Off to a pretty good (kick)start

Don't let this happen to me -- awakening from a long and troubled slumber to find that not enough people pledged to help support publication of "Rip," my hilarious modern-day "retelling" of Washington Irving's classic "Rip van Winkle!"

Just four days after launching my kickerstarter.com project — seeking $1,200 in funding from backers to publish my novella “Rip,” a satirical (and incredibly funny and remarkably witty) modern-day “retelling” of Washington Irving’s classic “Rip van Winkle” — we’re already just shy of 20 percent of the goal.

Thanks! Please keep on pledging…or consider pledging if you haven’t yet…especially if you’re the trend-setting type who likes to get in on the ground floor of publication of what will someday be hailed as an literary classic so that you can brag about it about it at fancy cocktail parties or at informal neighborhood barbecues (I don’t care which platform you choose, just so you talk about the book).

You can be part of American literary history by pledging as little as $1, although I’d encourage would-be backers to pledge at least enough to earn one of the pledge “rewards” which range from a copy of the book to a signed copy of the opening pages of the manuscript to having a minor character in the book named after you (I’d recommend having your name assigned to one of the toll collectors who work with Rip on the Tappan Zee Bridge in Tarrytown — or perhaps one of the feminists who take up the cause of Rip’s wife).

Here’s a few things to keep in mind. Payment of pledges is safe and secure. When you click on the tab to make a pledge, I’m told, you’re asked to create a kickstarter “account,” which basically means entering your email address (so you can be notified when the funding goal is reached and so you can receive your pledge “reward”) and a user name. After that, the payment via credit or debit card is through an account I’ve set up with Amazon with kickstarter.

Your card is not charged or debited until the funding goal is reached – if it’s not reached, then all pledges are wiped off the slate and I will head off to the Catskill Mountains with my trusty dog and my blunderbuss, and I will drink a mysterious grog forced upon me by little Dutchmen, and I will sleep for many years and then awaken to find that my incredibly funny and remarkably witty novella “Rip” still hasn’t been published.

To read more about the project, visit http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/858629110/publication-of-rip-a-parody-of-the-rip-van-winkle

Close encounters (of the celebrity kind)

Actor Mickey Rourke and one his beloved dogs

Spend a decent amount of time in Manhattan, you’ll encounter celebrities — they’re everywhere, and there’s so many of them around that you probably spot only a small percentage of the famous and sort-of-famous in your midst.

They could be sitting at a table in the same restaurant where you’re being revived by paramedics after you look at the wine list and go into fiscaleptic shock. They might be standing next to you at MOMA as the two of you admire one of the Pollocks or Monets. They might be slumped in back of in one of the fifty cabs that pass you by with their OCCUPIED light turned on. They might be sitting next to you at that Broadway show (they’ll be the ones wearing the dark sun glasses in a dark theater unless you’re sitting in the balcony or you’re at “The Lion King” or “Jersey Boys” — they won’t be there and the guy with the sun glasses is probably a potential serial killer visiting from Nebraska or upstate New York).

I’ve encountered more than my share of celebrities in Manhattan. I once saw John Belushi hop out of a limo on Greenwich Avenue, run into a pharmacy, then jump back into the limo. I heard and watched Woody Allen and Diane Keaton outside a movie theater as they argued about where to go for dinner — he wanted to go to the Russian Tea Room; she wanted to go somewhere else for a change. I sat behind frizzy-haired film critic Gene Shalitt at a showing of the Scorcese documentary “The Last Waltz” soon after it opened. I once saw Telly Savalas walking in midtown, a gorgeous young woman on each arm. I think I once encountered Patti Smith in Chelsea. I saw Allen Ginsberg on the subway. I once literally bumped into Stevie Wonder outside a jazz club.

Wait, there’s more! A couple of weekends ago, my companion and I were walking on the fringes of the West Village, heading to dinner with friends at a restaurant off Bleecker Street. A man was walking toward us with four small dogs on leashes, the leashes in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. Another man came from the other direction, walking one small dog. Dogs being dogs, they all got excited, and in the excitement, in the tangle of dogs and leashes, one of the first man’s four dogs got loose. The other guy managed to grab the stray pooch. My companion held the first man’s three other dogs – and his cup of coffee — while he got his runaway’s collar reattached to the leash.

The rugged-looking fellow with the four dogs? We’re pretty certain it was actor Mickey Rourke. He loves dogs. He reportedly lives in that neighborhood. And if that guy wasn’t Mickey Rourke, then we had just encountered walking, talking evidence that the government has been conducted cloning experiments — and one of their first successful clones was a copy of Mickey Rourke, this following botched cloning experiments which spawned Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, George Bush the Younger and, of course, Gary Busey.

The coolest thing about encountering celebrities in the city? It’s when you’re cool about it. Little dog back on his leash, there was no “Aren’t you…?!” from us. Leashes and coffee cup were returned to their rightful owner. “Thanks” and “No problem” were exchanged. We headed off to dinner. He kept walking his dogs and drinking his coffee. New York, New York…it’s a wonderful town.

Endless highway


I drive down the road frequently now, on my way to the bank or to the Asian supermarket (which sells delicious frozen dumplings and at least a dozen varieties of bok choy — who knew?).

But the first time I made my way down Route 27, traveling the few miles from Highland Park, N.J., to Edison, N.J. (yes, Edison as in Thomas Edison, as in Wizard of Menlo Park, which is a section of Edison where the inventor had his famous lab), what I noticed at was first was the many businesses with Chinese lettering on their outdoor signs, everything from beauty parlors to auto-repair garages catering to the area’s thriving Asian population.

I was on my way, I confess, to the locally legendary Tastee Sub Shop, where President Obama actually made a stop back in July 2010 to promote a proposed small-business tax break.

Tastee Sub Shop in Edison, N.J.

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I figured a sub that was good enough for the president was good enough for me. For the record, the tuna sub with onions, tomato and lettuce was really good.

As I left Tastee Sub Shop, I noticed signs designating Route 27 — which is actually the Main street of the town where I now live — as the Lincoln Highway. The famous Lincoln Highway! Decades older than Route 66! The first real cross-country road!

A winter scene in downtown Highland Park, N.J. The main street, visible at right, is part of the old cross-country incoln Highway

It was the brainchild of a man named Carl G. Fisher. It began in Times Square and ended in San Francisco, passing through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California. Later, the route was changed to bypass Colorado and include a sliver of West Virginia. It was dedicated in 1913.

Opening of the road led to economic prosperity for the hundreds of cities and towns along the route. In fact, the Lincoln Highway was dubbed the “Main Street of America.” Today, after many roads were assigned numbers in the 1950s, most of the route is designated as Route 30, with sections of it designated as Route 1 in the East and routes 40 and 50 in the West. Much of its runs roughly parallel to Interstate 80. When I traveled through Pennsylvania and Ohio a few months ago, I drove on a long stretch of I-80 and a section of the Lincoln Highway ran through the town I was visiting, Richmond, Indiana. And, of course, with tha advent of the Eisenhower era national system of interstate highways, which transformed this nation, many of those same Lincoln Highway towns encountered economic hard times as time — and hurrying motorists — passed them by.

So it’s a wistful but wonderful thing to watch cars roll through town on the old Lincoln Highway and to imagine that I could get into my car, take my sweet time, and drive on that one road straight across the country, from the New York island to the redwood forest, driving through the here and now right into America’s faded past.

Paint by numbers

Roman Opalka

I guess “paint by numbers” wouldn’t be an accurate description. It was really painting with numbers or just plain painting numbers.

Roman Opalka, who dipped his brushes in the paintpot of infinity, died a few days ago at age 79, which means that either he didn’t make it to eternity and forever…or he’s there now.. or he’s still progressing along his endless path toward some never-reached destination.

About fifty years ago, you see, Roman Opalka, living in Warsaw, began a painting. Using a fine-tipped brush, he began painting numerals on a 4-foot-by-6-foot canvas, white numerals in straight rows on a black background, working from top left corner to bottom right corner.

And that’s what he did for the rest of his life. Each canvas after that continued the sequence of numerals. By 2004, he had reached 5,500,000. Five-and-a-half million!

According to his New York Times obituary, in 1968 Opalka took a major step — he changed the backgrounds from black to gray.

In 1972, after he passed 1,000,0000, he began gradually lightening the gray with white plait until, by 2008, he was painting white numerals on a white background. In 1972, he also began saying each number into a tape recorder and took snapshots of himself in front of each completed painting.

Each painting had the same title: Opalka 1965/1 — ∞.

“All my work is a single thing, the description from one to infinity,” Mr. Opalka once wrote. “A single thing, a single life.”

What was it all about? Our journey from here to infinity…or eternity…or oblivion.

“Time as we live it and as we create it embodies our progressive disappearance,” Opalka once explained. “We are at the same time alive and in the face of death — that is the mystery of all living beings.”

5,500,001…5,500,002, 5,500,003, 5,500,004, 5,500,005…et cetera.

A sprightly tale…(or letting it “Rip”)

I’m planning to collaborate with friend Steve Hart to publish my humorous novella “Rip,” through his new New Jersey-based literary imprint, Black Angel Press.

And I’ve decided to pursue a new and innovative way to come up with funding for the project — check out http://www.kickstarter.com, which matches up donors with worthy creative projects.

It will cost an estimated $1,200 to hire a cover artist and a book designer and to pay the printer/publisher for 50 initial copies of the book, a print-on-demand ordering system through the Black Angel website (and amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com) and electronic editions of the book (including Kindle).

So if anyone reading this has friends named, um, Carnegie and Gates and Rockefeller and Buffett, and tell them about this great book and this innovative funding effort (it’s had lots of success, was written up recently in major media, and was used to raise funds for a book tour by another Black Angel Press author and to help finance the first CD recorded by my son’s friends’ band The Day’s Weight).

Donations, done through an Amazon account, can be as little as one dollar.

If you want to tell your billionaire friends about the book, here’s a brief description:
It’s the late 1960s and Rip is a toll collector on the Tappan Zee Bridge at Tarrytown, Washington Irving’s hometown and the locale of his other famous story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The modern-day Rip is as complacent and lazy as ever; he spends most of his free time at a bar called the Sunnyside Tavern, where he hangs with a group of ne’er do well friends who call themselves the Sleepy Hollow Boys. Rip’s wife, portrayed so unfairly in the original story as a one-dimensional shrew whose relentless nagging compels her husband to take to the hills, is treated more evenly in this latter-day retelling — as her cause is taken up by a feminist group, led by the head of the Women’s Studies Department at Vassar, Lilith B. Anthony, whose members try to infiltrate the men-only Sunnyside Tavern and do battle with the Sleepy Hollow Boys.

Andrew Burstein, author of The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving, offered this praise after reading the manuscript of “Rip” —

“I don’t think that Washington Irving, America’s first great satirist, would mind that someone had decided to rouse him after so many years of placid entombment and allow him to experience the faded glory of the 1960s. In his iconic farce of 1809, Knickerbocker’s History, Irving pushed the limits of absurdity. Nicholas DiGiovanni has done the same here, mocking the mock-historian. In Rip, he has Irving’s idle hero set aside his fowling piece and become a toll taker on the Tappan Zee Bridge. It is, to paraphrase Irving, a sprightly tale.”

If you want to tell your billionaire friends where they can help fund this sprightly project, direct them this to this link:

This site tells more about the project and details the funding options available through an Amazon account, ranging from $1 to $15 (the reward is a copy of the book) to $30 (the reward is a SIGNED copy of the book) right up to $250 (the reward is having a minor character in the novella NAMED AFTER THE DONOR!).

Thanks for spreading the word. The manuscript is ready to roll after I do one more careful read and editi. A book designer and cover artist has been brought into the project. Steve’s ready and waiting to add “Rip” to his roster of books (check out the website http://www.blackangelpress.com). And I’m already endeavouring to schedule book-signings and readings at bookstores and other venues up and down the Hudson River Valley. I’ll keep everyone up-to-date on the progress of the book.

Life’s fleeting moments (or slip, sliding away)

Rocky shoreline at Beavertail State Park on Conanicutt Island in Jamestown, R.I., on Narragansett Bay

It’s not true. When your mortality is suddenly looking you straight in the eye and staring you down, your life doesn’t flash before you — at least for me, it happened so quickly that I hardly knew it had happened.

We were visiting Beavertail State Park on Conanicutt Island near Jamestown, R.I. It was an impromptu visit — we were driving around that lovely island when we spotted the park, with its classic lighthouse and rocky shore along Narragansett Bay.

We decided to walk down onto the rocks. Other folks had already done it — some were sitting there reading books or admiring the view; others had towels spread out and were sunbathing.

We headed slowly down toward the water, being very careful about where we stepped, very wary of slipping and falling and getting hurt on the rocks.

And then I slipped. My feet flew out from under me and I was aware that I was sliding down an incline. I heard my companion shout out my name.

And suddenly I found myself underwater. I felt my head make contact with a smooth rock — the impact, luckily, was apparently cushioned by the water.

I popped up to find myself in a deep narrow crevice that had been carved out of the rock by the waves and current — a space maybe about six feet around. I was standing on slippery rocks in water that was about chest-high. The ledge I’d fallen off was at least two feet above my head, and so were the surrounding ledges.

My companion, who at first could see nothing except that I’d disappeared, shouted my name again and then shouted frantically, “Where’s Roxy!”

She couldn’t see me. But she could see a pink leash floating the water. Roxy’s a tiny little puppy, half-dachshund and half chihuahua. I’d been holding her to my chest as we walked down the rocks.

Where was Roxy? I turned my head and there she was, looking scared but doing the dog paddle, treading water in what was certainly her first-ever swim — and an unexpected one at that.

I got hold of Roxy and handed her up. So one of us was now on dry land — or rock. Me, I now faced a new problem — how in the world was I going to get out? I could reach the stone ledges by stretching my arms upward, but the rocks were slippery and there was nothing to grab hold of — and the bottom was slippery and sharp rocks were nearby. It was definitely time to get help.

Within a minute, two men were there, looking down at me worriedly and taking stock of this unexpected scene. The three of us decided it might be too risky — for them and for me — to try to pull me up while they lay unsecured on the slippery rock slopes.

There was one option short of calling 911: Seeing if I squeeze through a narrow passageway, moving about six feet in the direction of the shore, toward the water. If I could get through there, I might be about to pull myself up onto the somewhat lower rock ledge.

I squeezed through sideways. Then I pulled myself, bracing my legs again one rock wall while boosting my body up onto a flat rock on the other side, then rolling onto my stomach and crawling up to a drier, safer rock.

And I was perfectly OK — a bit shaken up, bleeding from bad scrapes on both of my forearms. I was absolutely not quite OK when I realized how fortunate I’d been — if I’d slid an inch or two in either directions I’d have crashed into rocky ledges; if I’d tumbled over head-first, I’d most certainly have hit my head.

Over the last few years I’ve posted a series of essays here titled “Man Has Premonition of Own Death.” Is it possible to have a premonition after the fact? Or maybe it might be more accurate to use a phrase that’s the title of a book by Edmund Wilson — it was a work of literary criticism, and it had nothing to do with death or mortality, but the title fits: The Shock of Recognition.

Funny, too, how such mundane thoughts come to mind in the most serious moments. As I walked carefully up the rocks, checking to make certain I really hadn’t broken any bones or cut the back of my head, I had an image of the opening credits of an old TV soap opera. There was a close-up of an hourglass and a narrator’s voice declaring ominously and with great authority: “Like sands in an hourglass…These are the days of our lives…”

Middle doesn’t mean middling

Katrin Schumann

Being born in the middle doesn’t necessarily mean you’re fated to be in the middle of the pack.

That, I gather, is one of the points of my friend Katrin Schumann’s new book, “The Secret Power of Middle Children.”
Check out the web site: http://www.thesecretpowerofmiddlechildren.com/

Katrin will be appearing on NBC’s “Today” show on Thursday, August 4, sometime between 8 and 9 p.m. Tune in, if you’re able. Katrin, who I met last year when we both were resident writers at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, is smart, personable, interesting — and a really good writer of both nonfiction and fiction.

Whether you’re the first-born, youngest or a true middle child — like those little-known underachievers Abraham Lincoln, Donald Trump and Madonna — I’m betting you’ll enjoy reading Katrin’s book and seeing her on TV.