Brenda Rooney worked at the Stratford Festival in PR/Marketing, and we met when her boss asked her to take me to the green room for coffee. I’d written a research paper for law school on the three Stratfords, and continued to visit with some of the folks I’d met during the process. Brenda’s husband, Robert, was an actor as well as a directing intern at the Festival, they had two daughters, and Robert’s brother Andrew lived with them as the girls’ caretaker.
When Brenda invited me to their house to visit, I had no idea it was to open the door to one of the most significant relationships of my life – not only my friendship with Brenda, but also my relationship with every member of the family. I arrived, that first time, to find that Brenda wasn’t even there. Instead, Andrew let me in and assured me she’d show up eventually. He gave me a cup of tea, and I met Rebecca and Caitlin. Sure enough, Brenda did appear sometime in the next half hour, and it was chaotic as both girls wanted to share things with their mother, and Andrew had news of his own to pass on.
I never did meet Robert that day, though I met Tottenham Hotspurs, their cat. The chaos meant that I blended into the woodwork, something that appealed to me at that point in my life. I enjoyed it, and eventually did get some time to talk with Brenda. Over the years, when I stayed with them for several days, I would sometimes go to bed down in the basement (in Oakville) and wake in the morning to find one or more additional guests sleeping on the sofas in the living room. Their generosity made everyone feel welcome - it was open house for many of us, and I felt incredibly lucky.
From Stratford, to Oakville, to Quebec, I went wherever the Rooneys lived, and from the start, developed an individual relationship with each member of the family. At one point in Oakville, Andrew was working, and Brenda and Robert were putting together a CD launch to support voter education in South Africa, so they were working non-stop. I took a week’s vacation and went up to drive the kids to school stuff, cook the meals, and even do the laundry, so they could focus completely on their work.
Brenda and Robert were the most politically active people I’d ever met. I did a few things in high school and college, but they opened my eyes to the world and what one or two people could do to make a difference. They were involved in the Arts Against Apartheid movement in Canada. Robert directed the big benefit/fundraiser concerts in Toronto, and Brenda did the PR for them. I happened to be with Brenda when we saw the film of Nelson Mandela walking out of prison. She wept, and I wanted to, but felt I hadn’t earned that right. The CD I mentioned earlier raised more than million dollars for voter education for the first election in South Africa in which the black population could vote.
Robert, sadly, died in January 2016. Brenda continues with her work and her family. Their impact continues in me, and through me to all of you who read this. None of us knows what impact our lives and our writing will have on the world. We can only live and write and love and breathe, and know that everything we do matters. Thanks to all of you for what you give in your lives and in your writing.
Strange, in a way, since I only met Mr. Rooney once, and that, briefly. I was at Steeler's training camp in Latrobe, dropping off some jerseys and footballs to be signed for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. Mr. Rooney was there when I dropped them off, and came over to chat with me. There is an unfortunate tendency for me to insert my foot into my mouth at moments like this, and sure enough, I managed to say something that was embarrassingly inaccurate.
As the weather gets colder, including last weekend when it got down to 19 degrees Farenheit, winter is unmistakably on its way. Do I miss the ocean? You bet. And I have no regrets. I'm home. I'm where I want to be, doing what I want to do - write, run workshops, and starting in February, teaching a weekly version of Gary's curriculum here in Pittsburgh. Thanks, Mr. Rooney - for your service, your kindness, your inspiration...
In the past week I learned about the death of Janet Chapman, who came to her first Writers Retreat Workshop the year after Gary died. My niece, Anna, came to visit my dad and I while she attended a wedding nearby. I spent all of Saturday (and a little bit of Friday) watching the first Breeder's Cup weekend held at Del Mar Race Track (built by Bing Crosby and friends). My sister-in-law, Hope (Anna's mom) had a book reading and signing for her third Christian romance novel, which was held at our new local bookstore. And in the wider world, there was another senseless shooting, today is election day, kids went trick-or-treating for Halloween, retired mare Songbird sold for $9.5 million at the Fasig-Tipton November sales, and more men were accused of sexual harassment in Hollywood.
I could walk to the library from our house on Homer Avenue, and often did. Those were the years when a first-grader could safely go out for hours with friends, even sometimes alone, and a parent didn't need to worry. Well, except for the time I got caught in a thunderstorm and tried to shelter under a huge pine tree with some boys. The woman who lived in the house with the tree invited us inside, knowing how dangerous it was, and I said yes. The boys ran home.
My heart aches with grief over some of the events of the past weeks. And when my heart aches, I turn to books for solace. This morning I was browsing USA Today online and ran across an article on Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends, on display in the New York Public Library. It was the first time I'd seen the originals, and as the writer of the article said, they looked loved.
It isn't that books can change or take away our grief or sadness. They might provide a brief escape, but we do always finish the story. It's more that they bring us into contact with others. The writer, who understood us without ever knowing us. The characters, who felt so much as we did. And other readers, who find a similar joy in discovering the same beauty.
So when I walked in that bookstore and smelled the books, I was back in the library of my childhood with Lad and Black Beauty. I was back on the street, peering into the jungle of mystery on the corner across from the cemetery, imagining what was inside the green branches.
This will be a fairly short post this week, as I'm in the midst of our fall workshop in Haverford, PA. I arrived a day early, and sometime in the first half of the Steeler game Sunday I made my way to Kelly's Pub up on Lancaster to grab a bite and watch the game. As it turned out, a gang of Steeler fans were there, celebrating someone's birthday, and I unwittingly became part of the party, even signing the birthday boy's t-shirt.
This past weekend I was visited by three spirits. I don't consider myself an Ebenezer Scrooge, or at least not the Scrooge we meet at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, and my three spirits weren't ghosts. They are very much alive, and their aliveness is a part of why they spoke to me.
Mr. Wouk is a gifted storyteller who held me enthralled through City Boy, The Caine Mutiny, and Youngblood Hawke. However, it was when I read Winds of War and War and Remembrance that I was lost in wonder, and at times horror, at the worlds he created. The two books cover the lead up to WWII and the entire war, and until I read those books, I didn't grasp what the words "World War" meant. He wrote from a wide and deep perspective, and every time I re-read those books I am awed by their vast scope and their intimacy.
A friend (with whom I shared the books) and I were talking at a crowded dinner table one night, discussing the characters in the books and what was happening with them. Another friend, overhearing, interrupted and said, "Who are these people? Your family?" We burst out laughing and explained, and later agreed that our engagement with the characters was unusual, and the author deserved a lot of credit for that.
I watched Mr. Wouk in an interview in July 2017 with CBS Sunday Morning, and noticed that even at 102, there was a twinkle in his eye, and an irrepressible energy that made me smile. He was one of the most alive human beings on the planet, and his work has been an enormous part of my love of story.
It is a time of transition for Helio, and for me. He is moving from 20 years with Team Penske in Indy Car to the Penske Sports Car program. While it seems clear he'd like to have stayed in the Indy Car program, he gracefully acceded to Roger Penske's request that he move to the other program. And in his first race, he won the pole (meaning they start first) for his three-man team, and the team had a podium finish, coming in third overall.
I've written of my own transition, of moving across the country, leaving my life in California to return to a new life in Pennsylvania. If I can handle my transition with a fraction of Helio's grace, I will be doing well.
While I can't say I see myself as Wonder Woman, one of the great gifts in life is not necessarily to have the life you think you should. As Emilio Estevez's character says in his film The Way, "You don't choose a life, you live it."
My three spirits have all shared something about how they've lived their lives with me, and now I share it with you. Like all of us, they have each had their griefs, their losses, and their heartbreaks. And still, the joyful glint is there in their eyes, in their being. May we all live our lives with that joyful glint, and share it with the world. The world could use a little joy.
At the same time, you are thrilled to be at this workshop, with an opportunity to get feedback (which you are sure will be wonderful) from a writing teacher whose work you respect, and whose books have helped many an aspiring novelist. You want to bask in the opportunity to spend this time completely focused on your own work-in-progress and not have to worry about cooking your own meals and then doing the dishes. Here, you are a writer.
Without any maneuvering, the workshop leader sits next to you at dinner, and appears to be amused by your witty repartee. Everything seems to be working as planned.
A funny thing happens after dinner. The group gathers for the opening session, and lo and behold, you are the first one to share your book title and the hook you have crafted. Suddenly you discover that you don’t have a protagonist, you have a victim. To be a protagonist the main character has to act, rather than simply be acted upon. Yours doesn’t act, she reacts.
You also find out that your book title, which is your protagonist/victim’s first name (evocative, you felt), tells the reader nothing. And you realize that if all of this is true, you have to throw out everything you’ve written to date and start over.
After the session is over, you realize you have a choice to make. You can crawl into bed, pull the covers over your head, and wail that everyone is just jealous of your talents and it isn’t fair. Or you can face the fact that you are here to learn, and the first lesson was a tough one to swallow. You came to see what the experts could teach you, and now you have to decide if you are willing to be taught.
Feedback is one of the most difficult things to accept as a writer. It’s easy to convince yourself that the person questioning your choice of word, or character, or storyline, doesn’t understand your intention. And if they don’t, it isn’t your fault they’re dense. You’ve labored over this work for years, and you know you’ve honed it brilliantly.
Or have you? It can be enormously confusing to go to a workshop, sit through classes with one or more instructors, meet one-on-one with several mentors/editors, and have critique sessions with your peers, with everyone telling you something different. After a few days you are reeling from the contradictory suggestions, and it’s tempting to ignore all of it and go your own way.
…if you put aside your bruised ego long enough to look at it clearly, you might realize several different people all seemed to be asking what your main character wants, what her story arc is. And almost everyone commented on how they wanted to know more about your villain, but didn’t seem enthusiastic about your protagonist. So perhaps there are a few things that keep cropping up that might be worth your attention.
The riverboat was there, tied up to the dock, though the desk clerk thought it only ran on weekends until July. When I went to the restaurant next door, I was the only customer, so I got a premium spot, right on the river.
It was the Rock River, and the hotel was just outside the town of Oregon, Illinois. After dinner, I took my iced tea out on the deck to one of the empty tables and listened to the water lapping against the riverboat. The Rock River is not the Mississippi. On the other hand, it’s no creek, either. The riverboat did not dwarf the river, in fact they looked as if they fit one another pretty well.
Some people love the mountains, some the forest, for me, it’s water. Put me next to an ocean, a river, heck, even a pond, and I can sit for hours. Though I did eventually go in that night, I was determined to bring my writing out there the next morning.
There was a great line in the Emilio Estevez film, The Way, when Estevez’ character says to his father (played by his real-life father, Martin Sheen), “You don’t choose a life, Dad, you live it.”
Do you remember your senior year in high school? Maybe you were in the senior class play, or on the football team, or sang in the choir? Senior year is filled with things you do for the last time, and filled with planning for the future, college applications, proms, and graduations.
I graduated from high school in 1973. There were a few events of historic value in the first 5 months of the year:
When I look back on the last five months of my senior year of high school those news items are not the things I recall, nor do I recall the other activities that fill the days of a soon-to-graduate senior. The one event that stands out for me from that spring with crystal clarity was Secretariat’s record-breaking sweep of the Triple Crown.
My interest in horse racing started my freshman year of high school, when I watch the Kentucky Derby on TV for the first time, and picked the winner, Dust Commander, out of the post parade. I was hooked from that day on, though back then, there wasn’t much coverage for those of us not in the horse world, and there was no Breeders Cup until years later.
My only horse racing crony was my 10th grade English teacher, Frank Mussitsch. I went to visit him during my free periods whenever possible, and we often talked horse racing. In fact, that year when he signed my yearbook, he wrote, “If you can’t be a Secretariat, you can at least be a Sham…” My friends were horrified by his words, not realizing Sham was the horse who might have won a Triple Crown race or two in any other year. In 1973, he finished second to Secretariat in each race, which meant that he was a very good racehorse himself.
Why do I bring this up now? Well, most of you don’t follow horse racing, so you wouldn’t know that Penny Chenery, the breeder/owner of Secretariat, died Saturday, September 16th at the age of 95. I’ve read a lot about her in the past few years, particularly since the film Secretariat was released.
I was thrilled a few years ago that Secretariat was finally acknowledged as setting a record in his Preakness Stakes run, and that her determination was rewarded. The official timer at Pimlico malfunctioned, but thanks to the wonders of technology and Penny Chenery’s insistence that the racing authorities review it, Secretariat is now officially the record-holder for all three Triple Crown races.
I didn’t know Penny Chenery (then known as Penny Tweedy) and was pretty much unaware of her except peripherally when Secretariat was running, yet her partnership with Secretariat had a major impact on my life. When I watched Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes on our black and white TV, and saw the ever-widening gap that became his 31-length margin of victory, I cried. It was a transcendent moment in my young life, and no previous successes or victories were remotely comparable. It was the first time I had experienced true greatness and utter perfection and I will never forget it.
There have been a few other moments like that since – seeing the Protopopovs skate in their first professional competition, seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby, reading the seventh Harry Potter and knowing I would never again read it for the first time, but Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes was the first.
When a horse runs a race, he or she doesn’t know what’s at stake. Upon returning to the barn, the winning horse will most likely head for the hay and chow down. Most horseracing folks will tell you horses know when they’ve won and when they haven’t, and I can believe that, having spent some time with horses (see my August 2016 blog on Chandler), but it doesn’t seem to stay with them. A horse running a race is the purest form of athleticism – victory for its own sake – at least for the horse. It’s how we once viewed the Olympics, when amateur sport was considered the only pure form of sport. Secretariat and Penny Chenery gave me that first taste of greatness, and the truth is that even now, I struggle to explain why that was so important and why it meant so much to me.
Steve Haskin, one of my favorite writers, said in an article in The Blood Horse on Zenyatta, “We have chosen to allow these magnificent creatures to infiltrate our very being and touch our souls in a way that bonds us to them – yes, at rare times spiritually.”
Penny Chenery’s physical presence is gone. But she and Secretariat will live forever in my heart, my mind, my soul. As I move through the world, the people with whom I come in contact will unknowingly be affected by Penny Chenery and Secretariat. Their magic continues its work in the pond of my life, spreading its ripples of influence into the lives of the people I touch.
Who or what provides magic and inspiration in your life?
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