Sunday, September 18, 2016
Not everything is about money
One of the many drawback of living in a capitalist society is we tend to view our endeavors through the lens of monetary profit and loss. And on that scale, going to Cleveland to do a book signing on my own dime was a bust. I spent $200 to fly out there, sold a dozen books, made maybe $10. Not a smart business plan.
But money is only one factor, and not always the most important one.
Add to the non-monetary side of the tally sheet the lovely lunch my friend Laura made when I arrived, one we enjoyed on her stone patio, surrounded by trees and gardens. Walking around my hometown, noting what had changed, and what hadn't. The hours of conversation with her and her husband Jim, my oldest friend. Sitting on their front porch Saturday morning, watching the rain pelt the streets of Berea, contented as a clam.
All profit, though not one that could show up on my tax returns.
I snapped the above photo in Barnes & Noble at 1 p.m., the starting time of my talk. It might sound odd, but I felt genuine relief, almost a thrill, at the little phalanx of six empty chairs -- such low expectations, and even those were unmet. You had to laugh, and I did. "What matters," I said to Jim and Laura, quoting Charles Bukowski from our book, "is how well you walk through the fire."
And people did show up shortly thereafter—that helped, I won't lie to you. Two classmates from high school. A friend from the synagogue I attended, Beth Israel. The sister-in-law of a Chicago friend. And strangers ... six, maybe eight. A mother and daughter. A women sent by a therapist colleague. A father who hurried in, a half hour late after the talk was done. He explained to me that his wife was following the Mary Worth comic strip, deep in an episode about addiction, and turned to the comic page, where the article about my signing happened to be. The coincidence rattled her.
"My wife said you were sent by God," he explained, in utter sincerity. Their son, 23, ravaged by addiction, driven from college. She dispatched him to get the book. I explained that the book is not a panacea, that it can't help anybody who isn't trying to to stay sober already, that people have to decide for themselves they are going to try to get better and maybe this could help give them perspective and insight.
"You might get more out of it than he does," I said. We talked for a long time, after my presentation. Then a set of parents stepped up with a similar story. The child beyond help. Looking for anything. We talked some more. They were so subdued, the bone-deep humility of the defeated.
So my visit might help them. And it certainly helped me. I went, not to turn a profit, not just to toss a rope to strangers, though I hoped to do that, but also because, as I tell young writers, if you don't care about your writing, no one will. Sure it's pointless. Still, I wanted to get a couple planes off the cratered runway and into the air to challenge wave after wave of the sky-darkening squadrons of obscurity, bombing my latest little literary vessel. I knew I could go to my hometown and the local paper would maybe carry something -- yes, it was vinegary and hastily-cobbled together, but prominently displayed, and it did get a few people there, including that kid's father. And 30 minutes on a big radio station. It was fun of spending a half hour talking to the smart, sensitive Alan Cox on WMMS -- a legendary radio station in Cleveland that I listened to religiously as a teenager. The resulting turn-out might have seemed paltry compared to the push behind it, but only if you consider touching a person or two paltry. I really don't. I had such a good time visiting my friends that I said my only mistake was scheduling a reading—I should have just come, hung out with them for a day and then gone home. "But you wouldn't have come without the reading," Jim said, and I realized he was right. The motive was commercial, but the benefits were purely spiritual. And who knows? Maybe someday, at another sparsely-attended reading, a man will step up and say, "You don't know me, but my parents met you at a book store in Cleveland in 2016, and mister, your book saved my life." That would be true treasure though, again, not in a monetary sense. Something that would enrich me even though it could never be spent.