Posted: 08/29/2014 2:41 pm EDT 
I met Peter Mehlman, known for his work as a writer and executive producer of theSeinfeld show, at a Santa Monica coffee shop to talk about writing, being funny, and his debut novel, It Won't Always Be This Great (September 2014, Bancroft Press).

Mehlman, who fed the Seinfeld cast such lines as "Yada Yada" "spongeworthy," "shrinkage," and "double-dipping," said he was "still feeling a good endorphin rush" from his basketball game the night before.

Set in the crushing complacency of suburbia, It Won't Always Be This Great is narrated by an unnamed Long Island podiatrist who commits an accidental act of vandalism that shakes him, albeit temporarily, out of his sleepwalking existence. Overflowing with humorous, strange, and insightful social observations, the novel is told with Mehlman's particular sensibility.

The unnamed podiatrist reveals the details and secrets of his story to a friend in a coma, which places the narrator in that wonderful middle ground between telling and not telling. Despite his friend's comatose state, the narrator chooses, on a few occasions, to withhold information because he thinks it's too personal. "It's a slight cheat on my part," Mehlman said, "because it allows the narrator to be conversational." Still, it does create an intimate bond between reader and narrator.

In a refreshing twist, Mehlman created a narrator who still loves and respects his wife, Alyse. Even after 24 years, he's still trying to impress her. "You never hear a story about a marriage that works," he said, "that a guy is happy to be in." And Alyse has a cool edge to her. She's more perceptive, maybe smarter than her husband, but less grounded. Meaning she's a fully developed character, not some trophy wife. "It's so easy to have them at war with each other, to have that quiet hatred," Mehlman said, before adding, "But who's going to do that better than Updike, anyway?"

There's a wonderful moment in the novel where the narrator is at a stoplight and his wife is asleep in the seat next to him. He looks at her and sees a little drool on her cheek and he feels good about the drool. While the narrator may spend much of his life sleepwalking through it, he is fully engaged in his relationship with Alyse, and you can't help but like him for that.

I wondered why Mehlman would turn to writing a novel, given all his success with TV writing. "I just like the actual work," he said. "You want the actual work to be something you love because the second you send it out it's devalued by like 50 percent. It's like driving a new car of the lot, it looses its value immediately."

On the challenges and strategies of writing funny, Mehlman said, "I think it helps to have a certain awareness of wanting to be funny. One great things about Seinfeld was that I became very aware of the seemingly meaningless little thoughts that float through my head. And they're funny. And they end up being universal." He went on the say that the word joke hardly ever came up at Seinfeld and that funny was organic to the show.

"There are very few totally original thoughts," Mehlman continued. "If your New Year's resolution was to have one original thought, it would be difficult. Most thoughts have been thought before. It's just a matter of who can capture them and put them into words. It's a race."

The novel didn't have a title the whole time Mehlman was writing it. After he was done, he heard George Harrison singing All Things Must Pass with the line, "It's not always going to be this grey". And with his apologies to George Harrison, Mehlman came up with It Won't Always Be This Great. He says the title doesn't exactly pertain to the book, it's more a feeling that captured the whole rather than any of the parts.

Some of that feeling can be felt near the end of the novel when the narrator and his family are taking a drive through their neighborhood. There's this sense that inside the car everything is good and that they are all, for a moment, a united front against the craziness. It's clear that this is temporary and that they will all soon leave the safety of the car and rejoin the world of crazies. But for a moment things are that great.

When I asked Mehlman about his approach to writing, he said "I don't think you can spend enough time deciding on the exact wording of your sentences. Sentence structure is everything. When Fran Lebowitz's first book came out, what made it so funny was the perfect English."

He went on to talk about using grammar and using as few words as possible, and how throwing in an extra word can ruin a line. "If I have a sentence that I think is going to be funny, and its starts off in nine words, I start thinking, isn't there any way I can cut it by a third, just to get the line out faster."

"I have very little advice about writing, but one of the few I have is that you have to put out a tremendous amount of effort to make it look effortless. That's the most important thing to me. It has to look like you didn't put much effort into a joke because if it shows effort it's a problem. If it shows too much effort it's failed."

By that measure, It Won't Always Be This Great doesn't seem to have taken any effort at all.

See all of Peter Mehlman's work at .

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Picture  August 14, 2014

In Renee Swindle’s breezy third novel, A Pinch of Oooh La La  (August 5th/ Penguin-Random House) narrator Abbey Lincoln Ross, discovers that her artist boyfriend is having multiple affairs while watching a documentary about him at a film festival.  After suffering this spectacular public humiliation, Abbey pours all of all her energy into her Oakland bakery.

The novel, though, is never bitter. A Pinch of Oooh La La is full of sweets and treats and a band of folks who improvise and adapt as they seek the right ingredients for love.  And there’s plenty of funny.  “I love the mix of drama and humor,” Swindle said.  “Sort of like a Breaking Bad.  My last novel was about an alcoholic and when people said they laughed and cried—that was the best.”

Baking is the perfect metaphor for Abbey’s life as the novel begins.  Bakers are in control.  They understand that with the right ingredients, combined in precise measurements and a specific order, you get delicious.  Abbey is in search of the right recipe for love but, as Swindle said, “there’s no formula when it comes to love.”  Which is why Swindle gets Abby out of the kitchen and sets her on a quest for love.

As Swindle told me about her own recipe for writing novels she was sitting in her Oakland kitchen where she recently conquered her own fear of baking.  She had a piece of her own cornbread in front of her.  And, there was talk of making scones. 

“I get one idea at a time and just start writing.  I usually get to page fifty and then start over again.  When I get to page 100 I do the same thing until I have a full draft.  I’m not good at outlines,” she said.  “All those starts and stops help me figure out what the hell I’m doing.  On this novel, though, after I wrote enough pages my editor made me write a synopsis.  That was helpful because it helped me keep the story contained.“

And then there’s all that jazz that, along with baking, becomes a backdrop for Abbey’s journey.   The music comes in the form of Abbey’s musician father Lincoln who has many children with many partners.  In Lincoln, Swindle created a refreshing alternative to the absentee dad as he brings his very extended family together.  Instead of the usual loathing that most couples that once loved each other so quickly embrace, Swindle’s characters embrace each other and extend the definition of family.  Unlike baking, jazz allows, insists upon, improvising.  “Abbey,” Swindle said, “is very nurturing and she has to figure out when to give and when to not give of herself.  She has to let go of her recipe.”

A Pinch of Oooh La La is set in Oakland, which Swindle describes as her “funky little city.”  And while she love’s the Oakland vibe, the city has more to offer as a backdrop.  “I wanted to set my novel in the world that I see around me everyday.  Oakland is racially mixed, socially diverse, vibrant community. It’s the world that doesn’t always get portrayed in fiction but it’s the world so many of us live in.”

Swindle feels drawn to dialogue.  “Some writers a great at setting.  I love to write dialogue,” she said.  “I like listening to how people speak and how they put their sentences together.  Which is often funny.”Swindle’s advice to new writers: “Get used to sitting with yourself and playing around everyday so you get the groove of discipline.  Cause if you want to write a novel you’re going to need that.  To be with a book more than not.  Like running, start out slow and let it build. Be nice to yourself you.”

Many Pinch readers will undoubtedly feel compelled to head for the kitchen to get their bake on.  Or, like me, visit their favorite bakery.  I suggest not resisting.

Renee Swindle will be reading from A Pinch of Oooh La La on Sunday, September 21st at 6:00pm at The Hotel Cafe
1623 1/2 N Cahuenga Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90028.  More info @

See you there.

Renee Swindle’s first novel, Please Please Please, was an Essence Magazine/Blackboard bestseller. Shake Down The Stars was a Blogger’s Recommend Top Pick.  Renee earned her BA from UC Irvine and her MFA from San Diego State University. More info

I sat down with Richard Kramer, the Emmy and multiple Peabody award-winning writer, in his North Hollywood home to talk about writing his intimate debut novel, These Things Happen.

Sixty-something Kramer is not your typical first time novelist.  During his senior year in college he sent a story to The New Yorker, using it as a resume to land a job writing for their Talk of the Town column.  A few months later, William Shawn, The New Yorker’s legendary editor, called Richard on his dorm room phone (yes dorm rooms once had landlines) and said that The New Yorker would not be offering Kramer a writing position, but asked if Kramer would be willing to let the magazine purchase and publish his story.  An unfiltered Kramer responded, “Fuck! Are you kidding?”

After his next seven stories were rejected, Kramer spent a few decades “doing other stuff” before returning to fiction and writing These Things Happen.  Here’s the thing: most people would call that “other stuff” a brilliant career.

During those “in between years” as Kramer calls them, he wrote, produced, edited, and directed some groundbreaking television shows like thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, Once and Again, and the Tales of the City miniseries.  He also worked on some bad shows, because, as he put it, “You have to make a living, and at the start every show looks good.”

Despite receiving awards, television writing was deemed insignificant, Kramer recalled.

“No one wanted to write for television when I started.  It was beneath consideration.  Writer snobbism.  But now, that’s no longer the case as television is now culturally interesting, and culturally significant.  People study TV and write about it, so now everyone wants to do it.”

But a few years ago, Kramer says he just started writing without a plan.  He filled some pages, and then more pages, with several different voices, inspired by people he had encountered over time.  “I didn’t know I was writing a book at first, and then I had a bunch of pages and those voices, they became more pages until finally the pages shouted at me, ‘You fool! Can’t you see we’re a book? And could you possibly put out some snacks?’”

Eventually those pages and voices became These Things Happen, a novel set in Manhattan among a group of mostly successful, highly accomplished adults who are not even slightly self-conscious about their own self-importance.  Within this group, tenth graders and long time close friends, Wes and Theo, attempt to seek answers about their own identity.  Sharp kids that they are, they know that one can’t obtain answers without asking the right questions.  So Theo enlists Wesley’s help in finding answers to two simple specific questions, that not only apply to every character in the book, but also to every reader:  When did you know who you are? Would you choose your life?

These Things Happen becomes a story about what happens when we are forced to address assumptions we’ve made about ourselves and about those close to us.  The results can be disappointing and ugly, but it’s the stuff that growth is made of—it’s how we find the truth about ourselves.  How we become comfortable with who are.

In the novel, Wesley, has two sets of parents: his mom, Lola, a book editor and her doctor husband, Ben, and his father, Kenny, sought after gay lawyer/activist and his partner, George, a restaurant owner.  These Things Happen opens with Wesley’s mother Lola having sent him to live temporarily with Ken and George so that he can get to know his rather elusive dad.  Lola knows that Wesley will ultimately be disappointed with his father, but she isn’t seeking to put a wedge between Ken and Wes. She knows that they will have to work through the disappointment—that it’s important for Wesley to get to know his father.  The alternative, attempting to shield him from disappointment, is never useful.

“Disappointment, unhappiness, they are part of life, part of living, part of participating in life.  Can someone be protected?” Kramer reflected.  “Lola is free to protect her son. In fact that comes out in a very unpleasant way later in the book.  The novel comes from having lived and written for several decades, from having reflected on things I’ve seen and experienced, from a lifetime of observations.”

What makes this novel stunning is the disarmingly raw manner in which the unpleasantness is dealt with and the trustworthiness of each narrative voice.

“Voice is hard to teach. It’s something a reader must trust.  It’s the spiritual experience of reading.”

I suggested that maybe Kramer’s television writing made his decision to use many voices a natural choice.  The process turned out to be more organic, more authentic.  He said the writing took that direction on its own.

On the differences between writing a script and a novel, Kramer said, “The goal of a script is to create the least amount of anxiety for the most people.  In a novel, you want to create the greatest anxiety.  With a novel, you’re the parent.  And you’re responsible for the well being. All of it . . .  With a script, you’re a babysitter.  You get to go home at the end of the day.”

For the final third of the novel, Kramer asks the reader to shift points of view as he turns to a third person narrative.  He says that this shift was unplanned, that it just seemed and allows the reader to view these final scenes unrestricted by any of the character’s lenses.  So, when Wesley and George are up on the roof, late at night, during the final scene, the reader can watch and listen from anywhere.

I asked Kramer if he had any advice for new writers.  He said, “Don’t think about it.  Just write.  It’s not about planning.  Be uncritical of yourself.  That’s how you find thoughts that are worthy of being captured.  Don’t be too conscious while you’re in the process of composing a book.  It gets in your way.  You have to work from instinct, which is hard because it’s a state of not knowing.”

These Things Happen has been picked up by HBO and HARPO Films for development into a half hour comedy TV series.  Richard Kramer is currently writing the pilot.

posted on June 26, 2014

Jacob M. Appel is the author of the novels, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, and The Biology of Luck (2013).

His recent publications are Phoning Home (May 2014), a collection of essays informed by his advanced degrees in medicine, law, and ethics, and a story collection, Scouting for the Reaper (February 2014), which won the Hudson Prize.  His prose has won numerous prizes and awards and has appeared in more than two hundred journals and he’s been short-listed for the O. Henry Award (2001), Best American Short Stories (2007, 2008), Best American Nonrequired Reading (2007, 2008), and the Pushcart Prize anthology (2005, 2006, 2011). He practices psychiatry in New York City and is a licensed New York City sightseeing guide.  More at
Here’s my interview with Jacob Appel on writing and his novel The Biology of Luck. 
Elan: What was your inspiration for writing The Biology of Luck?

Jacob:  All of my life, I’ve enjoyed watching beautiful women on bicycles and fantasizing about their lives.  Who doesn’t?  Only in this case, my fantasy got out of hand, so I passed it along to a character who could write about these fantasies more effectively   

For the record, Larry Bloom is nothing like me, except that we’re both licensed sightseeing guides.  And Starshine is not based upon a real person.  Let me spell that out:  If you’re a woman I know socially, perhaps someone I dated in high school or college, and you believe you were the inspiration for Starshine, I assure you that you are not.

Elan: So, Larry Bloom is not you.  How much of yourself and the people you know are in your characters, in your story?

Jacob:  Much less than one might imagine.  I write about people I’d like to meet, rather than people I already know.

Elan:  Why do you think – and I’m asking both the psychiatrist and the writer – that readers want to assign authors and other real people to characters to fiction? I find that few readers believe writers who deny the connection.

Jacob:  Writers are not to be trusted.  Especially fiction writers.  We make things up for a living.  So readers are probably wise to dismiss our denials.  That being said, people have a knack for thinking of themselves as more important than they actually are.  This is a form of healthy narcissism, but it can lead to projective identification.  What that basically means is that most people who know an author want to see themselves in that author’s work.  That’s why it’s probably wise not to socialize with authors.  Actors and politicians get invited to better parties anyway….

Elan:  Your main character, Larry Bloom, leads us on a around New York City one single June day.  Some readers will be inclined to hear and echo of Joyce’s Ulysses – and a nod to Homer’s Odyssey. But the novel quickly becomes Larry Bloom and Starshine’s story—a wonderfully odd and funny and observant love story.  And you’ve structured the novel so that it is Larry Bloom telling the story in his novel within your novel. Can you talk about connections between The Biology of Luck and Joyce?  *And, what made you choose to structure the novel this way?

Jacob:  I’ve always been awed by Ulysses.  I took a brilliant class with Professor Daniel O’Day over the summer at Columbia more than twenty years ago, and he got me hooked (my mother, incidentally, wrote a thesis on Joyce’s eyesight).  I am pleased to say there are at least one hundred references to various aspects of Ulysses in The Biology of Luck, but I’m not willing to divulge them.  I leave those to the critic.  (Although I should note that the ending of my novel makes more sense if you read the last page of Joyce’s novel.)  I probably should make a list at some point, so I don’t start forgetting them.

Elan:  I love the title. How did you come to it?’

Jacob:  I’d like to say it “just came to me” but it’s actually inspired by a complex combination of genetics and good fortune.

Elan: In what ways does your work as a psychiatrist change or influence you when you write fiction?  And is the reverse true?

Jacob:  I spend all day hearing amazing stories, and medical confidentiality prevents me from sharing them with anyone.  I suppose that drives me to be more imaginative in my fiction — I challenge myself to create lives more unusual than the ones lived by my patients, which often isn’t easy.   At the same time, I sincerely believe that being a writer makes one a better physician.  A late mentor of mine, Professor Edward Beiser of Brown University, used to tell his bioethics classes, “I wouldn’t want a doctor who hadn’t read and understood Macbeth.”  What he meant was that it’s easier to understand human nature as reflected in literature than to recognize it in life, and yet one needs to understand human nature — Macbeth’s ambition, Lady Macbeth’s guilt, etc. — in order to connect with and help patients.

Elan: With all you do, what made you want to writer fiction, and novels in particular?

Jacob:  I’ve always wanted to be a writer.  I know that sounds cliche, but it’s true — I can remember being three or four years old, even before I was able to read, and listening to my grandmother read aloud to me and thinking that I wanted to write books someday.  In contrast, I never wanted to become a doctor.  In third grade, we had to choose a future career, and my career was “Not a Doctor”; I even made a “Not a Doctor” poster.   I didn’t go to medical school until after I’d exhausted all other options.  It turns out that I actually enjoy being a doctor.  Very much.  Although I’m a psychiatrist and some of the cynics among your readers may be thinking, “He’s a shrink!  He’s not a real doctor.”  Of course, others of your readers may be thinking, “He’s not a real writer!”

Elan: Going back to your Grandmother reading to you – I think this is the power of voice in interacting with the world.  I think that children ask to hear books over and over because they are assured by the reader’s, in your case your Grandmother’s, actual voice. How do you define voice?

Jacob: My grandmother read to me from about the age of two through the age of seven or eight, every night, from books I only vaguely understood.  She read Robinson Crusoe, Mary Poppins, The Collected Works of Jules Verne, but also Middlemarch, My Antonia, The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides and a number of classic volumes on the anthropology and ecology of sub-Sahara Africa.  So I absorbed the great writers of western civilization through the voice of an elderly Jewish mathematician.  I now understand she skipped the sex scenes and inserts milder expressions for profanity, but I must have absorbed the gist of the works, some glimmer of meanings that still last with me, because I’ll occasionally read a classic “I haven’t read before” and I’ll realize it was read to me in toddlerhood.

Voice, I tell my students, is what separates Philip Larkin from the mass of other ill-tempered English librarians drinking in the afternoon and leching after teenage girls.

Elan: Who are some of your favorite authors and are there particular reasons why you’re drawn to them either individually, or a group?

Jacob:  There are two sets of authors I admire.  The first are my former students and mentees who are starting to carve out names for themselves in the literary world.  CJ Hauser, who I taught at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop years ago, just came out with a brilliant novel, The From-Aways.  Go buy it! Brigit Kelly Young and Chanan Tigay are names to look out for.

Among the more established living writers I admire are Kevin Brockmeier, Dan Chaon, Elizabeth Graver, and Chris Adrian.  All push the creative envelope.  And then there is the genius of Karen Russell.  I have quite unrealistic fantasies of marrying her and playing house husband while she transforms western literature.  If you’re friends with Karen and you’re reading this, now is your chance to introduce us and make history…. Of course, she might already be married, in which case you should leave me to my private dreams, because they don’t hurt anybody.

Elan: What do people close to you think about your writing?

Jacob:  I come from a long line of sober, responsible people.  My father was a physician; my mother’s father was a physician; my mother’s mother was a mathematician; my mother was a biochemist; my brother is an intellectual property attorney.  Dreaming up stories is not at the core of the family tradition.  So let’s just say they stand somewhere between amused and befuddled — which I suppose makes them bemused.

“Rosie” (to whom The Biology of Luck is dedicated) has been my closest friend for more than two decades and is the person most supportive of my writing. She is also, for the record, not the inspiration for Starshine.

Some of my colleagues at the hospital are under the delusion that I’m a far more prominent writer than I actually am.  I do nothing to dispel this belief.

Elan: You’ve written and published in many genres.  Do you have any suggestions for writers starting out?

Jacob:  Be relentless.  Writing a good story or novel is necessary (or should be), but is not sufficient.  There are a remarkable number of wonderful stories and novels on the market.  You also have be to a full-time advocate, publicist and champion of your work.  It also helps to be heir to a banking fortune — in fact, I highly recommend that.  But if you’re not heir to a banking fortune, and I am not, then you have to submit your work relentlessly.  In medicine, we warn patients, “Don’t die on one doctor’s opinion”; in writing, you shouldn’t let your story or novel die on one editor’s opinion, or even the rejection of one hundred journals or agents.  I’ve acquired 21,000 rejection letters and counting.  That is not a typo.   So wear your rejections like badges of honor.  Just don’t wear them all at once, because that can be a fire hazard.  Check out for the fellowship of other rejects.  And keep writing.   Oh, and the other thing beginning writers should do is buy my books.  In large quantities. 

(reposted in HuffingtonPost Books)

Posted: 04/23/2014 5:33 pm EDT 

Last February, a short time after I traded New England winter for Los Angeles winter, I responded to a posting by Trade School LA (TSLA) seeking teachers willing to offer classes for barter by offering to teach a writing workshop on Flash Fiction. Trade School LA is part of an international network of 50 self-organized barter for knowledge chapters. But I didn't really get it until I spoke with Leanne Pedante who started LA's Trade School chapter and organized May's inaugural slate of classes.

Leanne explained to me that TSLA teachers offer classes in exchange for one of their list of barter items. Students sign up for classes and pick one of the barter requests to bring to the class. Even over the phone, I found Leanne's conviction that TSLA would fill a void for the many adults eager to learn new things without going into debt genuine. The Trade School community, she pointed out, is part of a growing barter and time-bank movement.

But it was Leanne's infectious enthusiasm for TSLA's ability to create community jumping out of my phone that made want to be a part of TSLA. Big city, small community. I've traded classes for grades at colleges and I like teaching. But the opportunity to teach as part of a community was and instant draw for me. I don't know who signed up for my class, but I know that we share the belief that community matters. To paraphrase Grace Paley, a community might not be changed by talking to one person at a time, but it can be known.

As it turned out, the hardest part for me was figuring out what to ask for in exchange for teaching my Flash Fiction writing workshop. That wasn't a surprise for family and friends who know that I don't celebrate my birthday. So I cheated. I looked at what other teachers around the globe had asked for and picked a few of theirs. The community came to my rescue!

Since TSLA doesn't own a 'school', classrooms are offered throughout the area. I get to teach at Spirit Art Studio in Silverlake. Other spaces are hosted by HM157 art collective in Lincoln Heights, Chin's Push art gallery in Highland Park, on a patio behind Kaldi Coffee in Atwater Village, in the backyard of Paniolo Productions in Palms, at the reDiscover Center in Santa Monica, in parks, and in people's home studios and living rooms.

To learn more about Trade School L.A., visit their website where you can register for classes and learn more about the Trade School model of community learning.

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Posted: 04/15/2014 5:15 pm EDT
This year for Pesach, for Passover, I find myself in Southern California for the retelling of an Exodus story that celebrates renewal, promotes the do over, praises reinvention. In my travels around the cities near dessert and along the water's edge I have found so many people who came to this land seeking those same freedom to reinvent themselves and restarts their lives.

When the Jewish people entered Egypt, they were only Jacob's family and things were good so they stayed for a while and added and multiplied. Soon, they became a people. This was followed by a series of unfortunate events caused them to cry out for a change. Exodus tells us that God offered Moses the job of getting the Jews out of Egypt. Moses was a risk taker. So much so that he declined the offer. Saying no to God didn't usually go well in the Bible, but he made it work for him. Eventually, Moses took the job and whoever was bold enough, had had enough, or was willing to risk enough, followed him out of Egypt. With the Red Sea in their rearview mirror, the journey became one of renewal and the opportunity for a Do Over. This nation of slaves wandered the desert until they became a free people.

The Angelino histories, the SoCal family stories I've heard are about a rugged, adventurous folks who were passed over elsewhere and came here to join a community of risk takers seeking to remake, to reinvent themselves. They would rather go big and fail than stay home. I am told that Los Angeles County is a place where it's okay to fail. I plan to test that assertion.

Numerous studies warn that the U.S. is trending toward becoming a risk-averse people. This is disturbing, but hardly shocking. And while I'm not sure there was ever a time in our history that this trend would not be troubling, I am certain that there could not be a worse moment for this trend to take hold. Any setting that discourages risk taking will not cultivate talent. And, the need for talent has never been greater -- that is not hyperbole, but a cry heard from every sector of society.

Rather than embrace risk, we stigmatize mistakes -- even those that were based on sound practices. Instead, we must see failure as a slice of success. We must once again embrace risk as a catalyst for innovation, insight, creative problem solving, change. And maybe even a bit of happiness. Surely we could use a bit of that right now.

Like the Jewish people who wandered the desert without a GPS, we don't ever really know where we are going till we arrive. So let's make up with risk, give it a hug, and embrace it as part of the journey. On this holiday that celebrates the journey to reinvention, I raise my glass to SoCal's default setting of risk taking.

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HuffingtonPost  03/24/2014 3:35 pm EDT 

I have traveled a great deal in Northampton, MA. Love and friendship, imagination and wonder, progeny and family -- they happened there. But I never planned on being in one place forever and when I checked the clock, decades had passed.

I love road trips. They're full of possibility; they suspend time like a baseball game and exist just outside of reality. My bags were packed and I looked to the West.

The trip counter counted my way through MA, CT, NJ, PA, MD, VA, as I avoided weather. Then, in Tennessee, I shifted onto I40 and was westward bound. In Nashville, with moonshine and music, I toasted the road ahead.

In the car again, I crossed the mighty Mississippi in Memphis and then made my way through Arkansas, Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle -- which, by itself, is double the area of MA. The final push through New Mexico and Arizona brought the California border and a sense of urgency as the Pacific beckoned.

State borders rise up as natural topographic dividers that offer entry into wonderful new worlds of dialects, dishes, vegetation, music, accents, architecture and more. But they also create unnatural barriers between US the people. State by state variations in tax codes, speed limits, licensing, all categories of regulations, turn neighbors into outsiders. My official Massachusetts self became increasingly less official the further I got from home. Sure, there are no checkpoints to pass through, but freedom of movement is curtailed by paperwork barriers and local regulations. State rights have merit, but shouldn't our U.S. citizenship have equal value in all of our united states?

Three thousand miles. Fifteen cups of coffee. Four time zones. Nine refuels. Thirteen states. Winter to not winter. Atlantic to Pacific. Northampton to Santa Monica. I kicked off my sneakers and waded in the water. I had left seasonal chores behind.

After 48 hours behind the windshield, I opted to explore the coast on foot. I walked and jogged the snow free streets, watching. And what a show. The 3rd Street Promenade, Dogtown, Santa Monica Pier, muscle beach, the Venice canals, the Santa Monica stairs, and of course, the beachfront bike and walkway. Hipsters and hippies, tourists and druggies, boomers and techies, street dwellers and artists shared the streets and it mostly seemed to work. The Santa Monica/Venice community is totally walkable. The rest of LA, well, sure, that's walkable too if you drive.

Between the weather, that walkability, the miles of beachfront walkways with plenty of restrooms, significant crowds gather at all times of day. This is a welcome antidote to the national fear and mistrust that inhibited our ability to gather for no reason, to lean against lampposts waiting for no one. Public spaces that once encouraged community have become less comfortable. I say this as my home state boldly prepares to host the 118th running of the Boston Marathon in the shadow of last years horrific bombing.

Santa Monica has a wonderful public library system, as does LA. Branches are open and friendly and have many public events. But I can't take a book out because I don't have a local utility bill. The library staff is wonderful but I'm reminded that I am less than a full citizen here. Why can't I leave a credit card on file? I just want to read a book but I don't want to buy a book because then I'll have to buy a bookshelf for the book and then I'll have to buy a house for the bookshelf and I might want to go to Seattle or Denver of Austin.

But first I have lots more discovering to do right where I am. And with MLB's spring training coming to an end I'll be in baseball paradise. The Dodgers, Padres and Angels all play close by and my Mets are scheduled to visit each of them. And with the new season comes hope and promise, even for my Mets. For now, anything is possible.

Recently I was shaken and stirred from my sleep by a 4.4 earthquake. As I opened my eyes, I had no idea what was happening. This was followed by even more moments of having no clue what to do, so I just hung on.

I can not wait for what's next.

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In September of 1969 the NY Mets were in second place, the Vietnam War was raging out of control, and Blind Faith released their self-titled album with a naked girl on the cover. And I was walking along 67th Avenue, across Queens Boulevard, past 108th Street, on my way to my first day at Forest Hills High School.

In history, the teacher put me and this kid who also had those old-school, Coke-bottle-bottom glasses together in the front row. Henry was even younger than me. Being the youngest kid in a grade lost its appeal the moment girls decided they liked older guys. Henry was young for 10th grade because he did 7th, 8th, and 9th grades in two years, having tested into the SP class. I pretty much just started kindergarten early and moved on from there. That made Henry officially smart and it made me, well, just young. 

When the Miracle Mets won the World Series, some of the summer's optimism generated by the Apollo 11 moon landing and Woodstock returned. But then Lieutenant Calley was charged with killing 109 civilians at My Lai, the Chicago Eight went on trial for being annoying, and all around us sides were being taken, lines were being drawn, stakes were being raised. We stopped cutting our hair, started going to protests, and looked to rock and roll for meaning. When the baseball coach told Jimmy to cut his hair or get cut from the team, Jimmy proclaimed the situation a mockery and walked off.

I started hanging out at Sage schoolyard with Henry and Jimmy and Ritchie and Sam and Freddy and others. Except Freddy never played ball at all. Freddy could talk and Freddy could drive. He was the first one of us to get a car, even though he was not the first to get a license. Our energy was focused on consuming greater quantities and varieties of drugs, playing ball, and trying to get girls to like us. If we couldn't get them to like us, then we tried to get them to have sex with us. Equally unsuccessful opportunities.

One evening, sweaty and tired from basketball at Sage, we walked by Tung Shing Chinese Restaurant when it was down by Queens Boulevard and Yellowstone. The door past the main entrance was open, revealing a tiny bar and a table filled with complimentary appetizers. With no bartender in sight, we ducked inside and began stuffing ourselves. The bartender entered and we ordered beers. Instead of laughing and tossing us out, he set us up with a row of drafts. Sure, the drinking age back then was 18. But we were 14 and 15.

In those pre-cellular, pre-digital, pre social-anything days, that tiny bar became our information hub. It's where we gathered before heading out and Eddie could always tell you where each of us were. And on more than one occasion, we accepted a ride home from Eddie when walking was going to be an issue.

Nixon's draft lottery was introduced that December, and while we had a few years till our blue plastic lottery capsules would be drawn, the draft cast a shadow over everything. For the guys who "won' the lottery, their lives were changed instantly. It seemed that the more we learned in school, the more confusing the world looked. By then, Henry had figured out that formal education held little value for him. That's how smart he was. Me, well I knew that I wasn't smart enough to be smart without school. 

Forest Hills had an open campus at the time -- or at least we thought it did. The school was on triple session and students were always coming and going so Henry and I would head over to one of the deli's on 108th Street for lunch. One day, we got into one of those deeply focused, intensely clear conversations that reveal the secrets of the universe, and nothing at all. It wasn't until we got back to school that we realized we had never even got our check. While laughing hysterically I noticed I felt comfortable. 

I'd always been an outsider, a first generation, oddly named, child of Holocaust-era parents who mixed three languages into most conversations, with thick accents that I never heard. But none of that mattered as much my eyes. Their desire to focus one at a time meant it was impossible for me to look people in the eye. If I looked right at you, you would think I was looking past you. And I couldn't figure out a way to adjust my head to compensate. Think girls here. Think teachers. Think job interviews. But mostly think girls. The doctor called the condition unusual but not uncommon. He was wrong. It made me unusual and uncommon. The only advantage it ever provided was when I was quarterback at Sage. The defense had no idea where I was looking.

I'd gotten used to being an outsider, hanging out on the margins. But Jimmy and Henry and Sam and Ritchie and the others, they were not outsiders. They were amused by my eyes when it was funny -- and did not hesitate to laugh -- but mostly they didn't give a shit. Jimmy maintained that our bond came from not having brothers. Jimmy and Henry didn't brothers, but some of us did. What none of us had, were brothers-in-arms, blood-brothers. Calling someone your brother was a thing back then, but for us, it was about family. All families begin with strangers and we had formed our own. Together, triumphs were made sweeter, and defeats were softened.

And then I went to college at SUNY Binghamton while the rest of the guys either went to a city college or didn't go at all. After college -- my college, Henry only took six credits -- Henry and I rode my motorcycle across the country. The guys sent us off with a long night at Tung Shing where someone thought it was amusing to sign Henry's name to the tab. After LA, Henry returned to the city and put those six credits to better use than most MBAs, and I returned to Binghamton where Nisa was finishing her degree. When she was done, we headed to LA, then DC, finally ending up in Northampton, Mass. and I saw those guys less and less. They spread out a bit but stayed connected to NY and each other. My parents left Queens and I started a family and years passed without any contact. 

And then my mother died and I was in NY sitting Shiva. I was outside, taking a break with my boys, away from the well meaning guests, when I heard a booming voice call out, "It's a little Elan." 

Henry was looking at my son Ezra, who he had never seen. Didn't matter. Sam, who was a member of the same synagogue as my mom got the Shiva call and thought Henry would want to know.

Henry got me invited to the next big gathering and I saw everyone. There was no reason for them to take me back in. We had all changed. We had all become different people but different still didn't matter. It turned out that nothing any of us had done had altered our DNA. It turned out that our trust did not come from having history; our history came from having trust. 

We held reunions at Tung Shing, which had moved west on Queens Boulevard. For a while, our families met there the day after Thanksgiving and then played ball at Sage. When Tung Shing closed their doors a few years ago, the pre-cross-country-motorcycle-ride tab still remained unpaid.

If someone called a Boys' Night Out, I answered. If someone called an Emergency Boys' Night Out, or if something was an accusation rather than a proclamation, or a declaration, well, Jimmy ruled on those. If you weren't sure of the rules, you saw Jimmy. But first, you show up.

And showing up turns out to be almost everything. May not be the only thing, but it's a big thing. I reconnected with Jeff and Larry and the group picked up some worthy stragglers like Steve, but the core remained, self selected by showing up. There's been some stints in rehab, some surgeries, some arrests for heroine, one death by overdose, another after a short and one sided battle with pancreatic cancer, and one was banished for betraying the trust. But Henry's limitless capacity for fun remains contagious, and Jimmy continues to mock time by playing on two different softball teams at the Great Meadows -- hair, no longer being an issue -- and we all keep showing up and doing new things. 

In this small group we have a Nisa and a Nilsa and a couple of Denise's. Coincidence? Who cares? It's cool.

I spent much of the '60s and '70s looking for a revolution and instead I found friends. I really had no idea how rare that would turn out to be.

There's no formula or prescription for why it works, but the result is outstanding and it guarantees that I can't get rid of these guys.

When George Harrison died, I lost one more connection to a magical time, but I didn't mourn. Harrison's death wasn't sudden like Roy Orbison, or accidental like Buddy Holly, or tragic like John Lennon, or shocking like Marvin Gaye. I had known of his battle with cancer for some time. Besides, it's hard for me to be sad for someone who got to be a Beatle for 43 years. In reality, I know little about George Harrison, the way I know little about Toni Morrison, or JD Salinger, or Bob Dylan, or Sandy Koufax, yet they've all had intense influences on my life. So, when I heard the news that day, I didn't mourn for Harrison -- I left that to his friends and family.

But, while I did not mourn, I was struck by the loss of another of my generation. I wept gently for the passing of one more member of a great generation -- Phil Ochs, Martin Luther King, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Kennedy, Janis Joplin, Jack Kerouac, John Lennon, Allen Ginsburg, and the list goes on. I was saddened by the loss of yet another piece of the foundation of how I see myself and how I would like to see the world. I feel slightly more outnumbered now. I imagine that World War II veterans feel similarly about the passing of anyone of their generation.

The Beatles did not hit the beaches at Normandy, they did not liberate the concentration camps, or crawl their way through the Pacific. They fought their battles with dreams and hopes and vision. The commitment to make the world a better place for everyone is a struggle that is noble and difficult and often dangerous. It is a struggle against single mindedness and close mindedness. Most people who participate in that struggle do not receive the rewards that Harrison did. But most people who achieve the success that Harrison had, do not make the commitment to spiritual and social searching that he did.

Is it naive and simplistic to think that music can make a difference against terrorism? I know we can't sing away anthrax. But without music, without art, we don't have a soul, and without a soul we have nothing left to defend. Music has the power to inspire social change. George Harrison, as a Beatle and on his own, proved this over and over.

I grew up in New York and in many ways I never left. I love the sounds and rhythms of New York City streets. My boys feel that part of their identity comes from that city and we all felt the events of 9/11 personally.

As we had done for several years, my family and I went to New York City for the Thanksgiving weekend to visit family, friends, and watch the parade. It was our first visit since September 11.

As I drove over the Throgs Neck Bridge from the Bronx into Queens, I got a clear view of the Manhattan skyline. I was looking for nothing and I saw it. The space that had been the World Trade Center was part of the crisp, clear November horizon. Later, when we emerged from the subway at the World Trade Center site, that empty space came into view. I was not prepared for the incomprehensible pile of debris and devastation at Ground Zero.

Since September 11, I have often turned to music to remind me of what is important. I am inspired by new bands that do their part to promote community and compassion over consumption. When I was teenager, Harrison came to town to tell the world about tragic events in Bangladesh. It was the kind of benefit concert, that's directly linked to the Concert for New York City that Paul McCartney organized to give aid to the victims of the attacks. I watched that concert on TV as police, rescue workers, and firefighters sang and swayed along with the music and I am sure that spirits were refilled.

It's still a pity, that we cause each other so much pain. Very serious minded people with ultra-serious jobs like to laugh at the dreamer and their dreams. Fortunately for so many of us, George Harrison never let them stop him. Because in the end, as another British rocker, Elvis Costello once sang, "What's so funny about peace love and understanding?"

Originally aired on WAMC, Albany on December 12, 2001

Searching for my Role with the Great Eight

A couple of weeks ago I got to put on an authentic New York Mets uniform and played baseball at the Mets’ training facilities in Port St. Lucie, Florida.  I did this as part of a program that the Mets run where participants play on teams that are coached by former Mets players, many of whom are still active in baseball.  I spent five long days collecting bumps, bruises, aches, and pains in every part of my body and my ego and I loved every moment of it.  But I didn’t go because I am a Mets fan, which I am, having grown up near Shea Stadium in Queens.  And I didn’t go for the baseball, a game that I love.  I went because it was a chance to play ball with some good friends I’ve had since high school, friends who have always understood the meaning of teammate.

Still, anyone who knows me, knows that I am baseball crazy.  My whole family is.  I take pleasure in what the game offers:  the lack of a clock, the time of year, the pace, the thinking.  I love the superstitions, the rituals, and most of the statistics.

When we arrived in camp, we met our coaches.  Clint Hurdle, who is the current hitting coach for the Colorado Rockies, acted as commissioner for our league.  When Clint formally introduced each of the coaches, he read their Major League stats.  For pitchers this included games.  For hitters, this included the number of major league at bats they each had.  In any field, in art, in business, in sport, it takes a lot to bring your game to the next level.  Simply getting drafted by a Major League Baseball Club is worthy of praise.  But if you manage to make your way through the minors, from Single A, to Double A, to Triple A and then finally to the Majors, and then in the Majors you somehow stick around for a while and play enough to get at bats, that is a beautiful thing.

During our first morning the coaches set up different stations on the six practice fields so they could get a look at us.  We chose where we wanted to go, by where we hoped to play:  middle infielder, corner infielder, outfielder, pitcher and catcher.  Everyone took a turn hitting.  I pitched for a while and then went to shag fly balls hit by a cigar smoking Howard Johnson who stood near second base.  While we ate lunch, the coaches went off to draft teams.  The eight of us wanted to be on the same team so at night we would have more to laugh about.  We gave Clint a list with our names and he made no promises, though it was clear that no one was worried that we were trying to stack a team.  We did play together, but it cost us.  We were teased and then fined for asking to be on the same team.  After the draft, our team was referred to as the Great Eight instead of its assigned Mets minor league team name of Kingsport.  We were grateful for being placed on the same team and wanted to do our part, so we at every opportunity we provided Clint with new material to poke fun at.

It seemed that Clint’s main goal was to keep us loose.  Partly so we’d play better, partly so we’d come back, but mostly because you don’t get as injured if you play loose.  Clint had a list of offenses that he fined players for and he read off the fines each morning.  Fines were a dollar and payment was optional, though he reminded us that he knew where our lockers were and that we had to be at the fields but he didn’t.  Fines were given for things like missing a belt loop, showing up late, whining, not curving the rim of your hat correctly, or for just being stupid.  One guy got fined for doing a Michael Jackson because he was out on the field and wearing one glove for no apparent reason.  The Great Eight led the league in fines.

The fields that we played on were incredible.  Infield hops were true, the outfield grass was smooth, and the pitchers rubber was level with the mound.  None of this made us play any better, but we were safer.  Our coaches were there for support and encouragement. It was possible to pick up some tips, but there wasn’t enough time to really change anything about our game, or lack of.  We were there to play, to have fun, and to listen to stories about clubhouse antics and baseball history.

I started out playing left field.  To say I had a hard time picking up the ball as it sailed skyward would be a compliment.  Turns out that practicing with a guy hitting from second base doesn’t get you ready for a fly ball from home plate.  I could barely see the batter.  Using my years of experience, I quickly developed a strategy.  My plan was to listen closely for where the ball hit the ground and then run as fast as I could to get the ball and throw it in. I called this the sonar approach to playing outfield.

But then I got to pitch and I pitched a complete game.  For seven innings, I was in my own world on the mound.  Most of the time I didn’t know the score, just the count on the hitter and the situation in the field.  I lost the game, but the team that beat me went undefeated for the week.  They had all the young guys.  I didn’t walk a batter till the last inning, I got a few strikeouts, and I came inside a lot getting batters to hit soft pop-ups off their bat handle.  Unfortunately, a lot of those soft fly balls dropped in for hits.  Some of them were just dropped.  On one of those soft hits, Jimmy almost made a spectacular diving catch.  Instead, he landed hard on his elbow and broke it.  As Jimmy walked off the field with the trainers, Clint Hurdle turned to us and said softly, “and then there were seven.”

Hitting proved to be a roller coaster.  I hit, I didn’t hit.  I was relaxed. I was tense.  I choked, I panicked, I recovered. I went through it all: bliss, embarrassment, anger, disappointment at letting my team down.  There are moments in sports, as there are moments in life, where we find out that we can do more than we once thought possible.  For most of us at Dream Week it was a matter of doing much less than we were once capable.  A lot less.  As a coach and as a teacher, I have seen the solitary struggle of players and students whose success was measured in getting back up, in dusting off, and in stepping back in the box, even if only to strike out again. These are the moments when we challenge ourselves and success is not measured in hits or runs or catches, but in effort, in concentration, in finishing.

The morning of our flight home each team got to play a couple of inning against the coaches.  Instead of the practice fields that we had been playing on, this game was held at Thomas J. White Stadium, where the Mets play their spring training games.  I got to pitch there.  It was a great feeling standing on the mound, looking up at the almost empty 7,160 seats, hearing my coaches call out encouragement from the dugout, listening to the chatter of my teammates in the field.  While I was soaking it all in, Henry, my friend, my catcher, my teammate, was wondering out loud to the next batter, about whether the coaches had all lost their skills, because, he’d been there all morning and he had not seen one ball leave the park.  I got set, wound up, and threw the ball toward Henry’s target, and then turned quickly to watch the ball hit the scoreboard.

Just for the record, the Great Eight got the bronze medal.  We finished strong to take third out of the six teams.  If we had only had more time, who knows?  We had made it though Dream Week.  We came, we played, we survived.

Originally aired won WAMC, Mets opening day 2002


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