Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Recycle This Book

A while back, prolific and funny author Dan Gutman asked you to contribute to a book he was putting together. The subject was going green and saving the environment and stuff we all pretty much agree we better get to before it's too late. The book just came out and you asked Dan for some promotional info to stick in this blog, but he didn't have any so you guess you'll just post your contribution below.

First, I think it's important to put things in perspective. We're not the only animals who are messing up the Earth's atmosphere. Methane is a major green house gas that contributes to global warming. Here are the top three animal producers of that stuff:

1) Wood munching termites
2) Belching moose
3) Cattle that, er, well, "emit" a lot of methane gas from you know where.

The problem is, we can’t do very much about them. You can try, but termites won’t listen, cows are too busy chewing their cud, and you don’t really want to get within talking distance of a moose.

(That's Dan in energy-saving black and white)

On the other hand, we can do something about the greenhouse gases that we help create by using more energy than we need to. So here are three really simple things that I do:

1) Open windows. Weird, huh? But I'm amazed by how many people run air conditioners at night when the outside temperature has dipped into the lower 70s or upper 60s. I usually open two windows in two different rooms. In one room I have a fan facing out so that it blows out hot air, and pulls in cool night air through the other window.

2) Wear a sweater indoors in the winter, and a tee shirt in the summer. I know a lot of people who cool their houses to 68 degrees in the summer, and warm the same houses to 72 in the winter. Imagine how much energy we’d save if we did the opposite and kept our houses at 72 in the summer and 68 in the winter. I keep my house around 67 degrees in the winter, which is fine as long as I wear a sweater. In the summer it’s reasonably comfortable up to around 75 degrees.

3) Ride a bike. Yeah, yeah, I know, it's another no-brainer. But so simple. Whenever possible, I run local errands on my bike. Not when it's raining, and not when the temperature gets much below 60 degrees. But that's still a lot of days to save energy.

That's it. Just three simple suggestions. And they’re all easier than talking to a moose.

BIO STUFF: When he’s not writing, Todd Strasser conserves energy by doing as little as possible.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Tom Catches a Big One

You were down in Islamorada last week with your old friend Tom Hundley to fish with the Zen master fishing guide of the flats, Vic Gaspeny (both to the left). You’ve known Tom since you worked together as reporters at the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, New York. After a few years there, you departed on a circuitous route that would eventually lead to writing YA fiction. Tom took a more journalistic route, working for several other newspapers before becoming a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.

In the 18 years that followed, Tom, his wife Kathy, and eventually, their daughters, lived in Warsaw, Jerusalem, Rome and London, with Tom often gone for weeks at a time traveling around much of the Middle East and eastern Europe reporting on a variety of conflicts.

Tom is tall, thin and looks quite a bit like -- and has a similar disposition to -- the actor Harrison Ford. He is alternately funny, quiet, insightful, wry and self-deprecating (anyone interested can Google Tom Hundley AOL to see a video of him being interviewed). He was down in Islamorada primarily to fish, and secondarily to write a travel piece for the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine. You went along for the ride.

Tom didn’t fish back in Middletown, but a few years later, finding himself employed at the Detroit Free Press, took up flyfishing for trout in various northern Michigan streams. Since then he has fished whenever and wherever he could, including the American West, Scotland, and even Bosnia, where he was arrested by the Serbian militia and spent a night in jail while the authorities tried to figure out if he was a spy, and, if so, what secret information he could possibly gain access to while knee deep in a trout stream.

For years you’d urged Tom to try the salt-water version of the sport for bonefish down in the Florida Keys, and, even though you’ve pretty much given up fishing yourself, you jumped at the opportunity when he called and asked if you’d join him. It wasn’t so much that you had any real desire to fish as it was to accompany him on his first visit to the remarkable world of backcountry fishing and to introduce him to another funny, droll, self-deprecating person who just happens to be the most remarkable and talented fishing guide you’ve ever encountered, Vic Gaspeny.

(That's Tom in Iran in 1999 hanging out with the Ayatollah)

You first fished with Vic in the late 1980s. Unlike many fishing guides who are strictly 9-5 or 8-4, Vic generally goes out for only four hours a day, and almost always the best four hours for catching fish. Just before you and Tom arrived, Vic had gotten up at 2 a.m. for three nights in a row in order to take fishermen out from 3:30 to 7:30 a.m. to catch tarpon.

Catching a bonefish on a fly is sort of like flipping a coin and having it land on its edge. It’s been known to happen, but no one would be insane enough to count on it. On Tom’s first day of fishing things got off to a shaky start when he had difficulty adjusting to the heavier saltwater equipment and larger saltwater flies. Rather than try immediately to catch a bonefish, Vic thought it advisable to practice on some “easier” fish – speckled sea trout and ladyfish, with the odd lizard fish and jack crevalle tossed in for variety.

But then, with the sun nearing the end of its daily transit (prime bonefishing time) Vic suggested that Tom have a go at the main event.

Bonefish are among the more skittish and hypersensitive creatures in the ocean. The slightest sound – dropping a pair of sunglasses on the boat deck, or the heavy plop of flyline on water – will spook them. Even the vibration in the water caused by shifting one’s weight in the boat is enough to send a bone streaking away to the safety of deep water. Given Tom’s unfamiliarity with the equipment and with the sport in general, Vic was clearly doubtful that he could catch one.

The only advantage Tom had was based on the bonefish’s predilection for shrimp. To entice the fish within range of Tom’s casts, Vic would now and then fling “chum” – in this case a ladleful of chopped shrimp – about 40 feet from the boat. Tom would then cast his fly into the same area. As a result, he did get several “hits,” that is, moments where a bonefish, thinking the fly was a small and tasty crustacean, would pick it up in its mouth, only to discover that it was not food and spit it out. The trick in bonefishing is to hook the fish at the moment it picks up the fly and before it decides to spit it out.

After an hour, with the sun was starting to disappear behind a distant mangrove key, Vic began hinting that it was almost time to return to Bud n’ Mary’s marina. Suddenly Tom’s line went tight and the reel began to scream. Tom had hooked a fish, which now began to streak away at speeds that would make a jet skier blanche. There was no doubt that it was a bone. No other fish of that size is capable of running that hard and fast for that long.

Vic began to coach him – “Keep the rod bent. Keep the line tight” – but when the fish kept going farther than expected with no sign of slowing down, our guide had to make a quick decision. Tom’s reel was running low on line. If Vic didn’t do something fast, the fish would run off all the line and it would snap. “Hold on!” Vic grunted and started the boat. With Tom in the bow clutching the rod, and close to 150 yards of line now stretched between rod tip and fish, we took off in pursuit.

Any number of things can go wrong when flyfishing for bones. Not only is it close to impossible to hook one, but once hooked, a bone flees so fiercely that line can accidentally get wrapped around any available objects – arms, feet, bow cleats, coral – and break. Knots can unravel and let go, reels can jam, hooks can be flattened in the bonefish’s powerful jaws and spit out, and, most ignominiously, an opportunistic shark can happen upon the scene, in which case the bonefish becomes dinner.

With Vic steering the boat in pursuit of the fish, Tom cranked the reel, trying to regain as much line as possible. Meanwhile, the fish ended that first long run, but kept fighting. That was when Vic first suggested – in his typically understated way – that this fish might be “large.”

Another five minutes – perhaps more – passed while Tom continued to play the bone. The fish repeatedly tried to flee, and Tom gamely hung on and reeled back line whenever the bone paused to rest. Finally we saw the fish in the aqua-blue water, and, just as Vic had predicted, it was big. Moments later, netted and weighing in at more than 11 pounds, photos were quickly shot and the fish released. Vic said it was the largest he had seen in many years. Larger than many bonefishermen catch in their entire lifetime.

And to think it was not only Tom’s first bonefish, but his first time trying.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Bill Soiffer

Your second YA novel, Friends Till the End (published in 1981), was about a young man who is stricken by cancer. It was inspired by Bill Soiffer, whom you got to know while working at the Middletown Times Herald-Record in Middletown, NY. Later you both shared an apartment in New York City. As a reporter for the Bergan County Record, Bill would commute to New Jersey each day while you headed for Madison Avenue and the Compton Advertising Agency where you were supposed to write advertisements for Tide detergent, but spent most of your time writing fiction.

Bill was one of the funniest, and coolest, people you’ve ever known. He was always calm, composed, and insightful. It’s hard to recall him ever becoming upset or angry. He was easy-going, and good company, and you had many adventures together. He also introduced you to the music of people like Tom Waits and South Side Johnny.

One morning about a year after you’d started sharing the apartment, Bill woke up with swollen glands. His bed was drenched with sweat. That afternoon you went with him to his doctor, who sent him straight to the hospital for tests. (That's Bill, Susan Pfeffer, and you in New York City in the late 1970s).

A few days later the results came back. Bill had Hodgkin’s Disease, and began to undergo chemotherapy. His hair fell out, he lost weight, and every two weeks, after his treatment, he would be violently ill for several days. In its simplest terms, chemotherapy was poison. It was supposed to kill cancer cells, but it wasn’t exactly good for you.

During this almost barbaric treatment, Bill was superhumanly brave. You spent a lot of time with him while he was ill and never once did he complain, or get upset, or act scared. The thing that bothered him most was why he’d come down with that terrible disease in the first place.

About a year after Bill started the chemotherapy (and later, radiation) treatments, the doctors said he was in remission – there was no evidence of the disease in his body. Shortly after that, Bill applied for a reporting job on the San Francisco Chronicle. Even though he was still receiving follow-up treatments, had not fully recovered from his ordeal, and knew almost no one in California, Bill packed up his car and drove west. You never quite understood why he suddenly decided to move so far from friends and family. It might have had something to do with a long-term relationship that had recently ended. Or perhaps it was a sense of mortality heightened by his illness that inspired him to become adventurous. (Bill and you at his wedding in San Francisco).

Bill lived in California for roughly 13 years. He met a wonderful woman named Jacquie, who married him and helped take care of him when the disease returned again, and again, and again -- each time requiring a more extreme, and difficult to endure, treatment. Bill once told you that his doctors believed he was the most treated Hodgkin’s patient ever. Then, weakened by the cancer and its treatment, he developed an auto immune disease that attacked his nervous system and muscles, leaving him, for a time, almost unable to get out of bed.

The last time you saw Bill was in New York where he’d come to promote a book he’d written called Life in the Shadow, about his 14-year battle with Hodgkin’s Disease. You had brunch with him and Jacquie; he had difficulty walking and had to be helped up after sitting. Afterwards you helped him out to the street to get a cab. Just before Bill got into the cab, he turned to you and said, “Hug me, Todd.”

It was his way of saying good-bye.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Taos Part II

You are back from Taos, worn out and sick, but feeling enormously grateful for the experience. Already the trip stands out as a life adventure that you will never forget. Yesterday, flying back with Jed and Dave H., you wondered how it came to pass that 41 years after high school graduation, half a dozen friends from those bygone days (some of you even went to kindergarten together and have known each other for more than 50 years) could wind up sharing a condo at the base of the Taos ski area for a long weekend.

It wasn’t because you’d all kept in touch through the years. In fact, some of you had not seen or spoken to each other in decades. The catalytic event surely was your high school’s 50th anniversary a few years before that resulted in a dozen “mini reunions” held on the same weekend. But still, it must have taken something more than that one event to pull together this group of guys. (Dave Dachs went to Roslyn High, but no one holds that against him)

The answer, you suspect, lies in some “deeper” reasons – a love of skiing, a common past, a shared outlook. How else can one explain how this group of disparate individuals (well, perhaps not so disparate – of the six of you who shared the condo, two are dentists, two are businessmen, and two are writers) could ski, eat, share bedrooms, and laze around for nearly 90 hours of continuously enjoyed company?

(Kenny, Tom, Jed, and Dave hike the Highline Ridge in search of virgin powder)

(It should be noted that there were actually nine of you. David D. had a room in another establishment, but spent most of his time with the group. Kenny – surely the only photographer/cowboy/rancher the Wheatley School has ever produced – and Stevie share a house and ranch nearby).

Perhaps it might have been more easily understood had the group spent much of its time reminiscing about the old days. And while there was some of that, it was considerably less than one might expect.

Instead there was, as befits a group of aging weekend warriors, a fair amount of discussion regarding aches, pains, injuries old and new, and other matters of the body (posting a daily blog called “The Morning Bladder Report” was considered), as well as conversations regarding the economy, politics, parents, wives, children, siblings, and a great deal of time spent bemoaning the weather and resulting ski conditions.

(The front of Kenny's and Stevie's hacienda, which Kenny built himself with the help of friends.)

But underlying it all was a sense of camaraderie that, you suspect, could only be the result of having known each other for so long. The group felt a sense of familiarity and ease that – despite all the different paths you’d taken – was still there after all those years.

In many ways -- the ample amounts of laughter, the teasing and jokes – it was as if you were all still in high school. But beneath that was something more profound. Something that, sadly, can probably only come with time, aging, and a certain amount of heartbreak and sorrow. Truth be told, scattered through all the fun and joy last weekend were indeed a few moments of solemnity, melancholy, and even a few tears.

(The back of the hacienda. The large black "windows" are actually passive collectors of solar heat.)

Perhaps what made the weekend so poignant was what went unspoken -- that you've all reached a point where you know that life is more fragile, more random, and more arbitrary than any of you would like to admit. That no matter how hard you’d all worked to get to a place in life where you could jet out to New Mexico for a weekend, there’d been a certain amount of luck, serendipity, and good fortune that had come your way, too (begining with the fact that you'd all had the good fortune to grow up in an area called the Roslyn Country Club, and attend the Wheatley School). And that no matter how hard one tries to insulate oneself, life is always a roll of the dice.

As Anthony Lane so aptly put it, “We know, in the end, that a sense of security is always false.”

And because you all shared that common knowledge, the days and nights were imbued with a sense of caring, concern, and even protectiveness for each other. As if you were not just old friends, but survivors as well. So along with the goofy laughter came the knot in the stomach each time one of you did a face plant; the head count whenever the group stopped on the slope to catch its breath; the reminders each morning to take ones meds and stay hydrated.

As the saying goes, “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, the other, gold.” There may not be a lot of good news about growing older, but one bright spot is the depth of friendship, caring, and camaraderie that only time can bring. You are already thinking about next year’s ski reunion. And most importantly, you hope all the guys will be there.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Ski Reunion at Taos

More than 40 years ago eight young Long Island ski fanatics from the Wheatley School would pile onto Peak Ski Tour buses and go for day trips to Hunter or Bellaire Mountains. Often on that bus were Joel Blumenthal, Ken Gallard, Dave Hechler, Jed Berman, and you. If you went to Bellaire you were sure to run into Tom Glaser, David Dachs, and George Gettinger, who went up every weekend with their parents.

Later, when a few of your friends got their drivers licenses you would go for day trips with these guys, leaving at five in the morning, skiing all day and returning, exhausted, by eight or nine at night. And over winter vacations you and your buds would travel up to Stowe, Vt. and stay in a dorm in the attic of Mrs. LeMaire’s farmhouse for $3 a night (for an additional $1 you got a large, filling breakfast that often kept you going until dinner.)

One frequent topic of conversation was how great it would be someday to be ski bums somewhere out west and ski everyday in deep, light powder snow (you did see powder snow now and then in the east, but it was usually heavy and wet and was like skiing in wet cement).

During college you all got together to ski now and then, and after college, Ken, David D., and Joel did move out to Taos to live as ski bums.

Flash forward several decades to your 40th high school reunion. And there were Joel, Ken, Dave, Jed, Tom, David D., and George. Well, it wasn’t long before a plan was hatched. Ken had stayed in Taos and become a professional photographer and met Stevie Bass, so that was the logical destination (Ken knows everyone in town and was able to arrange for lodging and ski rentals).

And here you are, six of you in one condo (Ken and David D. join the group everyday to ski and each night to carouse). The skiing is great, but the best part is talking and laughing about the old days and everything since then.

(From right to left, David Dachs, Stevie Bass, David Hechler, You, Jed Berman, Joel Blumenthal, Ken Gallard, Tom Glaser.)

(All photos by Ken Gallard except group photo by George, who is below)

Monday, March 2, 2009


Until recently it seemed like everybody had too much to do everyday. This was our reward for having computers and cell phones and blackberries, etc. As an example, you recently dedicated two books to Conrad and Enzo* Scrivener, the sons of your friends Richard and A.J.

The first book you dedicated to them was Too Afraid to Scream, the third book in the Nighttime series. Then you promptly forgot you’d done that and dedicated Is That an Unlucky Leprechaun in Your Lunch to them.

The first dedication reads: “To Conrad and Enzo Scrivener” (Boring!!!!). The second dedication reads as follows: “Now that baseball has officially passed cricket, soccer, darts, rugby, and the Caber Toss** to become the most popular sport in all of Great Britain, this book is dedicated to two of Her Majesty’s most promising future homerun hitters, Conrad and Enzo Scrivener.”

Even though hardly anyone plays baseball in Great Britain, a few years ago, when you visited Richard and AJ in London, you brought Conrad and Enzo baseball mitts and balls. Your reasoning was that since no one in their country actually plays baseball, this would make Conrad and Enzo two of the coolest kids in all of Great Britain (actually, it would merely reconfirm their position as two of the coolest kids in all of Great Britain).

Once Conrad and Enzo master the art of baseball, they will be in the company of such other well-known historical European baseball players as Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and pitcher who threw a no-hitter for the Athens Angels in the seventh game of the 367 BC World Series against the Sparta Nosox, and Euripides, the Greek playwright, left fielder, and switch hitter on the Athens Angels.***

*Enzo got his name when Richard, at work, received a panicked phone call from the very pregnant A.J., who announced that she felt like she was going to give birth at any moment. Richard hopped into his Alfa Romero and raced home. Meanwhile, the emergency back-up friends and relatives who’d said they’d help get A.J. to the hospital could not be found, and Richard got mired in traffic. By the time he finally got home, AJ REALLY felt like she was going to give birth, which she eventually did, in the back seat of the Alfa Romero, in the hospital parking lot. The Alfa being an Italian car, they decided to name their son after the noted Italian car designer and speed demon, Enzo Ferrari.

**Seeing who can throw a telephone pole the farthest. No joke. This is a real sport over there. Those Brits really are a crazy bunch!

***He is not related to Euripides Pants and his brother Eusewidies Pants, who were both tailors.

Mr Bill says, “It’s a good thing he wasn’t born in a Yugo.”