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Verdi’s NABUCCO – and on Never Giving Up

I had the rare privilege to attend the marvelous opera Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi at the fabulous Tbilisi Opera House. It’s one of those old world European style stunners of a place as you’ll see from some of my photos of the evening. Nabucco is about the story of King Nebuchadnezzar from the book of Jeremiah. It was presented by the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre. A remarkable fact is that this opera company first produced Nabucco for their 1859-1860 season. The American Civil War hadn’t even begun yet. And here I am, in 2022, coming out of two years of pandemic enjoying this Verdi masterpiece in a truly remarkable place.

A few notes from my programme caught my eye. Nabucco was Verdi’s third opera. His second one was a failure and he was determined to never write operas again. How many writers and composers have been there? It took him five months to be convinced to take the libretto and try to compose for it. In his own words, “I took it home, and threw it on the table violently …” He was not optimistic. He persevered and composed it, and it became “a real watershed in Verdi’s creative life.” Again in his own words, Verdi writes, “My real artistic career started with this opera. And though I had many difficulties to fight with, one thing is certain, Nabucco was indeed born under a lucky star.”

And there you have it from an opera master. You do need talent. You do need perseverance. But even that sometimes isn’t enough. You sometimes need a lucky star to help the writer break out to career success. But the thing to remember is this: without the perseverance, the lucky star would not have appeared.

I was encouraged by these words and inspired by this opera. It’s a joy to see opera and ballet troupes still performing these classics and please try to support it whenever you can. You never know, you might just get inspired to compose something under your lucky star.

W.P. Kinsella & My 11th Novel

I emailed my manuscript of my 11th novel off to my editor yesterday. That’s always a momentous day! It’s entitled THE LOST LINEUP and it’s Book 2 of Myths & Tales of the Winasook Iron Horses. Have no idea if there will ever be a book three. No plans at the moment, but then again, I had no plans on writing a sequel to A DIAMOND FOR HER (book 1) until I was finished writing it. The genesis of book 2 is in the person of deceased Canadian author W.P. Kinsella – best known for his novel SHOELESS JOE which was filmed as the classic 1989 film FIELD OF DREAMS.

I had been an admirer of Kinsella’s writing, having read another of his baseball novels THE IOWA BASEBALL CONFEDERACY. It was the mystical and magical realism that I loved. Baseball to me had always risen above the mundane. There was something magical about it. When I used to pitch, and I stood on the mound and stared down the opponent, I felt something deep within me that seemed right. A settledness – even if the big bruiser lined a rocket off my shines. It was still meant to be.

When I started writing novels, I always knew that I wanted to write a baseball novel one day, and I knew that Kinsella would be an influence. What I didn’t know is that W.P. Kinsella himself would end up as one of the characters in my novel.

In the novel, Kinsella is the brash, no-nonsense caretaker of the game who is protecting it from historical evil forces. Can’t give too much away. The protagonist, Charles Henry, who is the literary author of the books – it’s written in the style that the protagonist is writing a memoir of his favorite team the Winasook Iron Horses – and as he is searching for clues to a certain field in Iowa which may possibly be a portal to the gods of baseball – yeah, it’s a crazy ride – his path crosses with Kinsella and they have a series of run-ins as they discover a lineup of forgotten historical players who want one more chance to play again.

I must say, however, that I have fallen in love with this Kinsella character, and it is my hope that he would have enjoyed his character’s role in this novel. If it was a movie, his character would be a hoot to play. What gave me the idea to use Kinsella was Kinsella himself. In SHOELESS JOE, he used J.D. Salinger as a character, so I thought it would be fun to pay a little homage to the idea and bring Kinsella himself into the story. I hope readers will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

It’s a mixture of adventure, thriller, magical realism, fantasy, and sports fiction.

Releasing summer 2022: THE LOST LINEUP.

Here is the exclusive, unedited foreword to the novel written by the protagonist Charles Henry. Enjoy:

I regret it has taken me so long to write a follow-up to the Raymond and Rochelle Blythe’s story. What I expected to have taken mere months, especially after finding a copy of W.P. Kinsella’s The Iowa Baseball Confederacy at the Rochelle Blythe Memorial Library in Winasook, has taken me years. There are reasons, the biggest being the death of my wife merely two weeks after the publication of A Diamond for Her. I had wallowed in her death for far too long (or perhaps not long enough) when I decided I needed a change. That’s when I left for Iowa.
What ensued became this book. It is difficult to articulate everything that has happened to me or even to conjecture the meaning of it all, but I will attempt, chapter by chapter, to explain the bizarre tale.
I don’t ask for your belief. That would be silly of me. But I do ask for your understanding, for in empathy we may all glide a step further towards the truth (hopefully, without over-sliding it).
Again, the shifts in point of view are meant for your reading enjoyment. Plus, I do want to distance myself from the story as much as possible, because it is not about me. Except in the sense that it is about all of us.
With earnest in the mythical properties of ball,

Charles “Shoeshine” Henry
Winasook, Pennsylvania
May 1989

What Makes a Second-Rate Movie Second-Rate?

Flew home today. 11 hours. Means two things: I’m gonna be tired for the next week, and I had to endure a string of probably-not-great movies. The final film I chose to watch today was a 2021 western from Lionsgate titled “Catch the Bullet.” It was not great. It wasn’t even very good. I watched the whole thing. Thus, the life of a traveller. At least it scored me a blog post.

What is it about a movie that makes it second-rate? The acting? The story? The filming? The music? It can be all of the above. It was the acting which caught my eye (not in a good way) right at the beginning of the film. What makes acting bad or at least not good? It’s not always obvious right away. There’s a very subtle line between believable and not believable acting. After the first words of the film were spoken, I could tell there was something off. The intonation not right. The facial expressions flat. These were, for the most part, actors who would never make it into a big budget film. They had limited range and they were showing it off. The most well-known actor in the group was Tom Skerritt. Skerrit is a good actor, no doubt, but he wasn’t given much in the way of dialogue to show off his chops much.

The story? Cliched. I often wondered what the point of the movie was. Nothing original going on here. It could have been a ’50s B-movie western and it would have fit right in. A marshal’s son was kidnapped and I didn’t feel much of anything for either of them. I’m a sucker for an emotional film – especially involving children, but this was just flat. Why couldn’t they have contacted, for example, Mark Sasse and said: “Hey, Sasse, can you do something with this script for us?” I would have been delighted. Maybe could have even given it a theatrical release instead of straight to VOD. Yes, I’m that confident that I could have improved it. There was nothing much likable about any character, and the actors kept doing stupid things that seemed unrealistic. But my dark-pouched eyes watched every second of it. Couldn’t look away.

The filming? The Indian attack scenes were ridiculous. So simplistic. They didn’t even look like real native Americans, but I couldn’t tell for sure since the Indians all died very quickly without much fuss. For being excellent trackers and knowing the land like none other, they were not good at hiding from gunshots. It was like: I will stand up from this rock so he can shoot me. And he did.

But for me, the most cringe-worth part of this movie was the music. I pondered it this evening, and this movie made me create a movie-score rule of thumb, which I had never thought of before. The score of a movie shouldn’t set the tone of the film. It should accentuate the tone of the film. The film’s tone should come from the acting and the style of filming, and the music should add needed depth and warmth to it. But that’s not how this movie’s score played out. The music was so obvious that it was telling the audience directly what they should be feeling and what was coming. The music didn’t seem to be created specifically for this film. It seemed like stock music that was plugged in without much afterthought. When a viewer spends much of a film critiquing its music rather than the story, well, there’s a problem on the prairie. Call the marshal and arrest these film imposters! They are WANTED for poor film-making.

There are many facets which can make a movie second-rate, and “Catch the Bullet” had them all.

West Side Story: A Worthy Re-Make

I don’t make it to the movies much these days. Mainly because what Hollywood puts out typically bores me. But musicals, yes, I can’t resist. My last film was IN THE HEIGHTS which was fabulous. When I heard Steven Spielberg was remaking WEST SIDE STORY I had two reactions: 1) why? It’s such a great film as is 2) Hmmm, but I still want to see what the talented director does with it.

I’m glad I did.

West Side Story 2021 is a glorious pull-back to the original era. The scenes are gorgeous – the show-stopping dance routine in the street was mesmerizing. Of course, we know how good Leonard Bernstein’s music is and how invigorating Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are, but what would there be left to tell?

Plenty. There were some wonderful new settings to many of these familiar songs. Gimbel’s department store even made me “Feel Pretty.” The pacing, though sometimes a little bloated by Tony Kushner’s dialogue which could have been curtailed a little (but hey, he’s a dramatist and I know those dramatists love to drama, so I’ll give him a pass), there was a slow and steady build to the payoff. The tragedy of the rumble, the lies which were meant to protect which end up hurting, the almost horrific rape scene when the white Jets, minus their two leaders, almost do the unthinkable until Rita Moreno inserts some right-headed morality into the mix. Then the ending. The pay-off was worth it.

The film’s theatre roots are undeniable. You might catch yourself saying that is not believable, or they rushed that too fast, or how could they fall in love so quickly, or how could she forgive him just like that … but it’s theatre, man; it pushes the dramatic envelop for the wonderful feelings at the end. And by wonderful, I don’t mean happy. I mean tangible. It has heart, as all good pieces of theatre should.

This is a beautiful, well-made film. Spielberg showed his magical touch of heart and tenderness in bringing this to a re-birth. Both films tell the story in wonderful ways. Highly recommend.

Ponderings on My First Show in 2 Years

Live theatre gets into the blood. When the curtain opens, and the nerves take over, and the hair stands on its end, and the bumps on your skin realize that it’s time, finally, after such a long hiatus, one begins to understand just how much the cult of theatre has seeped into the blood stream.

Last evening, we finished our final show of the Rodgers’ and Hammerstein classic “The King & I.” It ended just days past the two year anniversary of the closing of my last show in December 2019, Seussical. Yeah, two very different shows.

In April of 2020, my nearly produced show “Crazy Love” was washed away by that thing we all know about. I’ve been in theatre hibernation since then, but what a life-giving experience to have to wait so long to get back on the stage. I typically go from one show being finished to starting almost immediately on the next show. It’s been that way in my life for years. But being forced to pull away and not do live theatre made me realize just how much I missed and how I always want it to be part of my life.

The Palace. I built this with my students.
We took the colored panels I had made for the show “Crazy Love” and then tried to retrofit them into the palace design that I had. I had some talented students who created the color textures.

When I do a show, I’m typically doing it all. And I love it all. Stage design. Lighting design. Sound design. Of course, to accomplish this, I basically fall off the grid for a couple months just trying to get all of the work done. I’ve had people tell me they think I’m crazy. I am. Obsessed, even. But when the students hit the stage, and the bows are over, and the tears start flowing from students who didn’t know it was going to feel like this; who didn’t know theatre would seep into their being; who didn’t know how much satisfaction and benefit they would finally get from all those long and boring rehearsals; it makes it all worth it.

So I LOVE it. And I’d be CRAZY not to continue. And that might just be a reference to my next show. The students started clamoring recently about what the plan. “What about next semester? What are we going to do? Are we going to have another show?”

How can I say ‘no’? That’s not an option. Not with the ghosts of the stage pulsing through my body’s every beat.

(PS: But I will take some time before starting the next show. I need to get back to writing. I miss that too. I’m a man divided. And I like both halves equally as much.)

Reading, not writing, with the end in mind.

On my fabulous writing retreat to Tbilisi, Georgia (which I’ll have to post about another day), I finished the first draft of my 11th novel. This one is a sequel to novel 10, my first baseball novel. I’ve had so much fun writing both of these stories, and now that I have an ending, I get to read it for the first time with the end in mind.

What? I don’t write with the end in mind? Not a chance.

This will tell you everything you need to know about my writing process. While others will outline ad nauseum, I just write. Seat of the pants kind of stuff! Just hang on, let the ideas flow, start chaining them together, start to figure out what the characters want, and then they lead me on the chase to the ending.

Last week I wrote two endings. The first was horrible and I hated it. Then I had one of those brilliant moments, the kind that occur too infrequently and I knew, just knew, what the ending should be. The characters finally told me. I, as the writer, had goofed it all up because I wanted to finish it. The characters knocked me on the side of the head and said, “You idiot! We never would have done that!” They were right. So I changed it, now I love the ending.

So with complete draft on hand, I get to read it through for the first time with the end in mind. This is my revising process. I will begin to scour through the details and see if anything doesn’t fit now that I know where the story ended. Then once I get a solid revised draft, I’ll read it again, this time out loud to focus on the language and how it sounds and what could be improved. And then I’ll read it again … you get the point. Eventually I’ll get tired of reading it and send it on to my editor to let her do her magic.

But it’s always a good day when I get to read the entire story now knowing the ending.

I’ll post much more about the story later on, but it does have a title: THE LOST LINEUP.

Subtitle: Myths & Tales of the Winasook Iron Horses, Book 2.

These two books were inspired by the writings of Canadian writer W.P. Kinsella, best known for his novel SHOELESS JOE which was turned into the movie, Field of Dreams. (Coincidentally, this happens to be my favorite movie!) Anyways, I did a Kinsella. In SHOELESS JOE, he used a real-life writer, JD SALINGER, as a character in his book. So to play tribute to that, I use Kinsella as a character in my book. What great fun I had crafting his character. If he was still alive, I hope he would have enjoyed how I portrayed him. It would be a very fun role to play if it ever was turned into a movie.

Coming in 2022.

What’s Your Nostalgic Soundtrack? Mine’s Bob Seger

Growing up, I listened to 96KIX out of Pittsburgh. It was my music destination. Circa early 80s, the station did a countdown of Pittsburgh’s top 300 songs of all time. I was glued to the radio for days as this gimmick was stretched out for maximum effect. I had a notebook and I meticulously listed each song, rank number, and artist as it worked down to the region’s top tunes. Once it was over, you could order a printed copy of the list by sending 96KIX a self-addressed stamped envelop. You bet I did it! I can still picture myself scouring that list when it came in the mail, and seeing which ones I had missed in my notebook. What sticks out to me today about that list is I remember clearly which artist had the most hits in the top 300. Yes, it was Bob Seger with fifteen tracks. I was thrilled, though I think, if memory serves, his top ranking song hit only #11, narrowly missing the top ten. That disappointed me.

I was a huge fan of Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. There was tremendous respect for his song-writing prowess and the nostalgic feel of his songs, even though I didn’t know what that was back then. I remember one incident on the school bus. Someone typically had a boombox playing a variety of KISS or ACDC, neither one my favorite. But sometimes we would listen to the radio, and on one occasion, Seger’s “Night Moves” came on. Everyone listened, the song progressed, etc…, until the acoustic guitar faded to silence. One of the leaders on the bus, a senior, yelled to everyone. “Quiet! Listen!” And then the melancholy words spoke back into time, a time that no one on the bus understood, yet we all respected:

“Woke last night to the sound of thunder, how far off I sat and wondered, starting humming a song from 1962, ain’t it funny how the night moves, when you just don’t seem to have as much to lose. Strange how the night moves, with Autumn closing in.”

Then the acoustic guitar started again, and the refrain picked up to a crescendo. It is one of the most beautiful, poignant, and perfect songs ever written. We knew it then, and I certainly know it now, especially with Autumn closing in. It’s hitting close to home, and I’m humming a song from 1976.

There’s a wonderful, poignant truth in Bob Seger’s music. It is full of heart and life and regret and mistakes and living life to the fullest. My favorite modern band is Needtobreathe, and I have noticed that at times I hear Seger in their music, and I love that.

On occasion, I head over to Youtube and remind myself of the tremendous list of songs that he had written. For heart, poignancy, and in-your-face nostalgia, his work stacks up against anyone. One of the greatest. If you haven’t heard any of these ten in a while, treat yourself. And yes, I think all of these were on 96KIX’s top 300:

  • Mainstreet
  • Turn the Page
  • Old Time Rock’n Roll
  • You’ll Accompany Me
  • Still the Same
  • Fire Lake
  • Against the Wind
  • Roll Me Away
  • Like a Rock
  • We’ve Got Tonight

Upon Reading the First Half of Atlas Shrugged

645,000 words. 1200 pages. Ayn Rand’s classic epic, first published in 1957, is not for the faint of heart. It requires time, patience, and – in my opinion – a thoughtful demeanor to allow it to resonate.

I’ve been wanting to read it for years. I had even bought a paperback copy and had it sitting impressively on the shelf for five years. A few months back, I decided that it would be my goal, my task, my yearlong commitment, if need be, to actually read the thing.

Well, I’m nearly halfway through it. And my thoughts?

It’s remarkable. The prose is not the most elegant. It can get bogged down at times with a lot of details. But my goodness, it’s easy to see why this novel has had such a profound impact on the 20th century. And reading this with pandemic America and runaway bureaucracy and businesses struggling to find workers as the backdrop, it is almost frightening to realize how this book saw into the future.

First the terrific title. What would happen if that which holds the world on its back (Atlas) decided to shrug with indifference one day? What would happen if the innovators were forced out of the market? What would happen if the great men and women of industry would cease to produce? What would happen if the visionaries of society would no longer – or perhaps more precisely – no longer be allowed to pursue their dreams? What would it do to prosperity? How would it affect society?

There are some truly remarkable passages that I have dog-eared so I can revisit at some point. Some that have sparked writing ideas of my own. Others which are stewing in my mind as I try to understand their philosophical underpinnings.

This is a book of passion: passion for work, passion for love, passions between two of the remaining pillars of industry who will not be bullied into kneeling to the alter of sacrifice for the common good. Because they know, that sacrifice for the common good never achieves its goal. It’s the great debate of intentions vs results. Intentions to improve society mean nothing if those actions actually end up destroying it in the end. You know, the old saying, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There are some amazing speeches in this novel. A couple I wouldn’t mind memorizing myself and developing them into dramatic soliloquys. The messages of these speeches are unmistakably modern. Speaking directly to the vast entrenched bureaucracy which has been conditioned to ignore such messages and warnings.

I have chosen to read it slowly. I’m glad I did. I’m always eager to continue, but I also like to pause and allow it to ruminate. That’s a mark of a truly great book.

As I wade into its second half to truly discover “Who is John Galt,” I can’t help but thinking, with a sigh, where is John Galt? The world of 2021 might need your services.

(Full review when finished – Give me a few months.)

Three Cheese Pizza & Vietnam

I love to make pizza. Yesterday, I made a simple three cheese pizza. Here are the cheeses.

Mozzarella, gouda, parmesan. How I came to this combination has its roots in my ten years living in Vietnam. Before I explain, let’s look at the final product.

Delicious. I’m not afraid to tell you. You might wonder how gouda ended up on my pizza.

I moved to Haiphong, Vietnam in the summer of 1994. This was shortly after the U.S. had lifted the embargo against Vietnam. Yes, the embargo originating in the Vietnam War nearly three decades earlier. If you’ve been to Vietnam in the last fifteen years, you would not have recognized the Vietnam of 1994. It was slowly emerging out of severe poverty and an ’80s decade of turmoil and despair. Just ask a Vietnamese about the “thoi bao cap” – the time of state-sponsored economy – and they will tell you stories. All sad. Don’t ever wish for a government controlled economy. But that’s for another day.

When I arrived in 1994, I called it Vietnam BC – Before Coca-Cola. That will tell you the lack of foreign goods and influence at the time. As I got accustomed to the new foods – I was not an adventurous eater at the time – I longed for some American staples and comfort food to get me through. They were hard to come by. Cheese – especially – was difficult if not impossible to find. Milk and dairy was never part of the Vietnamese diet, so we just had to get by without it. On a trip to Hanoi, we once found the “Laughing Cow” processed cheese. You know the round, soft, overly-processed stuff that might taste okay on a cracker. Well, once we decided, out of desperation, to make Laughing Cow Cheese Pizza. It did not go well. At all. In fact it was disgusting. We had to live without pizza.

Until the day I shall always remember. I was riding my bicycle in the center of town and I passed a small shop with a refrigerated glass display case. I saw something round and orange on the inside. I stopped to inspect. It looked like a massive block of cheese. Gouda. At that time, I had never heard of gouda but discovered it was from the Netherlands. Okay, Europeans know their cheeses. Let’s try it. I took home a chunk, and upon first bite it had that taste. Cheese. Real cheese. Heavenly.

With the newly found goods, a pizza couldn’t wait any longer. It could not have been worse than Laughing Cow. Gouda shredded nicely. Pizza went in the oven. It melted wonderfully. It came out of the oven. It smelled incredible. We ate. Instantly in love. We had pizza. Real pizza. Gouda cheese pizza. We would survive.

As time went on, other cheeses became available, but we had become so enamored with gouda that it continued to make it onto our pizza. And I soon learned that it blended well with mozzarella, giving it a little more vibrant flavor.

To this day, I love to mix gouda on my pizza and I have a desperate younger self who used what was available to thank. Give it a try.

Cast the Flies Away

The other day I was in the middle of a drama class when a student pointed to my hand. It was bleeding. Apparently, in the throes of drama combat, I had ripped off a chunk of skin from the back of my hand. I had no idea what I did. No matter, a tissue and pressure took care of it after a while.

Sure enough, a couple days later, a nice scab had formed – just the way nature intended. The injury, the badness, the scar was still there, but it was healing. I thought nothing of it.

A couple days later – today, actually – I was at the swimming pool getting that vitamin D in the morning sun when I noticed an irritating fly doing his thing around me. You know, bothering me. Zooming around like a fighter pilot – quick attacks – annoying flyovers – the consistent buzzing impervious to swatting or yelling. After a few minutes of sustained attack, it became obvious that this fighter pilot was not going in a random pattern. He had found a permanent landing pad. A runway of decay. Yes. My scab. The fly couldn’t get enough of my scab.

Swat. Back to the scab. Swat. re-circle and in for a landing. Swat. Swat. Futile. If I wanted to do any reading, I just needed to allow the pest to enjoy my scab. I did.

But my brain didn’t stop there. I thought of a quick parallel to life. A mini-lesson, will you. Isn’t this fly like some people? They look for the wound, the scab, the weakness, the vulnerability and that’s where they land?

I talked to the fly. “Fly, look at my body. I’m in my swim suit. There are many other more desirable places to land rather than the scab, isn’t there? Why pick the worst part? Why not enjoy something better?”

The fly didn’t respond.

Unfortunately, some people in your life might not respond either. They focus only on the bad. Only on your weaknesses. Isn’t it time to be done with the flies who celebrate your hurt but don’t compliment you on your strengths? Those who focus on the negative and continue to land on your old wounds?

We all have imperfections and scars in our lives which need to heal. Just don’t allow the flies to distract you from those in your life you can count on most.