Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"City Lights" & My Novel at Powell Hall for 2 Nights

Okay, it's another post about Charlie. But this is big. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra will present Chaplin's greatest film, "City Lights," with the full orchestra playing the original score, "live." 

There's nothing like seeing a Chaplin film with a large audience, to share the laughter. 

As an added attraction, my novel will be available for sale in the lobby. It's not as funny. 

The dates are Wed. 12/29 
and Thurs. 12/30, at 7:30 pm.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Irving Berlin had it right

Like the man said, "I'm dreaming of a White Christmas." But it wasn't a dream this year. You could also sing "Walkin' in a Winter Wonderland" and feel right in place.  And "Jack Frost nippin' at your nose...or toes..." or wherever it was he nipped. Here are some shots of our house, our street, our yard, our tree, and of course our dogs. This is basically a photo essay, which means I don't have to write much. I'm too full.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"That Night, Again." A Short Story for the Holidays

Jesse shoved his dead beagle out of the way with his bare foot and set another log on the fire, watched the smoke curl around it for a second, then leaned back in his cracked red leather easy chair.  “Okey-dokey,” he said.  His favorite word.  He reached for the cup of hot cocoa on the tv tray, let the sweet steam waft up into his nostrils, and smiled.  He took a small sip.  A bit of melted marshmallow clung to his upper lip.  He felt it sitting there, wiped it off with the back of his hand.

“Bet you would’ve liked some hot cocoa, Samson,” he said to the immobile dog.  Samson had been dead four days now, but he was the only company Jesse had.  Better a dead dog than no one.  Even if Samson had still been breathing, Jesse wouldn’t have given him any cocoa.  He knew that chocolate was bad for a dog, something about their digestive system not being able to handle it.  And he sure wouldn’t have done it with just one more day til Christmas.  Ain’t no way to find a decent vet on Christmas day, he knew.  All the good ones are at home with family or on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, he figured.   

Outside a soft snow began spreading its stark winter blanket across the neighborhood.  The first snow of the year, and what better time than on the night before Christmas?  He looked out the window.  “Okey-dokey.”  

Jesse thought about the dogs of his life.  His best friends.  Dogs that died before they left puppyhood, dogs that trembled and slept into old-age.  Samson was one of his favorite dogs, probably the last one he’d ever have.  “Got you the year after Emma passed,” said Jesse.  He remembered other Christmas eves, when Emma would hang the stockings on the mantle, wrap last minute presents, slide chocolate chip cookies out of the oven.  Forty-six years of chocolate chip cookies must be some kind of record, both for baking and eating, he thought.  He wondered how many chips of chocolate had melted down on their behalf.

Emma had gone off her meds before she passed, twelve years ago.  Except she didn’t know she had.  She had become impossible to live with, drove Jesse up one wall and down another with her incessant complaining and whining, her mind melting down like those chocolate chips.  So he dumped her meds, all seven bottles of them, down the toilet, replaced them with placeboes.  He liked that word “placebo.”   It took a couple of weeks, but eventually Emma passed in her sleep.  “A peaceful placebo departure,” said Jesse at his most poetic.  

He lifted Samson by his tail, half off the floor, to reveal the tattered book under his rump.  He picked it up and turned to the first page.  He always felt a thrill when he read aloud the very first line.  “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house...”  What magic, what power, what craftsmanship.  Not “It was the night before,” but “Twas.”  Not “Christmas Eve,” but “the night before Christmas.”  Jesse stretched his legs out to let the fire warm his bare toes.  Samson slid across the hearth to the edge of the fire.  Outside the snow thickened, swirled, piled along the curbs and bushes.  The street lay silent, no headlights, no crunch of tires. 

Jesse continued his annual ritual aloud, to deaf, floppy ears.  “Not a creature was stirring...” He stopped on that line and laughed.  “You can say that again” and looked at Samson.  “...not even a mouse,  The stockings were hung by the chimney with care.”  Jesse looked at the mantle.  Yep, the stockings were still there.  He had never gotten around to taking them down from last  year, although Emma had complained about that until midsummer.  

Jesse got as far as “... had just settled down for a long winter’s nap” when he smelled the burning, an acrid smell that was neither oak nor hickory.  He looked down at the fireplace.  Samson was smoking.  Or at least the fur on his backside was, turning the dull brown fur into stringy black ash.   “Move away, dog,” he said, and reached over and scooted Samson to the side.  Luckily the dog had not burst into flame yet, and as the smoke subsided, Jesse approached the conclusion of the poem.  He stopped before the last page.  “Not so fast, not so fast,” he thought.  “Gotta let the magic last a little longer.”  He drained the cup, scooped the remaining marshmallow with his finger and licked it clean.
“Okey......”  He felt his eyes getting heavy.  The fire, the cocoa, the snow, his dog.  “How lucky I am,” he said aloud.  His eyes started to close.  But he had to get to the part about “But he heard him exclaim as he rose out of sight ...” and the rest of it.  His head nodded and his chin dropped to his chest.

The peace was shattered by a loud rap-rapping at his door.  Jesse lifted his head.  “Who could that be, Samson?”  He struggled out of his chair, shuffled to the door.  Another series of rap-rap-rapping, this time louder.  “Keep your shirt on, I’m coming, fast as I can,” said Jesse.  He opened the door.  And what to his wondering eyes should appear, but Santa Claus standing there, with no shirt on.  

“Sorry  couldn’t keep my shirt on,” said Santa.  “Are you named Jesse?”

Jesse nodded.  This was wonderful beyond belief.  

“Then let’s go for a ride,” said Santa with a hearty laugh, making his stomach shake like a bowl full of jelly.  He slipped on his red coat.

“I’ll get my coat,” said Jesse.

“No need to.  I’ve got a propane heater in my sleigh.  I just wear this because it’s expected.”  He laughed again.   “Here we go.”

Jesse and Santa walked out to the sleigh and climbed in behind the eight reindeer.  “Good looking reindeer,” said Jesse.

“I take good care of ‘em.  Thanks for noticing.”  

“Bet you never give ‘em any chocolate.”

Santa smiled.  “You sure know your reindeer.”  He grabbed the reins and gave them a shake.  “Hold on, Jesse.”

As they rose above the house, the neighborhood, the town, Jesse heard Santa shout, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

“Okey-dokey,” shouted Jesse.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Burgers for My 84-year-old Friend

A couple of weeks ago, before the cold weather and the rain moved in, while the trees still held on to a few straggling leaves, Mary Lee and I celebrated a Major Birthday. Hannah, our Golden Retriever, was 12 years old. As is our custom, we bought her a hamburger on her birthday. Not a White Castle burger, but an honest to God Hamburger. We used to go to Steak'n Shake, but that was before the economy took a dive. So this time we grabbed a couple of Doubleburgers at Mac and headed for Weldon Spring Trail, where we followed the trail from the parking lot on Hiway 94 to the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. The day was warm and the dogs were excited. Sadie, who is only 3, covered the entire area, checking for slow-moving squirrels or sociable deer. She found none.

We got to the bluffs abut 2:00, and gave the dogs their burgers. Hannah moves a little more slowly now, but what the hell. At 84 you can't expect someone to leap and dash and do back-flips anymore. She still sits and shakes. Her paw, not her body. The view from the bluffs is quite relaxing. You can almost hear Lewis and Clark urging their men up the river, singing their songs of exploration, slapping at the millions of mosquitoes and gnats that came to feast, telling mean jokes about Tom Jefferson.

But enough history. Oh, wait. One more tidbit. Weldon Spring was first settled by a frontiersman named John Weldon from North Carolina. That's it.

One more fact: A MacDonald's Doubleburger stays hot in a styrofoam container placed inside a backpack for 45 minutes. We didn't get fries with that. Not good for dogs.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

And justice shall prevail. Kinda.

Buried in a recent NY Times edition was the sad story of Bruce Karatz, former chief exec of KB Home. It seems the law caught up with Bruce and dragged him to justice after he went into hiding. Bruce, you see, had been found guilty in April of hiding backdated stock options from auditors and regulators. To the tune of more than $6,000,000. 

Now I'm not financial whiz, and don't understand how the markets work, but I do know that hiding stuff from the Feds if you're a chief exec is not a good idea. Unless you already have your ticket to Costa Rica. 

So they dragged poor Brucie in and administered proper punishment. He must pay a $1,000,000 fine. Do the math: that's a $5,000,000 profit. And now comes the hard time: Ol' Brucie was sentenced to serve 8 months of detention - at home. "Home" in this case is a 24-room mansion in Bell Air, California. That's one of the better 'hoods in LA. 

My personal opinion? I think the law could have taken a tougher stance. They should have restricted him to the use of only one bathroom. Kept him from spending more than 1 hour a day in the billiards room. Put the entire East Wing off limits, except on holidays. Made him vacuum his swimming pool once a week. And forced him to eat all his meals alone, at the long dining room table in the spacious dining room, then do his own dishes. 

Bruce, however, takes a positive view of the situation. "I won't get over to the links for a little while, but I can keep my swing in shape on my private driving range." Maybe the Feds should've taken away his clubs, at least his driver. But that would be deemed "cruel and unusual punishment." 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 95

We sat in the yard next to his house that was built in 1864. That's the year before the war started. Not WWI, but the Civil War. The house overlooks the Missouri River and the Great River Road, on the outskirts of Alton. His name is Erwin A. Thompson and I was there to do a video interview of him, at the request of his daughter and my friend, Janet Riehl. www.riehlife.com

Erwin will be 95 this coming Tuesday, Nov. 9, and he shows no signs of slowing down. We talked for over an hour on a warm day in October. He read poems he had written, sang songs he had composed, talked of his life before this day, and what he had planned for the future. He knew the songs by heart, remembered all the lyrics. He read the poems without reading glasses. He sang in a strong, vibrant voice, occasionally interrupted by a deep cough. His mind was as clear as the sky above.
A line from one of his poem still resonates with me:
"But no matter where or how I seek, I never hope to find
Music that will thrill me like what echoes in my mind."

Erwin spoke of the Second Mile. How it meant doing more than what is asked of you. It's a concept he believes and has lived. Here is a man who has met some tough times in his 95 years, but persevered. More than once in WWII he stopped to help others at the risk of his own life. He encourages others to do more than what is expected. He thinks not of the past, but of the future. When I asked him what his plans are in the time ahead, he gave me a one word answer: "Music." I know he'll keep singing, and playing a fiddle, and going that Second Mile, in the months and - hopefully - years ahead.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

"Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin" Novel Accepted by Chaplin Archives

Available at www.stlbooks.com
I've just returned from a 3-day Charlie Chaplin International Conference, at U. of Ohio in Zanesville. (My first time in Zanesville. Never imagined I'd go there.) I brought copies of my new novel with me, "Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin," even sold a few. But the best part was giving a copy of the book to Evelyne Luthi-Graf of the Archives de Montreux, in Switzerland, for the Chaplin collection. I don't know if this is the equivalent of eternal life for me, but it's close enough. And I'm in good company.

The conference was incredible, with participants from Italy, Japan, England, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, Canada, and Finland. Plus from universities around the U.S. And two guys from St. Louis, me and Joe Delmore. For 13 or 14 hours a day, we saw films, restorations, presentations, discussions, on almost every aspect of Charlie's life and career. I even got to hold his derby and cane. 

Me and Joe
At this point I pause to say "Thank you" to Dr. Lisa Stein, at the U. of Ohio, for having the imagination, courage and energy to put this conference together. And have it come off so smoothly. Even the coffee and pastries were excellent. And I got to meet David Robinson, from London, the acclaimed expert and high priest of all things Chaplin. He signed my 1985 edition of his book, "Chaplin: His Life and Art." I also spent time with Chuck Maland, author of "Chaplin and American Culture." 

Back to the novel: it's available now, through Amazon, B&N online, or - preferably -  www.stlbooks.com

Monday, October 25, 2010

Mickey Mantle and the Road Not Taken

George Vecsey in today's NY Times offers up a fascinating "what if." In his column, "Home Runs and Demons for Hamilton and Mantle," he talks about Mickey Mantle's problems with alcohol and promiscuity, his troubled childhood, and - most damning of all - the permissive environment he found himself in with the Yankees. Nobody helped Mickey deal with any of this.

Then George comes up with the thought that dazzled me. I quote: "Suppose Mantle had signed with his boyhood favorites, the Cardinals, and played for a fatherly manager like Eddie Dyer or Johnny Keane, alongside his temperate hero, Stan Musial, instead of being scolded by Stengel and ignored by Joe DiMaggio and indulged by the open city of New York? We will never know."

I can almost see Mantle in a Red Bird uniform and a couple of more pennants flying over Sportsman's Park.
Here's a link to the article. In Rangers’ Hamilton, Shades of Mantle, but Brighter Outlook - NYTimes.com

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Chapter One - Continued. "Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin"

Here is more of the first chapter. The book is available at www.stlbooks.com


FlashBack Productions occupies a large house in a residential neighborhood, just north of Sunset Boulevard where Hollywood meets Beverly Hills and the rent begins to escalate. I walked up the stone-lined path to the front door, through a yard deep in shadows amidst a tangled variety of tropical trees, the yard accented with splashes of yellow and pink and red flowers. If it hadn’t been for the hum of traffic on Sunset, I might have thought I was in the Brazilian jungle. Back in Ohio, they might have been shoveling snow.

     “Hi. You must be Cooper. I’m Heather.” The receptionist spoke with a warm, husky timbre. “Can I get you anything? Water? Juice? Herbal tea?” Pause. “Coffee?” 

      “Juice sounds fine. Thanks.”

     “Guava? Papaya? Pomegranate?” Pause. “Orange?”

     “Surprise me.”

     She headed down the hall. “I’ll tell Kevin you’re here.”

     I sank down into a long, plush sofa set against a large, bubbling aquarium in the wall. I knew Kevin McDaniels, the head of FlashBack, only from several phone conversations. His enthusiasm about the project was contagious. I hoped he was as likable in person. And I hoped he liked me. I was the outsider from the Midwest with the credentials he had been looking for. 

     Kevin had said he was looking for a “nontraditional” viewpoint, even though I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. This was an incredibly significant opportunity for me: a writing assignment in Hollywood with the potential to establish myself on my favorite subject, Charlie Chaplin. my all-time favorite, close to obsession status.
     Heather brought my juice over. Orange. I expected her to take me into Kevin’s office. I was wrong. Two minutes later, Kevin walked up. From his voice on the phone, I had pictured short, chunky and bald. He  was over six feet tall with the smooth, powerful lines of a natural athlete, topped off with a head full of pure white hair. The hair just didn’t match up, an anomaly that looked like a bad make-up job. He appeared to be in his mid-forties, about ten years older than me. 

     “Cooper. Hi. Kevin McDaniels.” He extended his hand, which I both shook and used as a rope to pull myself out of the couch. He backed up his grip with a wide, contagious smile. I liked him immediately and relaxed. “Come on back. How was your flight?”

     “Smooth. The way I like them.”

     “Hotel okay?”

     “Very nice.” 

     We entered his office, a spacious room that looked out onto the back yard and the pool, some orange trees, and a golden retriever stretched out by the sliding glass doors. A living, breathing real estate brochure. 

     We sat in director’s chairs on opposite sides of a low, teak coffee table. He cut to the chase. “Why should I hire you, Cooper?”

     A fair question, but one I hadn’t expected as a starting point. “Because you want to give highly talented writers from mid-America a chance to participate in the dynamics of Hollywood.” Sometimes I speak before thinking.

     He laughed. “Of course.” He shifted forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped, staring intently at me. “Frankly, I’m not sure why you’re here. Let me explain. You made the short list, but I pretty well had it narrowed down to another writer. Then I got this in the mail.”

     He handed me a single sheet of folded paper, undated, no letterhead, with a short, handwritten message. “Mr. McDaniels, it has come to my attention that you are embarking upon an important new series dedicated to early Hollywood personalities, including Sir Charles Chaplin. Forgive my impetuousness, but I would suggest you  consider a young man named Cooper Thiery of Columbus, Ohio, as one of your creative resources. Through my duties here at Oxford University, I have become aware of his insight into the subject and believe it would be in your interest to, at the minimum, contact him. Please excuse the abruptness of this intrusion and lack of follow-through on my part, but I shall be on sabbatical for the next six months. Best of luck on your project.” The signature read “Ian Picking, Professor of Cultural Heritage, Oxford University.”

     The handwriting matched that in the Robinson book.

     I handed the letter back to Kevin, held my hand as steady as possible, and said nothing.

     “I called Oxford,” he said. “Picking is indeed on sabbatical. Out of touch for another four months.” 

     Kevin continued filling in the background on our meeting, but my mind was working over the similarity in handwriting, the appearance of the book at the hotel and the Oxford letter. I just wanted Kevin to say I had the job, so I could start to work and not deal with the puzzle.

     “Any thoughts about that?” 

     He was waiting for my answer, and I hadn’t even heard the question. 

     “About what?”

     “About where you might start. Are you with me, Cooper?”

     I apologized for my drifting, then recalled some of the comments from the book. Maybe that would take the interview in the right direction. “Two areas,” I said. “First, Chaplin’s relationship with Edna Purviance. I think there’s more there than has been uncovered so far.” In a paragraph about her and Charlie, her name had been circled with the comment, “Half the story.” It could be accurate. “The other area is what he did with some of his films, where he stored them, especially one that theoretically no longer exists. Chaplin didn’t destroy much of his work, even if he didn’t like it. It’s worth a look.” I stopped. Other areas seemed workable, according to the notes in the Robinson book, but I didn’t want to start a laundry list of possibilities. Less is more, as someone once said. An architect, maybe.

     Kevin moved into an overview of the project, much of which we had discussed on the phone a couple of weeks ago. Then he stood up and the meeting was over. A four hour flight, each way, for a half hour meeting.

      Back in Columbus, a message was waiting on my answering machine. Also, a new e-mail was sitting in my inbox. They both said the same thing. “Good news. You start on Monday. Welcome to the dynamics of Hollywood.” I treated myself to a couple of double-cut pork chops for dinner and four draft Guinness's at a neighborhood hangout. I would have gone dancing if I liked to dance.

The Mad Men and Women of D'Arcy Advertising

We gathered on a brilliant afternoon in late October, the Mad Men and Women of D'Arcy. We reconnected and remembered, traded stories, hugged and kissed, told each other how wonderful we looked, and held handshakes longer than usual. 

A hundred different paths now brought us back to the large room of a micro-brewery and restaurant in the heart of Kirkwood - paths that had taken many of us to distant reaches of the country, moved some of us just a few blocks, to new jobs, different careers, or nothing more challenging than a round of golf or a flower bed. Now some of us spoke of our children's achievements or our grandchildren's talents. Most of us talked about faded campaigns, unforgettable clients, celebrations and disappointments, theme lines that once bristled with energy and originality and still called forth a spark of pride. 

In each other's eyes, we were still young, unafraid of any assignment, willing to deal with tough clients, able to prove that we were the best damned ad agency anywhere in the world. But we wore name tags, just in case that name or that face was slightly out of reach. And so few were.

Advertising was a different business back then. For many of us, it was the only one we knew. For others, the younger ones there who still had plenty of hair and a youthful glow, it was still the same game, only the rules and tools had changed. In fact, the world had changed in the less than 100 years of D'Arcy. With roots that had their beginnings in 1906, the agency no longer exists except in the history books and occasional columns, where tales of Mad Men and Women are told with a flair reminiscent of great battles, heroic deeds, and wondrous achievements.

And D'Arcy still lives in one other dimension: in the hearts and memories of those of us who once worked there, and - on this one day - came together in the warmth of the love we once shared.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Solid Review About "Where the Mountain Takes Me"

Earlier this year, a biography I wrote was published, and has recently received a fine review (not a perfect  10, but highly acceptable) from Jeffrey Penn May. The name of the books is "Where the Mountain Takes Me, and it is about a rather incredible individual who overcame depressing odds from the moment he was born to become an accomplished engineer and dentist. He finally succumbed to mesothelioma earlier this year. You can read about this book, and the review, at http://www.stlbooks.com/bookscape/

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Chapter One of "Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin"

In case you have a few minutes and feel like reading something new, here is the first chapter (or the first part of it anyway) of my novel. The book is due from the printer next week, and then I head for a Chaplin conference in Ohio end of the week. I hope you enjoy this.

An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.

- J. D. Salinger

Creativity takes courage.

- Henri Matisse


“You like Charlie Chaplin?”

The guy in the next seat obviously had noticed the book I was reading. From the tone of his voice, I knew he wasn’t a Chaplin fan.

“Yeah, I think he’s pretty funny.” I wasn’t really interested in getting into a conversation with him, not with a four-hour flight ahead of me.

“You look like an intelligent guy. Let me ask you a question.” He rolled up his Sports Illustrated and jammed it into the magazine pocket. “How can you find running around in circles and poking people with a cane and throwing pies funny?”

I kept my book open. “Chaplin did more than that. He wasn’t big with pies either. Other comics did pies.” I couldn’t believe we were discussing pies at thirty-thousand feet. I felt trapped in my seat, there wasn’t enough leg room, my sneakers looked dumb.

“Anything in that book about him being a Commie?” he said.

The captain’s voice interrupted with information about altitude, cruising

speed, and the approximate time we’d be landing in LA Even though I didn’t want to go any further with this guy, the Commie remark bothered me.

“That actually was never a fair accusation,” I said. “He wasn’t a Communist. Maybe if you’d read a little about him, you’d know what that was all about.”

“I know they kicked him out of this country. I don’t have to read more than that. And what about all those little girls he was messing around with? You saying that didn’t happen?” With each accusation, his voice grew louder.

I didn’t answer. Confrontation makes me uneasy. Given a different situation I might have launched into a stout defense of Chaplin and his personal life. Like when you stick up for a friend who’s not there. Not this time, though. I just wanted to be left alone, read my book, prepare for the opportunity ahead in Los Angeles.

“I guess there’re some people who don’t like him,” I said. “I just think he’s funny, that’s all.”

I missed Lauren. I still felt the need to reach over and hold her hand on takeoffs and landings. That’s when I get nervous. Lauren was always there, reassuring me with her warmth and strength. But Costa Rica had ended that. I hadn’t flown since then, nor gone bike riding, our favorite sport.

“Now Bob Hope...he was funny,” he said and returned to his Sports Illustrated.

I picked up my laptop, briefcase and book, and moved to an empty seat further back. I was still trying to get a handle on my interview tomorrow. Their consideration of hiring a freelancer from Columbus, Ohio, to write a documentary about Charlie Chaplin, still baffled me. Sure, I had good credentials on Chaplin, and writing for film had been my goal for the last several years. My shelves were stacked with scripts, treatments, and concepts, none of which had aroused much interest. Sometimes luck follows persistence. Still, why me?

The rest of the flight was smooth. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the last smooth period in my life for awhile.


The following day in LA shaped up as relatively predictable. I’d grab breakfast in the coffee shop at nine, spend a couple of hours in my room reviewing notes, take a walk to put my thoughts in order, eat a light lunch, then be at the production house a little before one for the interview. By late afternoon I’d be on a plane headed back to Columbus, either to continue my gradual decay there or pack for the return trip to LA That was the only part I couldn’t predict. Or so I thought.

The phone rang after breakfast.

“Mr. Thiery, this is the front desk. We have a package for you.”

“A package? For me?”

“Yes, sir. A large manila envelope. Shall I send it up, or would you prefer to fetch it?” The clerk with a British accent seemed to be the hotel’s attempt to add some class to a pleasant but otherwise undistinguished Hollywood establishment.

“I’ll come down.” I hadn’t expected a package, not even mail or messages. I was here for only the one day. Maybe it had something to do with my pending interview. I “fetched” the envelope, opened it on the elevator and a book slid out, one that was appropriate for the day’s events: David Robinson’s acclaimed biography, Chaplin: His Life and Art. I flipped through it and saw no note, no explanation for its presence, no name or address. I already owned the book, had read it more than once, referred to it dozens of times. This was, in my opinion, one of the best books ever written about Chaplin. My copy was sitting on a shelf back home, along with another hundred or so books about him.

I called the front desk. “Where did this package come from?”

“A gentleman left it here, Mr. Thiery, just minutes before I called you.”

“What did he look like?”

“Rather short, looked to be in his fifties, white hair. Steel-rimmed glasses, I believe.”

“Did he leave a name? Or a message?”

“No, sir. All he said was, ‘I think Mr. Thiery needs this.’ Something like that. He was a cheerful sort, pleasant smile. Is there anything wrong, sir?”

I told him no and hung up. The book was obviously used, the dust-jacket well worn, the black and white cover photo of Chaplin slightly faded, the edges of the pages stained. My sense of order began to unravel as I looked through the book. Notes had been written in the margins, words and phrases underlined or circled, large “X’s” scrawled, seemingly at random, with comments such as “rubbish” and “not so” and “Yes.” Not an abundance of comments, but enough to hold my interest. The previous owner, it seemed, had either possessed a keen insight into Chaplin or a willingness to question the author. Why it had been passed on to me, and who had delivered it, puzzled me. I worked my way through the book, paying closer attention to the markings, balancing them with my knowledge of Chaplin’s life. I didn’t know if the comments were accurate. They were, however, within the realm of possibility, with some intriguing speculation about his life and art.

I forgot about my walk, about lunch, and spent the rest of the time engrossed in the book. If I got the job, I would spend my next three months focused on my favorite personality of all time, attempting to define the line between an artist’s work and his private life. One other line would become significant, a line that would test my sense of reality, a line that I had previously believed to be impossible to cross.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Books vs Nooks

Dear Reader: What lies ahead? Check out the cover on the latest New Yorker Mag. Title of it is "Shelved."

Monday, October 11, 2010

Books, Nooks and The Big Read

I spent a couple of hours last Saturday wandering among the booths and displays at The Big Read in Clayton. Mostly I was trying to stay on the shady side of the street, since the temperature was more reminiscent of August than October. I saw several people from the St. Louis Writers Guild there and some other book-focused friends. I also saw lots of books, stacked and displayed on tables, resting on shelves, put there by organizations and individuals who were showing how they wrote, printed, bound, marketed, distributed books...and got young people involved in books. All in all, a very positive experience for a writer.

However, there was an item there that alerted me like the rumble of distant thunder. Or maybe the sky brightening just before sunrise (to stay with nature metaphors). I'm talking about the Nook. A young man was offering demonstrations of just how easy it is to use a Nook. As I stood there looking at it, I felt as though I was at an Exposition of The Latest Radios sometime during the 1930's. I was surrounded by the latest table models, portable, consoles, cabinets, all heralding the dominance of radio. And over in a corner sat a young man with a strange looking contraption on a table. It had a little screen, which had a picture on it, a picture that was grainy and in black and white and moved. He called it television.

So what about all those books at The Big Read on all those tables? What is their future? Will the Nook and the Kindle and the iPad hold sway in the not-too-distant future? Quite possibly. But I think there will always be a place for books. At least I hope so. One thing for sure, though. Unless technology comes up with something I can't even imagine, nothing will ever replace The Writer. The story will always start with someone sitting down at a table or desk and looking at a blank page.

What do you think?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Another Taste of Chaplin

If things go as planned, my novel, "Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin," will be off the press by next weekend. Later in the week I'll probably post the first chapter. In the meantime, here's a wonderful scene for your enjoyment. It's from "The Great Dictator," (1940) with Chaplin performing a marvelous pantomime to a familiar piece of classical music.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The New Novel: Me and Charlie Chaplin

Twelve years in the writing. And rewriting. And rewriting. So my new novel, "Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin," will be off the presses in about 3 weeks. The idea hit me in 1997 or '98 in LA when I was walking around the Chaplin Stage at what was then A&M Records, then became Jim Henson Productions. The novel takes place in - naturally - Hollywood, and the time is today, and the 1920's. And yes, Chaplin is a major character in the book. A couple of other characters in the book are Fatty Arbuckle and William Randolph Hearst. I'll tell you more about it in future posts. That photo of Charlie and me was taken in Vevey, Switzerland, where Chaplin lived after he left the U.S. in 1952. For now, though, enjoy one of Charlie's most famous sequences. It's from "The Gold Rush," released in 1925.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Dummy with a Photo of Freedom

I bought a book yesterday: Blogging for Dummies. Because I'm meeting with a friend of mine, Janet Riehl, in a couple of days to talk about blogging, and she said "Buy it." So as soon as I learn what I'm doing, I'll become a blogging fool. But in the meantime, just browsing through the book, I saw a section that talked about using photographs and how readers like photos. So I thought, what's an interesting photo I have? And here it is.

I'm on the rear patio of a rich friend's house 2 weeks ago (mansion/estate/castle) in Aspen, pretending I, too, am rich. Those are my size 13 sneakers and my lean, muscular legs. The book is terrific. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Labelled by some as "a Great American Novel." I bought it at Left Bank Books, paid full tilt for it, not a 40% discount from Amazon, opting to support my local independent bookstore. (a rare occasion) To close this circle, last Monday night I saw Franzen at a reading at Christ Church Cathedral, SRO. Not only is he a good writer but a good reader. I don't know if he blogs, probably not, as he needs to spend his time writing The Great American Novel, which I could do if I didn't blog...and procrastinate...and had fathomless talent. I'll be blogging your way soon, even to tell you about a novel I wrote that will be published in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, check out Janet's link. www.riehlife.com.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Conversation with a Renegade Chicken

The road runs from Hannibal, Missouri, to St. Louis. It offers a lot for the eyes. Lush, green hills; stands of oak, elm and cedar; occasional glimpses of the Big Muddy, just as Tom and Huck might have seen it.

I had spent the night in Hannibal at a quaint B&B (aren’t they all “quaint”?), attempting to conjure up the spirit of Sam Clemens. I had questions for him about how to write humor. He never showed.

The second “B” at the B&B was excellent: scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese and onions, wheat toast, homemade strawberry preserves, and a thick slice of country ham. As I took a long walk in the woods that border the B&B, seeking a little exercise before driving back home, my thoughts were on eggs. “The” eggs. The ones that were being recalled, millions, maybe billions of them, all originating in Iowa, just a stone’s throw from Indian Joe’s Cave. I was little prepared for the encounter that awaited me on my walk.

I left the main path, worked my way through elder bushes and low-hanging pines. (I’m not sure what an elder bush looks like, but it sounds good.), and stepped into a clearing, still in morning shadows.

And there she stood. Or, rather, huddled. A chicken. Brown and russet, rather thin, scraggly feathers, eyes wide with fear. She didn’t move. I approached her, walking slowly, a smile on my face, thinking loving, positive thoughts

She looked me right in the eye.

“Hello, chicken,” I said. “What are you doing here?” I spoke as though to a child.

I expected silence, maybe a slight squawk. Instead she said, “You’re not with them, are you?”

“Excuse me?” I’m not sure what surprised me more, the sound or the suspicion.

“I asked if you’re with them.” She looked behind me, checking for others.

“Who is ‘them’?”

“The guards. The keepers. The gatherers.”

“I don’t under - “

“Don’t interrupt.” Her voice became more strident. “The crooks, the handlers, the egg Nazis.”

Suddenly it made sense. “You must be from - “

“Iowa. Wright County. The Factory.” She spit out the words, scratched the ground like a bull about to charge.

I sat down next to her. She backed away. “No, I’m not one of them.” I introduced myself. “I’m Gerry. With a ‘G’.”

“Phrances. With a ‘Ph’.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Did I make fun of your ‘G’?”

“Well said.” I held out my hand.

She gave me a weak high five. Actually a high four. She hadn’t eaten in days. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a slice of wheat toast, lightly buttered. She grabbed it and quickly tore it apart with her beak. “Thanks,” she said. ‘It’s not cracked corn, but it’ll do.” The toast disappeared in seconds.

“So...Phrances...tell me about it,” I said.

She sat in silence, gathering her thoughts. I waited as the sun edged into the shade.

Finally she began her story:

“It was a nightmare. Impossible demands. Despicable living conditions. A complete lack of sanitary considerations. And don’t get me started on the manure piled in there.” I shuddered at the thought. She continued. “No exercise, no socializing, no background music.” She stopped, stared at the ground. I thought that was the end of her story. There was more.

“I’m a good layer. I know I don’t look like much now. That’s what six days on the run will do to you. But I dropped a lot of eggs, Gerry. Even got a Happy Egger award last month. But you think they care?? Not one wit. You drop three today, they want four tomorrow.”

“My lord,” I said, unable to help myself. I reached over and scratched her head.

“Gerry, you can’t imagine the conditions there. I saw rats. They ran along the walls, scurried amongst the cages. I still have nightmares where I see their beady red eyes and wet twitching noses, probing between the bars. And the rain. There were holes in the roof. Besides the lightning and thunder, water dripped on us. Not on me. I was caged in a dry spot. but so many of the others...” She stopped, engulfed by memories of lost friends, most likely.

“You don’t have to go on,” I said.

“Do you have anything to drink?”

I pulled the half-full Evian bottle from my pocket. “There. As much as you want.” I tilted the bottle so it dropped into her open mouth. She smacked her beak. “You don’t have any coffee by chance, do you?”

“Coffee?” She had to be kidding.

“They gave us coffee. Black. Full strength. To keep us awake, increase production. I’m kind of addicted to it now. I get these headaches...”

I laughed. “I’ll take you to Starbuck’s.”

“What’s that?”

“Never mind. Go on with your story, Phrances.

She took a deep breath and ruffled her frayed feathers. “We had one guard, a sadistic sonofabitch. Skinny, pock marks, tiny black eyes like a rat. He’d walk up and down the aisle, bang on our cages with a baseball bat. Shout ‘Drop ‘em, ladies, drop ‘em’ in a high-pitched voice. He got off on scaring us, hearing all the racket we’d make. You can imagine what thousands of chickens sound like when they’re frightened.”

“Thousands! How big - ?”

“Tens of thousands, mon ami. This camp was huge. Thousands and thousands of us, squashed side by side, as far as the eye could see.”

The day had grown cold inside me. The story became clear as she talked. Over a half billion eggs from two Iowa farms recalled. More than a thousand cases of salmonella poisoning across the entire country. An egg operation involving as many as half a million chickens. Each cage holding 4 or 5 birds in an area no larger than an 8x10 sheet of paper. But the cruelest deception had yet to be spoken.

“You know, the name of this place I was at is the Wright County Egg Company. It’s run by a ruthless profiteer named DeCoster. He’s had run-ins with health officials before, but he keeps on doing business. And here’s the ball buster, Gerry.” She stopped and looked around. I could tell our time together was growing short. “Listen to this. You know how they sold their eggs? Not as Wright County. Oh, no, that’s too corporate. They packaged their eggs under names like Mountain Dairy. Hillandale. Shoreland. Sunshine. And, my personal favorite, Dutch Farms. Seriously, if eggs, or any kind of food, comes from Dutch Farms, you just know it’s gotta be healthy. Right? Talk about massive deception.”

“I never knew,” I said.

“Who knew? You go into Ralph’s or Albertson or Schnucks, you expect an honest egg. If they had been honest, the cartons would’ve been named Alcatraz Eggs, Sing Sing, Attica. Even Abu Ghraib. You like that? ‘Mr. Grocer, could I have a dozen Abu Ghraib eggs?’ Not in your lifetime, that’s for sure.”

“Look, is there anything I can do for you?”

She drew herself up, shook off the dust, trying her best to regain her former beauty. “Yes, Gerry with a G, yes there is. Tell people what went on. Let them know what we chickens have been through, just how evil those people are. Above all else, don’t let us be forgotten.”

I felt a tear form in the corner of my eye, a lump in my throat. I reached out and stroked her lovingly under her beak. “I promise.” I held my hand there. “But what about you?”

“I’ll be fine,” she said. “I have relatives in Defiance. They live on a farm. Nobody cares how may eggs they lay, as long as the owners have their beer and wine. And they don’t like fried chicken either.” She let out a loud cackle, possibly a laugh, and began to walk towards the woods. “It’s paradise, Gerry. Just remember your promise.”

“Safe travel, Phrances,” I shouted, as she disappeared into the undergrowth of elder bush. “I’ll keep my promise.”

And she was gone.