Monday, December 28, 2015

Best Reads of 2015

I spent a lot of time writing this year. I finished Queensboro last winter, wrapped Winter in early August, and cranked out a couple of short stories this fall (my "Cat's Eye" won a contest!). The entire Crow Creek series will be released through Samhain Publishing over the next 13 months (a little shameless self-promotion shall not perish from the Earth).

I also read as much as possible, balancing the classics (I have Elmore Leonard, Jack Ketchum, and Neil Gaiman sitting on the shelf beside me) with contemporary works so I can stay current in my practice. Picking the best books (or the best of anything) is never easy, but I love lists, so I thought I'd throw my two cents into the year-end pot. Here's what I read and what I liked. Thank you to these wonderful authors for sharing their passion. My reviews are general so as not to give away any spoilers. I've cropped some of what I previously posted on Goodreads.

10. Those Who Are Left by Josh Stricklin
I found this through an Amazon recommendation, actually. When you order enough horror novels, they have an algorithm that suits your interests. Clever. This one is fast-paced and intense. Better than the ones Stephen King put his brand name on this year. Maybe this hasn't passed his desk yet. Could be too low-budget for him. It's apocalyptic but funny. The protagonist is endearing. The violence and horror are appropriately surreal. I hope the rest of the series is as much of a thrill ride.

9. Dust of the Dead by John Palisano
I met this fellow Samhain author at the World Horror Conference in Atlanta last spring. He's original and inspiring. I read this twist on the zombie apocalypse in a day. He does a believable job creating a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles without being mundane or cliche. He effectively blends suspense, horror, and dark comedy and leaves you gasping for more. This harrowing odyssey is a must read for all fans of the zombie genre.

8. Shutter by Courtney Alameda
I also met Alameda at the World Horror Conference. She's creative, dedicated to her craft, and brooding. Everything a horror writer should be. This young-adult ghost story is very engaging. It has the perfect blend of fantasy and reality. The descriptions are balanced evenly with the acton. The lead characters are strong and believable. Her ear for dialogue is spot on. It's creepy, cool, and funny at times. My teenage daughter read it in two days.

7. Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong
Not so much horror/comedy as satirical science fiction, David Wong continues to impress. His vision of the future is thoroughly frightening, especially his commentary on social media and our culture of dehumanization. An exciting and hilarious adventure, Futuristic Violence is stylistically superb. One can only wonder how soon his nightmare world will become all-too real.

6. The Cure by JG Faherty
I shared interview time on Zombiepalooza Radio with this Samhain author. He's intelligent and inspiring. The Cure is one of the scariest novels I've read in a long time. It's also one of the best. Faherty is a master at building characters. The reader can't escape the torture the protagonist endures. This powerful story of love, corruption, redemption, and loss is a mature read. I can't wait for his next.

5. Sarah of the Romani by Tom Calen
Quite different from his Pandemic Sequence, Tom Calen's found his voice in this suspenseful tale of witchcraft and murder. The two brothers crafted as contrasting protagonists are compelling. Calen creates a suspenseful tale of grisly murders while building a mythos that's sure to a launch another powerful horror series.  Part Lovecraft, part King - a novel you won't be able to put down.

4. The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker
One of the true masters of horror returns with the final, long-awaited tale of Pinhead and the Cenobites. This time, protagonist Harry D'Amour goes to hell to rescue his blind best friend. He's well-crafted and memorable. The powerful imagery creates a demonic world of sex and violence as only Barker can create. His writing is beautiful yet horrifying. After Peter Straub, he handles language and commands words better than anyone else in the field.

3. Finders Keepers by Stephen King
This book is vintage King. Brilliant story, amazing character development, and non-stop action. I devoured this book faster than any of his I've read in a long time. Enjoyed it so much more than Revival and Mr. Mercedes. I was happy to see King return to his roots in the final scene with the set up for the next book in the series.

2. Such a Dark Thing by Jess Peacock
An engaging, thoughtful essay about the theology of horror. Drives home the point that in a world created by God, God remains culpable for all things evil. Includes an excellent annotated bibliography that covers the best of vampires in pop culture. The writing is so brilliant and intellectual that I felt like I was captivated by a favorite college professor. Peacock takes his writing and his themes seriously. He's a committed and inspiring author.

1. Strange Animals by Chad Kultgen
I've enjoyed all five of Chad Kultgen's novels. He's my favorite author right now (and also the world's greatest squirrel photographer). This book cuts right to the heart of the pro-choice/pro-life debate by exposing the radical Christian right for what they are - corporate machines aimed at controlling women and denying freedom to all those with different ideologies. The narrative alternates seamlessly between the two main characters and builds momentum until their final confrontation. This book will haunt you. As always, Kultgen's work is aggressive and genuine.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Why We Need Star Wars

Use the Force.

I haven't seen the new Star Wars movie yet, so there won't be any spoilers here (not that there would be anyhow).  I have tickets for a Monday matinee, but I'm not sure I can wait until then.

I'm inspired by last night's episode of The Big Bang Theory.  I enjoyed their coverage of the new release, but one line gave me pause.  While three of the geeks await the show (Sheldon's in bed with his girlfriend finding another use for the force), they're joined by Will Wheaton, dressed in Star Trek grab and appropriately booed and hissed by the crowd.  Will tells our inept heroes something like, "Whether or not the movie is good won't make a difference when you wake up in the morning."  They nod and sigh in dejected acceptance.

I disagree.  We need Star Wars, and we need it to be good.  We need it to be the best fucking movie ever made.  It makes no difference whether or not you're a fan.  This is bigger than what George Lucas started in the 70s.  This is not just a cultural phenomenon.  This is how art shines.  How creativity and imagination take us to another level.  We're fed up.  We're frustrated.  We need hope.  We're desperate for light.  Star Wars gives us both.

I liken this to the arrival of The Beatles in 1964.  Kennedy's assassination, civil unrest, the brink of war in Vietnam; America torn apart at the seams.  The Fab Four descended like Gods (dare I say Jedi Knights?) from their jet airliner and swept us away.  I wasn't even born yet, and I'm hypnotized by the footage.  It doesn't matter whether or not you like their music.  (If you don't, you're fucked in the head.)  Look, I'm an Elvis fan, first and foremost, but this isn't about competition and rivalry.  Elvis opened the door for The Beatles.  That's not at question.  This is about basic human needs.  Love and belonging.  Self-transcendence.  About looking at the person sitting next to you in the theatre and knowing (without saying), we're here.  We've made it.  We're sharing this together.  It's fucking special.  It's important.  It's what makes life beautiful.  No matter what the hell is going on in the world, we have this.  Nobody can take this moment away.

Here's another example of my thesis.  I love the movie A Bronx Tale, but I question the part on the school bus when an angry Robert DeNiro asks his misguided son, "What did Mickey Mantle ever do for you?"  Mickey Mantle did so much.  He did everything!  He made so many people happy (even if you hate the Yankees!).  We care about our athletes and our sports teams for the same reason we love the movies.  They give us something to cheer for.

I saw Star Wars in 1977 with my older brother and one of his friends.  There was commotion in the parking lot.  A fender-bender, someone got cut off, not enough spaces.  I can't remember anymore.  It was New York City, though.  There's always somebody screaming at something there.  All I remember is being with my big brother.  I miss those days.  I wish I could see the new release with him (and my little brother).  We're a country apart now, but the Force is still strong in us.  I'll picture their smiles and hear their shouts when I see the Millennium Falcon and miss their grumbles at this generation's Darth Vader (while secretly loving him).  I'll wish for matching light sabers under the Christmas tree like we got when we were small.

But before that, I'll cry when I see those famous words light up the movie screen.  "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...."  I'll bawl like a fucking baby.  I need to.  We all do.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Life Is Beautiful!

A sweet rose.

I'm in the middle of a great run.  All in the last week or so, I signed a contract for a novel, accepted an offer to direct a play for a community theatre, worked out a deal to revise a film script, and won a writing contest.  I realize I'm not Stephen King or Steven Spielberg, but we have to take these things in stride.  There's only one Stephen King.  Only one Steven Spielberg.  The rest of us are playing catch-up.

I'm a late entry into the game, I think.  Although I've been writing and performing for as long as I can remember, at 46 years-old, this has been a bit of a break-through year for me.  I think two choices are most responsible for my good fortune.  I attended the World Horror Conference in Atlanta in May and auditioned for a role in a local production of Urinetown last summer.  Both of these events enabled me to see the world beyond my recliner.  The real world.  The one that's not on my television or in my iPhone.  I established relationships, connected with professional artists, and learned an invaluable lesson.  Life is too short not to appreciate beauty.

You might think Drago's gone crazy.  Fallen off his fucking rocker.  Maybe I have.  There's a lot of shit going on in the world.  I know it.  But, I also think it's very easy to fall into the trap of despair.  That's why I write horror.  It's easy.  Misery loves company, after all.  Simply put, I think the media dwells so much on the negative that it makes it convenient for all of us to do so.  The same is true with social media.  I make an effort to keep my posts positive; I don't always succeed, but I get so tired of reading the rants of those upset about one political issue or another that I can't force myself to join the conversation.  It's exhausting.

I choose to embrace beauty.  For every crazy lunatic plotting to kill and maim, there are thousands of others we never hear about struggling to do good.  To be good.  To elevate humanity.  These people come in all walks of life.  You know who I'm talking about.  There are the obvious ones.  The nurses, the teachers (fuck, yes, there are amazing teachers), social workers, firefighters, soldiers, etc.  The ones we always talk about every day.  But there are others.  The ones who'll let you merge lanes in traffic or give up their seats on a crowded plane or hand over their shopping carts when you have too much to carry.  I don't believe altruism starts with charity.  It's easy to give when you have something to give.  It's tough to give when you don't.  That's selfless.  I think it's called sacrifice.  It's beautiful.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm still as intolerant as ever.  I have no patience.  I'm completely neurotic.  Paranoid.  Frustrated.  Those personality traits will never go away.  I'm grateful my wife and children tolerate them.  But, at heart, I'm a hopeless romantic.  I try to do good things.  I search for beauty within nightmares.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Remember, Remember the 5th of November, 1999



Probably time I told this story.  If for nothing else, I'm afraid I'll forget it as I get older and lose more of my mind.

My wife and I met at a rough time in our lives.  We'd both walked away from jobs that we (for the most part) enjoyed and found ourselves running an outdoor theatre at a small charter school in North Phoenix.  She managed their human resources; I taught drama.  She hired me, actually.  We fell in love over a phone call.  I wonder if that could still happen today.  I think we would've texted and smartphoned our way to love, regardless.

She was still married to her first husband at the time.  I never met him.  They were high school sweethearts, and things didn't work out.  They grew apart, I guess.  I kept my distance (as much as I could) while she went through her separation.  I remember taking her to sign her divorce papers and holding her as she trembled in my arms and told me it was the most difficult decision she'd ever made.

Anyhow, a few other guys started showing interest in her, so I figured I'd better get off my ass.  I invited her to meet my family for dinner the weekend we produced our first play together (a melodrama, no less).  I'd made the mistake of not inviting her over for Thanksgiving a week earlier, much to the anger and frustration of my big brother and big sister-in-law.  This was December 1998.  Believe it or not, it snowed on our opening night.  Enough to cancel the show!  I lived in Phoenix almost 20 years and only remember one other snowfall.  

We spent the holidays together that year.  We first held hands while crossing a Costco (probably Price Club, at the time) parking lot.  We attended a Christmas party where I sang an Elvis song.  We moved in together and were expecting our first child by Easter.  We found out the week my niece was born but sat on the news for a bit so as not to steal her attention.  And, of course, we weren't married yet.  And my wife's divorce hadn't gone through.  Yeah, there was that.

By June, I proposed.  I spent $300 on a ring (poor schoolteacher wondering how in the world he'll be able to afford a family) and $9 on a suit from Goodwill (that still hangs in the back of my closet).  We planned a Labor Day wedding, figuring the divorce would be final by then.  It wasn't.  Our minister dropped out, of course.  "What?!  She's pregnant?!  And she's married to another guy?!  I'll take no part in these shenanigans!"

So we hired a fake.  Yes, the whole wedding was a sham.  An enjoyable one, at that.  If you attended and still don't know - Ha!  We fooled ya!  We're fucking theatre people, after all.  The day after her divorce finalized, we went to the local courthouse and said our vows to a video camera presided over by a judge who reminded me of the one Herman Munster played in My Cousin Vinny (minus the Southern accent).  This was late September 1999.

My wife had been gravely ill during her pregnancy.  She spent most of that summer in bed or sick in the bathroom.  I bought her a bulldog puppy to keep her company.  We named her Babe after my late grandfather.  The one I'm named after.  He was a Mack truck guy.  (If you read my shit, you know all this already.)  I get choked up just thinking about how much I loved that dog.  She saved my wife in so many ways.  I could never repay her.  I'm glad she lived almost a dozen years.

We had a few false alarms.  The baby didn't want to wait.  The hospital kept sending us home.  My wife got weaker and sicker.  On November 4th, the pain became unbearable.  We rushed to the hospital (I stopped off on Northern Avenue so she could vomit in the desert darkness) where she mustered the strength to tell her doctors and nurses that she wasn't going home without her baby.

The next morning, my mom kept my wife company while I ran last minute errands before the doctors induced labor.  My parents were going through their own divorce by then, and I think having my mom bedside during the delivery helped her at a time when she was most fragile.  Keep in mind, my mom lost a baby girl in utero during the early 80's.  I hoped to shake that awful memory (if only for a moment) by giving her a chance to witness the gift of life.

Labor lasted a while.  My son looked like a gray fish when he was born.  Like a miniature Creature from the Black Lagoon.  I wanted to cut the cord but couldn't because both my wife and son needed immediate medical attention.  The staff ran my mom and me out of the room.  I called my dad and cried hysterically.  "I want to kiss my wife!  I want to hold my son!  What the fuck do I do?"

"You wait, Tommy.  That's what we used to do."  You wait.

The wait for me wasn't nearly as bad as it was for my wife.  They kept our boy from her for a couple of days.  She later told me she thought he'd died during delivery but we were keeping the news from her until she recovered.  I'm sorry for that.

Anyway, I changed his first poop diaper!  I was so proud.  I know I'm not the best father, but fuck, I try.  We had a little girl a few years later, but that's a whole other story (with just as much excitement and equal parts miracle).  I'm nuts about her.

I catch myself wondering what the fuck this all means, what life means.  I get down on myself.  I think I have it so rough sometimes.  Fuck that.  Fuck me.  I got everything.

You waited, Tommy.  It was so worth it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Dr. Overworked or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Stress



I'm so busy.  Too busy.  I know we all feel that way, so I'm not trying to generate any pity.  In the past week, I've seen two young teachers in tears over stress at work.  I don't know why anyone would want to go into the profession anymore.  There are no incentives.  We have no support.  We're often vilified, even when we make decisions in the best interests of our students (like alerting authorities about a possible bomb threat).

This post is for me.  I need to write out everything I'm doing so when my head catches fire, I'll have an explanation.  Be warned; it's going to be very long.  If you don't make it all the way through, I'll understand and still love you.

Before I start my list; did you know that my school district wants to set up a page that defines the acronyms for all the initiatives they've implemented in recent years?  Do you realize how fucking scary that is?  There are so many initiatives that we now need a glossary.  When we've reached that point, I think we call can agree that the world has gone to ice (sorry Snow Miser - I've always been your brother's biggest fan).

By the way, I don't need any initiatives.  Not a single one.  This is the start of my 25th year as an educator.  Nothing the administration has provided me at any level wherever I've worked has ever helped me in any way be a better school teacher.  All I need are students and a classroom.  Why is that so hard for folks to figure out?  It's not always about the lack of funding.

I teach eight sections of theatre at the high school (four acting; four tech theatre classes) and creative writing.  These are fun.  I love being with the kids.  Their energy still inspires me after all these years.  But I hate that I now have to write lesson plans for every class using a district-mandated template.  The state is also implementing a merit pay program.  Fuck you.  That's all I can say to that.  What makes anyone think putting teachers in competition with one another will improve standardized test scores?   Do you see the smoke rising from my ears?   You want the scores to increase?  Teach parents how to parent.  Make them go through professional development.  Then maybe their kids will learn to read and write before they start school like mine did.  And there's the newly modified evaluation instrument for art teachers.  I now need to record and upload student performances as proof that they're learning what I'm teaching.  Wonderful.  We can't even get a strong enough wi-fi signal for gmail in our building.  Not to mention we've been given no assessment tool and have no evaluation process in place.  They're making it up as they go along.  What else should we expect from politicians?

Let me stop being so fucking negative.  This isn't supposed to be a rant.  I'm just making a list of everything I do so I can prioritize.

Deep breaths, Tommy.  Ease the burn.  A slow roast will cook you just the same.  Even better, perhaps.

I teach two sections of expository writing at the college.  I love this job.  I'll do anything my department chair asks.  She's wonderful.  I taught her daughter (who is now a high school drama teacher and also wonderful).

I produce the after-school drama program at the high school.  We are running four plays in repertory over consecutive weekends starting in early November.  We will produce a spring musical.  This tires me out but engages my creative desire.

I sponsor the drama club and Improv team.  Minimal work here.  The students run things, as well they should.  Both highly entertaining.

I supervise a study hall.  Always a solid, quiet place to work for my students and me; although, I'd rather have them in my theatre classes.  But I've given up that fight.

Choose your battles, Drago.  Choose them wisely.

I'm the Arts Department Chair.  I work with an amazing department.  They make this job very easy.

I've been selected as the Theatre PLC Leader (that's Professional Learning Community Leader - your first acronym; aren't you thrilled?) for our district.  I'm trying to get out of this.  I was volunteered.

I'm organizing my drama program's participation in the North Carolina Theatre Festival this fall.  We've won awards in the past.  I think this group has the potential to give us more.

I'm organizing a New York City trip for my advanced acting classes in the spring.  What's not to like here?  New York is my hometown.  I'd live there if I could afford to.  At least, I'll squeeze in John's Pizzeria and Rocco's Pastry Shop a couple of times, both on Bleecker Street.

I'm covering for the vacant theatre manager position at our high school.  Not fun.  Lots of stress.  This deserves a post all on its own, but I won't go there.  Hopefully will be resolved soon.

I'm revising my third novel and writing two short stories for submission into a local magazine.  Keeps my brain sharp.  And as Stephen King once wrote, "Keeps the gators fed."  Fellow horror writers should get that reference.

I'm adjudicating two separate categories for a professional writing competition.  So cool.  But I won't pick titles just because everyone says they're good.  I take Poe's stance on criticism.  I'm a bitch.

I'm performing in a musical production for a local community theatre this fall.  This is a blast.  I have a small part but love the work.  My son is in the show.  He sings and dances.  His dancing is hilarious (not on purpose).  He makes me smile.

I'm the Board Pesident for (a currently inactive) local community theatre.  This makes me sad.  My wife and I worked so hard to build this program, but we're defunct now because we couldn't generate consistent support from the locals.  A shame, really.

In addition to all those jobs, I try my best to be a loving husband, responsible father, respectful son, and supportive brother.  Still no friends, though.  I keep telling myself I don't have the time.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Where are you, New York?

We remember tragedies in great detail.  It's unfortunate.  I have a clearer image in my mind of those fucking planes than I do of my daughter taking her first steps.

I cry for the innocent people who lost their lives that day.  And for our fallen heroes.  The firefighters, the police officers, the paramedics, the pilots and flight crews, for anyone who did anything to help another human being on a day when humanity stopped being humanity.  The day the sirens wailed, and the dust fell, and the people screamed, and the buildings crashed, and the smoke billowed, and oh my God, look at those lost faces on TV, those beautiful child-like faces, covered in ash and scampering across the Brooklyn Bridge.  My home, the streets my parents ruled as teenagers, the city my grandparents and immigrant great-grandparents built.  Broadway.  The Harlem Globetrotters at Madison Square Garden.  Central Park.  The F Train.  Staten Island Little League.  The Mets, the Jets (the fucking jets), the Giants, the Yankees.  Babe Ruth.  The rides at Coney Island.  With my big brother watching me because that's what big brothers do.  They watch your back.  But who had our backs then?  Who protected us when the lights went out?  When the sun finally set?  Where's my daddy?  I want my daddy.  Where are you, New York?  Fucking New York.  I love you.

For the countless schoolteachers, like me, locked in classrooms with students who wanted answers but were given none.

That fall, I started teaching English at the local high school.  I'd spent the previous year cursing fate at the neighboring middle school.  I knocked on the principal's door that summer and inquired about starting up an after-school theatre program.  I loved that woman.  What a champion of women's rights!  To my knowledge, the first female principal in the state of Tennessee (long before my time as an educator and prior to our relocation to North Carolina).  She accepted my offer (I told her I'd kindly repay the $500 she put up for my production of Frankenstein out of ticket sales) and I spent most of the first month of school cleaning out backstage.  The chorus teacher, a crotchety woman working on her doctorate, found me in the bowels of the auditorium (where theatre guys spend all their waking hours, it seems) and told me a plane had hit the World Trade Center.  I'd heard stories of the prop that hit the Empire State Building in the 1940s or whenever, so I didn't think much of it.  I continued shifting scenery and organizing props until first period ended.  Then, I turned on the classroom TV, shocked into truth with the rest of our nation.

We cried and clung to one another but remained strong for the children entrusted to our custody.  That's what teachers do, and mine is ultimately a teacher's story, after all.

The only thing I can compare it to is when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, and my high school calculus teacher held our hands as we watched events unfold on live TV.  That's probably the first time I ever realized how important the surrogate relationship is for teachers.  We answer the call as best we can, pinned on our backs with our hearts in the dirt.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What Does It Take To Be A Good Actor?

Courage.

A better topic for this post might be, "How many words in this title should have the first letter capitalized?"  I capitalized every one just to cover my bases.  Wouldn't want the alphabet pissed off at me.  I swear by my letters.

Last night, my wife and I sat in front of a rerun of The Big Bang Theory (this after we each had a long day at work and then spent the evening at rehearsal (me)/doing everything that it takes to make our home the perfect home that it is (my wife - I love her!)).  Can you embed parentheses?  I just did.  Similar concerns here about discriminating against punctuation marks, I guess.  See previous paragraph re: letters.

I relaxed in my recliner half-asleep, keeping my eye on the Mets via ESPN online (I love my Kindle for everything but reading books).  They won.  If they make the playoffs, I do believe my son and I will be New York bound.  My wife scrolled through her phone and found some stupid rate your teacher website.  I say stupid because only two kinds of people go on those sites.  Those who love you and those who hate you.  You can't get an honest read from the masses.  My marks aren't stellar (naturally).  They're strikingly average (go figure).  Most of the shit comes from about 8-10 years ago after I transferred from a school where the students worshiped me (but I got paid shit) to a school where the students rarely appreciate me (but I get paid well - yes, even as a teacher).  You give and take in the educating business.  Well, actually you just give.

Anyhoo, the one-star ratings that offer no comments don't help.  Pure assholes, really.  But the one with responses do, actually.  Purely for entertainment.  I especially enjoyed the one about my not knowing anything about acting.  Or how I frequently break my own rules when I perform scenes.

I love when students think they know more than their teachers.  Makes me wonder how miserable their parents must be raising them.  I'm proud my children respect their parents and teachers because they understand their worth.  We've already lived more and experienced some shit.  They can learn from us.  This is not rocket science.

Have I answered the question I posted?  I gave you a word, didn't I?  I didn't say go fuck yourself.  You figure it out.  When you find the truth, let me know.  I'll probably catch you on a Broadway stage while I'm in New York cheering my beloved Mets to a World Series victory (or on the big screen if you can get endorsed by Entertainment Weekly - that's the ticket to Hollywood).




Wednesday, September 2, 2015

On Your Mark, Get Set, Teach!

The school year started abruptly last week, but I find myself enjoying my return to the classroom for what begins my 25th year as an educator (23rd full-time teaching).  How in the world can the time have passed so quickly?  Seems like yesterday that I graduated from college and had my whole life ahead of me.  Now, I have my own child in one of my classes!  And another knocking on the door.  Crazy.  But I wouldn't trade any of it.

We all know teachers get shit on regularly.  We're the fucking toilet bowls of society.  But I've made a promise to myself (and to my wife and children) that I would stay positive this year.  So, despite the myriad of initiatives (which aren't new - only a rehash of what we've already been made to do a hundred times over), the lack of funding, the feeble pay and horrible benefits, the administrative indecisiveness and kowtowing, I plan to kick some serious ass in the classroom this year and enjoy myself along the way.

How?  It all starts with the kids.  They are why I became a teacher, and why I still push myself every year to keep on chooglin.  I love their spirit, their innocence, their smiles, their individual journeys.  Do I have the same energy I had when I first started out?  Not even close.  Am I all-knowing now that I have all these years of experience?  Not a chance.  One of the best things about being a teacher is that you're always learning.  You have to love school.  You get high off clean notebooks and freshly sharpened pencils.

Do I make mistakes?  You bet your ass.  I'm not perfect.  But I still have the Drago factor (as an apt pupil put it many years ago when I reluctantly said goodbye).  If you know me, you know how passionate I am.  How committed I am to fairness and honesty.  How genuine (yes, I like to say shit and fuck and balls a lot).

If you've had me as a teacher, you should get that.  That's what I hope I'm remembered for.  Forget all the acting I've done and characters I've played, I never wear a mask.  Above all, that's what I want my students to learn from me.  Be yourself.  Don't be ashamed or afraid of who you are.  Life is too short to be an image.

Thank you to all the teachers who shaped me into who I am today, especially Mr. Martin, Mr. Ferrell, Mr. Rogers, Dr. Campbell, Dr. Farness, and Dr. Woodman.  I carry the torch for everything you believed and inspired.  You are important to your students.  You make the world a better place.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Guest Post - "Leap of Faith" by Jay Wilburn


"Leap of Faith" by Jay Wilburn



My teaching certificate expired on June 30th of this year. I taught for sixteen years before quitting to take care of my younger son’s health needs, but also to pursue a dream of being a full-time writer. There was a stretch of doubtful days there. Both with the medical care of my son and the notion of making a living at writing, there were some dark days. Eventually he grew better and I started expanding my income with my own fiction and with ghostwriting. Both sources of income were slow builds. There was more than once that I considering packing it up and going back to teaching. I believe teaching is a noble profession, but I also believe I am done with it. Each time I stuck it out with doing what people say is not possible, we made it a little bit further. I was surrounded by people who doubted I could pull it off and expressed their doubts in ways that would pull down my spirit. I had to fight through that and keep my skin too tough to let that in.

All important decisions require a leap of faith. You usually can’t see where you are going to land. You just kind of trust that you are going to land one way or the other. Others won’t make that same leap because they can’t see the landing spot and if it is too far down, you could die. They’ll resent you for jumping when they would not. Some of the people who celebrate the successful landing resent the fact that you survived the fall, but just don’t want to be the person that expresses such a thing out loud.  Leaps of faith almost always come before the other side of the jump is ready and secure. You could wait a few months or a few years until the other option is ready. You can wait until the construction of the other life has been completed, the inspections are done, and it looks secure. That is what a responsible person does. The problem is that when you are going for something beyond what most people think is possible, the other side of the leap is never finished before jump time. There will be other opportunities and you can wait, but often the wait becomes the life. You can resent yourself for not jumping and resent those that jumped anyway. The risk is never going to be gone and often the secure life can fall apart like it wasn’t supposed to do while you are waiting for the risk on the other side of the intended leap to mitigate itself.

I always caveat these discussions of writing full-time by saying there is nothing wrong with keeping a day job and writing in the spare moments. There is nothing cowardly in that choice. I’m not telling people to quit their jobs. I’m also not telling you that you can’t. If you resent people who have leapt or resent yourself for not leaping, the healthy choice is either to leap or to find peace in the choice you are making. Look at it as a choice instead of a trap. Believe that you are strong enough to face the day whether it is conquering the monsters you know all too well because you are stronger than them or whether it is leaping to conquer the unknown. You can fight either battle, but never think that you are trapped. The worst that can happen with either choice is that you fail miserably and have to start over. People do it all the time.

My biggest fear used to be losing my job. I hated getting up in the morning and feared losing the job at the same time. So many of us fight and pray to keep jobs and lives that we hate. When they do fall apart, we land somewhere eventually. Sometimes it is a painful journey to the landing, but we often look back where we were standing and are so thankful to not be there anymore.  One thing you can be pretty sure of in your life: one day you will either leap or you will fall from where you are standing at this moment and you will land somewhere. It is great to look back once the journey is over and to be less afraid of that drop than you were before.

Check out the latest book and music from a new series by Jay Wilburn:

  

Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in Conway, South Carolina near the Atlantic coast of the southern United States. He taught public school for sixteen years before becoming a full time writer. He is the author of the Dead Song Legend Dodecology and the music of the five song soundtrack recorded as if by the characters within the world of the novel The Sound May Suffer

Follow his many dark thoughts on Twitter @AmongTheZombies, his Facebook author page, and at JayWilburn.com   



Monday, July 6, 2015

Summer List #3 - My Favorite Albums

This won't be as tough for me as the other lists because I'm a singles guy.  My dad kept our house stocked with 45's when I was a kid, so that stuck with me.  Most of my album collection is made up of greatest hits compilations.  I get bored with album tracks, especially now that I'm old and have no attention span.

Only albums released during my lifetime were considered, but there are a few different rules here.  First of all, no Elvis.  I'd pick Elvis Country from 1970 if I had to, but would rather just provide my own album.  Here's Elvis: The Best Album Tracks of the 70s.  Picture him on the cover doing a Vegas move in a diamond-studded jumpsuit.  Remember, Elvis rarely included songs released as singles on his studio albums, so you won't find "Burning Love" or the like here.

Side A
"I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago" (1970)
"Cindy, Cindy" (1970)
"How the Web Was Woven" (1970)
"I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water" (1970)
"Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On" (1970)

Side B
"Love Me, Love the Life I Lead" (1971)
"If You Don't Come Back" (1973)
"I Got A Feeling in My Body" (1973)
"Talk about the Good Times" (1973)
"Your Love's Been a Long Time Coming" (1973)

As for the rest, nothing posthumous (sorry, Otis Redding; although Tell the Truth is outstanding and released about a year after I was born).  Also, no compilations (that would way too difficult for me).  And only one album per artist except where I cheat.  These are listed in order by favorite.

1. Diary of a Madman (1981) by Ozzy Osbourne/Black Sabbath Vol. 4 (1972) by Black Sabbath
Although neither of these discs have the commercial appeal of Blizzard of Ozz (1981) or Paranoid (1970), I think they're better.  Diary is my favorite album of all-time.  It started everything for me.  I can't hardly think about the songs without getting teary-eyed.  Give the title track a listen.  It's scarier than "Black Sabbath."  It inspired every horror story I've ever written.  After Elvis, Ozzy is (and always will be) my hero.  The riffs on Vol. 4 are mind-blowing.  I love Tony, Geezer, and Bill like family.

2. Cosmo's Factory (1970) by CCR/Blue Moon Swamp (1997) by John Fogerty
John Fogerty follows close on Ozzy's heels.  His guitar playing is often overlooked because his scratchy vocals are a rock inspiration.  Cosmo's Factory is the album every 50's artist (including Elvis) would've recorded if they'd stuck to their roots.  Blue Moon Swap, part comeback/part throwback, has sentimental value (like all those listed here) and beats out Centerfield for me.

3. High Voltage (1976)/Stiff Upper Lip (2000) by ACDC
My younger brother told me he thinks every album Bon Scott ever recorded is better than any album Brian Johnson recorded (including Back in Black).  I agree.  But Stiff Upper Lip is fucking awesome and deserves a place here.

4. Business as Usual (1981)/Cargo (1983) by Men at Work
Men at Work was the first concert I remember.  Even before Ozzy, I think.  I love these two albums.  I'm not sure anyone ever came out of the shoot with better back to back openers.  Too bad they fizzled out as fast they hit (although my brother tells me Colin Hay's solo efforts are outstanding).

5. Flaming Pie (1997) by Paul McCartney/Abbey Road (1969) by The Beatles/Venus and Mars (1975) by Wings
The Beatles are the greatest band ever.  No question.  I'm glad I get to put one of their albums on my list (with a month and a half to spare!).  I also love Wings.  Flaming Pie is the best album Paul McCartney recorded as a solo artist.  I'm not familiar enough with John Lennon's album tracks (or George Harrison's, for that matter) to give either a spot on the list.

6. Honeycomb (2005) by Frank Black
The Pixies frontman delivers my favorite soul album.  The studio musicians who played on Elvis' 1969 comeback sessions are here.  I've seen Frank Black live.  He's a machine.  Listen to "My Life Is in Storage" if nothing else.

7. River of Dreams (1993) by Billy Joel
Glad Billy Joel saved his best for last.

8. Graceland (1986) by Paul Simon
The title track is my life story (sort of).  The pilgrimage I made when I turned 40 is everything Paul Simon told me it would be.

9. When We Were the New Boys (1998)/A Spanner in the Works (1995) by Rod Stewart
I went through a Rod Stewart phase in the late 90s (loved him in concert) and found these two works to be the equal of anything he'd done prior to throat surgery.  I can't take the pop standard shit he recorded afterwards.

10. Yo Frankie by Dion (1990)/Mystery Girl (1989) by Roy Orbison
Two of my all-time favorite rock and roll pioneers made a run in the late 80s with these incredible albums.  Too bad Roy Orbison died just as "You Got It" hit the charts.  Dion's album rocks more and gets the slight edge.

11. Madonna (1983) by Madonna/She's So Unusual (1983) by Cyndi Lauper
Hard not to pick Like a Virgin but Madonna's debut album never fails.  I remember falling in love with her the first time I heard her voice while driving to school.  Cyndi Lauper, probably a better singer, created the soundtrack to my freshman year of high school with this one.

12. Lonely Just Like Me (1993) by Arthur Alexander/If I Could Only Fly (2000) by Merle Haggard
A couple of geezers by the time of these two country releases.  Perhaps that's what makes them so special.

13. New Beginning (1995) by Tracy Chapman/In Between Dreams (2005) by Jack Johnson
When I need something mellow, these never fail.

14. Big Tyme (1989) by Heavy D/Fear of a Black Planet (1990) by Public Enemy/Knowledge Is King (1989) by Kool Moe Dee/It's a Big Daddy Thing (1989) by Big Daddy Kane
Yes, I went through a rap stage in the late 80s.  These four are my favorite.  I still remember all the words when I listen.

15. Every Album by The Furnace (1999 - present)
Now what kind of brother would I be if I didn't plug my brother's indie heavy metal band?  Part Metallica, part Godsmack, part Creed, they've had two incredible singers during their run and both are equally talented frontmen.  Their guitarists kick ass (I'm partial, yes).  Their drummers reign supreme.  They've been scorching the Valley of the Sun for almost 20 years now.  Like them on Facebook.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Summer List #2 - My Favorite TV Shows

In order to create this list, I researched the top 300 shows of the last five decades.  Again, the only rule that applies is that the show must've debuted after I was born (at least in its current format).  So, you won't see The Honeymooners on this list even though it's my all-time favorite TV show.

I learned something about myself while putting this list together.  I don't watch a lot of television.  That's a good thing, right?

But, I've also missed out on plenty of good programming.  I have too much going on in my life to make the necessary commitment, I guess.  At some point, I might try binge-watching.  Right now, I'd rather not waste my time in front of the screen (at least not that one).

So, if you see shows missing from my list, I guarantee it's because I've never seen an episode (I feel most guilty about The Sopranos, by the way).  Rarely, have I started a program and not watched it through until it's run its course (or at least until it's jumped the shark).  Not my personality type.  I finish what I start.

The programs are listed in order by favorite and grouped by genre.

Sitcoms
Seinfeld, 1989-1998
All in the Family, 1971-1979
The Odd Couple, 1970-1975
Everybody Loves Raymond, 1996-2005
Curb Your Enthusiasm, 1999-2011
Taxi, 1978-1983
Happy Days, 1974-1984
The Big Bang Theory, 2007 - present
East Bound and Down, 2009-2013
Married with Children, 1987-1997

Science Fiction/Supernatural Dramas
The Six Million Dollar Man, 1974-1978
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1997-2003
The Incredible Hulk, 1978-1982
The Walking Dead, 2010 - present
Chuck, 2007-2012

Legal/Crime-Action Dramas
Magnum P.I., 1980-1988
Law & Order SVU, 1999 - present

Soap Opera
The Young & the Restless, 1973 - present

Comedy/Variety Shows
Whose Line Is It Anyway?, 1998-2007
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, 2014 - present
Saturday Night Live, 1975 - present

Game Shows
Jeopardy, 1984 - present
Wheel of Fortune, 1975 - present
The Price Is Right, 1972 - present

Animated Sitcoms
The Simpsons, 1989 - present
Bob's Burgers, 2011 - present

Sports
Monday Night Football, 1970 - present
SportsCenter, 1979 - present

News
CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, 1981-1993
AC360, 2003 - present

Monday, June 22, 2015

Summer List #1 - My Favorite 50 Movies

Movies have always played an important role in my life.  They are my favorite form of entertainment.  Except for perhaps vocal melody, I believe motion pictures provide us with the greatest potential for artistic achievement.  When I was young, I staged imaginary movies with my younger brother.  Together, we wrote, directed, and performed.  I wish we would've had cameras to capture the magic.  I think the list says a lot about me.  I enjoy epic dramas, some horror movies, plenty of screwball comedies, and blockbusters.  I don't care for art house crap.  Some of the most popular franchises are missing.  You'll see which ones.  For the record, I differentiate between what I call my favorites and what could be considered the best.  In other words, not all the ones I enjoy won awards.

Really, there's only one rule here.  The movie had to be released during my lifetime.  Oh, and I listed only one film from any series.  So, I guess that's two rules.  These are in chronological order by first release.

The Godfather, 1972
Jaws, 1975
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 1975
Rocky, 1976
The Pink Panther Strikes Again, 1976
Smokey and the Bandit, 1977
Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981
Poltergeist, 1982
First Blood, 1982
Friday the 13th Part IV, 1984
The Breakfast Club, 1985
Fletch, 1985
Back to the Future, 1985
Aliens, 1986
Raising Arizona, 1987
Die Hard, 1988
The 'Burbs, 1989
Christmas Vacation, 1989
Goodfellas, 1990
The Silence of the Lambs, 1991
Terminator 2, 1991
Cape Fear, 1991
Schindler's List, 1993
Pulp Fiction, 1994
Braveheart, 1995
Donnie Brasco, 1997
The Big Lebowski, 1998
Saving Private Ryan, 1998
Office Space, 1999
Analyze This, 1999
The Green Mile, 1999 
Cast Away, 2000
Signs, 2002
Gangs of New York. 2002
Old School, 2003
Pirates of the Caribbean, 2003
Shaun of the Dead, 2004
Meet the Fockers, 2004
Talladega Nights, 2006
The Departed, 2006
Superbad, 2007
No Country for Old Men, 2007
Step Brothers, 2008
Inglourious Basterds, 2009
Super 8, 2011
Ted, 2012
The Campaign, 2012
Flight, 2012
Silver Linings Playbook, 2012
This Is the End, 2013

Monday, June 1, 2015

Quotes

I enjoy making lists and collecting quotes.  I have a folder in my file cabinet full of them.  Most of what interests me comes from television and the movies, so you won't find anything profound like "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." or "Dear me, I think I'm becoming a God."  But, you will find Poe's "God help my poor soul." because there's something about his struggle that fascinates me.

Some of the lines are funny.  Some are stupid.  Most reveal something about my place in the world at the time I first heard them.  I spend a lot of time searching for answers.  These provide me with a glimpse of hope.

"That's what a writer does.  Takes the truth and twists it."
-Lucille Ball, 1950's.

"How she feels?  How 'bout me?  How 'bout how I feel?"
"You're gonna get it.  I don't know what second, what minute, but you're gonna get yours."
-Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason).  The Honeymooners, 1950's.

"I want love.  I want life, damn it!"
"In the midst of death, we are in life."
"It makes you feel less lonely in the dark."
-General Leo FitzJohn (Peter Sellers).  Waltz of the Toreadors, 1962.

"I can make you do anything I want.  Absolutely anything.  I can make you dance.  I can make you sit or kneel, or I can take away your power like this!"
-El Presidente Rodriguez.  Gilligan's Island, 1965.

"It's real!  It's real!  No matter what it is, it's not nothing."
-Dwayne Schneider (Pat Harrington) on death.  One Day at a Time. 1970's.

"The universe is a very big place, but if you accept me, we could make it one step smaller."
-Mork from Ork (Robin Williams).  Mork and Mindy, 1980's.

"There are many things in this universe you're not meant to understand.  But they are real.  I'm real."
-Alf (Gordon Shumway).  Alf, 1980's.
"Can you please explain to me the meaning of the word, 'oops'?"
-Willie Tanner (Max Wright),  Alf, 1980's.

"I've never seen that.  I never seen anybody drive their garbage down to the street and then bang the hell out of it with a stick.  I've never seen that."
-Ray Peterson (Tom Hanks).  The Burbs, 1989.

"You have just said goodbye to oxygen."
-Big Boy (Al Pacino).  Dick Tracy, 1990.

"I'd rather be a failure in something that I loved than a success in something that I didn't."
-George Burns, 1991.

"The male kangaroo doesn't have a pouch.  Only the female has it, so the male has pouch envy.  Why should she have this huge pouch, and I have nothing?  I have things to carry, too.  At least, at least give me a pocket."
-Polar Bear.  Seinfeld, 1992.

"Pull the string!"
-Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau).  Ed Wood, 1994.

"Necessary?  Is it necessary for me to drink my own urine?  No.  But I do it anyway 'cause it's sterile and I like the taste."
Patches O'Houlihan (Rip Torn).  Dodgeball, 2004.

"That's good.  Pretend he's your little sister.  Your little sister with a pitcher.  Playin' a little guitar."
Officer Slater (Bill Hader).  Superbad, 2007.
"He's a freak.  He's the fastest kid alive.  He's the fastest kid alive."
Officer Michaels (Seth Rogen).  Superbad, 2007.

"I drink your milkshake."
-Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis).  There Will Be Blood, 2007.

Here's my favorite quote from any stage play (and since I've done theatre for over 35 years now, I think it matters.)

"And you - ain't you bitter, man?  Ain't you just about had it yet?  Don't you see no stars gleaming that you can't just reach out and grab?  You happy?  You contented son of a bitch - you happy?  You got it made?  Bitter?  Man, I'm a volcano.  Bitter?  Here I am - a giant, surrounded by ants!  Ants who can't even understand what it is the giant is talking about!"
-Brother Younger (Danny Glover).  A Raisin in the Sun, 1959 (original Broadway production).

Here are a couple of personal ones.

"e to the motherfuckin tan" - graffiti I found scribbled in a high school notebook, 2005.  A former student and I were cleaning out my classroom.  I tore out the scrap of paper and saved it.

"I'm real. I'm freakishly truthful."
-Graham Schaafsma, 2008.  (A student of mine, I think, using an alias.  If anyone knows who this is, please let me know.)

"bannes, grips, wall-meel. all frista" - my grandfather's shopping list, early 1980's.  I kept this, but not to shame him.  Thinking about him and the time we spent together (with my brothers) makes me smile.  He's the one person I wish my wife and children could've met.  The note, of course, was a reminder for my grandmother to grab bananas, grapes, and watermelon while at the supermarket.  All fruit.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

That's What Friends Are For

The older I get, the fewer the friends I have.  In fact, I can't think of a single person I could call right now to ask to go grab a bite for lunch or to go see a movie.  Much less, think of anyone who would call me with such an invitation.

I'm not sure why this is the case.  Are we all so wrapped up in our jobs or children's sports teams that we don't have time for anyone else?  Have I worn out my welcome?  Does Facebook satisfy everyone's need for Drago?  Come to think of it, even those friends have fallen off.  I'd have to announce something dreadful has happened to get more than 50 likes on a post right now, as opposed to those who can garner a 100 likes for re-posting the latest meme.  Possibly a clip of a well-trained parrot feeding a dog off the kitchen counter.  Adorable.

Maybe this is just a part of getting old.  I used to have friends.  Plenty of them.  I don't remember much about Brooklyn, but when we moved to Staten Island, my older brother and I ran around with scores of kids.  We played stickball, king tag, kick the can, and a bunch of other shit.  My best friend lived on the other end of Gold Avenue (I think his parents still do), and we slept over one another's house almost every weekend.  We harbored a secret stash of chocolates.  We were stealthy.  He liked Twix, if I recall.  I preferred Whatchamacallits.  Those days are gone.  I can't even eat chocolate anymore without getting an upset stomach.

We moved to Phoenix while I was in junior high school (they called it middle school).  I fell in with a bunch of D&D nerds and played football, basketball, and baseball for the school leagues.  I always had someone to hang out with.  My best friend's dad was a retired schoolteacher who sold appliances at Montgomery Ward and died of bladder cancer while we were young.  I was asked to be his pallbearer.  I carried his body with his sons.  Do you know how good a friend would have to be for me to ask him to carry my dad's fucking coffin?  I don't have those kinds of friends anymore.  I did.

My crew expanded in high school.  I added the theatre geeks and the brainiacs.  A fringe benefit of being (kind of) smart and (somewhat) talented, I guess.  Think Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club.  My best friend played football, which kept me in line with the jocks.  Well, at least I could attend their parties on the weekends.  Their girls only looked at me for a chuckle.  I played Eugene in our school's production of Grease, after all.  The highlight was dancing with the senior cast as Patty Simcox.  She was runner-up for Miss Teen Arizona.  So beautiful.  She went on to be a popular news anchor.  I wonder if she has friends.

More of the same in college.  I had plenty of buddies.  And from all walks of life.  We had fun and kept busy.  Even as a young teacher, I had a group of colleagues who got together and played poker or made midnight runs to Las Vegas.  This was when Seinfeld reigned supreme.  I was our Jerry.  Single.  Neat.  Even-Steven.  (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)  I'm George now.  Cranky.  Bald.

You might think you know where this is going.  Marriage ruined my friendships.  Not true.  I had plenty of friends when we first moved to North Carolina almost 15 years ago.  Most I met while teaching or producing community theatre.  This lack of friends is recent.  The last three years or so.  I've shut myself off somehow.  I don't know how to turn myself back on.  If nothing else, friends would relieve some of the pressure my wife must be feeling from my constant companionship.  It's unfair, really.  Getting a life was much easier when I was younger.  What will I do when my kids go off to college?  Don't even want to think about it.  At least they give me a reason to get off my recliner and yell about something.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Writer's Block

I tell my college students all the time that the best way to escape writer's block is to start writing about whatever's on your mind.  It doesn't matter whether or not you have anything to say about the topic or if you make any mistakes.  You can fix things later.  Just pick up and start writing.  Don't think.  Just write.  Eventually, you'll find your way to where you want to go.

I've been stuck for a while.  No, it's not fair to say I'm stuck.  I'm not.  I have plenty to say.  And a ton of ideas.  So many stories started (and abandoned).  I keep listening to the song "Famous Last Words" by Billy Joel.  I want to know what made him stop writing songs.  Was he out of ideas?  Tired?  Bored?  A combination?

Maybe he couldn't say what he wanted to say.

I get that.  Stephen King once told me, "Write what you know."  What if I can't?  What if I'm not allowed to write what I want to write because I'm a schoolteacher?  There are just things that I can't put out there and expect to keep my job.  And let's face it, I'm writing for an audience now.  Sure, I can put words down in my blog and never post them.  Or I can write in a personal journal and not share.  For me, writing has gone beyond that.  I write to express my views with others.  Not to keep them to myself.  I have a file cabinet in my mind for that.  I categorize and have opinions on everything.  I just don't feel like I can share those the way I want.

Some teachers are willing to speak out.  Maybe they have more courage than I do.  Or maybe they're toeing the line.  There's no risk in that.  They're saying exactly what's expected of them.  Hollywood does the same thing.  Artists are held to certain expectations or risk blackball.  We're all struggling, disenfranchised Bohemians, right?

Don't you hate when people try so hard to be different that they end up playing a stereotype?  And, yes, I realize I'm implying that those who think they're nonconformists conform more often than not.  They do.  I don't.  Thus the fear.  It's not to say that I don't share the same views as my colleagues at certain times.  Of course, I do.  But what about when I don't?  Do I just shut the fuck up?  (Yes, Tommy, that's what you do.  You shut the fuck up.  Nobody needs to know what you think about sex, politics, or religion, especially not if you're going to rebuke the status quo.)

At a press conference before his sold out performances at Madison Square Garden in 1972, Elvis (dressed in a gorgeous sky-blue suit) replied that he preferred to keep his opinions to himself when asked for his thoughts about the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and other political issues of his era.  Makes you wonder what he was thinking.  Maybe.  Or maybe you don't give a shit about the King's politics.  But when asked if he thought other entertainers should also keep quiet, he shook his head (a lock of shiny black hair bouncing across his forehead) and whispered, "No," almost with a smile.  Makes you wonder why he wouldn't talk.  What was keeping him quiet?  I guess we'll never know.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

World's Biggest Stephen King Fan

My sister died when I was 13 years-old.  She was strangled by the umbilical cord during my mom's final trimester.  That was the most devastating event of my life.  Even now, I can't listen to "Ribbon in the Sky" by Stevie Wonder without crying.  That song was playing on the radio when we pulled into the cemetery.  Before we watched her little gray box go into the ground. 

Most folks would've turned to God.  I found Stephen King.  He landed in my lap, really.  My older brother's friend let me borrow his copy of Night Shift.  The cover reminded me of something out of the Twilight Zone.  Hands with eyes on the fingers?  What the hell is that shit?  Up until that point, The Lord of the Rings was my game, and everything I wrote was a knock-off.  

I didn't know it quite then, but Stephen King was teaching me that it's OK to be scared.  That bad shit happens, but you can still go on.  

Our relationship developed gradually.  My mom bought me The Dead Zone for Christmas that year, and then I found Different Seasons and Christine at the bookstore.  I devoured these.  Falling in love with the characters, captivated by the prose.  I became an addict.  Since my older brother was more interested in sports, girls, and parties (like most teenage boys), I recruited my younger brother to go on my quest.  We scoured used bookstores, buying every rare, limited edition we could get our hands on.  Movie tie-ins, foreign prints.  You name it.  I even read the British version of The Shining just because I thought it looked cool.  My younger brother kindly informed me that nothing I did was cool.  He was right.  Girls don't notice boys who read.  They laugh at them.  Something I learned from Arnie Cunningham.

The book that sealed our relationship was Pet Sematary.  It's still my favorite.  When Gage Creed died, I can't tell you how hard I cried (even harder than when we lost Wolf in The Talisman).  I can still remember.  I was alone in my room, lying on my bed.  Hoping my mom didn't hear me.  I didn't want her to know much it hurt me when her little girl died.  She had Mommy things to worry about.  I could toughen up.  I had Stephen King.  Besides, when Gage came back, he was different.  He was fucked.  And then it hit me.  You can never change the past.  You can only live.

My Stephen King collection is vast.  I have every hardcover and multiple copies of all his paperbacks.  I have a sealed copy of My Pretty Pony - a massive red tome given as a gift by the store manager at the local Waldenbooks.  I have near mint original paperback copies of The Running Man and The Long Walk (I even have an Italian print of this one!).  I have copies of Stephen King's original screenplay adaptations of The Stand and Pet Sematary smuggled by a friend of mine out of Laurel Entertainment in the mid-'80's.  I have all the print copies of Stephen King's official newsletter, Castle Rock.  T-shirts, posters, bookmarks.  The list is endless.

After I read Pet Sematary (autocorrect hates this fucking word), I wrote Stephen King a letter and asked about The Dark Tower, included in the novel's list of his works.  In this era before the Internet, I had no contact information, so I sent my letter off to his publisher, Doubleday.  It took 9 months to get his response!  He explained how to contact Don Grant and order my copy.  I have the whole limited edition series, of course.  I followed with an inquiry to his PO Box in Maine about a sold-out luncheon he planned to attend in Phoenix where I lived at the time.  He replied in two weeks with a Three Stooges postcard, telling me I should try to get in as a waiter.  Perfect.  

We corresponded for a couple more years until the Mets beat the Red Sox in the 1986 World Series.  He sent me a form letter, explaining how if he spent all his time answering letters, he wouldn't have time to write his books.  He'd become a brand name.  Of course, I understood.  Typed separately on the form letter was some personal advice he gave me.  I'll keep those words to myself.

Someone once asked me why I'm such a big Elvis Presley fan.  I told her that every time I hear his voice it feels like someone is telling me, "I love you."  Every time I read Stephen King, it's like having someone hold my hand in the dark.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

New York Sports

I've been a New York sports fan my whole life.  I have my dad to thank for this.  I don't think his father was as interested in sports (except for professional wrestling), but I'm glad he is.  The Mets and the Giants are his two favorite teams, but he'll also pull for the Jets, the Rangers, the Islanders, the Knicks, and the Nets.  Anybody but the Yankees.  He hates them.  He's an old Brooklyn Dodgers fan, so I don't blame him.  The longer I live away from New York, the easier it is for me to like the Yankees because they're usually the only New York team that wins.  They give us what little bragging rights we have.  Let's face it.  It sucks to be a New York sports fan.  Our teams get the most amount of attention and have the highest expectations, but always seem to fail.  And, of course, my two favorite teams are the Mets and the Jets.  The two worst.

Since the NFL draft is tonight, I'll start with the Jets.  There isn't much to say, really.  The best thing about being a Jets fan (since Joe Namath) is that the Giants beat the Patriots twice in the Super Bowl.  How sad and pathetic is that?  Our biggest thrill in the last 45 years has been watching our crosstown rivals beat our arch-nemesis.  Here I'll say it - draft a fucking quarterback worth a damn!  Mark Sanchez wasn't the answer (although I believe the loudmouth, foot-sniffing Rex Ryan ruined his career), and neither is Geno Smith.  For the love of God, no.  Not Geno.  If Marcus Mariota is available and the Jets pass him up, I'll ... I'll ... I'll do the same thing I do every year.  Pay a million bucks for Sunday Ticket so I can shout and curse at the TV (like my dad taught me) while watching them lose.  After all, we're the team that passed up Dan Marino for Kenny O'Brien.  At least we had the Sack Exchange.  At least we had that.

Then there's the Mets.  They've won the World Series twice.  I was only a few months old the first time, so I can't remember that magical year; however, their great players lasted for a few years (took us back in 1973), and I still remember Tom Seaver's tearful goodbye to the city.

Their '86 team was a different story, however.  I was 17 years-old.  I watched every single game that season.  We lived in Phoenix by then, and my dad installed a gigantic satellite dish in the backyard for the sole purpose of watching New York sports on television.  I'm not talking about one of those dinky dishes you see today in suburbia attached to the roofs of houses like Mickey Mouse ears, either.  I'm talking about fucking NASA satellites, the kind that search for extra-terrestrial life in the universe.

Keith Hernandez was (and will always be) my favorite player.  I can't tell you how excited I was when he appeared on my favorite show, Seinfeld, a few years later.  But we also had (I'll go around the horn with Bob Murphy's voice playing in my head) Wally Backman, Rafael Santana, Ray Knight, Mookie Wilson, Lenny Dykstra, Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter, and Dwight Gooden.  What a lineup!  If I'd managed that team, I would've won several championships.  Davey Johnson - what a worthless piece of shit he was!  Couldn't control his own team.  And damn his fucking platoon system.  I could strike out Tim Teufel right now.

By the way, I feel the same way about the 1990's Atlanta Braves and the worst manager of all-time - Bobby Cox.  Who the hell has Greg Maddux, Tommy Glavine, and John Smoltz on the mound for all those years and walks away with only one ring?  Terrible.  And they weren't even snorting cocaine (that I know of).  At least that gave Davey Johnson some sort of excuse, as pitiful as it may be.

Back to the Mets.  Everybody remembers the Billy Buckner error, as well they should.  But that entire season was pure magic.  Dare I say, amazin'?  You win 108 games in the MLB, and you're doing something special.  No doubt.  But it's been all down hill from there.  Even their most recent 11-game win streak was tough to get jazzed about.  I know they're doomed to fail.  They're losers.  That's what they do best.  Sure, pitching wins championships (they have that), but you need offense to make it to the playoffs (they don't have that).  They'll sputter and cough like the dying engine of my old '79 Nova.  They always do.  That's why it sucks to be their fan.  I can hear my uncle (a huge Boston sports fan, but I still love him) telling me, "Forget the Mets, Tommy.  Forget the Mets."  But I can't.  Loyalty is our most important quality.  I'm an Italian from Brooklyn, after all.  My great-grandmother cooked meals for Al Capone!  What do you expect?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Queensboro - The First Chapter

I'm excited to announce that my second novel Queensboro will be available through CreateSpace and Amazon.com in a few short weeks.  Queensboro is the follow-up to Crow Creek, a novel I wrote roughly 18 months ago after I dreamed of a young mother being buried alive in a sinkhole.  That first book tackled heavy issues, including the loss of a child, religious hypocrisy, marital infidelity, and fracking.  I'm pleased with Crow Creek.  I received solid reviews and made a few dollars along the way.  Queensboro isn't exactly a sequel.  Sure, some of the same characters show up.  Sheriff Gleason and Black Jesus are there.  Where would Crow Creek be without them?  But I had a different story to tell this time.  I wrote about health care corruption, gentrification, racial discrimination, police brutality, and feminism.  I masked these issues behind acid-dripping death worms and some of the best villains I've ever crafted.  I thought it might be nice to share the first chapter with my readers.  You can learn more about me by visiting my website www.tsdrago.com

Amanda
 
Amanda Simmons didn’t leave Jacobs Court after lunch the day she freed Grayson Helms from his scaffold.  The Red Queen was too excited about the next morning’s Sector Six dispersal to account for which of her executives returned to Carolina EnTech for afternoon meetings anyhow.
Amanda had moved to North Carolina for all the right reasons.  The mild climate (the Pacific Northwest was dreary even for her tastes).  College sports, especially basketball.  Low taxes, thanks to the conservatives in office.  Affordable real estate.  Warm people.  Good Christians with strong family values and dedicated support for private schools, free enterprise, and small government.  So trusting.  She could probably stay the rest of her life.
She crept into the triklinion, the red python birthmark warming the back of her neck.  Grayson was one of the early donors, if not the first, so they kept his bed on the third subfloor.  The dining room was quiet, except for the buzzing machines, and sterile.  Amanda punched a few buttons to override the system and silence the alarms.  She couldn’t take any chances.  There were enough lab assistants and sentries to cause a stir, even though many of them weren’t on the feed.
Grayson lay naked and prostrate on the scaffold, his cock shriveled to a useless nub.  Amanda found the human body repulsive and tossed a flimsy gown over him so she didn’t have to see any more than she needed.
When she unscrewed the first conduit, the fitting hissed.  The connections hadn’t been lubricated for a while.  Grayson didn’t move his eyeless totem-pole face, but Amanda knew life existed somewhere inside.  Had to.  The drainers couldn’t survive without fresh blood.
They had the drug to thank for that.
ecGEN2.
After she finished, Amanda led Grayson down the platform.  He could barely walk.  The engineers supplied enough nutrients (peripheral neuropathy was an ongoing concern) but only minimal exercise between feedings.  She held his hand as they climbed the escape stairs and left the apartment building in darkness.  His palms were cold and clammy.
Chances were Braudie Meyer would take the blame for the breach.  The Red Queen hated him and the rest of her executives.  They asked too many questions.  Amanda knew when to keep her mouth shut.
Maybe the Red Queen would point a crooked finger at another flunky.  What did it matter?  Some random employee would be held accountable.  An engineer who’d worked on the Skull Project with Grayson many moons ago, perhaps.  Amanda didn’t care.  All she wanted was a break down in the system.  A failure.  She’d been making her way through clinical laboratories for years trying to latch onto the right program.  Never used the same name or background.  Identities and résumés simple enough to falsify.  Corporate bigwigs easy to manipulate.
Once she snatched control of EnTech from the Red Queen, then she’d be free to negotiate the way she wanted.  The Red Queen had made the mistake of thinking the power resided in the drug.  The truth was that domestic and foreign defense contractors would pay stellar prices for advances in biological weaponry.  Not to mention how much Sector Six would fetch on the black market.  There were all kinds of desperate militants and underground terrorists sick enough to launch an invasion.
Amanda knew the power was in the money, but one step at a time.
First Grayson Helms.
What would happen after that?  Well, she’d just have to wait and see, wouldn’t she?