A good stylist gets inside your head, too

B9317852014Z.1_20150627195556_000_G81B61LNM.1-0Don O’Connell has a serious issue with Charlie Brown’s friends. He is also, just for the record, not wild about any of the reindeer but Rudolph.

“They’re bullies,” he observed of most of the Peanuts characters. “They treat Charlie Brown horribly. The only one who likes him is Linus – and that kid has serious issues.”

O’Connell was sharing his feelings with me the other day while cutting my hair. He owns O’M, the hair salon on the corner of St. Paul and King Street in Burlington, Vermont with his wife, Serena Magnan. When you have as little hair as I do, it’s really important to get it cut at a place as stylish as O’M and by a serious talent like O’Connell. A drive-in movie could use my forehead as a screen; I need all the help I can get.

“And Rudolph?” O’Connell went on that day, referring to the classic, stop-motion TV adaptation from 1964, “Don’t get me started. His only friend is a dentist. The world is so nasty that they put the misfits on an island. An island! And why do the reindeer treat him like dirt? Because he has a shiny nose. That’s it!”

I think any barber, stylist, or hairdresser needs to be a little eccentric. Sure, you want a professional. But you also want an edge. And O’Connell is perfect for me. I’ve known him for years though the theater community in Vermont: the Lyric Theatre and the Stowe Theatre Guild. Many of you have seen him as Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls” (his cool façade), Seymour Krelborn in “Little Shop of Horrors” (his inner nerd), and Captain Hook in “Peter Pan” (his food for the crocodiles side).

I have no idea how O’Connell and I got around to animated and claymation bullies this summer, but I’m glad we did. It wasn’t simply that his monologue – which in a wonderful, Jon Stewart sort of way, bordered on rant – was funny; it was that it was really smart and touched so much in my own childhood.

Now, I was never bullied. I was fortunate in that regard. But my family moved a lot, and I was often the new kid on the block. At one point in my life, I attended five schools in six years in three states. I think that is one of the reasons why I wound up a writer: I spent a lot of my youth as an observer, trying to understand the social mores of new and different worlds.

But I did love Peanuts from an early age. After my mother dropped off my older brother at his weekly drum lesson, she would bring me to a nearby bookstore where she would spend 35 or 40 cents on a Fawcett Crest Peanuts paperback for me: “Very Funny, Charlie Brown” or “You’re a pal, Snoopy!” I loved Peanuts for the same reason that so many generations have loved the cartoon: Charlie Brown is among the most wistful characters ever created. He’s not a complete sad sack, despite his baseball team’s won-lost record; he’s actually rather competent. But the stars seem aligned against him. Charles Schulz rarely wrote a cartoon meant to elicit a belly laugh; rather he leaves us smiling ever so slightly in recognition at the emotional brutality, heartache, and defeat that loom large in all of our lives. I was, I have a feeling, a pretty melancholy kid.

And that’s probably why it’s good to confront my receding airline with a guy like Don O’Connell. Sure, we talk about his acting and my writing. We talk about our pets. But we also get to the issues that really matter, and we approach them the way a lot of guys do: at the edges. Through popular culture and sports and the memes that link generations.

The fact is, good barbers, stylists, and hairdressers don’t simply know their clients’ scalps; they know their heads, too – inside and out.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on June 28, 2015. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published last month.)

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Does Father really know best? Let’s see.

We all remember “Father Knows Best.” Okay, almost no one does, except for my late father’s friends in South Florida. Actually, even they don’t remember it anymore. But at least they did once. When Eisenhower was president.

In any case, the show revolved around the Anderson family, and the paterfamilias — played by Robert Young — would often dole out wisdom and counsel. In the interest of seeing if fathers really do know best, I asked readers on Facebook to share with me the best advice their dads ever gave them. Here are some of their responses.

•Karen Fronterotta: “Good girls are home by 1 a.m. Be home by 12:55.”

• Megan Estey Butterfield: “The best advice my dad gave me (and generations of Sunday school students)? Before you say something, ask yourself: ‘Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?’ If it doesn’t meet at least two of those criteria, stay quiet.”

•Susan Kahn Porschen: “My father has always told me that anything boys can do, girls can do better. Except pee standing up.”

• Lisa Marie Fellinger: “Don’t date boys, date men. I thought he was crazy at the time — I was about 12 or 13 years old — but it makes so much sense now!”

•Amy Lynn Lyndaker: “Do things for your kids because you love them and want them to be happy, not because you want them to thank you. Seeing your kids happy is thanks enough.”

•Nairi Megrabian: “There was an especially difficult break-up I went through in college. When my dad noticed that I was depressed, he drew on all the life experience he’d had moving from country to country: ‘You can’t drag a skeleton with you through life.’”

• Amanda Bolduc: “My dad doesn’t give advice; he lives it. When you drive around the entire month of October with a thousand-pound pumpkin on the roof of your truck, it’s very clear that making others smile and bringing joy to the world is a good thing.”

• Eileen Brunetto: “I dropped my baby son off at my parents’ house to go to an appointment. I began giving my father instructions in case fussiness ensued. He said, ‘Relax, we can take care of it. Besides, where’s he gonna go? What can he do? He doesn’t scare me.’”

• Helen Pantuso: “My dad insisted that I take a typing class in high school. I thought typing was just for secretaries and I was going to college. (Keep in mind this was the 1970s – well before computers). But Dad said I would be surprised how often it would come in handy, and how typing would be important in the future. Obviously he was right. He passed away in the middle of my freshman year in high school, so he never saw the advent of computers. But this simple piece of practical advice has literally been a gift I’ve been able to carry with me every day since.”

• David Reed Wood: “How about two words? ‘Do it!’ My father had this over his office door on a little business card. He said often we waste too much time sitting and wishing.”

•Jennifer Swift Wilson: “Money is just grease. It does not make one person better than another, but it does make life a little easier.”

• Deborah Spofford Churchill: “Learn to drive a standard. That way you won’t ever be stuck somewhere because you can’t drive a vehicle.’”

•Sherry Kaufman Wilk: “We grew up in New York City. I was sandwiched between two brothers. ‘Button your neck!’ my father shouted as each of us slammed the door that led to the alley and our freedom. It was my father’s mantra. My brothers and I always teased each other with that advice throughout early adulthood when saying goodbye on the phone or after a family visit. We all lived in Florida by then, but ‘button your neck’ meant more than keep warm. Its inner meaning was, ‘I love you, take care of yourself, watch out for strangers, and come home in one piece.’”

Speaking as a father, we don’t always know best. But every once in a while we get it right.

Happy Father’s Day.

(This column appeared originality in the Burlington Free Press on June 21, 2015.)

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‘Jaws’ turns 40. Time to go for a swim.

B9317693700Z.1_20150611135612_000_G7IB24GT9.1-0Earlier this month I gave a speech on Cape Cod, and I was struck by how much the elbow of the peninsula has fallen in love with the great white shark. In Chatham, there was a display of wooden sharks painted and designed by area artists on Main Street: “Sharks in the Park.” Signs along the sand in nearby Nauset Beach in Orleans had colorful renderings of the beast, often beside warnings not to swim near the seals since sharks feed on them. And this month Chatham opened its official Shark Center.

Once upon a time, this strategy might have been viewed as the Ford Edsel or Bic Underwear of tourism Big Ideas. We’re talking serious tourism suicide. After all, people don’t line up to swim with the sharks the way we do to swim with the dolphins.

The truth is, anyone my age or older started to view the seashore a little differently 40 years ago this summer. Why? A young woman stripped off her clothes as she ran toward the surf on a magnificent, moonlit summer night, and was devoured a few moments later by a great white shark. That summer we all watched a human head roll into the water from a hole in the bottom of a small fishing boat. And we’ll never forget a police chief remarking — his voice somewhere between scared and stunned — “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

And, of course, we all knew the music, the inexorable E and F from the tuba as the massive killing machine swam toward its prey.

I am referring, of course, to “Jaws.” The movie was a phenomenon, a summer blockbuster before there really was such a thing, and among director Steven Spielberg’s earliest feature films.

The movie is about a resort town convinced that the presence of a shark is going to destroy its summer tourism season — and so the very last thing they want to do is remind people that there is a thing in the water with 300 teeth and a willingness to eat anything in its path. So, are towns such as Chatham and Orleans studies in irony or examples of savvy tourism marketing? Clearly the latter.

Lisa Franz, executive director of the Chatham Chamber of Commerce, told me there were a few naysayers when the idea first emerged to acknowledge that — Surprise! — the Atlantic Ocean has sharks. This was six years ago. She admitted that she herself was a little wary of the water after seeing the film for the first time when she was younger. “Now it seems kind of silly,” she says. “People get such enjoyment out of the movie.”

I was in middle school in the midst of the original “Jaws” phenomenon and my family had recently moved from a suburb of New York City to a suburb of Miami, Florida. It was in a period when I went to four schools in four years (and, eventually, five schools in six). One result of being the new kid on the block was the amount of time I spent reading, often at the Hialeah-Miami Lakes Public Library. As a novelist, I owe those shelves an incalculable debt. And among the books I consumed as relentlessly as a shark was Peter Benchley’s novel, “Jaws.”

I saw the movie twice in the summer of 1975, once soon after my family and I witnessed some fishermen on Islamorada — one of the Florida Keys — bringing onto the dock a pair of lemon sharks that were considerably bigger than my father.

The movie remains one of those films that has stood the test of time, even if the mechanical shark could have used the sort of computer enhancement that we now take for granted. But we can all see the movie again on the big screen a week from today. (Here in northern Vermont, it will be playing at the Palace 9 in South Burlington.)

And if you can’t see the movie there? Head to Chatham. It’s a terrific town with great faith in the great white. Visit the Shark Center. Wave at — but don’t swim near — the seals.

The traditional gift for a 40th anniversary is a ruby. Yup, a precious stone the color of blood. Perfect. Happy Anniversary, “Jaws.” See you on the screen — because heaven knows I have no desire to see you in the surf.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on June 14, 2015. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” is now out in paperback.)


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The Writing Process That Led to ‘Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands’

22377329368478653_xak32DRt_fI rarely have the slightest idea where my books are going. That’s not a confession, it’s simply a reality.

I don’t work from an outline. I don’t know the last sentence when I write the first sentence, a prerequisite for John Irving — a novelist whose work I revere. And I don’t create maps or interior designs for the homes of my fictional characters, the way Sinclair Lewis did. (Lewis is another writer whose novels have inspired me, especially Main Street.)

When I embark upon a novel, I know two things. I have a vague premise of what the novel will be about: a German family’s complicity in the Holocaust (Skeletons at the Feast), for example, or a young college professor’s gender reassignment surgery (Trans-Sister Radio). And I know the voice. I know whether it will be a more traditional, Henry Jamesian third-person novel or a first-person story with a contemporary narrator. (It’s also worth noting that one of my novels has long stretches in the second person, and some of my novels have had multiple first-person narrators.)

When I began Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, I had my vague premise: a teen girl in serious trouble after a cataclysmic meltdown at a nuclear plant. And I had my voice: 17-year-old Emily Shepard. But I had no idea what her journey would be. And so I did what I have done with my other narrators: I let Emily take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story. I began with no outline and no expectations. I sat down before my computer every morning around 6 a.m., as I have with most of my books, with nothing more than my faith in cause and effect: what is likely to happen and what is Emily likely to do.

I think this is why I love being a novelist. I’m as surprised by what occurs as, I hope, my readers are. When I started the novel, I never anticipated she would take a runaway foster child under her wing. I feared her drug abuse would lead to heroin. I wasn’t sure who among her friends she could trust.

My typical writing day for Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands was similar to my writing days for most of my professional life. Usually, I begin the way Ernest Hemingway recommended: I rewrite what I wrote the day before. Not only does this improve yesterday’s writing, it acts as a runway — imagine a plane gathering speed and lifting off — and gives me momentum.

The reality of working without an outline is that it results in massive amounts of rewriting. Every 40 or 50 pages, I print out the manuscript and edit it by hand. I edit with a fountain pen because fountain pens can be messy, so I think more slowly: I’m more likely to find the right synonym, the accurate simile, or the precise line of dialogue that way.

I usually stop writing around lunchtime, with a goal of producing 750 to 1,000 words. A lot of them, I know, will never make it into my final draft. And while I am usually not writing in the afternoon, I am often doing the research that my books demand. In this case, that meant learning about how a homeless teen survives on the street in northern New England, nuclear power, and Emily Dickinson. Whenever possible, I interview people. I talk to them; I ask questions that will add authenticity to the book.

In addition, six or seven months a year I’m solving problems in the afternoon while biking. I bike thousands of miles in the relatively brief Vermont cycling season, most of them alone — except for the characters in whatever book I’m writing. And one summer, my company was Emily Shepard. I would stop and punch in notes about her and her friends on my iPhone. Occasionally, I wrote whole scenes on my phone, such as the moment when Emily turns 17 and retreats into a shopping mall bathroom stall and…

Well, it’s in the book. Far be it from me to send into the world my own spoilers.

Next week? The aftermath. The postpartum sadness I experience whenever I finish a novel.

(The paperback of Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands was just published.)

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After 821,000 words, it’s time to get up from the chair

BYZS7RcCMAAT6tF.jpg-largeNeil Gaiman says, “This is how you do it; you sit down at the keyboard and put one word after another until it’s done.” Dorothy Parker caustically (but accurately) observed that “writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.” And Stephen King recommends “butt glue” — or “gluing your butt to the chair in front of the computer and not getting up until you’ve written something.”

I spend a lot of my life with my seat in the seat. Most writers do.

In theory, that means I am at an elevated risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, despite the reality that I also get a lot of exercise. A recent study suggests that I can dial down the risks to my health — this occupational hazard called sitting — if I get up and walk around for a few minutes each hour.

In any case, the result of all that time with my seat in the seat has been 17 published novels, two unpublished ones, a great many magazine articles, lots of book reviews, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,210 weekly columns for this newspaper. (And that doesn’t count the monthly business column I wrote from 1988 through 1993.) I wrote my first column for what at the time was the living section of the Burlington Free Press in February 1992. It would officially become Idyll Banter a few years later, a title I gave the column because I liked the pun: I loved Vermont and the idyllic life I had found in a rural corner of Addison County. Since then, I have written the column every single Sunday but three.

How many words is 1,210 columns? Roughly 821,000. That’s the equivalent of eight novels. Some of those columns have been better than others. A lot better. But it was always a privilege and a blessing to try and find the universal relevancy in the idiosyncrasies of my family and my community and the Green Mountains we share.

Has it gotten harder lately? Yes. Not because I love my world any less, but because I don’t want to cover the same material over and over. Twenty-three years has meant, for instance, 23 Mother’s Days. Twenty-three Thanksgivings. Twenty-three Christmas mornings. Moreover, some of my best material has died: my father. My mother. My mother-in-law. Seven cats. Our hermit crabs. Close friends. Eccentric neighbors.

How long is 23-plus years? As I noted the other day, my daughter grew up as I wrote Idyll Banter. She was born after I started. She can now legally order a mojito.

And so while I have loved all of those moments with my seat in the seat, it’s time to get up and walk around. Spend a little less time in my chair. Give someone else a chance to — and here I am paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway — open that vein and share something meaningful.

My last column will be Labor Day weekend. I want to end on the word “labor,” because this has always been a labor of love. It really has.

Moreover, as I wind down, expect to see a few reruns this summer. (Two of the three times I did not have a new column in this space, my editor called it a “Best of.” I won’t be so presumptuous.) My hope after Labor Day is that I will still file a column now and then.

In any case, I thought I would let you know. You are the reason I do this, and so I didn’t want it to be a surprise. In the meantime? Still here. See you around our beloved 802.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on June 7, 2015. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” was published last month.)


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Clothes really do make the man

IMG_9450The week before last I was in Manhattan and emerged alone on a Friday night from the subway station in Union Square. It was a little before eight. Instantly three young men surrounded me in desperate need of help: They said they had left their phones on the train in from New Jersey and were lost without their map app. They were trying to find a small venue nearby where they had tickets for a concert, but couldn’t find Irving Place. I pointed out to them that the address was on the other side of the park. (I didn’t inquire how all three of them had managed to lose their phones, because I was a teenager once. At that age, I could have lost a moose in a petting zoo.)

Then a German couple asked me how to get to Herald Square from where we were standing. I told them.

Finally, four-fifths of a family of five was in the city for their son’s college graduation, and were meeting him at the Strand Bookstore. I pointed them toward Broadway.

This all happened in well under 90 seconds. Why was I the go-to guy in that corner of Union Square? Because I was wearing a crisp black suit and I was alone. In other words, I looked competent and they would be troubling only a single individual.

On the other hand, when I’m home in Vermont, I often look like the person you cross the street to avoid. I am rarely dressed up. I might start work at 6 in the morning, but I don’t climb out of the pajama bottoms and hoodie in which I write until close to noon. Some days, I don’t bother to shave. My hair looks like Christopher Lloyd’s in “Back to the Future.” And in the afternoons, I am wearing ripped jeans or bike shorts most of the time. Yup, my wife is one lucky lady.

When I travel for work, however, I’m a pretty smart dresser. Part of the reason I always wear a suit and tie when I speak is out of deference to my audience and readers. If someone is going to give me some of their time, either by reading my work or listening to me speak, then I am going to show them some respect in return by dressing up.

There is actually a term for this: “enclothed cognition,” or the influence that clothing has on how we think about ourselves. In other words, the black suit didn’t just make me look competent to others because it was well tailored. It may have led me to conduct myself a little differently and project a more confident vibe.

Years ago, when I was working for an ad agency in Burlington, we brought in a consultant to help us with new business. He was a big guy with a big presence who encouraged us always to dress “one click above” anyone we were approaching. (Just for the record, we were never to dress “two clicks above,” because then we would look like overdressed morons.) He was, I have come to realize, a pretty astute psychologist. He wanted us to grow into the persona of our clothing.

So, does this mean that I should start dressing up to write in the morning? Maybe. But it’s not happening, and there are at least two reasons why:

1) My cats are my only company when I write, and it’s hard to dress one click above a cat.

2) I don’t want to mess with my formula. Dressing up to write alone in my library might be my New Coke moment. New Coke was the disastrous reformulation of Coca-Cola in 1985 that was soon discontinued.

In any case, the next time you see me around the 802 in bike shorts, tattered jeans, or a hoodie with coffee stains, feel free to ask me directions. I may not be as competent as that guy in the black suit, but chances are I can still point you in the right direction.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on May 31, 2015. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” went on sale this past week.)

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Thank you, Grace Experience, for living up to your name


The first time my daughter, Grace Experience, appeared in this column, she was in utero: it was Mother’s Day, 1993. How long ago was 1993? Most of us weren’t sending email. (Most of us didn’t know what email was.) Bill Clinton was in his first year in the White House. I had hair — and not just in my ears, but actually above them.

The other day Grace graduated from college. (Technically, she finished in December.) She’s a working actor, performing in New York and — this summer — in Pennsylvania.

So, does this mean that my wife’s and my work is done? We can wash our hands and take a victory lap that we didn’t raise a girl who ran off to join “The Bachelor,” “The Bachelorette,” or any reality TV show involving spray tans and hot tubs?

Probably not. I think I was a work in progress for my own parents until I was much older than 21. Besides, just because a person’s a grownup doesn’t mean a columnist has to stop using him or her to fill the rapacious maw that is a daily newspaper. Good Lord, I am still shamelessly exploiting my adult neighbors. But there were some Sundays in the mid-1990s when my column lived or died on my daughter’s diapers or her obsession with “The Wizard of Oz.” I chronicled her encounters with Santa Claus, Minnie Mouse, and a tall, blond woman named Barbie she met when she was in kindergarten — a person Grace honestly believed was the human model for the Barbie Doll.

When I look back on the last 21 years, I know in my heart that my favorite roles I have had in this world are dad and husband. Back in 2010, I wrote an essay for a book called “What I Would Tell Her,” a series of letters filled with advice that dads were asked to write to their daughters. I thought long and hard about my contribution to that book. Some of my counsel was serious. Some less so. Among my suggestions? I advised against wearing four-inch heels around Soho unless it was absolutely necessary. I reminded my daughter that food is love, especially if it’s fresh food involving good bread, finely chopped tomatoes, and extra virgin olive oil. And I encouraged her to minimize her regrets, which meant minimizing her tattoos.

My sense is that parents always find reasons to worry about our children. We give up the role of nurturer slowly, painfully, perhaps even grudgingly. My father used to meet my family at the airport in Florida when we would visit, and try and wrangle our suitcases from us well into his seventies. My mother-in-law used to greet my family when we would visit her in Manhattan with our favorite dinner until she died; she would make sure there was always cream for my coffee.

Two weeks ago, on Mother’s Day, I gave a shout-out to my lovely bride and her wonderful work as a mom. So, today I want to celebrate our daughter. Some people wonder about the origins of our daughter’s name, especially her middle name. The short answer is that both “Grace” and “Experience” are family names, and we liked the phonetics. It made us smile because it sounded so crazily counter-culture. Think hippie.

But then something happened at Grace’s christening. Before the church service, a member of our congregation, Ruth Coyle, was holding our daughter in her arms. “Oh, Grace Experience,” she said, “your parents were so wise giving you this name. Grace: the gift we are all given at birth. And Experience? That which you will earn every day of your life.”

My wife and I looked at each other. Wise? We thought we were being glib. But Ruth had poignantly articulated the power and the poignancy and the resonance of our daughter’s name.

So, Grace Experience, thank you. Thank you for being you. We are so grateful for the heaping dollops of happiness you have brought into our lives every single day. And we are so proud of the beautiful woman you have become, inside and out.

Congratulations on this latest steppingstone. And thank you for always living up to your name.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on May 24, 2015. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives on Tuesday. Grace Experience was the audiobook narrator.)

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