Thursday, February 23, 2012

How to Star in Your Own Buddy Movie

NOTE: This is a decades-old interview I recently found in my computer archives. I conducted the interview in 1990 for Men's Health magazine, but the article never ran. Upon re-reading the advice, it seemed a shame it never got published, so (for lack of a more appropriate venue), I decided to post it here.

How to Star in Your Own Buddy Movie
A men's psychologist talks about making, keeping and reconnecting with friends

One night, ten years ago, I suddenly figured out that I didn't have any close male friends. I had broken up with my longtime girlfriend—a semi-divorce, you could say—and I was longing for company more dimensional than Arsenio Hall.
            Trouble was, all my intimate friends were couples that I had met through my ex-girlfriend, the Social Director. So I felt like the odd man out.
            Okay, I'll phone some of the news-desk gang from the paper where I work, I thought.  Maybe get together somewhere for dinner.  But then I considered how those guys and I ribbed each other or bantered endlessly about news and sports. I'm not up for that, I decided. None of that crew really knows me.
            My next thought was to call my racquetball partner. Except that I'd never spent time with him off the court. We'd never talked about anything more personal than his Cessna 172. “Naaa,” I thought. I felt in the mood to really connect with someone.
            A few hours and Buds later, as I was considered calling up some dudes from my karate class, I recognized that loneliness had driven me mad. The guys in that class possessed all the sensitivity of a Van Damme movie.
            That left—nobody. “I have no close buddies at all.” What a terrific feeling. Good thing Arsenio and I were so tight.
            Nowadays I'm married to a great woman and our two sons are the orchards of our eyes. But…I still don't have any sidekicks. Not like when I was 20 and four of us dudes threw a tent into a station wagon and set out on a summer-long surfing safari. Man, those days were filled with buddy scenes meant for the jeans commercials. Question is, now that I'm 40, why is it harder to connect with other guys?
            A lot of men want closer friendships, says men's psychologist Robert Pasick, Ph.D., but we don't know how to make them click. I asked the author of  Awakening From the Deep Sleep: APractical Guide for Men in Transition for his advice on the art of making friends.

First, a reality check. Is it tough for most guys to make friends? Or is it just moi?

Most of the men I talk with would agree that it gets harder to make friends as you get older. I meet a lot of guys who feel nostalgic for the type of buddies they had in college or the service, and can't understand why they haven't made any new male friends as close as the old ones.
            In my experience, the typical man depends on women for emotional ties. His male friendships focus on companionship and fun. When some kind of crisis comes up, men often find their buddies too uneasy with matters of the heart to be there for them. So guys save their most personal sharing for wives and girlfriends. Trouble is, if the woman is the source of the problem, the guy finds himself really alone.

What's getting in the way of men making friends with other men?
The obstacles start with the way we're socialized. We learn throughout our boyhoods that we're supposed to stick to a set of unwritten rules about how to handle ourselves as men. One of those rules says we're not supposed to let others see how we're feeling, especially if we're feeling sad, or weak or afraid. Keep your cards close to your chest, keep a poker face, or others will take advantage of you. Our role models are heroes who seem strong because they don't let emotions get in the way. But friendships never become deep if you can't be real about how you're feeling.

I'm thinking that if you took the various characters played by Clint Eastwood, Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen and put them together in a room, you wouldn't get a lot of personal sharing among them.

Those guys would never let down their guard. But a key to getting close to someone is to show your vulnerability. If you're worried about something and your buddy asks you, "How's it goin'?" and you answer "Just fine," you're hiding yourself from him. And that relationship will stay superficial.
            Another part of the male code that's a hindrance to friendship is total self-reliance. A real man doesn't need emotional support. We're scared to get too close to anyone, because intimacy might make us feel dependent on them.
Male competitiveness, I think, is the biggest obstacle of all. The feeling that we should always keep score and know where we stand relative to other guys.

Like, "Bob makes more money than I do, but my wife is a lot cuter than his." That kind of thing?

Right. That whole game of one-upmanship. It kills trust. It can even ruin old friendships. I had a client, Ray, who asked his friend, Jim, why he hadn't returned his calls or letters. Jim told him, "My life hasn't been going great lately. A few months ago, I lost my job." Ray was shocked. See, when they'd been on equal grounds, their friendship had lasted for years, but when their fortunes went in different directions, Jim felt ashamed, so he withdrew.
            When you think about it, our male conditioning is hardly a formula for making happy friendships. It contains some values that can be very useful in life, but it seems more like a formula for raising warriors or corporate chiefs. I mean, I don't want to sound like a Marxist or something, but male society is too competitive and materialistic, where a man's worth is measured by his wealth of toys, not his wealth of friends.
            The irony is, the more you succeed at conforming to the masculine model, the more you'll fail at making close friends. Some of my clients are real power-brokers who have achieved the ultimate in the American Dream, but they're very lonely at the top. Often they didn't realize they were totally alone until they got a divorce or had a heart attack or some other crisis.

I've noticed in buddies-drinking-beer-together commercials, we're always shown a crowd of buddies, never only two guys together.

The fear of being perceived as homosexual keeps guys from showing too much caring, and creates a lot of awkwardness and uncertainty. For example, a lot of men would feel it's okay for two guys to travel together on a business or fishing trip, but would feel uncomfortable going out with the same guy to dinner or a movie on a Saturday night. Men are fearful of saying to another man, "I'd like to see you," so they say, "I've got tickets to the game, wanna go?"
            That's why after making a new friend, men are anxious to bring their girlfriends or wives into the relationship. But when the four of them meet, it might take away from the original rapport.

Are there traits that you can expect from a real friend? A way to know your friendship is on the right track?

A real friend shares with you how they actually feel, including the parts that aren't positive or totally predictable. They can ask for your advice or help, and they would gladly return the support. A real friend is your equal, whether he makes more or less money than you, and so forth.
            An essential trait of strong friendships is the ability to deal openly with conflict instead of taking your football and going home. Disagreements and disappointments are inevitable between people. The trick is to talk about the things that bother you, such as perceived slights, whatever. To just button your lip and tough it out drives a wedge between you.

What does it take to make close friends?

Get involved in activities where you're likely to meet men you'd want to be friends with. If you enjoy biking, join a bike club. The guys you meet there will have at least that much in common with you. I've made several good friends through coaching my older son's baseball team.
            Most friendships between men build indirectly, when you're involved in something external to the relationship. But after getting to know someone a bit, you can suggest getting together in some other setting: "Why don't we continue this conversation over lunch sometime?" Of course, that's the scary step, where homophobia and the fear of rejection flare up.        
            And, in fact, you might experience some rejection or indifference along the way. It helps to remember this is something you are doing for yourself, not a test of your popularity. It isn't easy to reverse the pattern of keeping friendships superficial and secondary. It takes time.
            Because of everybody's time crunch, it helps to have a regular schedule to get together. Actually, the number one reason men give for not being able to make friends is that they don't have enough time. But that's largely an excuse. If you make the time to exercise and do other things for your health, you can make the time to have friends. Make it a health priority: Studies have shown that close friendships are linked with long life and survival of heart attack. You eat lunch most workdays, right? Meet your friend for lunch once a week. Or buy season tickets.
            When your friend asks how you're doing, try a new response, instead of the glib answer. Tell him what worries you, or what you dream of doing someday. At first, you might have to do most of the opening up.
            You'll probably find it useful, at least until the friendship is well-established, to keep your wives or girlfriends out of it. And I think men continue to need time, now and again, in the company of other men, away from women.

Do you recommend joining a men's group?

It's not a bad idea, since evaluating your own blocks to closeness is a logical first step to going beyond them in your friendships.
            You get the idea through the media that all men's groups are wildman-type tribal gatherings where you go into the woods and pound homemade drums and chant and scream and go naked into sweatlodges. But there is a full range of men's groups out there, that every guy could be comfortable with. It's not all some kind of intense emotional work. There are talk groups and simpler stuff. All it takes is four or five guys who are willing to get together to talk about things other than sports. Over the last couple years the group I belong to has talked about fathers, money, mentors, mid-life career choices, health, religion, aging, sexuality and other things. It's enlightening to hear how other men think and feel.

What about cohorts of yesteryear? Any hope in trying to reconnect?

Yes. I think it's equally important. It's sometimes easier, too. We carry a lot of grief from these losses, but some of our old friends may still be available.
            I suggest writing a letter. Not just a note on a Christmas card. Talk about yourself and what's been going on in your life in an honest way. Don't take on that "everything's been fine" posture. It's good to say, "I'd like to renew our friendship." Tell him you miss him.
            If there are unresolved hurts between you, mention them and say you want to get past them. If you're the culprit, apologize.
            End the letter by suggesting specific times and activities you might do together. Suggest a place to meet again, halfway between cities, perhaps, for a weekend of golfing, or whatever. If you're not a letter writer, give him a call.
            If you have a longtime friend with whom you'd like to get tighter, plan ways to open up the relationship. Plan a trip together, or ask him to join you on a project or a new class. Talk directly about your friendship. Tell him how you see him. Ask him how he sees you. Here's a big risk: Try calling him at times when you tend to withdraw, because you're down or whatever. Try to accept help from your friend. He will likely be flattered that you seek his loyal support, and maybe some day he'll reciprocate.
            A friend is attentive. So call your friend occasionally just to talk. Send him clips of articles that are right up his alley. If you know he's been sick, check up on him to see how he's doing.
            When you travel, look up old friends. When I was in New York recently on business, I looked up a friend I hadn't seen in 15 years and he invited me to stay with him, and we've become close friends again. Don't worry about imposing. Make the call. Chances are, your old buddies are stuck in the same rut you are, finding it hard to make new friends, and they'll be delighted to hear from you.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Inexperienced writers tend to get stuck on the visual sense—as if the story’s narrator is a roving eyeball. Our actual experience involves seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting; therefore, including all five senses creates verisimilitude (realism). The following 1,700-word story is fiction.

Don’t Mean Nuthin’

In 1968, at age 19, I was a grunt in Vietnam, Army corporal, stationed in a province called Duc Pho, at the outset of the Tet Offensive. That’s when the Viet Cong nearly overwhelmed our forward bases and killed enough Americans to fill hundreds of cargo jets with coffins—plus about ten times as many South Vietnamese soldiers.
Duc Pho has landmarks with poetic names like Monkey Mountain and Rice Goddess Valley. It’s also got lots of place names in French. Near our base ran a river the Vietnamese called the Cad De Song, and the French called the Riviere Vaseuse—both mean Muddy River—but we called it Turd River. Villagers dumped their wastes into the river and you could watch garbage and human turds float by. Once I saw the puffed-up balloon of a dead dog drift past. But mostly, the locals ate the dogs. Rats, too.
My best friend in ‘Nam was another 19-year-old corporal, Rodgers Hammerstein. Odd name. And yes, his parents did name him after Rodgers & Hammerstein, the 1940s song-writing duo that created the great Broadway musicals: Oscar Hammerstein was his dad’s uncle or something. Rodgers’ mom was from Harlem and he was of mixed race before that was considered hip.  
            On the Army base at Duc Pho, the races hung together: Hispanic with Hispanic, whites with whites, blacks with blacks—and Rodgers didn’t fit in. He didn’t belong with the whites because he was dark-skinned, and he didn’t belong with the blacks because he didn’t have that streetwise, inner city mojo going like most of the brothers back in the ‘60s. Those from Motown or L.A. had it for real, and those who came from some suburb in Ohio or Indiana, faked it for real.
But Rodgers didn’t know the first thing about how not to be himself. Growing up, he’d spent most of his free time in the library at Columbia University, where his dad taught history, and Rodgers’s intellect had come to shine at about a million candlepower. He listened to Bach and Brahms, and he played—get this—the guy played the bassoon. I played drums and I dug soul and funk, James Brown and Smokey Robinson and all that good shit and, hell, I could have hung out with the brothers more easily than Rodgers.
            But I didn’t fit in with anyone either, because I never have. I carry the genes of the outsider. It makes you allergic to whatever is conventional, and drawn to the exotic, and to other outsiders. Naturally, Rodgers and I ended up as buddies. Brothers, really. It’s hard to explain the bonds forged in combat: descending to hell while depending on your brother to help you survive.
In the second week of the Tet Offensive, on a night without a trace of moonlight, a couple Hueys dumped our platoon a hundred klicks out from base, in a rice paddy near the edge of the Deng Ne rainforest, to conduct a LORRP—long range reconnaissance patrol. An hour later, following a muddy trail through the jungle, we walked straight into an ambush. In the first five seconds, I saw half my squad eat it. Rodgers got nailed a dozen feet in front of me. He pitched backward and slammed to the ground so hard he bounced.
I threw myself down flat. Sharp, popping sounds snapped an inch above my head—bullets making sonic booms. Which meant somebody on the enemy side was firing a sniper rifle in addition to the AK-47s, because AK-47s fire subsonic rounds. I tried to squeeze my body flatter, press deep into the mud; I wished I was two-dimensional, like a photo.
            Our rifles, M-16s, make a sound like ka-blang-ka-blang-ka-blang-ka-blang. I heard only one firing, and then it stopped. AK-47s, the Chinese-built models, make a racket like someone hammering on a steel garbage can. Klack-klack-klang. Klang-klang-klang-klack-klack-klang. Jesus, they wouldn’t shut up. Both weapons shoot bullets that tumble, which makes them inaccurate at long range: you aim here and the bullet hits over there. But at short-range, it’s like they’ve got whirling teeth—to get nailed by one is like shoving that body part into a blender.
I crawled though sucking mud over to Rodgers and reached for his hand, but saw bone stumps jutting from his wrist. I tugged on his arm and his shoulder sagged and I had the sickening feeling I was going to pull his arm off.
I dragged him off the trail to hide under a drooping canopy of elephant ears. Held him in my arms, cradling his head in my lap; watching his life blood pump out with each pulse. My teeth chattered. I tasted a mouthful of muck and grit.
In that moment the sky collapsed. Monsoon rainy season. When it rains in ‘Nam it’s as if massive cranes have hauled a swimming pool up into the air and then tilted the deep end over your head. The elephant ears made lousy umbrellas, and I leaned over Rodgers and shielded his face with my hand so the fat raindrops wouldn’t splash into his open eyes and mouth.
And then I said the goofiest words ever spoken to a dying man. I said, “Don’t worry. Where you’re going, they’ve got a great library.”
See, Rodgers was always griping that the library on base sucked. For one thing, he and I were both science fiction nuts. And they had maybe three science fiction novels—and all three were by Andre Norton—kid’s stuff. We were into the concept of the Encyclopedia Galactica—that there might be a central repository of information—science and art from countless cultures—and that whenever a sentient race reaches maturity, the Ancient Wise Ones or whatever contact them and grant them a library card to tap into this ultimate Book of Knowledge.
So I heard myself saying, “Don’t worry. Great library.” And Rodgers looked at me and half-smiled, and his lips moved, and he said—I think he said, because no words came out, just a gush of blood—but I want to believe he said, “Galactica.” Then his eyes rolled back and he was just 165 pounds of death in my arms, heavier than this whole planet.
I didn’t cry. I closed my eyes and the sideways rain stung my eyelids like flying pebbles. It washed the blood that slickened my hands and arms.
The rain bought me time, because you can’t see diddle in a monsoon cloudburst. Everything melts into liquid shadows. One minute you’re having a great time killing people, or getting killed, and the next minute you can’t see past the tip of your rifle barrel. But I could feel Charlie, squatting out there in the inky jungle in soaking black pajamas and plastic flip-flops, waiting for the rain to stop so he could finish us off.
Then a figure loomed over me in the downpour, yelling something at me and I couldn’t make out a word—I heard the shouting, but I didn’t recognize the language. I expected to open my eyes and see a Viet Cong soldier with his rifle leveled at my chest. I was about to be dead.
So what? is exactly how I felt.
            But the soldier standing over me slapped me in the face, hard. And I saw it was my lieutenant. “Chopper’s coming.” He dragged Rodgers off my lap. “Leave him. Let’s get the hell out of Dodge.”
            “Chopper? In this rain?”
            “It’s Mad Dog. They’re letting him fly again.”
            “Far out.” Mad Dog was insane. Clinically. But somehow his mania helped him fly in hairy shit that pilots in their right minds couldn’t handle.
I staggered to my feet. Now that I thought I might actually make it, I felt terrified. My heart started thumping like a boom box. Getting to a clearing for evac, waiting for the chopper, hearing it approach, watching it touch down through curtains of rain—to this day, I can’t remember any of that. The adrenaline pumping through my body wiped out my memory like electroshock.
Anyway, half a dozen of us got out—out of a squad of twenty. All but one survivor was wounded. Wasn’t me. Turns out, I’d been hit and didn’t even know it until we were aboard the chopper. I had a silver-dollar sized hole that entered through my right butt cheek and exited the left.
I laid on my belly on cold, corrugated aluminum. Jesus, I felt every vibration. The rotors churning, thub-thub-thub-thub-thub-thub-thub-thub…man, I mean, PAIN in the ass.
Guys bleeding and moaning all around. The smells of blood and vomit and guts and the kerosene reek of burnt jet fuel exhaust. Over the noise of the rotors and turbines, my lieutenant leaned toward me and shouted something in my face. I didn’t understand a word and I put up my hand to keep him from slapping me again. He stuck his lips against my ear and screamed, “Did you get his dog tags?”
Fuck. You’re supposed to yank them off and take them with you when you leave a comrade behind. I’d been too freaked out to grab Rodgers’s tags. Now his parents weren’t going to get anything back from ‘Nam. Not their son. Not his body. Not even his damn dog tags.
The lieutenant read the look on my face. “It’s okay, man.” He squeezed my shoulder, and I winced, because I felt it down in my butt. “Don’t mean nuthin’,” he yelled. “You did good. You’re alive.”
But it’s not okay.
Here it is, forty years later, and it’s still not okay.
It means something.
Doesn’t it?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Navigating the e-book swamp

According to Wikipedia, reported sales of e-books (for Kindle) outnumbered sales of hardcover books for the first time ever during the second quarter of 2010 (it sold 140 e-books for every 100 hardcover books--even including hardcovers for which there was no digital edition). By January 2011, e-book sales at Amazon surpassed its paperback sales.

In the overall U.S. market, paperback book sales are still much larger than either hardcover or e-book; the American Publishing Association estimated e-books represented only 8.5% of sales as of mid-2010. On the other hand, that's a leap upward from 3% the previous year---and the percentage will certainly keep growing.

So self-publishing your novel as an e-book sounds like a great option, right?

It is. But ONLY if you are a well-established writer with many loyal fans who will faithfully follow you from print to digital format. However, if you are a new, unknown author, your e-book will take its place as a tiny minnow within the deep sea of 400,000 digital titles offered by Amazon, and 1 million e-books available from Barnes & Noble. How will you get your unsung story to stand out?

It would be much, much better for your writing career if you could land yourself an agent who could sell your manuscript to a print publisher. That way, you'd get to use the editing, packaging and marketing services of the publisher. Probably, the most valuable of these services for you would be the help of a skilled editor. 

You see, compounding the problem of the sheer numbers of e-books is the fact is that most e-books SUCK!  (Okay, that's my opinion, but it's the educated opinion of a former Senior Editor of Men's Health magazine). Perhaps 95 percent of self-published novels are badly written: disorganized, misspelled, ungrammatical, illogical, factually incorrect, cliche-ridden, poorly plotted---the whole stinky mess. There is no gatekeeper to say, "This novel is soooo not ready to publish."

Just as in the days of print-only books, when savvy readers knew to shun "vanity press" authors, today's smart readers EXPECT self-published e-books to suck---and they're right most of the time. (Do the math: 95 percent of 1 million crappy novels is 950,000 crappy novels available for you to buy for your e-book reader.)

I don't write crappy novels. I've paid my dues, I've learned my craft. But I'm nearly unknown. How can I get shoppers for e-books to discover my stories? That's my challenge. And if I learn any useful solutions, I'll share them with you.

Meanwhile, the most strategic move I can make is to write the biggest novel of my life. The blockbuster. 

That's the novel I'm working on now. Between classes. 

Got to get back to grading freshman papers.