This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Your Santa Cruz Warriors

            Last year the NBA’s Golden State Warriors decided to start a D-League team in Santa Cruz, our county seat. Although this area has a reputation for not getting things done, the powers that be were able to approve a modular basketball arena (capacity around 2,600) for the team, and it started playing in November 2012.
            We never got to a game that first season, but with our son Nick coming home from the Army for Christmas, I suggested a Warriors game as a family activity and actually got everybody to agree. So that’s how, this past Sunday night, we were at Kaiser Permanente Arena at 6 p.m. for tipoffs of the game between the Santa Cruz Warriors and the Idaho Stampede.
            During my misspent youth I spent a lot of time playing basketball, mostly playground and gym pickup games. I was probably the 35th best player at our high school, and since only the top 12 make varsity, was out of the picture. But I still love the game and was looking forward to checking out the new local team.

Watch Out for the Little Guy

            The arena being small, all the seats were pretty good. We had tickets in the tenth row up from the floor, a bit off midcourt and could see everything pretty well. During warmups, I noticed that Santa Cruz had a player who was way shorter than everybody else and made a mental note to keep an eye on him. If you’re on the roster at that size, you must have something on the ball.
            His name was Kiwi Gardner, and he’s officially listed at 5-7, though I have my doubts. He played college ball at Providence (almost everyone on the roster was in a pretty good college program), but didn’t come into the game until the second quarter.
            When he did get in, he quickly made his mark. He handled the ball well, drove fearlessly through the tall trees, and tied with another player as the team’s leading scorer with 19 points.
            On one play, he trailed an Idaho player several inches taller on a fast break, then went over the guy’s shoulder to block his shot, touching nothing but ball with his hand. Unfortunately, he had to jump so high, he kneed the fellow in the shoulders and got called for a foul, but even so, it takes a real athlete to make that play.

Halfcourt Shots and Dancing Kids

            Both teams were shooting cold and missed a number of shots on good looks, so the final was 95-91, Santa Cruz. At the end of the third quarter, an Idaho player threw up a prayer from the sideline near the top of his team’s key and it caught nothing but net. It didn’t influence the outcome, but might have covered the spread. I didn’t check.
            They played 48 minutes, just like the NBA, and got the game done in a crisp two hours and 15 minutes. There were no TV timeouts, but during breaks there were midcourt activities sponsored by local businesses. Festivities included a break-dancing competition between kids 5-10, a chance to win a thousand dollars by sinking a half-court shot (not even close), a pizza-dough tossing exhibition, and an event sponsored by a local bank, in which a blindfolded kid got 30 seconds to scoop up as many dollar bills as he could from a bagful strewn on the floor.
            All in all it was pretty good basketball with some wholesome, corny fun during the interludes. At $35 a ticket, I’d rate it a good value and wouldn’t be averse to going back again.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Harold Stuiber, 1922-2013

            When World War II ended and my dad left the Navy, he decided to take one more stab at making it as an actor in Southern California. He went back to the Pasadena Playhouse, which groomed such famous stars as Raymond Burr, and was doing bit parts in the plays when he met a kid from Wisconsin who also wanted to be an actor.
            Harold Stuiber (pronounced STEE-burr) was 15 years younger than my dad at the time and so green he didn’t know how to drive a car. My father taught him and they became close friends for life. Harold ended up doing my dad a favor for which I will be forever grateful.
            At the time there were three women — two sisters from Idaho and an older friend — who were working at Huntington Memorial Hospital and sharing an apartment. Harold got serious about one of the sisters and thought that perhaps her older friend would be a good fit for his older friend. He arranged an introduction, which was how my father met my mother.

Intertwined Lives

            My parents got married in May of 1949, not long after Harold and Virginia, and Harold was Best Man at the wedding. The other sister, Patty, married a man named Walt Brecha (BRECK-uh) around the same time. My dad and Harold gave up their acting careers and both did pretty well in business. Harold became a textile salesman and kept some of his clients well into his eighties.
            I grew up with the Stuibers and Brechas and their kids a constant presence. Harold was my godfather, and I recall that he felt it incumbent upon him to teach me the value of a firm handshake. He was the first person I knew who owned and drove a Volkswagen. Like most salesmen, he was a great talker — funny, tolerant and well read, with opinions and observations that were always worth listening to. He was a liberal and my father was a conservative, but politics never came between them.
 In 1980, when my father was diagnosed with cancer, Harold began coming over every Sunday night without fail. He did that for a year and a half, until my father finally succumbed to the disease. Harold told me more than once that my dad was the dearest friend he’d had in his life.

The Unanswered Phone

After my mother moved away from Southern California, I rarely saw Harold, but we talked on the phone from time to time, and I think we both enjoyed the conversations. On Sunday I called him for the first time in a few months to wish him a merry Christmas. Nobody answered the phone, but even at 91, Harold was busy so I didn’t worry.
A few hours later his daughter, Lisa, called to say Harold had died that morning of complications from a pacemaker replacement. Despite his age and the fact he’d had a great life, the news hit me hard. It was a double whammy. I felt the loss not only of the man himself, but also of the end of the most powerful living connection to my parents, both of whom have been gone for years.
Lisa and I talked for a while, and toward the end of the conversation she said something that reminded me of the Mad Men days of the fifties and sixties, in which we had both grown up.
“I’d like to think Dad’s in heaven now,” she said, “having a martini with your dad and Walt and catching up on old times.” I hope so, too.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Croatian Telegraph

            When I got hired a year and a half ago to write a family history that eventually came to be called, The Borina Family of Watsonville, there weren’t many expectations about how well it would sell.
The last of the Borinas (at least in the line I was writing about) died in 2000, and the attorney who was mostly administering the family foundation they left behind thought it would be fitting to get the story captured, to the extent possible after all this time. In fact, I recall his saying at the beginning that we’d probably need only a few copies for libraries and archives.
I thought it might have a bit more appeal than that. After all, it was a great rags-to-riches story, in which a Croatian immigrant rides into town at the dawn of the Twentieth Century, makes a huge fortune as an apple grower and shipper, and raises two daughters who were independent professional women long before that became the norm. One of them was the first female district attorney in the history of California.

A Good Story Long Forgotten

The more I worked on it, the more I felt it was a good story, but since most people locally, where it took place, knew next to nothing about it, how well could it sell? Sad to say there isn’t always a direct correlation between the quality of the story and its sales.
So when it was finally ready to go to the printer, the Foundation ordered a hundred copies. They arrived just before Thanksgiving, and I got them out into the three main local bookstores. We got out a press release, talked to the two major local papers, and held our collective breath.
At this point I should probably explain that in Santa Cruz County, and specifically in Watsonville, there is a significant Croatian-American population, most descended from people who came to America in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. The collective story of their migration and pre-eminence in California’s apple-growing industry was wonderfully told by Donna Mekis and Kathryn Mekis Miller in their book, Blossoms Into Gold.

Christmas Present? Who’d Have Thought?

The first news story came out Saturday and the second yesterday. Already, it seems, the Croatian telegraph had been humming and word was getting out about the book. The bookstore in Watsonville sold out in three days and the store in Santa Cruz ordered extra copies.
One of the county’s judges heard about the book and rushed out to buy a copy to see what it said about the female DA. And although the Borinas are gone, the maternal line, the Secondo family, is still quite large and they bought copies. The owner of the Watsonville bookstore told me that some people were buying multiple copies to give as Christmas presents.
In the few days the book has been out, I’ve already received some emails from people telling me how much they enjoyed it. One was from the granddaughter of the sister of the woman who became Mrs. Borina, who said she knew many of the people in the book and was glad to see their story in print.
A second printing has been ordered, and I’m looking forward to this Saturday, when I’ll be doing a book-signing at Crossroads Books in Watsonville. I’ll undoubtedly be told I got some things wrong and left some things out, but that’s all right. The book clearly touched a nerve with people who felt that, even though it wasn’t specifically about them, it told their story. You can’t beat a personal connection like that.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Race to the Finish

            One of the things about reading a mystery novel is that the closer to the end you get, the faster it goes. It might take two hours to read the first hundred pages, but only one hour to read the last seventy-five.
            That has a lot to do with the inherent nature of storytelling. In the first hundred pages of the book, the reader is still getting the lay of the land. That involves processing a lot of stuff, from understanding the physical setting of the book to getting the characters sorted out. There have been some mysteries where even after two hundred pages, I was still scratching my head over whether Neville was the duke’s brother or prospective son-in-law.
            The closer the reader gets to the last page, the less of an issue that is. By then the reader knows who’s who and what’s what, and the story is galloping to a finish. If the reader has made it that far, almost every mystery is a page-turner at that point.

The Author Feels the Pain

            Much of what the reader goes through in reading the book, the author experiences as well in the writing of it. From my own experience, I would say that writing a novel is like running a marathon. There’s the rush of excitement at getting started, the long slog through a seemingly interminable middle, and the final burst of adrenalin at the race to the finish.
            When I wrote my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, I felt those three phases acutely. When I began writing, I had a deadline for finishing the first draft in my mind, and after the first two chapters, I figured I’d beat that deadline with no worries.
            Not so fast. The middle of the book proved to be rough, even excruciating, sledding. I began to see previously unplanned things I had to do to both build on what I’d already written and to set up what I had in mind for the finale. Halfway through the first draft, I was bogged down and realized there was no way I’d hit the deadline.
            Then a funny thing happened. As I got back to the last three chapters, the confidence returned, the fingers began flying over the keyboard, and I made up lost time, finishing at around five o’clock Christmas Eve, a week ahead of schedule.

Round Up the Usual Suspects

            I’m currently wrapping up the first draft of my next Quill Gordon mystery, and the pattern has repeated itself somewhat. Learning from past experience, I plotted out the book and the characters better this time, with the result that writing the middle was less of a quagmire.
            At the same time I was writing the middle of the mystery, I was finishing work on a nonfiction book of local history, on which there was considerable time pressure to publish this year. That slowed down the writing of the mystery, but once the history book was off to the printers in early October, I was able to devote my attention to the mystery, with gratifying results. The penultimate chapter was completed last night, a week and a half ahead of schedule.
            With the holidays coming and my business workload easing, I’ll be writing fast and furious the rest of the year. Allowing for revisions, formatting, and all the other minutiae of finishing a book, I’m hoping to have it published in the spring of 2014. The race to the finish is on, and it’s every bit as much fun as it was the last time around.