30 October 2006

a quick one while he's away

One of the really cool things for me about Austin is the way that it forces me to closely examine many of my own assumptions about what sort of person and writer I am at that given moment. This year, for example, I managed to do a lot of effective networking, and in hindsight I think that's a result of being a lot more comfortable with my own "deservedness" of the attention and respect of serious industry players. Those who know me at all in the real world know that I'm prone to a certain degree of arrogance and cockiness about my own work and abilities (no -- really) which is sometimes (but not always) mellowed by a strain of seething self-loathing which helps keeps my ego from lifting into geosynchronous orbit.

Five days of wrestling with this Rubik's Cube of self-valuation, locked in a clinch with that Jekyll-Hyde beast, often pays bizarre dividends.

In this most recent case I return from Austin looking at my new Rom-Com laying in a steaming heap in just-completed first draft form and suddenly realize the piece is not really about what it needs to be about... that the moments where I seem to be briefly touching upon oir alluding to some larger issue are the only moments which really have any relevance and emotional value for me. What the damned thing needs is not those odd little scabs removed or healed and no longer visible, but the rest of the peel pulled back so that the actual core concepts are left exposed and ragged and raw. There have been moments in my writing where I have looked back and said ""that is what I was trying to do... that was the writing I am trying to put out there...". Invariably those have been the results of creative moments where I was terrified to be standing alone on a stage, revealing my sins to an audience of potentially hostile witnesses, dropping trou at the front of teh church, where I felt like I was giving my confession through a stadium PA system.

Emotional honesty is a pain in the ass, but then again nobody said this was gonna be an easy gig.

Still, when something scares you, scare it right back.

"We shall use the old ways: speed of horse, strength of lance."


26 October 2006

AFF 2006: let slip the poodles of war

Day 1 (Thur 19 Oct 06)

Keen though I be for the warm fuzzy embrace of Dame Alcohol, within the narrow confines of the Austin Film Festival I am at once both carefree and disciplined, for in all my years of carousing and convivializing, I've not yet missed an early morning panel. More and more I wonder if that painful early morning alarm isn't some sort of penance I do to rationalize another night's brain cell slaughter. Maybe it's just that childishly defiant part of me again showing off that I can out-agonize any mere mortal in my path.

Whatever the reason, I'm up at 8 AM, showered, shaved, and out the door by 8:20, latté in hand and in the Driskill Lounge by 8:40. Greg Beal, aka "Mr. Nicholl Fellowship", wanders past and shakes his head. "Don't you ever leave this place?"

"Sure. Every year."

More of our odd little circle of friends wander in over the course of the morning. The first day of the conference usually doesn't boast very many "must-see" panels, as the conference workers are busy getting the bulk of the guests registered and working out the last second details in prep for the Opening Remarks panel at noon which serves to signal the official start of the conference. Having been to the AFF a few times, I don't bother with that first panel but instead opt to wander down Sixth Street for lunch with my buds. Jamie, Reece, Julie, Shawna, Aaron, Ann, Murray, Caz, and then we pick up T.J., an LA friend of Shawna who is also a first-timer in Austin and a finalist in the Burnt Orange contest. It turns out that TJ was a tank driver in the Army (between Gulf I and Gulf II, so he never saw actual combat), so we talk tanks and military bases and the odd way that all sorts of folks wind up writing screenplays.

After lunch, we all head back to the first real panels of the conference. Someone ducks into the AFF office to grab a daily update to see see if maybe something has been moved or rescheduled.

"Hey, man-- you're name is in here."

I shrug, assuming they are referring to some trivial list of second rounders or something from the contest.

"No, dude-- look!"

The daily news handout for the first day of the fest opens with a Welcome letter, and then there's a large -- half page -- excerpt from a blog post made by "a man named Brett."

I stare at it and can;t really believe it. There on the damned daily newsletter for the writer's conference, is a chunk from my blog. I reacted with typical grace and aplomb.

"Son Of A Bitch!"

I storm into the office and bellow for Maya, the festival honcho. She's not available, I'm told. "What-- is she out ripping off other writers?"

I demanded satisfaction. I demanded remuneration. I demanded something -- anything. A fruit cup.

I got nothing.

So I stomped away to find my first panel: What Gets Producers Excited. Maggie Biggar cancels on that panel, but producers Richard Bever and Anne Walker both do a solid job of describing what sorts of things really spark their interest in a project. Bever also piques my interest when he says he looks for story ideas all over the place -- news, short stories, history -- and that he's always looking for a good romantic comedy (which, is so happens, is my current in-development live project).

Note to self: find an opportunity to talk to Richard Bever..."

Good panel. Would have been better in a smaller more intimate room, with fewer people and more opportunity for interaction, but still good.

After that, I took in The Art Of The Pitch, paneled by Jessica "Bring It On" Bendinger and John "I Am Everywhere" August. Now, I'm not interested in learning to pitch more effectively -- I'm arrogant enough to trust my ability to dance well enough if ever I'm tasked to do so for a group of two or three in a real room, and I have zero interest in learning to do that ridiculously pointless and contrived form of pitching done at pitch contests -- but both of these panelists I know "give good panel," and that's enough to warrant my interest. The moderator is pretty underwhelming -- he seems more eager to impress everyone with his teaching philosophy and credentials than he is to elicit cool insightful comments from the panelists -- but August and bendinger are both just too smart, too interesting, and too engaging to miss, especially if you don't have any competing panels. Every time I hear them in Austin I come away thinking "they clearly have fun doing what they do." Plus, Bendinger dropped a funky cool new homemade word: sheisty. We all giggled to hear it, but we all knew exactly what she meant: kinda sheister-like, kinda like scheisse, kinda shady and cheesy and shaky. You know-- "scheisty." Exactly.

After that we all wandered over to the Conference Welcome Party over at an open air bar on 4th Street. There we saw loads of familiar friends -- fellow writers from previous festivals, now-familiar faces from the festival (including Conference Director Maya Perez, whom I accosted in my usual way. She laughed and offered to buy me a beer. "But the beer's already free!" I said, tossing her the set-up she wanted and needed. "Exactly! Which is why I offered to buy!" (Oh, the fun we had.) I elbow Maya and ask her to confirm that the blazer-clad gentleman behind me is in fact Lawrence Kasdan. She peeks, nods, and dashes away to take a phone call (likely to order some more plagiarizing... the woman is nefarious, I tell you). I suck back my fourth Dos Equis, breathe deep, and stomp over to meet Mr. Kasdan.

I always feel very uncomfortable with these sorts of fan-boy intros, as on the one hand I absolutely wish to respect the man's privacy: he didn;t come to the party, after all, just to be slimed and drooled upon by my adoring ilk, but on the other hand he has enjoyed a great deal of financial success thanks to guys just like me, and if he doesn't want to meet fans, then by jumped up Harry he shoulda stowed his candy ass back at the hotel. (And, yes, this is in fact what my normal every day interior monologue sounds like, and yes, it concerns me as well...).

"Mr. Kasdan, I'm sorry to annoy you at a party like this, but I can't let you stand within arm's reach and not ask to shake your hand, sir. You're maybe the reason I ever considered becoming a screenwriter, and I am a huge huge fan of everything you've ever written. Especially Continental Divide."

He smiles and shakes my hand. "Wow-- that IS going back a ways!"

He turns out to be, like a surprising and refreshing number of the Hollywood folks I've met, a surpassingly kind and decent guy. he accepts my little bit of ass-kissery, and then does something truly cool: he checks my ID badge, reads the name of my script from the festival contest, and insists on talking to me about my writing for a minute or two.

Lawrence Kasdan! Lawrence FUCKING Kasdan! I give him the briefest possible description, and he smiles and nods and says "wow, that really sounds interesting. I wish you all the best with that, really." I thank him, tell him to enjoy the rest of his evening, and turn to leave, where I see something else remarkable: Kasdan's wife, Meg, standing back, smiling and watching her man make a 42 year old father of four blush and giggle like a smitten schoolgirl. I lean in and tell her tahnks, and she smile and asks for what. "For sharing him with folks like me. It means a lot." She smiled and patted my arm. I toyed with the idea of copping an ass-squeeze, but opted against it.

Back inside I find more of my friends shmoozing and boozing, and then I see Bob Fisher, half of the team that gave us Wedding Crashers. I always tell my friends coming to AFF to study the damned panelist list and do some research to learn faces, as you never know who you'll meet or where. I walk over and introduce myself, and wind up having a few good minutes and some laughs with an established comedy writer.

Now, I don't do this with any idea or hope that Bob Fisher is going to meet some boob at a bar and then two minutes later say "On the off chance that you're a writer, here's some money," but in order for the lucky impossible accident to happen, you need to put yourself in position for such accidents to happen. Over the next few days I wound up passing Fisher a few times in the hallways and every time he smiled and recognized me and muttered some funny ref to our pointless bar banter. Who knows? Maybe he'll be back next year and I'll have more reason to develop a broader connection to him. The point is do not go to one of these events and ignore an opportunity to meet someone of interest or possible relevance. If you can't or won't get your mojo on when it matters, then just stay at home and whine on some sad incestuous little chat board where people piss and moan about how hard it is to make any connections in Hollywood.

'Cuz that's just bullshit.

After that party, a gaggle of us wandered around looking for dinner. We wound up back on 6th Street, right across from the Driskill, at some burger and beer joint. We had a nice groove going -- even proper English lady Caz seemed to be getting into the playfully nasty game of verbal slap and tickle which passes for social interaction in any group I fall into -- when my cellphone rings.

"Hey, it's Glynis. Susan said I oughta call you."

"Well, God Bless Susan, then."

Glynis is one of those women who makes me sad that I am an honorable and decent husband. She's gorgeous and tall and blonde and funny and smart and very married, so of course I love to flirt shamelessly with her, safe and secure in the understanding that I never have to back up any of it. On top of all that, she's a story editor for a production company in LA, an assistant to a cool writer, and generally just one of those people who is Very Good To Know.

"What are you guys up to? I'm here at the Driskill and have nothing to do."



"I'm across the street -- I'll come grab you and bring you back here with us. What are you wearing?"

"I'm in a blue sweater."

"Do you have a tube top you could slip into?"

"No, Brett. I don't have a tube top I can slip into."

"That's fine. I'll bring a couple you can choose between."

And I hang up and run across the street to find Glynis rolling her eyes at me even before I approach. I drag her back to our little gaggle of idjuts at the bar-restaurant, and Jamie, our newly-adopted Canadian pretty boy, pulls me aside as he sees me bring in Glynis.

"Dude! What, do you just collect hot chicks from the street or something?"

I smile and nod yes.

He pats me on the head. "Good man. Carry on."

Burgers, beers, etc etc etc. We wander onto 6th where Julie announces that she has to meet her new manager. We all hear her but pretend to not so that she can then announce again that she has to go meet her MANAGER. MANAGER. Cuz she's a big PRO, and has a MANAGER, and we are lowly filth on scum on dirt on grime. Half our crew wanders back to teh hotel, some to go watch movies, some to start drinking, and the rest of us (me, Julie, Jamie, Reece and Shawna) head over to a bar named Daddy's where Julie slides over to a table of Important People to hang with her new MANAGER. Jamie and I don't mind so much as there is some shit-hot cutie serving beers to our table. Eventually, Julie finishes meeting her new MANAGER and comes back down to slum with us paste-eating un-repped civilians, at which point we start wandering back to the Driskill to see what other trouble might be stirred.

In the Driskill, a good crowd is starting to build up a head of steam, as more of the Usual Suspects arrive and take their places on the stage. Bryan and Jon from St Louis wave from near the TV, cheering as usual for the damned Cardinals, now back in the Series, but I have little time to talk as soon it's time to head over to the WGA Opening Night Party, so again we convoy out into the dark and parade the few blocks over to Rio Grande, except Caz, our new English sister, decides to bail on us, claiming that she's tired from a day full of drinking and note-taking (I saw her at work in one of the panels and her notes look like a longhand transcription of the commentary-- amazing).

There we find a crowded restaurant party in progress, but there's free Dos Equis, and free Bombay Sapphire, so all is well. Somewhere in there I bump into Bill True and his annoyingly sweet and cool wife Robby. Bill has been an online pal of some of us for years, and last year at Austin Bill won the Narrative Feature writing competition for his movie Runaway. That would normally be reason to hate Bill, but Bill is one of those damnably nice guys who leaves you no choice but to cheer for him. Bill and Robby, smiling as always, wave, slap me on the back as I push toward the bar. As I grab a beer, I see Richard Bever, producer panelist from my morning panel, in a circle of folks all trying to give some sort of soft pitch. I wave, he waves, and at some point I swing by to hear what he has to say.

Now, here's the thing: I didn't go over to shmooze this guy. I just recognized him from my first panel and wanted to say "hey, thanks for being here for us newbs." But somehow we end up talking, and then we're swapping cards, and then we're talking about getting in touch and talking, and I just nod and excuse myself as quickly and gracefully as possible so as not to seem like I'm gonna screw it up by making the usual ass of myself (no-- really).

One of my buds comes over and tries to give me a high five. "Dude! What was THAT!?!"

Apparently he said that was the slickest no-pitch pitching job he's seen, so I'm his hero now.

"Great," I tell him. "Go grab hero another fuckin' beer."

What can I say-- I'm just a people person.

The party fizzles down, we slime our way back to the Driskill. A few more beers. A lot more laughs. Goodnights hugs. Promises to meet for coffee. We stumble away to our rooms somewhere around 3 AM.

One day down, and it feels like we've been going for a week already.

I love Austin.

24 October 2006

AFF 2006: assemble the players

Day 0 (Wed 18 Oct 06)

D-Day. Day of Departure. Leaving for Austin. A Descent into the Maelstrom. Return to Oz.

Any number of odd metaphors and half-analogies might describe the feeling of waking and realizing that it is again time to make that drive west to Austin, to do that slow-motion stroll into the Driskill and climb the stairs and round that corner and look down that long copper-roofed lounge and realize... "thus it begins again."

"Has it really been a year?" I wonder to myself. "Or has it been more like another small lifetime?"

As I pack my suitcase, I begin to feel that weird schizophrenic detachment from my normal life. In some ways it feels like my "normal" life is the conference. Away from Austin I put on some strange Clark Kent mask of normalcy for 360 days and then return home to strip off my mundanity to be given four too-brief days in which to remember who it is that I am, that I want to be. 100 hours. 6000 minutes of freedom. And you'd better damned well make use of every single one of those minutes, as there ain't no more for another 360 days, boy.

I've said goodbye to my kids earlier that morning as they left for school, and The Wife has already left to go visit her aging grandmother, so I pack in an empty house, which seems all too fitting. In many ways it's as if the Universe understands, for once, and grants me some space in which to prep for battle, for that is what it feels like. I am a gladiator preparing for the arena. I can hear the bloodlust of the crowd in the distance. I can feel the rumble. Smell the fear and blood.

It is time.


I hit Austin around 2 PM and swing to the Stephen F Austin Hotel, check in, and drop my gear. I have messages waiting, text messages incoming. The tribe has already begun to gather for another yearly pow-wow.

One of the cool things about the AFF is the way you quickly develop an entirely new circle of special-duty friends, people who you will meet for the first time and then walk with for just four days and then hold dear from that point on. There are analogs in all sorts of other activities: combat, sports teams, survival situations. In some ways Austin is all of of those, so I guess it's not surprising that emotional bonds are so quickly forged. Over the years, some people fall by the wayside -- they find themselves unable or unwilling to commit to a return, or perhaps they break through to some greater success and are required to be somewhere else, filming a movie, offering a presentation elsewhere. You miss these friends deeply, yet you take some comfort in the secure understanding that others will step forward to take their place on the ramparts.

This year I managed to arm-twist a long-time online pal into giving the Austin experience a try. Caz, a dear friend from London whom I met years ago through the Zoetrope website for writers, finally tired of hearing me nag and cajole her into coming to Texas for this odd event, and when one day I suggested that perhaps she might look into trying for a press pass in order to cover the event for some English screenwriting magazines, it all fell into place. She was staying at another local hotel and we'd arranged to meet at the Driskill as soon as I got into town, so I called her and she walked the two blocks to the headquarters check-in desk where we finally actually met for the first time. I honestly have no idea what she thought. I've had friends confess to me later that upon first meeting they were not at all sure if I was totally sane -- perhaps homicidally sociopathic -- but she camoflaged any fears and reservations. She of course is exactly what I expected: beautiful and funny and slightly biting in that veddy veddy proper British way we colonials find so intriguing. We hug, I splurt out the first of what surely wound up being 10,037 little bits of surl, and decide to trek to the far side of the Austin area to grab some BBQ at one of my favorite places, the Salt Lick.

Just as we pull away from the Stephen F and head up 7th toward the freeway, I get a call from Deb, aka Chesher Cat. Deb is a painfully cool pal from LA who, in some former life, partied with pretty much every rocker of note in the 70s, then worked on pretty much every poster for the great/awful Cannon group movies in the 80s, and now is moving inexorably closer to a successful screenwriting career of her own. I've met Deb twice before in real life, on a pair of trips to LA earlier this year when I was testing teh waters and meeting a few pro friends (producers, writers, etc.). We connected spookily well, like finding a friend that somehow the Universe forgot to issue you when it was supposed to.

"Hey, dummy. I'm at the airport. Where's my ride?"

"Headed your way at 75 miles per hour. Wanna grab some food?"

So Caz and I swing by Bergstrom Airport and pick up Deb and then head west toward Driftwood and the Salt Lick. I wanted to go somewhere away from central Austin as we're not likely to have a chance for such side trips any time during the thick meaty part of the festival. Once things get going at the festival, you're too busy and involved to do more than walk around a 6 block radius around the Driskill Hotel.

The Salt Lick is a classic old-school texas BBQ place, so I figure that Caz (a Londoner on her first trip to Texas) and Deb (a Calgarian on her first trip to The Great State) will get a kick out of it. We're seated on the patio, the sweet smell of oak fires and cooking meat drips from the rafters, and a breeze carrying hints of limestone dust and cedar drifts through the screen walls. We're just relaxing in the comfy-ness of it all when The Guy coms to take our drink orders. We turn, and Deb displays her true colors:

"Wow. You are gorgeous."

The Guy looks at me, shakes his head, laughs, and steps closer to Deb, who still drools at the blushing youngster.

"I guess I'll start with you then."

Lunch is cool. The women opt for simple plates of 'Q, while I of course go for the feeding frenzy, the Salt Lick's trademark unlimited family style BQ special. As we eat, I get a few more calls from the airport, but given that we're 40 minutes away and in the middle of a meal, I blow off my friends and tell them to grab the shuttle.

We swing back to the SFA, toss the car to the valet and wander into what will be the closest thing to "home" for the next four or five days: The Driskill Bar:

We wander down, I grab the first of what will be far too many beers in the next few days of lounging, and we plop down and wait for others to come by. Caz seems concerned that she'll have trouble actually securing interviews for her stories she wants and needs to write to mentally justify her use of a press pass for free festival admission, and I try to get her to relax.

"You'll not have trouble meeting people. The trouble will be in leaving people."

Somewhere around that time that moment I see more of The Gang. Old friends like Julie O, Anne, Murray, Thomas, Ryan. New folks whom I knew would be soon added to the roster of Austin Buddies: Shawna, Jamie, Reece.

Julie gives a hug. "I can't believe it's already been a year. It doesn't seem like that long since last we were here, does it?"

"Oh, it does to me," I mumble. "I can remember counting down every single one of those 8,640 hours since last we gathered."

Suddenly the relevant and worthwhile part of the Universe collapses into just these next four days. 100 hours. 6000 minutes... 5999... 5998....

Game on.

23 October 2006

AFF 2006: why we pilgrims trek to mecca

In Islam, believers are obliged to complete the Hajj, the annual mass pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in their lives. As I now try and insinuate myself back into my "normal" life as the final echoes of this year's Austin Screenwriter's Conference still roll into the near distance, I'm struck by the similarities between the two experiences. Both represent a sort of purifying ordeal where one's devotion is at once both questioned and validated, where you find yourself in the company of like-minded travelers from around the globe, where the stratifying differences of class and wealth and nationality are stripped away and you are simply in the company of Fellow Believers, where you might well encounter visions and revelations which make no sense at all to any literal minded person who has never made that long pilgrimage.

This was my third pilgrimage to Austin. The first time, I was at once terrified and exhilarated on the eve of the trip as I was not at all sure what to expect: was my belief strong enough? Was it pure enough? I came back from that first year a wild-eyed fresh convert, a zealot of sorts, suddenly preaching a new-found gospel to any friends for whom such news might be useful.

"Go. Just go. If you have the faith -- if you truly wish to become a professional screenwriter -- there is nothing else like it. Go."

Some folks inevitably look at you with that look zealots often receive: that slight furrowing of the eyebrows signaling an internal debate over your sanity. "Is this guy serious, or just nuts?" From the perspective of the zealot, there is never doubt, and it is perhaps this odd absence of doubt which gives pause to the unconverted.

Subsequent yearly treks have been no less religious in terms of impact. Yes, that sounds hyperbolic, likely somehow quaint and possibly even frightening, but it is the simple truth. I've felt a similar emotional moment at the birth of each of my children, when it seems I've been given a peeking glimpse behind the curtain to see the normally hidden and obscured Truths of my own existence. At each childbirth, I experienced a moment of clarity which was simultaneously humbling and elevating, when suddenly I simply knew something with unshakable conviction.

This is now your purpose. All which preceded was merely preparation for this new task.

That now familiar sense of newly re-consecrated purpose and determination overwhelmed me as I drove home after my annual trek to Austin. I schedule my entire year around this odd week of mystical rededication and affirmation. I accept that in coming months I will find myself tied to events and obligations that require some degree of my attention, but I also know that some things are bigger than my own petty sense of responsibility. Some things are required by that which made and continues to make me.

Thus I know where I will be October 10–15, 2007.

11 October 2006

update: screenwriting

Been awhile since I actually addressed this subject, and given that this subject is the alleged subject of this blog, it seems like a subject which might rate being addressed every once in a while.

Thus, I address the subject.

ROM-COM -- Completed the first draft this week and am now marking the living hell out of the 120-page printout, yeah, it's overlong, but that's 'cuz I tend to throw in extra dialog bits and exchanges which I know even as I write will not last 'til the second draft. best case, I'd love to get this tightened down to a solid 108 page effort within the next week so that I might pretty much have it "done" and off my mind in time for me to head off to...

Austin Film Festival -- That starts next week, and even though I was already pretty damned excited to be going back, I'm now almost giddy as I read that Kevin Smith and Lawrence Kasdan are late additions to the list of panelists. Regardless of how you feel about his movies, Smith is always entertaining to listen in a panel format, and Lawrence Kasdan... oh, my. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. BODY HEAT. SILVERADO. THE BIG CHILL. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. GRAND CANYON. Plus he wrote CONTINENTAL DIVIDE. and anyone who can make John Belushi and Blair Brown work as a cute romantic couple... well, this is a writer to be reckoned with. My hope now is that I won;t just make a slobbering ass of myself if I manage to meet Kasdan, as many of the aforementioned movies are ones which first sparked my awareness of "gosh, somebody actually writes all that stuff on screen... and that would be pretty cool...."

WESTERN THING -- that's an idea that has been sitting patiently on the back porch of my mind for more than a year now, and as soon as I get the RomCom off the front burner then that will become Primary project for a while, as there is ... (ahem) reason to give the project attention. I won't jinx it by spilling specifics just yet, but I will say "Austin been berry berry good to me" and "it's good to know people." There's a remote chance that there might be some stupidly cool news with this project in months to come, but, as usual, "we shall see...."

EPIC THING -- as is my habit, as I was pushing to get over the final hump of RomCom's initial draft—that Heartbreak Hill it seems I always encounter down the homestretch, where it looks like the damned thing will never make sense—of course I got distracted by a totally new idea out of left field. I granted myself a one week vacation from RomCom to focus exclusively on this new idea, doing research, playing with outlines, sketching character studies and action maps and all that fun stuff I do when assembling the pieces to stage a desktop fit of story-conjuring. I was (am) thrilled by a lot of what came together, but then at the end of that week I was totally slobberknockered to find that an agonizingly similar project was not only under development, but is now in fact scheduled for release in early 2007. I won't bother pissing and moaning over specifics (mainly 'cuz I am convinced and hopeful that this other project will be a total disaster, leaving the field at least partially unmuddied), but instead I'll keep my little box of assembled pieces safe and secure, ready for that happy moment when I can return to finish playing with them and build the story that deserves to be made and told there.

LILYA -- she continues to haunt me, and it is my hope that I'll return from Austin this year armed with some contacts to maybe start a serious marketing push to get that puppy read by some more people out in Hollywood. I love that story, love many moments of my telling, and truly believe there is a solid movie there if I can just get the material in front of the right pair of eyes (yeah, like that's a rare or unusual prayer among writers...). Still, hope springs eternal.

And of course there are a few other random odd items floating around the fringes of my mind, but they hardly rate mention for now. The plan for this year was to have THREE finished projects ready to be shopped and read by the end of 2006, and so far I'm still on track. The trick now... well, same as it ever was: find some more friends in LaLa.


10 October 2006

Buck O'Neill: 1911–2006

We—baseball fans, America, humanity—lost a great man recently.

John "Buck" O'Neill, one of the true greats in all of baseball history, passed away Friday (6 Oct 2006) at the age of 94.

If you are a true baseball fan, then you might know who Buck O'Neill was, and why he rates notice on the sad occasion of his passing.

If you are a casual fan, or not a fan at all, then know this: Buck O'Neill ranks among the greatest players to never play even one inning in Major League Baseball. By all accounts, O'Neill was one of the best hitters professional baseball ever saw. He won batting titles, anchored championship teams, played and managed with some of the greatest players ever, and witnessed the Golden Age of Baseball from the dugout and his familiar position at first base.

But there is a melancholy twist to this tale. For Buck O'Neill was black. And for that reason, Buck O'Neill played in the "seperate but equal" Negro Leagues of the 30s and 40s alongside such legends as Satchel Paige and Josh "Homerun" Baker and Cool Papa Bell. By the time integration finally came to baseball in 1947 with Jackie Robinson, O'Neill was already long past the point of being able to play.

But that's where his story starts to really achieve grandeur. Rather than curl up in disgust for opportunities missed (or denied), O'Neill retained his trademark warmth and joy, becoming one of the great ambassadors of the game. Not "the white game" or "the black game"—just "the game of baseball."

He became one of the first black baseball scouts for a major league team, helping the Cubs find such talents as Ernie Banks. Later, O'Neill would become the first black coach at the major league level, taking an assistant job with the Cubs in 1962.

Later, after his playing and coaching career ended, old #22 just kept on preaching the gospel of baseball. O'Neill became the face of the Negro League, offering thousands of speeches and talks on his experience in that wild and wooly time, when baseball was still more game than business, regardless of skin color. He became the living breathing soul of the Negro Baseball Hall of Fame, that timeless link to a past which few of us can understand but none must be allowed to forget. Anyone who ever heard Buck O'Neill speak realized that they were in the presence of someone truly touched by a grace and dignity to which many aspire yet few will attain.

Yet for all his achievements and efforts and acclaim, Buck O'Neill never won admittance into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. This past January, for reasons that have never been explained or justified, O'Neill was not voted in, leading an army of baseball fans to howl in protest. Current and former major leaguers asked the question fans asked: how could Buck O'Neill be denied such a undeniably deserved honor? For many of us, it was an indefensible outrage, yet Buck would have none of it:

"Don't weep for Buck," he smiled. "Just feel happy, like I am, being thanful, like I am, that I can do and have done the things that I did do."

If you don't know about Buck O'Neill, please — please — Google his name and read a paragraph or two, and maybe pause to consider what a difference it can make to live a life with dignity and honor rather than anger and regret. If you've never heard O'Neill's beautiful rumbly southern drawl talk about Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and Satchel Paige and Josh Baker and that wondrous game of baseball wherein all great truths are revealed upon a field of green, then again use Google to track down a video or audio online and see if you don't feel your heart swell a little when you hear what true love sounds like, for if Buck O'Neil leaves us any legacy, it's love: love for baseball, love for friendship, love for hope.

In his autobiography, I Was Right On Time, O'Neill explained why he never felt or expressed even a tinge of regret over the fact that he missed a chance to play in the major leagues:

"There is nothing greater for a human being than to get his body to react to all the things one does on a ballfield. It's as good as sex; it's as good as music. It fills you up. Waste no tears for me. I didn't come along too early -- I was right on time.

"You see, I don't have a bitter story. I truly believe I have been blessed."

Godspeed, Buck. And thanks.