Monday, March 31, 2008

The Weed of TV Bears Bitter Fruit

Baseball season's started and the Yankees are on TV this afternoon but other than that, I still am as down on television as I've ever been. While I can recognize some really talented sparks behind a lot of the crap and cliche and garbage onscreen, the overall effect, to me, is of a time-draining, mind-numbing void in my day. How much time could a lot of us save if we weren't aligning ourselves with the networks' half hour grids? Don't wait for the ending, just turn it off...

I've found that I've fallen into a habit of turning the thing on while I eat, and then shutting it down as soon as I'm done. Not sure what the point is in that other than I've been feeling compelled to distract myself from my own thoughts. So lately I've been listening to Old Time Radio (OTR) broadcasts over the internet. You can find just about anything (as far as I know), including the original broadcasts of shows like The Shadow and Suspense.

I was listening to an episode of The Whistler the other day when my daughter came down to visit. She sat down on the floor, listened for a few minutes, then asked me to pause the playback. "What is this?" she asked.

Before there was television, I told her, there was radio. It was like watching TV without the pictures.

Interestingly, rather than equate the radio to reading aloud, she compared it to television and said, "How do you know what's going on?"

The same way you do when you read a book, I said. You read the words and the story takes place in your imagination.

"Ohhhhh," she said, as if it may actually have been dawning on her.

The next day my son came down. He's almost four and I stopped The Shadow and found a character he's familiar with: Superman. The show came on and like his sister, he sat on the floor and listened for a minute. Then he started looking all around him, several times.

"I don't see it," he said.

Before I could tell him he wasn't supposed to, my daughter said, "Ricky, it's in your imagination."

So now that I've gotten them used to hearing voices in their heads... [Evil laugh goes here.] I have them now...

Thursday, March 27, 2008


One of the surgeons that my wife works with told her that he'd be interested in reading the book I'd just first drafted. Why he or anyone volunteers for this type of duty is beyond me. What if you absolutely hated it? What if you thought I were the worst kind of unmitigated hack? Don't you have any Shakespeare or Dickens lying around that has a greater call on you? Bless 'em all for the offer, though, and I gratefully accepted the offer.

I think this kind of thing is different from the writing group kind of experience. For one thing, it's completely voluntary: the reader is under no obligation to generate advice, tips, pointers or anything beyond the fact that it would be awfully strange if they didn't at least say whether or not they liked it. There's no encouragement either asked for or expected; no (or at least) reduced fear of disapproval or discouragement; and it gives me the closest feedback from an "impartial" reader that I can get.

The problem is that I've found it can be depressing as hell. Not call the psychiatrist and refill the Prozac hide the sharp objects kind of depression, but maybe not far off. When there's positive feedback I want to go to ground, find a dark place with no family and no dogs and no good things where I can ruminate on the dead ends and dwindling byways I've allowed my life to drift along. For the sake of argument if we assume I have some talent, some technical knowledge, some skill, some knack for telling a story or writing in an entertaining manner. Why the hell have I waited so long to get around to it?

The short answer is that I listened to my mother. Though I didn't quite swallow the whole be-a-doctor/lawyer/eminent scientist thing, I did stay away from being an astronaut, race car driver, and rock and roll singer. It may be the world's everlasting loss, but I fell into computers instead. Stubbornness and being early to the personal computer era contributed to my staying in it as long as I did but now that the long dream is over, waking up is awfully scary. Unless businesses start getting tax breaks for hiring geezers, I'm too old to go back to school, get a degree, and start a new career. The same is just about true for going back into IT: after some years off, who would hire me?

Clearly bright and enlightened employers must be out there somewhere, and I'm not so far past forty that I wouldn't necessarily be able to find them, but the fact remains that what I want to do now, and have wanted to since I was around eight years old, is write books.

An author friend in Florida read the 43k word start that I want to re-work for my next book. She said good enough things that it about killed me. Melissa's co-worker was positive enough that it ruined the rest of our vacation weekend at a classic New England hotel. Three of the four other people that have read it have all had different things to say, which is good, but the overall feedback has been very positive.

My daydreams all involve where I'd be if only I'd written constantly since the birth of the ambition. Even if I completely sucked, after writing eighty or ninety books I'd expect to achieve some level of competency.

Hopes for sanity lie with my dad. He's read the book but he's like a literary clam. I can't get a damned thing out of him. I suspect that means he doesn't care for it, which is completely fine. Karaoke be hanged, he can be my Simon. I've just got to work harder on that next one.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Peer Review

A couple of months ago a woman asked me if I'd be interested in joining a writing group. Argh, I thought. Why make me say no? My tendency is to be like Annie in Oklahoma but as I age and petrify I've begun to see the inconvenience of it all. I hemmed and hawed for a minute or two and then I told her that I probably wouldn't want to do it.

"But why?" she asked. "I like to get feedback from other people."

"I don't know if I'd be looking for feedback or adoration," I said.

That seemed to do the trick. But it's not quite true: I know that I don't really want the feedback, and what compliments may or may not come forth mean just as little. The bottom line is that if I believe my book is good, I've done what I've set out to do whether or not anyone else agrees with me. Likewise, whether I get a compliment or an insult means nothing as to how I feel I did.

I can sing in a karaoke bar to local drunken acclaim or jeers, but unless Paula, Randy and Simon agree, it doesn't meet the goal and move me to the next level. Likewise I can write what I want how I want, but unless an agent or an editor finds it compelling, then so what?

Of course there's value in feedback; someone could very possibly point out something that doesn't work in the book. This is why we all have friends and family we foist these things upon. Unfortunately, there's too often a pervasive "be encouraging at all costs" mentality that positive feedback probably doesn't mean much. Negative feedback would probably be more helpful but if there were really something wrong, the writer should already know about it. If they don't, they're probably kidding themselves and wouldn't listen to the criticism anyway.

Clearly many people, especially those in writing groups, would disagree with me. I do think, though, that there comes a point that to write well you have to write with confidence, you have to write with an assurance that you have an idea of what you should be doing. Whether it works or not is a different question but if the writer can't answer it for himself, can he really fix it in himself?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Vacation's Over

Two days of travel bookending three days of vacation: there must be an easier way. Nonetheless I'm back, a bit wiped out and dealing with the predicted neck and back issues arising from airplanes, airports and layover times. I think there's a reason the signs for airports all say "terminal."

Tomorrow should see me back on a more normal schedule. I need to post more about writing and book stuff as opposed to cell phone commercials and anything but. Something about sharing the pain, I think.

Which may make no sense. Everything hurts and I'm trying to cut back on the meds now that I'm home. A bit of withdrawal here and there is probably good for toughening up something. Or saving one's liver. If I turn yellow I'll let you know.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Leavin' On A Jet Plane

For some reason I get quite a spike in readers here when I post every day (or nearly so). I'm not exactly sure why that is; my supposition is that people may subscribe to an RSS service but then actually come to the site to read it when they get notice of an update.

Anyway, I'm off to Denver through the weekend and unless I manage something while I'm gone, there won't be anything new here until Monday. I've got to lay over at O'Hare and then transfer over to Denver. Ugly stuff. They've taken all the joy, all the sense of adventure, the romance of driving to one place and a few hours later appearing in another part of the country, and jackbooted it all away.

I thought this was done when I used to fly out each Monday and back home each Thursday for consulting jobs. I was wrong. Those were boring, but reliable. We're leaving at six this morning to get to the Boston airport at 8:30 in order to wrangle with checking my skis and skating through security machines in my socks without a bottle of water. Then the fun really starts, hours and hours in an airport terminal, waiting for the plane...

There's a reason the word "terminal" has a sinister meaning.

Anyway, I'm likely away until Monday. I've got two books to read for research for the new novel project and if that gets done I'll be happy. I was originally planning on reading volume 3 of Shelby Foote's Civil War Narrative, but I wasn't sure it wouldn't surpass the airplane's weight limits.

Have a good week and weekend! Ricky Nelson made this stuff seem so glamorous (at least in his song) but then we know what happened to him. Ugh.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Where'd What's-His-Name Go?

We just got back from a vacation weekend, and Wednesday I leave for the rest of the week on a ski trip to Colorado. I want to write about another unread book phenomenon, a short story vs. novel issue, and the depression that comes from people appreciating your unpublished work.

But it's late and I need to walk the dogs and finish a book I'm reading as research for my next book project. So I'm going to try to be cute, which means I'll probably be stupid. Silly, at the least.

Every day my little girl Sabrina, who's six, reads a chapter in book to me; then I read a chapter in a different book to her (we're on the Robert Arthur Three Investigator books--big inspiration to me when I was a boy). It got me thinking about the "Where's Waldo" fad some years back. Not much called for by way of reading skills, and it's no mystery that Waldo faded away.

Or is it?

Apparently good ol' Waldo has grown up and changed that red and white striped shirt. Now he's got a jacket he doesn't change, along with a job and a new celebrity. He actually speaks in this gig, asking people if 'they can hear him now' while traveling the country, much as he did in his books, educating those same children, now grown up to be cell phone consumers.

It's true, I guess, that we all grow up. In a recent commercial I saw where he's going to be a dad. Congratulations, dude. Since you have a phone, it'll be a lot easier for your friends to find you then it was before when you were camouflaged in various crowd scenes.

I don't know the man but I can't believe that he's trying to bury his past completely. He still has the trademark glasses, only slightly less noticeable than the old hat, and if he were truly moving on you know he'd have switched to contact lenses. It makes me wonder if the slogan itself isn't simply an attempt to recreate his earlier fame. In either case, he's plainly shouting for recognition, whether by sight or by sound. Can you see me, can you hear me: seems like he has some things he needs to work out.

I'll stop now. Someone else can pick this up and make it really funny. As long as no law suits are involved.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Hawaiian Ice, My Way

Here's where I stick up for people who don't need it, haven't asked for it, and I'm sure don't care one way or the other...

The other day I wrote about Tom Selleck and his Jesse Stone movies. When I've read other online opinions about them, the vast majority is of the same opinion: they're excellent movies. The disturbing thing is how many people seem genuinely surprised that Tom Selleck does such an excellent job. Why wouldn't he?

There's a cultural snobbery that seems to ridicule men (I can't think of any women) who make enormous names for themselves with television shows that can be labeled as trendy. I didn't care for Magnum P.I. myself. I didn't like the pilot, the shady sidekick, I really didn't like Higgins, and the constant bickering turned me off. The car was cool but would a P.I. really drive one of those around? Maybe if he wanted everybody to look at him...

Don Johnson suffers from the same image problem. I loved him in Harlan Ellison's A Boy and his Dog. He was great in Paradise, possibly the last movie where Melanie Griffith looked like Melanie Griffith. He showed his usual charismatic screen charm in Tin Cup. But he made his bones with the Miami Vice TV show and it's become a post-eighties cliche. He, too, drove a cool car, but it wasn't enough. He did a fine job in the show, you just had to like the show. (I liked Nash Bridges must better.)

Do we resent these guys their success? Why don't we do the same for any women? If these guys were the lousy actors or punchlines they're too frequently portrayed to be, how'd they succeed at all?

It's not fair, and damn it, I'm here to stand and up and be counted. I'm not ashamed that I like watching these guys work on screen. They beat the snot out of enigmas like Keanu Reeves and Paul Walker. Those guys I don't get at all. Then again, they haven't been in cheesey hit TV shows.

A musical name pops out at me, too: Paul Anka. I like the guy. For years I've heard people deride him as some kind of second rate talent. He was a legitimate teen idol, writer and performer of hits like "Diana" and "Put Your Head on My Shoulder." He showed his longevity with hits (and Kodak commercials) like "The Times of Your Life." According to him, his song "My Way" caused Sinatra to reconsider his retirement.

Personally I think he survived the creepy AM horror of "You're Having My Baby." As far as I could tell, America forgave him for that one. His downfall was his first big hit, though, and he can't get over that any more than Selleck could outpace Magnum or Johnson could leave behind Miami Vice. Fifty years later, five decades, Anka fell in "Puppy Love" and we won't let him out of it. I think something's wrong with us.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Sad But Not Forgotten

Sigh. A friend of mine sent me this at the end of an e-mail last night:

BTW is Roxy ok? Will Cam and Lori get back together? What about Roy, when's he gonna turn up and f***everything up?

I couldn't make head or tails of it. There was a "Roxy" in the show Dead Like Me which I recommended to him but he watched all the episodes and knows everything about her I do. There's a "Cam" on Stargate SG-1 but he's played by Ben Browder, who I thought was excellent in Farscape but my friend never warmed to him. I couldn't think of a "Lori" or a "Roy" of any sort, though. I called my wife over and asked, "By any chance, do you know what the hell he's talking about?"

She looked at the line, looked at me, straightened and said, "He's talking about your book." At that moment the furnace likely kicked in and I couldn't hear when she added, "You idiot" under her breath.

So I wrote this thing, tentatively titled "Some Things You Die For" (sounds awfully Lawrence Block- or Donald Westlake-ish) and for the first time I did it as a draft. In other words, I kept writing past passages I knew I needed more work. I can't do the "just write it all down, you can fix it later" kind of thing; writing on top of crap just yields more crappy writing. Still, there's a midpoint where it's roughly good and roughly correct and at least bobs along on the surface without fully sinking.

Before I went back to it, though, I wanted to do two things. First, "forget" it to the point that when I read the thing it would be with fresh eyes, so I'd naturally read every paragraph and not mentally skim over because I knew what was coming. The second thing was to do the prep work for the next book (if I don't answer certain questions ahead of time, I'll butt up to the same places in the book every time. Apparently.).

The prep work for the second book is around halfway done. It takes me a while, especially since we haven't had the babysitter since last fall. I wish this could go faster but I'm a CFS-stricken, sleep deprived, homeschooling dad propped up by vicodin and carisoprodol. Hemingway had his booze...

As for the part about forgetting the first book before I do the edit/revision work, I guess I'm about there. I was going to reply to my friend with a, "Huh? What are you doing, watching soap operas over there?" "Forgetting" the book shouldn't include forgetting who I give it to to read.

Ahhhh, mental health. Don't waste yours.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Dead Watch"

I'm dying here. Between the falling dollar and rising oil, proposed Democratic budget and tax increases and Republican unrestricted trade and seeming indifference to global warming, to the nation's credit crunch and our town budget proposal. We're growing corn to burn more fuel so that we're running out of grain for food and feed. We decimate sharks for soup and other fish because we get paid. And blah blah blah blah blah blah...

I'm depressed. I'm afraid for my children's future. I don't see any way out of it. I can't even seem to make myself care about illegal immigration. My only real hope is that the media constantly harps on the worst possible angles of the most unsavory stories and we're not really any better or worse off than at any other point in modern history.

Except for that global warming thing. That's a big one.

TV's painful because my basic cable service from Time-Warner combined with a cable modem costs over a hundred dollars per month. Beneath the total should be a statement that says: This is why you hate us. Love, TW. And then, of course, it's still TV.

Thank god for books. Open the cover, turn the page, and get me the hell out of here.

Clearly, as I mentioned a few posts ago, I'm not coping so well. For years and years I haven't been able to read books about three things: politics, Hollywood, and sports. They are typically filled with cliched cardboard cutout characters placed in situations so far out from what I can identify with they are about as interesting to read as the latest Party vs. Party diatribe for the upcoming election.

That doesn't always stop me from trying, however. I really liked Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate but it was published a long time ago. Recently I read John Sandford's Dead Watch and I'll be damned if Sandford didn't handle it with all the skill and inventiveness that he's brought to his two series (the Prey and the Kidd books).

Politics are inherently interesting. American politics are inherently distasteful (to me; maybe it would be different if I was Portugese or something but I don't know). Dead Watch introduces us to a new character, a typical Sandord man's man: bright, clever, socially adept, knows how to get along with the ladies. The plot revolves around political intrigue as plausible as anything occurring in real life but without the cliches, without the tiresome comparisons to American presidents past, and without any preachy or attempted redeeming message about the great American Way.

What it does do is tell a damned good story. As I've said here numerous times, Sandford is one of the few contemporary authors I know of that consistently gets better as time goes by; he's resisted falling into a self-parodying formula or rehashing of previous works and comes out swinging every time. I can't think of anything I'd rather read about (for pleasure) than a book with a political setting (or Hollywood or pro sports). But Sandford makes it work because, I think, he puts the story above all else.

There should be a writing Rule in there somewhere, I think. Aw, but then someone would just come along and break it. In the meantime, I think I'm behind one Prey and one Sandford standalone. Those ought to keep me away from the world for a while.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Put Down the Ray Gun, Stewie...

With a six year old girl and a three year old boy in the house, practically the ONLY way I can get any writing done whatsoever is to leave the house. For whatever reason, homes in New England have detached garages, many with some kind of finished rooms either above or behind the car space. When we bought our house, we had the builder put in a two car standalone garage with an office space up top. It's heated, has a bathroom (populated only with a toilet at this time), and all of my books.

The ongoing project is to build wall to wall bookshelves on the two long walls. The picture above shows one completed unit (it doesn't all fit in the picture); the skeleton for the other wall exists and the rest is waiting until spring.

The other day, out of the blue, my son said, "Daddy, when you die can I have your room?"

Somewhat flustered, I stammered out, "Um, sure, I guess. I'll be dead so you can work it out with your mother."

He waited a few seconds and then he said, "Will you die soon?"

"I hope not," I said. "But you never know." I hope that he realizes it would be in his best interests to let me complete the other shelf unit, finish the bathroom, and take care of the insulation deficiency the builder left us with. Presumably then he'll be more able to take and hold the facility. Or turn it into a cool fort. Something, anyway.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


One day I'd like to read a good biography of Walt Disney. I think he did good things, I think he was a visionary, an innovator, and he had an appealing presence on film. He sure did some cool things with mice. For all I know he kicked dogs and drank too much, but I really hope not.

When I first started going to Florida to jump out of airplanes, I'd head over to DisneyWorld on bad weather days that kept us from jumping. It cost fifteen bucks to get in and five bucks to park. I thought this was a bargain. Being used to the bumper to bumper inhumanity of stadium parking lots, I feared the entire parking process but it turned out to be a dream. It's as easy-in and easy-out as could be. This cemented my first real Disney thought: they did things right. Rather than be an afterthought, the logistics of moving people around had clearly been someone's priority early on in the development process.

But then I noticed that each time I went back, the price of admission had gone up two bucks. I just checked now and the price is up to $71.00. Per person. For one park. For one day.

For years the parking stayed at five bucks but shortly before we moved out of the Sunshine State they started hitting those, too. When we left it had gone up to ten bucks. I've never believed in paying for parking anywhere I go (not that I'm not forced to do it). It's like a surcharge or a penalty for giving someone my business. And the ever-increasing prices for the season passes we used to get... I had hoped when Universal opened up that competition would slow the increases down. I'm so naive.

And then they announced they would do no more animated features. Because computer-rendered images trump actual art and story? You can't have both? I believe there's a place for "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid" alongside the Pixar offerings like "Toy Story" and "The Incredibles."

And they keep putting these computer animated cartoon series on their cable channel, THE favorite of my kids, with "art" and "characters" that are so crudely drawn, so unimaginative, so
unpleasant to look at that I can't bear to watch them. "The Buzz on Maggie," "Dave the Barbarian," and now "Phineas and Ferb" are simply dreadful. And that's just to name a few.

A couple of weeks ago I read how the woman who wrote the Cheetah Girls books that a series of Disney Channel movies (third one forthcoming), CDs, and an actual touring musical group are based on, hasn't been paid any of the royalty money she contracted for. Sure, it's a common enough story for a freelance writer to be screwed by Hollywood, but this is Disney, for gosh' sake. Isn't it? Happiest-place-on-earth kind of company?

So, yes, I'm disappointed. But here's what I REALLY find appalling: so much of the programming on the Disney Channel perpetrates the same kind of "class warfare" that make me keep my kids out of public school. I was watching their "Minutemen" movie last night with my daughter and one of the characters, a JOCK, was complaining about the behavior of fellow students he previously bullied. He said something like, "It's like the dorks don't know their place anymore."

To be fair, it's not just Disney. All the studios put out this crap that sorts people into Jocks and the Popular Girls, as well as consigning large numbers to be Dorks, Nerds, Geeks, Brainiacs, and other groups to be mocked and ridiculed. These are the lessons we want our kids to learn? This is what life in school is really like?

Really, you can't tell your stories any other way? Give me a break.

These shows force kids to take sides, either mock or be mocked, be on the inside or the outside, behave a certain way and be cool or don't and be a joke. I watch these things, too often alongside my children, and think "Columbine De-mystified." It's sad, it's pathetic, and it can't be anything other than wrong.

And I hope to god that Walt himself, were he still with us, would not have allowed this stuff to take over his vision. Someone has to light the way, which I think he did, but those that follow have to keep the flame alive. Other than the snooty waiter from "Ferris Beuller's Day Off," I don't know who said, "I weep for the future." Sadly, I do, too.

Save Ferris. Save us all.

Monday, March 03, 2008


I talked about "thin books" a little while ago, books that I find easy to read, filled usually with snappy dialogue, and contain interesting characters. But they fail to involve, to really absorb, to make me really want to know what comes next yet be afraid to turn the page because there will only be that much less story to discover.

So many of these books are produced by the same writers over and over that I've come to think of it as an actual style. They're like Dippin' Dots, the freeze dried ice cream we used to get at the mall when we lived in the South. The little pellets melt away in your mouth almost before you can get your teeth on them, leaving but a wisp of tantalizing flavor. Ah, the ice cream that could have been.

This isn't to say that they're bad books, just brain popcorn, some with a bit more butter or salt than the others. Elmore Leonard's books fit this category for me, as do Robert B. Parker's. Leonard's oft-quoted Ten Rules for Writers make a good deal of sense but like any rule, especially one regarding the arts, they're usually about as substantive as a small tub of Dippin' Dots.

For instance, the Leonard Rule of leaving out all the parts "that readers tend to skip." These are the "thick paragraphs of prose" that are the writer waxing "hooptedoodle." To me, a better rule is just, "Don't be boring." Or, as I once heard author James W. Hall say at a conference, "But I like reading those parts." If the text is well written, if it moves the story along or develops the characters, mostly if it advances the story, then I'm all for it. I read a book to read the book, not cherry pick shorter paragraphs or passages of dialogue.

Leonard is so well regarded that once upon a time I read a number of his books even when I became convinced that, for me, the work didn't live up to the hype. Enjoyable for what they were, but they left me longing for something more like a good, meaty James Clavell. Or at least a John Sandford, who is every bit as 'easy to read' but can sweep me away in a milieu that keeps me up at night turning pages.

Parker works much the same way for me. Judging from seeing him at conferences, he's a tremendously charismatic and intelligent guy. But his Spenser books, again, just roll off the mind like a bead of water down wax paper. The first time I stopped reading him was after the plot of the book was very clearly borrowed from Chandler's "The Big Sleep." A few years later, I went back to the beginning of the series and read the first two. These were better, but not all that different.

I started again, kind of, with his Jesse Stone series. I caught part of one a few months ago and the earth tone color palette, the performance of Tom Selleck as Stone, and the moody atmosphere had me mesmerized. I went to the town bookstore to find the first book: they didn't have it. I went across the street to the library: they didn't have it. I looked online for an e-book version: nobody had it. So back at the bookstore, I bought the fourth one in the series. (They had others but they were in that &%#@ inch-taller mass market format that I WILL NOT touch. So far.)

Again, thin as usual, but with a strange twist. The atmosphere of the TV movies and the characterization and portrayal by Tom Selleck of the lead character played in my head as I read the book. A few weeks later, I found the third book at a discount (remainder) store. Same experience.

My wife and I began watching the movies in their entirety. She's enjoying them a bit more than me, I'm afraid, because, well, the plots of the movies are a lot like the plots in the books. Um, they're a bit thin.

This is tough to do without spoilers, but I'll try: a character already knows something about another character; the state police captain tells Stone other things about other characters; Stone instinctively and correctly knows things about his cases (sure, I'll buy that he's that good). The end result, though, is that while there's an element of mystery there's not enough mystery solving to make the experience more satisfactory, more filling, more, I suppose, thick.

The movies will make me read the books, and vice versa. Almost always it's the other way around. At least I already know I won't be skipping any parts.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Bound Talisman

I don't cope so well anymore. Once upon a time I was fairly easy going, then grew into something of a hothead, and then settled down again. When an incompetent doctor punctured my dura mater and sent me home to ooze my cerebral-spinal fluid away from my brain in private, I was left bedridden for eight months. After numerous procedures and tests, I was restored to my feet, only now with messed up discs in my neck and a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome. I munch vicodin and carisoprodol with disturbing aplomb (when I met my wife I wouldn't even take aspirin for a headache; the first one wasn't even free).

For a time there I became more emotional and somewhat irritable. Constant pain and a lack of "restorative sleep" will do that to a person. Over the past few years, the pain is a bit more manageable and yet more prescription meds allow me to fall to sleep without the instant-on radio that seems to happen in my mind most nights when I try to pass out. I still can't sit upright in a chair for prolonged periods of time, shovel snow, play on the floor with my kids, and feel proud of not polluting my temple with chemicals.

So I'm a junkie. I never claimed to be in denial. If the doctors would see fit to recommend surgery, I'd be there in a heartbeat but that's another story.

Put another way, certain aspects regarding the quality of my life have changed for the worse the past few years. I'm not the same kind of person I used to be. I'm not the same extroverted, hyperactive gadfly that wooed my wife. She tells me she thinks I'd like to be a hermit, and that I need to take a few more deep breaths throughout the day. I don't argue with either point.

So I bought a book...

I've always admired Buddhism as a philosophy rather than as a dogma. The idea that people are inherently kind and compassionate creatures, that we are happiest if we are acting so; that freedom from want is a key to happiness: notions like these could actually help me become a happier person. I think.

Enter Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, one-time headliner for the self-help phenomenon of the eighties and now barefooted smooth talking pitchman for public TV. I saw him last year talking about the Power of Intention and I had no idea what he was talking about. My own fault, I'm sure; I can't watch any show and stay through either a commercial or an appeal for sponsorship. Makes it hard to follow just about any show more complicated than I Dream of Jeannie.

His more recent appearances have shown him talking about the philosophy of the Tao. Dyer read a number of Lao-tzu's Tao Te Ching, a series of verses that offers guidance on how to be moral, spritual, happy and good, and wrote a book offering his own interpretation.

It's there now, on the table in front of me, and it's been working for me for several weeks. Sure, the introduction offers a corny bit comparing his own name to the words Tao Te Ching, and the discussion of each verse contains a section called "Do the Tao Now." But it's a fact that I've been calmer in the face of poor work left us by our homebuilder, erratic snowplowing by our neighbor, and dozens of the petty nothings that all of us have to face every day. Just knowing the book is here, that I bought it for this purpose, has helped me achieve it. It's bizarre.

Dyer's an excellent speaker, even more impressive since he doesn't use notes or cue cards during his talks, and I only hope his actual writing lives up to the promise of its message. In a way, though, I suppose it doesn't need to as long as I seem to be responding to the book's physical presence.

There may be a Zen or Taoist message somewhere in that thought but I have no way of knowing. I'm starting to think I'll have to actually read the book.