Scully and Twain: Unaccountable Freaks

Two anniversaries: one a few days ago, one today, both recognizing the magnetic power of words. The first, this past Sunday, the 60th anniversary of Vin Scully’s first broadcast of a Dodgers game. Baseball might be meaningless to you, but if words are the current that galvanizes your soul, you should know his artistry. Scully is a painter, a light-footed boxer, a moralist, a clarifier, someone who opens the picnic basket on a Sunday and lights up when he sees that the potato salad is perfect—and then invites you to share. Most of all he is a storyteller. Baseball is stitched with stories.

How did Vin Scully recognize his 60th anniversary? He broadcast a Sunday ballgame, between the Dodgers and the Giants. One of the things I miss since moving to Northern California is that I only hear Vin on rare occasions. Since I’ve been listening to him since the early 1960s, I’m familiar with his phrasings, his pauses, his mulling aloud, the ease with which he inserts a fact or anecdote about the current batter or pitcher without missing the electric ebb and flow of the game. Watching baseball for many is a total bore, filled with dead spots, flatness and languor; Scully walks you up the small hills you don’t even see, extends his hand to point out a subtle feature, reads the clouds and when a thrashing squall strikes, invites you to feel the heat of the lightning.

The point I want to emphasize is that he has been doing this for 60 years. Sixty. And he never phones it in. Always the same high level of engagement, always the understated appreciation for the game’s subtleties, always the regard for the audience’s intelligence, always the celebration of language and forever the reflexes to rise to the moment. That is sustained fire, that is mastery; in no uncertain terms, it is love. Any writer would do well to study and savor the arc of such a career, and to try to work with the same attention, the same quality of applied effort, the same sidestepping of the easy or the mediocre.

Who’s That Hanging on Halley’s Comet’s Tail?
The other anniversary of note is today’s: Mark Twain died 100 years ago today. The sad part of that is that there’s no Mark Twain to come up with a quote about his 100th anniversary. Instead, here’s Twain on his own comings and goings:

I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: “Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.”

Indeed, he was prescient: he went out the day after Halley’s whipped its cosmic tail over his head. His only surviving child, Clara, placed next to his grave a monument that was 12 feet long, or two fathoms deep—the depth at which it’s safe for an average steamboat to pass. Many folks already know that “Mark Twain” is a riverboat expression for that depth sounding, Samuel Clemens chose his famed pen name. Of course, the man was much deeper than 12 feet. Twain had that long, meteoric career that too embodied prodigious output over extended time. At 16, he was contributing articles and humorous sketches to his brother’s newspaper, where he was a typesetter. He then set about scribbling for more than 50 years, putting together an astonishing body of work as remarkable for its eclecticism as for the razor of its wit. To call the man a mere humorist is to say that Einstein was rather clever.

So, Scully and Twain, giants both. But the unimaginable reach of their careers, their legacies, couldn’t have even been suggested to them as a feeble joke back when they began their first stumbling efforts at shaping sound around a microphone, or trying to liven up a story with an errant turn of phrase. They didn’t begin with a legacy in mind, but just with the notion of doing the work, putting in the hard time, seeing which words worked and which died aborning—a solid lesson for writers of every stripe.

Vin Scully, Mark Twain, unaccountable freaks: Happy anniversary!

Shaving Cats with a Fountain Pen

First of all, you have to make sure that the nib of your fountain pen is VERY sharp—cats can be pretty critical of a sloppy shave. If you’re not a pen-based cat shaver yourself, you absolutely must find a specialist—a mere penknife dog-shaver or needle-nose pliers hamster-hair plucker won’t do, no matter if they have the skill basics.

I bring up the specialist notion because I was mulling over a post that my pal Jodi Kaplan put up on her blog about creatives having a niche. Jodi provides a lot of helpful links about how focusing on a business niche can refine your business and concentrate your customer base, the whys of setting up separate sites for separate niches, how to market to a niche and more.

That caused me to reflect that I not only shave cats, dogs and hamsters, but balloon animals too. My trouble is that I truly love the variety of writing a writer can do, and dabble in so many of its forms. This week, for instance, I finished a travel piece that will run in the Los Angeles Times, I am working on a 30-second radio spot for a Philadelphia restaurant, and I wrote a number of website pages of marketing copy for a company promoting its Colorado ranch properties for weddings. Love the travel writing, love radio ads, and marketing piffle for weddings? Well, there are bills to pay.

I’ve spent long years writing user manuals for software, and marketing pieces to flank the documentation. But as the Monty Python skit goes, “I don’t want to own land; I want to sing!” (Translation: I want to write fiction. So I do that too.) One of the reasons my sweetheart angled to meet me, those many years ago, was because she wanted to meet someone who wrote the back-side descriptions for the photographs on pretty notecards. Guilty. And I find the personal essay to be a potent form for persuasion, polemic or poetic meandering, so it’s a genre I return to again and again.

I’ve even been forced by a certain criminal musician/canny marketer/business-maven madman, Joel D Canfield, to write songs. Torment though it be, it was torment sweet. And then there’s the YouTube indulgence—look mom, I can make videos too!

Mr. Twain and Blatherskite
I think there is some danger in the dilution of dilettantism. But my hero, Mark Twain, wrote plays (badly), essays, poems, short stories, novels, advocacy pieces, travel articles, satire, straight journalism, handbills, speeches, jokes—and if you dip your toes into a wide reading pond, you’ll be convinced that he must have sat down and decided to write an entire book of quotations. (Twain had a cat named Blatherskite, but he probably would have procured an outside vendor for the shaving.)

I’ll have to keep mulling over how I can trim my own whiskers. Jodi, I’ll take your post to heart, but I’m not sure I want my travel-writer self to be a website away from my marketing-writer self. I like them all to be on the same page, but damn, it’s crowded.

[Note to self: write synopsis of “Convincing Your Cat to Settle for Monthly Shaving” post.]

Verbal calamity will ensue

Just an appetizer to have something on the plate; actual nutritive posts will follow.

As Mark Twain’s adverstisements for his lectures would often state: “The doors will open at 7 o’clock, and the trouble will begin at 8.”  At one Grass Valley, CA talk, he promised that after the lecture that he would perform a series of “wonderful feats of SLEIGHT OF HAND, if desired to do so.” His “wonderful feats” involved drinking multiple shots of whiskey, leaving town suddenly without paying his hotel bill, and other exemplars of his character. So, this handbill is hitchhiking on the tippy-tails of the esteemed Mr. Twain’s swallowtail coat: The trouble, however haltingly, has begun.

But that guy is a hard act to follow; me, I’m going to string words together as well as I can, as soon as this site has the right color of chintz curtains. (Oh, I’ve got the whiskey thing down.)