Friday, November 27, 2009
Living as I do, and perhaps always have, on the far fringes of American consumer culture it is difficult for me to get my arms around the Black Friday madness. Especially the crazed appetite for these mechanical hamsters called Zhu Zhus. Why a synthetic surrogate for what is already a surrogate? Hamsters, it seems to me, are the pet we give to our children in order to avoid getting them a dog or a cat. "Prove to us you can handle the responsibility of a pet and we'll talk about a dog," goes the traditional refrain. Of course the whole thing is a set-up. Hamsters are about the least durable living species, if my experience is any measure. Step on one - dead. Let them escape into the walls - dead, stink. Put them in a Lincoln Log fort then bomb with D-batteries - mortally injured, soon dead. Take to fourth grade show-and-tell -- MIA, presumed dead.
If by some miracle a hamster survives and breeds, children are treated to the horrors of hamster moms eating their young. In other words, hamster ownership usually puts an end to any further talk of pets for several glorious years. A Zhu Zhu will not accomplish this. A Zhu Zhu, like its real-life counterpart, is unlikely to see the sun set on Christmas Day. But there will be nothing learned. It simply becomes another piece of junk in the toy box with battery juice leaking out of the underbelly. No horror. No shame. No somber funeral in the backyard. You might as well go pick out that stupid dog now.
My advice to holiday Zhu Zhu fanatics (zhumbies?) is to head directly to the pet store and surprise the little tykes with the real deal. Lie to them and claim it is a Zhu Zhu brought to life by Santa's magic, and look, it doesn't even need batteries!
Soon you'll be holding their little shoulders in the backyard saying last rodent rites and looking forward to two or three more pet-free years. Get 'em while they're hot! Or at least still warm.
(The author pre-emptively acknowledges that the torment or destruction of helpless animals is wrong and to leverage such cruelty in order to advance some twisted notions of entertainment is just as wrong and he feels as terrible about it as he did in the fourth grade.)
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Don't Do It For Me, Oprah
Now I feel bad. My previous confessional post about my Oprah regrets appears to have prompted her to throw in the towel completely. I knew as a big-hearted person that she would feel terrible about the circumstances behind my decision to decline an invitation to appear on her show, but O, taking it off the air? Entirely uncalled for. I'm fine. Really. It all worked out. In retrospect -- and at this point in my life I am all about retrospect -- not going on the Oprah show was one of the best moves I ever made.
Had I appeared on Oprah that spring of 1996 the book I'd just released might well have taken off and become something. Maybe not, but let's say for argument it did. That would have prompted publishers to line up with large cash offers for another book I didn't have in me, but would have committed to because I would have gotten all wrapped-up in the money and attention. Guaranteed. The resulting book deal would have demanded a fast-track turnaround to capitalize on all the buzz and would have derailed my life for a solid year. The book would have sucked and so would my standing as a father, husband and friend. I would have spent the money on a better boat and a larger woodshop I wouldn't have had time to use. Panned by the press, resented by my family, and distanced from my friends I would have bobbed in the bay alone on my better boat and wished I'd simply said no to Oprah. Which in fact I did.
So there, O. Happy ending. You like those, right? You know how and when to leave a stage and I -- in my little dim rim of the limelight -- did too. So, I won't feel bad about you canceling your show for me if you won't feel bad about me canceling your show for me.
Friday, November 13, 2009
Making It Right with Oprah
Sarah Palin finally said yes to Oprah. Every time Oprah is in the news, which is nearly everyday, I suffer a cringe of shame and regret. Why? -- you might rightfully ask if you cared one whit about my regrets. A badly ended affair? An unpaid loan? A business deal gone south? No. I'm afraid much worse than any of that. To get this monkey off my back once and for all I will confess to you here and now that I once said no to Oprah. I shall give you a moment to collect yourself.
It was the spring of 1996. I had been on a three week publicity tour for my book The Free Fall of Webster Cummings followed by a two week roving television shoot for the PBS series Travels on America's Historic Trails. I was exhausted and homesick. My 11-year-old son and my fiance -- now my wife -- back in Alaska were on my mind constantly. I promised them the minute I got home we'd load up the boat and head across to the wild side of Kachemak Bay for a few days of being just us. There had been delays and schedule changes and they seemed dubious. I promised them I would not mess it up again.
The day I arrived home I went immediately to the garage and started getting gear together. God it was good to be home. The phone rang and a very nice producer from Oprah informed me in a congratulatory tone that Oprah wanted me on her show. I had a fishing pole in one hand the phone in the other. Oprah was a kingmaker even then. My book wasn't doing so well and certainly needed the juice. I let too much time pass, but finally asked, "When?"
"The day after tomorrow!"
"Here in Chicago. We'll pay all your travel expenses and have a flight booked for you in the morning."
It didn't seem like such a hard decision to make at the time. I'd promised my family. I was exhausted. I could taste the bay from where I stood.
"Is there another day we could do it?"
"No." She said, without ambivalence.
"Now or never?" says I.
I heard later that no one says no to Oprah. And if you do you are dead to her. Or at least dead to her show. I don't know if that's the least bit true. I do know that book sold fewer copies than any of my titles before or since. It was remaindered only a couple years later without even appearing in soft cover. I still have about twenty cases of them in my basement.
So every time I hear her name my Oprah Shame Spiral begins to churn. Like today. And I work through it the same way I always do -- I remember three wonderful spring days across the bay with my family. Sure, there were plenty of those at many other times and only one Oprah, but that one needed to happen. More than Oprah did. That's true even now as I sit here actually in Chicago on my way west to see that same son. He's now 24 and I get as homesick for him now as I ever did.
We're going to have dinner tonight and I'll have to ask him if he remembers that one trip to the cabin. I'll bet he remembers it more than Oprah remembers me saying no to her. Ain't that right, O?
Friday, November 06, 2009
John Adams Calls Us Out
I'm guessing most of you don't stop by this blog for erudition, but let me try this out anyway. I was sifting through some old notes today looking for something else and turned up this quote from John Adams which I'd scribbled down who-knows-when:
We may please ourselves with the prospect of free and popular governments. But there is great danger that those governments will not make us happy. God grant they may. But I fear that in every assembly, members will obtain an influence by noise, not sense. By meanness, not greatness. By ignorance, not learning. By contracted hearts, not large souls.
That the great man saw this coming is no great comfort to me.