory.

“I keep remembering my younger brother. Alan must have been four and I was six. We were walking in a field that had recently been ploughed. Between the furrows there were large clumps of earth. I picked one up and began whirling around and around until I let it fly. It hit Alan in the forehead. He fell down and he was bleeding. I felt so bad, so guilty.”

“Did you mean to hit him?” I ask. There are stories that I’ve heard repeatedly, and my father must think of them far more than he speaks of them to me, but this story is new.

“No, it was an accident.”

“He was all right?”

“Yes, yes he was.”

“He must have died soon after that.”

“He died when he was ten.”

“No,” I correct him gently, “Your mother died when you were ten. Alan died when he was four.”

My father takes a moment to recollect. His eyes are opaque, green-gray.

“Of course, you’re right. Alan died of diptheria. My father blamed the doctor. He cleaned Alan’s throat so completely there was nothing left to swab for testing. It could have been treated if they knew what it was.”

I heard this story from my grandfather before he died at nearly the age my father is now. All those years had passed, but my grandfather still raged against the doctor who let his son die. My father doesn’t seem to have grief or rage, but I wonder what was lost in that life cut so short. What did my father lose in the brother who was his so briefly? What kind of uncle might Alan have been to me? When my father is gone, only I will remember these stories about Alan. Only I will remember my grandfather’s fury and sorrow that lasted a lifetime. I am like a repository, but after me who will recall any of this? Why gather and keep what will ultimately disperse like ashes flung high to sift and filter down to earth?

“It’s . . .”

He has vanished into sleep while I drifted with my thoughts. Now he returns with an image, a thought that has to cross from that dreaming world to ours.

“It’s so beautiful,” he says.

I wait a moment and finally ask, “What?”

He raises his right hand and forearm and gestures vaguely toward everything in front of us from the pool to the pines and maples to the sky where the clouds have been restlessly shifting between sun and shadow.

“It’s so beautiful, it’s terrifying.”

I know that he means all of creation. I’ve heard this or something like it so many times that I don’t have to respond, but I want to.

“Yes,” I affirm.

We can go on like this for the rest of the afternoon, speaking, drowsing, remembering so much that we have remembered before. His illness has been a long one. I’ve felt the withering of his body in our embraces on greeting and parting. The cancer has been slow, but in this final procession I wonder if its slowness will be kind or cruel. At least I’ve been a faithful pilgrim, coming once a week since the doctors warned us that the end had come near. Only that was half a year ago and I wonder at the love that brings me to him time and again. How long can I bear witness to his disease, the infinitely minute steps by which he deteriorates? If I hold his hand, as I often do when we sit here side by side, the smell of his medicine permeates my skin. When I leave, no matter how many times I scrub my hands with soap and hot water, the odor has penetrated too deeply to be rooted out.

At some point he stirs, lifts his lolling head, collects his thoughts.

“My father died in his sleep. He lay down for a nap and never woke up. I hope that I die like that. I don’t want to struggle and try to hold on.”

“Yes, Dad,” I agree, resting my hand on his and thinking that the little we hope for in the end is still hope, “that would be a blessing.”

Photo of Morning Glories by Jacopo Werther 2008, reproduced pursuant to Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license.

In Search of Book Blurbs

The process of gathering blurbs for a new book is important. At times it can be challenging, but good blurbs lend credibility and may also help identify and connect to the audience for a book.

Hardly any book goes to press without blurbs, so consideration should be given early in the publication process as to who will be asked to provide blurbs. My most recent experience asking for blurbs was for my debut novel, A Floating Life (Arcade Publishing). Ideally, a novelist will find more famous novelists to give their approval to a new title through the affirmation of blurbs. However, I didn’t personally know famous novelists to ask. Also, it would be best if the famous novelists write fiction somewhat similar to the novel to be given a blurb. The review of A Floating Life in Kirkus Reviews gives a sense of the novel: “”At times, Crawford seems to be channeling Kafka or Borges . . . Odd, offbeat, strangely shimmering.” This doesn’t immediately call to mind the writing of any particular group of well-known authors (at least not living authors—Kafka or Borges would be apt but are hard to approach now).

I can say from experience that sending advance review copies (ARCs) to authors you have no connection with is pretty much wasting books. So the issue became who I knew who might know the appropriate authors. This is no guarantee, but at least creates a possibility. For example, a friend knew a very famous author and wrote to ask if he would consider giving a blurb. He replied that he no longer gives blurbs to anyone. I found a very successful novel that I loved and managed to locate an intermediary who knew the author. However, he too was not giving blurbs to anyone.

Finally, with help from Arcade, I managed to gather suitable blurbs for the back cover. If the authors who gave the blurbs didn’t write books similar in sensibility to my own, at least their blurbs were glowing and identified the qualities worth valuing in the novel. It would have been even better if the readership of the authors giving blurbs would be the likely readership for my novel. This would be a shorthand way to identify the audience for the book.

Certainly this particular experience suggests the value of starting the quest for blurbs as early as possible. However, the practicality of that may have to bend before the fact that most authors likely to give blurbs expect to receive ARCs and ARCs aren’t available until the book is close to going on press. Of course, not everyone insists on reading ARCs. Particularly if the author is closely connected to the person giving the blurb, it may be possible to offer a manuscript.

In my experience, blurbs for nonfiction are easier to obtain than for fiction. To take a common case, the author may know a lot of colleagues in the field in which he writes. For example, when I wrote Legal Guide for the Visual Artist and The Writer’s Legal Guide, I knew many people who would be appropriate to give blurbs. Also, the universe of people who might give blurbs was larger, since it wasn’t limited to authors but included heads of organizations in the field, other professionals, successful artists, magazine and journal publishers, and could have been expanded to include corporate spokespeople if that had been appropriate.

My book titled The Secret Life of Money was more of a challenge. An eclectic book using Jungian psychology, economic history, folk tales, and stories about money to reveal our secret feelings about debt, spending, inheritance, the stock market, and related issues, it didn’t match up easily with the work of other authors who might be asked to give blurbs. A long process ensued, starting with a list of people from a variety of fields who might give blurbs. Contacts were made, manuscripts sent out. What made this easier than finding authors to give blurbs for a novel is that an unusual novel is hard to pigeonhole while an unusual book about money is at least about a topic familiar to everyone. So, in the end, it was possible to gather in good blurbs for the book from authors with widely divergent interests that fell under the larger topic of understanding money and its uses (and abuses).

Of course, once a book is published and reviewed, the reviews can be used to bolster the blurbs and give further credibility to the book. This may happen when the hardcover goes to paperback. Or, in the case of a paperback original, when the book is reprinted or revised for a new edition.

All in all, blurbs are important. It’s worth brainstorming early in the publishing process to determine how strong blurbs will be obtained for a title. In fact, the potential strength of the blurbs might in some cases even be considered prior to signing up a book. In that case, the blurbs are part of the author’s “platform,” the ability of the author to sell books through reputation, traditional promotional techniques, a website, social media, and personal contacts with bulk buyers. The sooner a publisher or author can be certain blurbs will help support a book, the more confidently other aspects of the marketing program can be focused on.

The Problem with Lawyers (and Their Education)

The recent meeting of the American Bar Association’s Task Force on the Future of Education brought to media attention the widespread challenges facing legal education. The stresses include a poor job market for young attorneys, the high cost of legal education, the tremendous debt loads of law school graduates, the need for apprenticing opportunities for hands on training, and the divorce of well-paid and tenured faculty from the actual practice of law.

From a slightly different perspective, we can add the cost of legal services to this litany of woes. With legal fees running $250-$500 per hour on average and up to $1,000 per hour for certain specialties such as estate planning, what ordinary human being can afford to consult a lawyer? For the poor, the middle class, and small businesses, legal services are often beyond reach. Litigation, when the hours can mount up without limitation, is like playing Russian roulette. Justice will certainly favor the well-heeled rather than the well-intentioned.

So it isn’t just that a legal education costs too much. It’s that the law has become a tool for the wealthy and far too often fails to address the needs of the vast majority. If cutting a legal education from three years to two years will help graduates enter the bar with far less debt, perhaps it’s a good idea (although the third year of law school does continue the student’s education in the law). Maybe professors are paid a lot (although I’m fairly certain their pay is paltry compared to what they would earn as partners in top law firms) and perhaps some professors are divorced from the daily tussles of law firm practice, but it is a comforting thought that some legal scholars have bed and board to think about something other than billing the most hours to clients.

In short, if we’re going to reform legal education because it costs too much, let’s think about reforming legal services because such services also cost far too much. If we want to make law schools accessible and affordable, let’s consider doing the same for legal services. Let’s make the playing field level—for everybody.

Toxic Theater

I made the mistake of going to Broadway to see The Book of Mormon. The creators of SouthPark did imagine an amusing scenario: a pair of young Mormon missionaries arrive in Uganda where life is so bad that the people hate God. How will the one missionary (who wanted to go to Disney World in Orlando) and the other (who is friendless and a liar) be able to cope?

Unfortunately, they cope with an inordinate amount of filthy language. It’s amazing to watch an audience of apparently normal people laughing hysterically to language that in any other context would be offensive. The overpriced scalper tickets do carry a warning: “Parental Advisory: Explicit Language”. Of course, by the time you have the tickets it’s too late to heed a warning like that.

Does it matter that people have been anesthetized to the meaning of words? So that words once capable of shocking are used so often in comedy—for example, in comedy clubs—that the person might as well be saying “Uh” over and over again. What a shame that the beauty of language, its possible poetry, is violated in a way that many people don’t even seem aware of.

Beyond the language, certain concepts were not suitable for humor (for example, one character believes raping a baby is a cure for Aids). This example could be multiplied, but have the creators of this comedy forgotten that Africa is a real continent with profound and disturbing issues such as some areas subject to endemic warfare that includes the systematic rape of women, poverty, and, of course, disease.

Mormonism might be a fair topic for satire (as might various Christian denominations or even Islam if you aren’t worried about fatwas), but this isn’t satire that punctures myths and leaves a deepened understanding as its aftermath. It is a pricy, parlous, sad exploitation that theater lovers should attend only if forewarned.

Women Who Loved Love

Book review of Five Women Who Loved Love: Amorous Tales from 17th-Century Japan by Ihara Saikaku, Wm. Theodore de Bary (Translator)

Published in 1686 in feudal Japan, these five stories form a cautionary tale about the fate of those who cross societal boundaries. What is striking about the stories is that the women are from the newly coalescing middle class. This class itself has an outlaw spirit when contrasted to the feudal mentality in which birth and rank dictate everything. Moreover, the women in these stories allow themselves to be carried by passion beyond what the narrow strictures of their culture permits. The force of their individuality, which encompasses their choices in sexuality and love, leads to disaster in all but one of the stories. Yet the issues raised here have echoes today in such issues as women’s rights, same sex marriage, abortion, and the general question of whether women can be masters of their own fates. The storytelling is excellent, the glimpse into Japan of that time fascinating, the translation reads well, and I very much enjoyed these fictions.

After Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great at the battle of Issus

Book review of Dividing the Spoils: The War for Alexander the Great’s Empire by Robin Waterfield (Oxford University Press, 2011)

Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and marched as far as modern Pakistan before reluctantly returning to Babylon. There, on June 11, 323 BCE, Alexander died at the age of 32. Whether the cause of death was wounds, disease, or poison will never be known. Nor had any preparation been made for the peaceful appointment of a successor. Alexander’s youth might have made him feel the consideration of a successor was unnecessary. Or perhaps it was his deification, his identification as a godly son of Zeus, that made him feel immortal and beyond the concerns of ordinary men. Or he may have simply felt that even he lacked the power to control what would come after his death.

Alexander’s vast empire could be ruled by agreement or by war with the winner taking all. Claimants to the throne by relationship included Arridaeus, Alexander’s older brother who was a halfwit, and Alexander IV, the halfblood (his mother was from an Afghan tribe) boy born after his father’s death. Other players with royal blood included Alexander’s mother Olympia, his sister Cleopatra, his illegitimate son Heracles, and his niece Adea among others. But the might to determine who would succeed Alexander resided in his fellow generals who had served him and now controlled armies and vast portions of his empire.

Efforts at peace failed quickly and were followed by a sequence of wars. By 311 BCE the “Peace of the Dynasts” confirmed the following division of territory—Cassander controlled Macedonia; Ptolemy controlled Egypt, Lysimachus controlled Thrace, Antigonus controlled Asia Minor, and Seleucus controlled eastern empire from Babylon to modern Pakistan. However, that peace quickly lapsed and another three decades of slaughter would follow before the boundaries of the various kingdoms took more permanent shape. All of Alexander’s blood kin were killed (including Olympia, Arridaeus, and Alexander IV). The generals became kings. Many of these kingdoms survived for centuries until an expansionist Rome absorbed much of the territory that had been Alexander’s.

The book has much to recommend it, but failed in one regard. The generals who occupy so much of its narrative never become more than names. They are one-dimensional, all violent, all determined to rule, all hungering after endless conquests. I’m not sure if the author had no interest in deepening his descriptions of the players or whether a paucity of sources made such humanizing impossible. So many of the ancient records were lost entirely or survive only as summaries compiled by later writers.

Merely to include all the personages and events of this unsettled era is an enormous effort. Certainly the chief characteristic of the military leaders was their willingness to battle, their emulation of Alexander who would have endlessly sought conquest. This human impulse remains with us today. The drive for power is a human constant. If human nature hasn’t changed vastly since Alexander’s day, at least the institutions that govern people and connect nations have undergone enormous change. Of course, our weaponry and collective issues (such as global warming, environmental degradation, depletion of ocean marine life, etc.) have also changed. Let’s hope that those who hold power today can be as ambitious in seeking peaceful solutions to shared issues as the ancient successors of Alexander excelled in the waging of their ambitious wars.

A Holiday Tale of Money and Illusions

In A Christmas Carol,  Charles Dickens uses the Christmas spirits to offer a profound change to Scrooge.  Scrooge finds in the age-old drama between the human and spirit worlds, a drama of sacrifice and exchange.

The renewing abundance of nature is symbolized by the Ghost of Christmas Present.  But, as we well know, such a fertility god is caught up in endless cycles of life followed by death.

The empty scabbard that the Ghost of Christmas Present wears about his waist suggests the bond between fertility and death.  This bond quickens our awareness that there is only the present in which to live; only the present moment, only the present lifetime.  As we know from the death and rebirth of Attis in the rites sacred to his mother-lover Cybele, blood and death nourish the new life.  For Scrooge, Death comes robed as the dark phantom whom Scrooge welcomes as a messenger of good will–the Ghost of Christmas Future.

In seeing this struggle of elemental forces, this struggle which he experiences in his own life, Scrooge realizes how money has become illusory for him.  He has pursued money for its own sake, but has forgotten the abundance of which money is but a symbol.  When he dies, money will be of no value at all; it will bring no mourners to his graveside.  On Christmas Day, a day of birth (for both the sun and the light of the Christ), Scrooge himself is born into a new life.  His only alternative is death, whether the literal death shown by his name on a grave marker or the metaphoric death of a man who cannot offer his own vitality to the world.

It is a paradox, of course, that Scrooge must die to his old self in order to avoid the death that he has been living and the grave that awaits him.  Once he is able to free the money that he has accumulated, his energy flows into the world.  He can give the turkey, promise to help the poor, and share the season’s joy with strangers on the street and his own family.

Once he can give to others, he is far more generous with himself.  On one hand, he is able to allow himself to receive what others wish to give him — for example, his nephew Fred’s joyous Christmas greeting and dinner invitation that he refused so brusquely at the story’s start.  On the other hand, he gives to himself.  For example, he allows his own sense of humor to reawaken when he pretends to be annoyed with Cratchit’s lateness before giving him the raise.  And then he tells Cratchit to buy more coal for the fires, so that both men will enjoy a greater warmth from the thawing of Scrooge’s heart.

Adapted from The Secret Life of Money: How Money Can Be Food for the Soul by Tad Crawford

The photograph of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is by Alsandro via Wikimedia Commons and is subject to an Attribution- Share Alike license.

Promissory Notes (Are Not Love Letters)

I’m in the process of revising Business and Legal Forms for Graphic Designers. Included in the new material is a discussion of promissory notes and a form for a promissory note. Since this information is equally useful to everyone who lends or borrows, I decided to include it as a post.

A promissory note is documentation of a loan that has been made either to an individual or a company. The note includes the amount of the loan, the rate of interest, the time for payments of principal, and the term during which the loan will be outstanding. At the end of the term, the loan must be repaid in full.

One of the key issues is how often interest will be calculated. If the loan is for a year, interest is calculated daily, and payments of interest are made on a monthly basis, then the borrower will end up having the loan amount increase with each daily addition of interest and then paying the monthly interest payment on the principal plus the added interest. This “compound interest” has been called the Eighth Wonder of the World because of the way it makes money increase. Any borrower has to take care in reviewing how often interest is charged in relation to how often interest is paid to the lender.

The way in which the principal of the note is repaid is also important. Will there be monthly installments? If so, will the loan be repaid in full by the expiration of its term? Or will there be a partial or total balloon (i.e., a part of the loan that must be paid on the end date of the term)?

In the event of the borrower’s default in the payment of either interest or principal payments when due, will the lender have the right to accelerate all of the borrower’s obligations and demand immediate repayment? The note may have a specific provision dealing with this or say something like, “Time is of the essence with respect to payments due hereunder.” The borrower will ideally have the right to prepay the loan so that the interest payments can be avoided if, in fact, it becomes possible to prepay the principal amount.

States have laws forbidding interest rates that are too high. Such rates are considered “usury”. While usury rates vary widely from state to state, it would be wise to determine the usury limit of the state whose laws will govern the promissory note. Also, Form 36 has a saving provision that would change payment of usurious interest into payments of principal in an effort to save the validity of the promissory note.

The promissory note may also place an obligation on the borrower to pay the lender’s legal fees and other expenses in the event litigation is necessary to enforce the note and collect monies due.

Also, the lender may insist that the promissory note be guaranteed. If an individual is signing the note, the guarantor could be someone with more substantial assets who would agree to honor the terms of the note if the borrower failed to do so. If a corporation is signing the note, the guarantor might be a shareholder of the corporation who in the absence of such a guaranty would not be liable because of the limited liability accorded to corporate shareholders.

As the caption for this graphic says, “No debt, no trouble.” But that would be in an ideal world!