Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Arlo’s Hair by Elise Miller

Elise Miller (c) 2012
Last night was Thursday, a work night, but the only tickets we could get for Arlo Guthrie at Croce’s were for the 10:30 show, which turned out to be 11 and the show went until 12:30 and we got to bed at 1:30, which was much too late so I was tired most of today but it was worth it because Arlo was riveting, not only as an excellent folksinger and storyteller—he drew us into his intimate circle of close-knit family and  musician friends making memories together in New England farmhouses and on big city stages—but as a versatile and talented musician, a master of the six- and twelve-string acoustic guitars, electronic piano and harmonica, but how did Woody’s son keep me awake, you might ask, even today, reliving the performance, and I would with a lump in my throat reply that it is because he evokes an era, a memory of an attitude and an approach, tied inextricably to a certain kind of place, the tight, dark smell of other clubs and coffee houses, mysterious places full of new poetry and old ideas, washed over by young tears and the promise of sex with someone whose music was slow and lyrical, all wrapped up in his own life and therefore my own young life, a girl sitting in a coffee house, sometimes angry, sometimes pitiful, often deeply caring, but always musical, and on that work night, all this stirred me up, a man with heavy cheeks and baggy eyes and long, stringy gray hair who at one time stirred the hearts in the crowd at Alice’s Restaurant, his sharp, kind eyes and floppy hat and dark shiny rebellious locks came at me then like a knife blade scraping away at sweet fat crusty drumstick skin from the hot grease of a heavy iron skillet where we loitered in Alice’s kitchen, but there in the kitchen, who could have anticipated the singular moment in the film, there in the sack with his girl, when he realized that “the who, the what, the where” were all still ahead of him, and we all realized this with him, our hearts racing at the thought that someday we would actually know the answers, and it frightened us terribly though we were desperate for it, that glimpse of fragile crystal ball, and now we know why it startled, then unnerved us at the time, with the same kind of jolt looking forward as I received last night looking back, noticing Arlo’s hair first, paying attention to its length and how ridiculous it looked in that rodent color, wrinkled and wrapping his shoulders and his broad back, like tough, but aged and disintegrating rodent skin, noticed and was repulsed by it, until Arlo started talking about it, joking about his coif, until I heard pride and pain between the words, and understood that the hair, like the flowered shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbows, leather vest and beads, and the honeyed, homey, twangy voice, the talented fingers stroking guitar strings or keyboard, the quirky rhythms, and the very tales he told, from setting to syntax, were marks of his individuality and that was how he made his statement, like standing up and saying THIS is who I am, HERE I am, I AM ARLO, and Arlo’s hair twisted itself around my life and I recognized—in the mundane blending in of my own style, supporting like a splint my work and family and social commotion by my way of looking and talking and walking and living my life forty years after Alice closed her doors—that the hot grease and the crusty, pungent bits and pieces in the heavy iron skillet had dissipated long ago, and unlike Arlo, whose graying rumpled hair bespoke of youth and hope and individuality and attitude, the only vestige of my self, my only puckered strand of graying  hair, is my writing, so that is the only explanation I have at this moment, with Arlo Guthrie’s image overlaying my to do list, my desk, my computer, my appointment calendar, of why I write, only that, to connect myself over and over again to the girl in the coffee house, with shiny brown hair and wide hazel eyes, out past curfew, holding someone’s hand, soaking in folk rhythms like surges of coastal tide on dry sand, connecting idea to idea to idea as they climb up from the sea of all time, and, okay then, to connect myself to that memory and to keep myself engaged in the search for the what, the where, the who, and it is as that seeker that I write and refuse to pause and breathe and place the period to conclude the thoughts, but instead I wind that graying strand behind my ear, listen carefully, and with my pen, like Arlo, I struggle to stand up and be somebody present and real.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


When the time came for my bar mitzvah, I was not given the opportunity to show off the wisdom I might have gained had I been permitted to prepare for this ancient ritual. I would not bask in the acclaim of guests, be anointed a reincarnation of Maimonides[1] or collect a slew of checks. My mother had other ideas. The proper path for her male progeny, on the cusp of adulthood in modern America, was to be exposed to the depredations that still lingered in this affluent land of ours. I would receive a “socialist bar mitzvah.”
Worse, she decreed this alterative rite could not be accomplished by a mere MTA[2] ride to the other side of town, to Roxbury, the North End or even Charlestown. Au contraire, the poverty that existed in those places was the bi-product of racism or immigrant status. What she had in mind was showing me that when push came to shove, the captains of industry were still willing to grind their iron heels into the sons and daughters of our original pioneers. To achieve her objective, Mom connived a road trip into lands where, by her accounts, there yet dwelt original American (read “white”) serfs. We'd travel to Appalachia.
So it was that in the spring of 1958, four of us (for we were obliged to schlep along my little sister) with my father, whose personal opinion was “it’s a crock of shit,” at the wheel, invaded the hills and hollers of West Virginia in Dad’s spanking new, black and chrome Mercury Turnpike Cruiser with its all-leather interior, electric windows and Massachusetts plates.
Mom selected our route based on AAA maps. Scrupulously avoiding red roads and reluctantly settling for blue when all else failed, she steered us at every opportunity onto the dotted lines — the so-called “improved roads” — which meant in some spots they’d put gravel over the dirt.
But once we penetrated into the habitat of the endangered American serf Mom’s bravado began to waiver. Insecurities seemed to set in. She became anxious when I strayed more than a few paces from the car. She passed up one of her regular joys, browsing roadside stands, though they were laden with enticing ciders and native produce. She prodded us to hush whenever we settled into the worn-out booths of the area’s dilapidated “whites only” diners. And she scolded us to remain invisible when my father negotiated for one of the region’s ubiquitous accommodations, a kerosene-lit cabin cum outhouse. Whether she was fearful for our safety among this proletarian salt-of-the-earth or was concerned an exchange with some local might reveal flaws in her caricatures of them, I wasn't able to tell.
As the days passed, the trip devolved into a something akin to a Disneyesque amusement ride where one never actually comes in contact with anything. From the back seat I got to see ramshackle dwellings roll by, elders rocking and gumming on sagging porches and their smudged-faced, barefoot offspring frolicking in yards that looked like pig slop. Sure enough, she’d confirmed for me that there were indeed people in these United States that looked like the Yokums of Dogpatch. But what did they think? Were they the besotted mindless hillbillies that populated Al Capp’s comics, or were they actually mighty revolutionaries simply biding their time until they got “The Party’s” call to assault the citadels of power?  Such an inquiry was not on her agenda.
Then, despite the best-laid plans of my socialist tour-guide, the hermetic seal was broken and the bitter pill of truth poked through. My alternative rite-of-passage bore unexpected dividends.
The sun was already dipping in and out from behind a series of steep, denuded hills when my father rolled to a stop beside the pumps of one of those last-gas-for-fifty- miles service stations. “Couple bucks of hi-test,” he grunted in the direction of the proprietor while attempting to mask his thick Bronx accent.
The gaunt codger to whom my father directed this order squinted in an attempt to read our plates, making his nose curl into a hawk’s beak. A cheek bulged with what ballplayers called “chaw.” He pushed off from his rocker in the shade where he'd been fanning himself with some newsprint and shuffled over to our shiny vehicle, scrutinizing its contents as if we were a box of chocolates and he was pondering his selection. “Two-a super,” he confirmed, taking the opportunity, now that his mouth was in gear, to squirt a brown gob of tobacco juice out of its corner.
It was then that my father noticed an ancient red Coke machine sputtering away on the fellow’s porch. He squeezed himself out from behind the wheel to investigate, returning a few moments later to report with evident delight, “They're still a nickel down here.”
Indeed, he’d discovered a backwater Shangri-La of pricing. In New York and Boston the nickel Coke was a thing of fading memory. How, I wondered, could they keep the prices so low here in Hicksville? It certainly wasn't volume.
Euphoric at this discovery, my father's generosity was exceptional and he sprang for twenty cents worth of the elixir. Moments later all four of us, little sister included, were in reverie, nursing our very own bottles of Coca Cola — savoring that pause that refreshes. But after the bumpkin had pumped out those eight gallons of his highest- octane fuel we still had plenty of soda left in our bottles.
Little did I realize our dawdling with those colas was fraught with peril. The wholesale pricing had lifted my father's spirits and he deflected his impatience to get back on the road by wringing additional considerations out of those two bucks. Heedless of the “know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em” rule, he insisted the fellow check the oil, then the water levels in the radiator and battery and after that, the air in the tires. And still, when the proprietor appeared at our window, palm up, wanting to be paid, we'd not finished our drinks.
Dad peeled off a couple of bills and as the man shuffled off to ring up the sale, hit the gas. The next thing I heard was something that sounded like a rebel yell — and then some more of the same. I peered out the back window where I was just able to make him out —running through the cloud of dust and gravel kicked up by the accelerating Turnpike Cruiser, a strap of his overalls flapping. Had we left something behind? Was this old codger attempting to warn us of an unknown hazard? As my father slowed and the dust began to settle, the answer was revealed –no, it was nothing like that. His face was grim. His jaw was set. He was charging toward us like an infantryman, with a double-barreled shotgun cradled across his chest.
From my spot in the back seat, I could use the rearview mirror to see perspiration spreading over my father's brow. Dad was keenly aware of his helplessness at the hands of this hillbilly. His fingers were gripping the steering wheel tightly. There was fear in his eyes — the fear of the Jew in Gentile-land since time immemorial. Was this curtains for Manny Willdorf? Would he be wacked with a load double 0 buck like his boyhood hero, the Bronx mobster, Dutch Schultz? Or were we in for a necktie party —a West Virginian version of the murder of Leo Frank, the only Jew lynched for certain in Georgia since before the Civil War?
Dad rolled down his window and waited until the yokel came abreast of him, then gave the fellow a nervous shrug. My mother, uncharacteristically, had nothing to say.  But the owner of the gas station was not similarly tongue-tied. “Now jus' hole on ther', Yankee,” he drawled, “hole dem gol-darn hosses.”
My eyes were drawn to the gun. I'd seen these double-barreled affairs before on TV. The guy who sat next to the stagecoach driver always had one. Enthralled, I noticed the old fellow's thumb resting on the hammer behind one of the barrels as he contemplated cocking the weapon. Ahah, I thought, not fully in touch with the delicacy of our predicament: At last, the real Appalachia. He must be one of those revolutionaries willing to pile up corpse upon corpse to unseat the capitalists and seize the reigns of power. Here's the real McCoy Mom's always talking about. We'll straighten this out in no time. All Mom has to explain is that we're socialists and revolutionaries just like him. No problem. Go ahead, Dad. Tell him even though we have this new four-door black car that looks almost like a limousine, you've got a college education and work as a white-collar engineer, tell him that we're his comrades.
But such was not in my father’s game plan. Instead, he could only summon a sputtering, “What's wrong?”
“You run off without payin’ no deposit on them colas you got. That's what's wrong, Yankee,” the hillbilly snarled. “You owe me eight cents, two each for them four bottles you lit out with. So you jus put them bottles back in the rack or gimme eight cents right now.”
My father sighed with relief. He wasn't getting lynched. “Sorry,” he said, smiling. “Just a misunderstanding.”  But there was a hitch in his voice that I knew well. The buckshot-riddled ghost of Dutch Schultz was calling. I recognized that old deep-down reluctance he always had to part with a penny, especially urgent here, as this demand came from a yokel wanting eight cents in hard currency. “Try something,” the Dutchman whispered, and my father began to feel for an angle. “Look,” he said, “I got some empties in the trunk. How about I give you four of them so the kids can finish their drinks and we'll be on our way?”
The old man scratched the stubble on his chin while he considered the proposal. He didn't quite like it –knew he was dealing with a fast-talking Yankee bottle thief — but he couldn't sniff out the game. “Les jus' see them bottles, Yankee.”
“Sure, sure,” said my father as he hauled his butt out of the car. He popped the trunk and there, to one side, was his wooden crate filled with coke bottles, a few of the large five-cent deposit kind and a slew of smaller two-centers.
The hillbilly peered inside and spat again. He knew the moonshine business all right and this smacked of something like it.  He fretted with a hammer on his gun. He squinted. He frowned. Obviously not a man of words, he looked to be turning over in his mind the ones he intended to use. “Now I know what you been doin’ down here, Yankee. You been thievin’ our Coke bottles.”
I snickered. Could this backwater yokel really think that my father had actually earned a brand new Mercury by stealing empties from gas stations? But then, except for his exaggerated idea of the profit involved, the hick had struck pay dirt as to the truth of the matter.      
The air was redolent with the tang of gun oil. My father stared at the weapon. The glaring sinister voids that were its pair of muzzles. The carved cross-hatching of its walnut stock, polished to the sheen of a recruit’s boot. The dust-free ebony barrel sparkling like river rapids at sundown. If that gas station jockey loved anything in this world, it was that piece. It brought Dad to his senses. “Take some of the big ones,” he gulped. “Your choice.”
Not a greedy fellow, the West Virginian satisfied himself with a couple of the five-centers.
After we got home my father began telling everyone that he was so moved by this downtrodden worker’s distress, he gave the fellow an extra two cents, and everyone believed him.
Well, I’m no Maimonides and I don’t know my Torah all that well, but I did manage to take away some useful lessons from my socialist bar mitzvah. You don't have to be educated to be smart. Schooling is not an inoculation against stupidity. If you bullshit well enough, there are plenty of people out there who won’t be able to distinguish it from the truth. And, it doesn't hurt to keep your shotgun well oiled.

[1] Maimonides was a 12th Century Jewish scholar, philosopher, ethicist and physician. He was court physician to Sultan Saladin and also treated King Richard the Lionhearted when he was in Jerusalem during the Crusades.
[2] Now called the “T”, it is Greater Boston’s public transportation system.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Welcome to Bay Area Writers

Authors Without Bordom is intended to be the writer's equivalent of an art gallery, although it will not be selling anything. It is an opportunity for writers to showcase a bit of their work in a location with other writers so that members of the Bay Area literary community can find examples of the works of many writers all in one place. If you are a writer and live in the Bay Area, you are welcome to submit a work of around 2500 words, or fewer. The number of words is not rigid. No bean counting here. No cops. And unlike magazines, the choice of subject is all yours. You retain the copyrights but the submission implies a license to post it on this site only. If you have something you want posted, send the document in .doc plus a jpg. photo and bio for a page to me at If you want to link to your sites, that can go in the bio.

Monday, July 16, 2012


by Barry S. Willdorf (c) 2012
In the last several weeks, I have received emails from two online sources suggesting authors ought to agree with each other to exchange reviews as a marketing tactic. In one case it was proposed that authors only write five-star reviews for other authors or not write any review at all.  This was presented as legitimate marketing. It didn’t feel right to me. I think agreements that look like a quid pro quo are bad for all of us. I didn’t think it was ethical. But I got little support for my opinion.

Now a recent article: “Yelp's Trust At Risk From Phony Reviews” lends support to my opinion that this kind of marketing is really just gaming the system.  The article reports, “Customer feedback on sites such as Yelp, and travel site TripAdvisor have changed the way people research and shop for products and services.” Bing Liu, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago who develops software to detect fake reviews says: “Such comments are the first thing many people check before trying a new restaurant or booking a hotel. As many as 4 out of 10 online reviews are phony or biased in some way,”

As more and more promotion and marketing tasks are transferred from publishers to authors, it is incumbent on authors to soul search what is ethical and what is not. We must ask ourselves: If I make an agreement to review another author’s book in exchange for her or him reviewing mine, will my review be influenced by my concern for the review I might get in return? When I soul-search, I must answer “yes.” I will think about the risk of retaliation if I don’t give perfect scores.

Any agreement to reciprocally review books is made to get a favorable review so the author can use it as a selling point. Even if the quid pro quo is unstated, both parties want five star reviews and both parties know it. Whether express or implied the agreement destroys the credibility of the review. Even if I am completely candid in giving five stars, it will still look bad in eyes of those who find out that there was an exchange agreement. Do I disclose the agreement in my review? If not, why not? Is it because I know, deep down, that it doesn’t look good?

It think that the author who suggested giving only five stars or none at all is wrestling with the same question but has convinced herself that her solution resolves the ethical conflict. I don’t think it does. Here’s why:

For the two authors who are parties to the agreement, it turns a five star review system into a pass-fail. When I get a review from someone I don’t know, we all every reason to believe it is a candid opinion. But what becomes of the five stars or no star-theory if the book under review is really a four star or three star book? Does the reviewer employ a cynical form of grade inflation and give five stars? If so, it’s not a truthful review in a five star system, which is what the Amazon and Goodreads rating systems are. They’ve made their own set of rules -- pass/fail. The reason is because it’s good for marketing to game the system. If the reviewer decides it’s a four and does not review the book at all, what benefit is that to the author? She’s written a four star book and should get a four star review. She gets nothing. Who wants to make that deal with that reviewer again? And woe unto the author who gives a nothing in exchange for getting a five star review.  Especially if the “no review” author publishes another book.

Some people say, look, if it bothers you ethically, you don’t have to do it. But that’s not an acceptable answer. It ignores the reality that we are all affected when the honesty and impartiality of reviews becomes suspect. Customers are misled and ultimately lose confidence in reviews depriving all of us of a marketing tool. Look at it from the point of view of the rest of the authors. They get an honest four-star review and have to market their book against someone who, thanks to a quid pro quo, has gotten five stars because the reviewer fears retaliation. Author “A” has a four star book and promotes it that way. Author “B” has a three star book but gets a five star review because the reviewer wants a five star review in return. It is unfair competition.

To what extent can this tactic skew the review system?  I complied statistics from Amazon comparing an author who admits using the five stars or nothing marketing strategy (Author X) with five top selling authors who yearly write multiple books, some in comparable genre:

# of books
published during past 5 yrs.
Number of customer reviews over same period
# 5-star reviews over same period
%  5-STAR
Author X
John Grisham
Daniele Steele
Stephanie Meyers
Elmore Leonard
Richard North Patterson

The Table leaves no doubt Author X is a very good marketer. But Author X’s reviews have consistently, over time, exceeded the performance of the five well-known authors. In collecting five star reviews, Author X even far outpaces Stephanie Meyers, who has a vast teen cult following and who, according to Stephen King, “can’t write worth a darn”.  In a further comparison, E.L. James, the author of the current hit “50 Shades” trilogy scores a 3.9 rating and has 45% five star reviews. The numbers suggest the impact of strategies such as quid pro quos between Author X and other authors.  

Author X also recommends cultivation of reviewers, especially the growing number of bloggers who want to receive traffic. Cultivation of bloggers who review books also involves the creation of a relationship where the blogger and the author come to know each other because the author writes for the blog, links the blog and recommends the blog, all as a marketing tool for the writer, who then asks for the blogger to review the book. It is not a blind review. There is a relationship behind it. The “build a relationship with the reviewer” strategy is little different for the author/author exchange. Each involves a preexisting agreement or relationship entered into for the purpose of marketing. This should not be confused with building relationships with readers. “Good customer relations” is different than gaming a rating system.

But is Author X a good writer? Has Author X earned five star reviews and a 4.66 rating overall based on quality? We can never use this writer’s reviews as a guide. The disparity between the statistics obtained on Author X, when compared to the other authors on the chart render questionable the reliability of Author X’s statistics as a means of judging actual quality. But they also underline the skill and effort exhibited by Author X in getting them. There is clearly a market for Author X’s product, but that does not mean we can use the author’s reviews to distinguish fast food from fine dining. We can’t use Amazon statistics to compare the author’s skill with others because the author is not playing by the same five-star rules.

Recently, I received a book from an author, to whom I’d given one of my books. There was no deal to review involved. I looked at the reviews on Amazon. There were thirteen reviews. Ten of them were five stars. One of the dissenting reviewers was suspicious of those fives and did his homework. He found that all of the five star reviews came from people who never reviewed a book before. This reviewer concluded, and I think with some credibility, they were not reviews at all but promotions, and they were worthless. That careful research was poison for this author.

I think the statistical analysis leads to an inference that Author X has stacked the review deck. And it’s not fair to authors who refrain from making express or implied attempts to influence reviewers. It’s like a drug-free athlete or student who is competing against someone using performance enhancing drugs. We all have books we’d like to sell too and there is no reason why it is not just as legitimate competition to throw a penalty flag on suspicious statistics as it is to sit silently and suffer the comparisons… or join in the new rules and do further damage to the credibility of the review system.

There are legitimate ways that an author can write reviews and obtain a marketing benefit. A well-written, clever, incisive review shows off the writing talents of the reviewer to many readers. Sometimes, readers either like or dislike a review enough to contact the reviewer. This provides an opportunity to engage with a reader that can be rewarding and can even sell a book or two. I think that is fair marketing.

When I was a boy a bunch of DJs were caught taking pay-offs from record company reps to play their label’s tunes on the air. It was called the Payola Scandal. Everyone knew it was wrong to promote songs and artists by bribing the folks who were responsible for getting the songs on the air. A secret quid pro quo, express or implied by the circumstances is no different.

So, I urge writers not to succumb to the “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine,” marketing temptation, whether with other authors, bloggers, or anyone who can gain a benefit from them giving you a good review. Whether your review is honest or not, it will always be legitimately suspect, and so will your reputation. My advice to the book-buying public is to be skeptical of five star reviews. And my advice to publishers is to remember that under this new sales paradigm, as far as third parties are concerned, your authors can be held to be your sales agents. You will have to take ownership of the tactics used that result in revenue to you from the sale of your books. Although lawsuits are probably not at stake, business reputations are.

Barry S. Willdorf

Friday, June 29, 2012


The Romney campaign committee just announced that the candidate was resting uncomfortably after hearing the news that the Supreme Court found President Obama’s healthcare bill constitutional. A committee spokesperson said that Romney was stricken with a case of scalia (a particularly virulent virus found in broccoli) just before appearing at a breakfast sponsored by the National Pork and Barrel Corporation. But he especially wanted to reassure the undecided voters of America, God bless it, a President Romney would get over it. 

Before keeling over into a bowl of grits, Mr. Romney was telling guests at his five-million-dollar-a-plate lunch: “With waiting rooms as crowded as they are for us now, this bill is guaranteed to double the time we spend at our doctor’s office. Now, my friends, no one’s more motivated to secure government medical coverage for myself, and my extended family, than I am. And once I get it, I’ll be able to honestly say I’ll worked for it. Worked every walnut-paneled dining room in every respectable club in America.  And that’s how you make it in America. Run! Work! And when you’re not doing either of those things, work it off running, like I’ve been doing! Just look at all the other people out there who are running twenty-four seven and in fifty places at once.  Follow their lead. Just because they’re corporations, and it may be ‘things’ they’re running, just the same, they’re really like you, they’re people. I’m sorry folks. You’ll have to excuse me but I’m feeling this attack of scalia coming on. It’s happened on and off, and on and off throughout this campaign. I’ve got to go. My wife’s horsing around, if you know what I mean. Horse prancing. Remember, the answer my friends is to run, and keep running.”

Thanks to the Writers Without Boredom “On The Spot”™ political team: Sal Manella, Neal Downs, Donna Ware, Stan Dare, Les Pleasant, Jess Nokitoff, Lucy Guzzi, Pete Sakes, Kent Hoyt, Ruth Lesse, Sue Happy, Mo Cash, and Lotta Luck.