Thursday, November 23, 2023

Happy Thanksgiving from Somewhere at Sea


“The night we met I knew I was going to marry Serena,” our ruddy-nosed tablemate said, looking lovingly at the tiny woman seated between us as she guzzled the fifth flute of champagne she had ordered in the 10 minutes since we had been shown to their table. “But I wasn’t looking forward to going home and telling that to my wife.’

My wife and I are on day five of a 12-day cruise from Lisbon to Florida.  Some of our friends think we’re crazy — they say they would lose their minds being confined to a ship that long — but on previous cruises, we’ve found we actually prefer the days “at sea” so here we are and so far, we’re having a swell time. Literally. The weather was perfect for the first four days but last night around dinnertime we entered choppy seas with swells of up to 15 feet, which are supposed to continue until tomorrow. Sunday morning we’ll dock in Bermuda for two days, then continue on to Ft. Lauderdale, arriving a week from today. 

The food is excellent, plentiful and available around the clock. I woke up hungry at 2 a.m. the first night out— I was still on Florida time — and considered taking advantage of the 24-hour room service but didn’t want to wake up my wife. 

There are, if we choose to avail ourselves of them, nonstop activities — multiple trivia games, “Name That Tune,” bridge, lectures, classes, bingo, mahjong, virtual golf, dance lessons and more. There is a nicely-equipped fitness center, a spa and a walking track around the top deck.

But the most entertaining part of this cruise, as is the case on every cruise we’ve taken — we aren’t sure if this is our seventh or eighth but it is most definitely the longest — is talking with our fellow passengers. 

To wit:

- The fashionably dressed seventy-ish woman from New Zealand who presides, from just after breakfast until at least 10 p.m. when the stage show ends, over the smoking section on deck nine near the pool where, every 15 minutes or so, an attendant, without asking, brings her a cold bottle of Stella. All the crew members seem to know her. Why she feels compelled to spend money on cruises when she could stay home and drink and smoke herself to death is beyond me, but she is an endless source of information about the crew and who’s doing what with whom. 

- The female half of a couple we met at Trivia who said she owes her life to Evita Peron. Her parents, who fled the Nazis, had settled in Peru where, in the late 1940s, the medical facilities were primitive. A Peruvian doctor told her pregnant mother he could either save her life but her baby would die, or vice versa, but no way he could save both. Our friend's grandmother, who had moved to Argentina, sent a letter to Evita, wife of the country’s president, begging her to arrange for her daughter to have the baby in an Argentine hospital where both would have better chances of survival. Evita took care of everything, and both the mother and baby  survived. Today, oddly enough, we attended a lecture on Broadway musicals of the 1970s and the presenter described “Evita” as the story of a despicable woman. Our new friend could have set him straight.

. Last night we were seated at a table for six with two other couples, including the aforementioned Robert and Serena. Before she became incoherent, Serena told me they spend four or five months a year cruising. They have earned diamond status in the cruise line’s loyalty program (excuse me, programme, they’re Canadian) which means they can book a regular cabin and, if one is available, get upgraded to a suite. Serena, we couldn’t help but note, clearly loves to drink, as does Robert but he holds his liquor better. Perhaps that’s why they are loyal to this particular cruise line — the drinks are included in the fare. They have been together for 47 years, same as us.

Robert said he was married with three children the night he met Serena. He went home and told his wife he was leaving her for his new love. The divorce was ugly and protracted. A few months after it was finalized, his ex-wife married his stepfather. And when Robert’s stepfather and ex-wife, now his step mother-in-law, had children of their own, those children became not only their half-siblings but half-uncles and -aunts of Robert’s children. 

“When my kids had to draw their family trees in school, it was really fucked up,” he said. 

Serena, as this story was unfolding, switched to Chardonnay and finally told the waiter to leave the bottle on the table which is against policy but, since he was having to refill her glass every two minutes, he didn’t object.  By the time dessert had arrived, she had ordered two glasses of port. When we saw them at the stage show after dinner, she had returned to champagne.

At lunch today we ran into to the other couple who had been at our table. They told us that after the stage show, Serena had tumbled down the grand staircase between the fifth floor and lobby, and had to be taken to the infirmary on the third floor where, amazingly, it was discovered she hadn’t broken any bones. All she had were a few bumps, bruises and scratches.

At that point Serena and Robert hurried past and waved at us with their free hands. His other hand was holding a glass of red wine, hers held a tall glass with a wedge of pineapple and a tropical umbrella on top.  We laughed and joked that perhaps they were going to the Friends of Bill W meeting — cruise lines always list a “Bill W” meeting on the daily schedule rather than call it what it actually is, an “AA”meeting    but we somehow doubted it. 

When we saw Robert and Serena later at Trivia they said they had been at a Blind Wine Tasting event which was a lot of fun and it’s too bad we hadn’t joined them.

A week to go. More people to meet. More stories. We’re having fun, and looking forward to our first Thanksgiving dinner at sea tonight, followed by a performance by an Irish magician. At his first show three nights ago, he picked me out of the audience to be his on-stage assistant and the butt of his jokes, but I didn’t mind.

This time we’ll know better than to sit on the front row.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

The story behind the story of "The Boy Who Said Baa"

My wife Judy’s children’s book, “The Boy Who Said Baa:A Christmas Story” was announced in early October. We hadn’t told friends and family members it was in the works because we wanted it to be a surprise. The response has been terrific, and Judy and her book have received some wonderful publicity and reviews. Many of you have asked why and how it was written, and how it came together. If you are interested, here’s the story behind the story. 

As Christmas 1988 approached, Judy and I were worried. 

Our first son, Ben, who was five, had been speaking in full sentences by the time he was 12 months old. 

But our second son, Stuart, at 30 months, had a vocabulary of only a few words. One was “Baa,” the word he, like so many babies learning to talk, had originally used when he wanted his bottle and was now using to describe almost everything. It didn’t help that his older brother was extremely verbose and, whenever Stuart tried to talk, Ben told us whatever he thought it was that Stuart wanted to say.

Our pediatrician referred us to a speech therapist who assured us that Stuart was perfectly healthy and normal except for his delayed speech. She said that, with therapy, he would most likely be fine. That was a relief but we remained worried.

Stuart’s inability to articulate what he wanted to say was frustrating for him and us. The result was frequent meltdowns that left him in tears and us on the edge.

A few weeks before Christmas, Ben appeared in a Nativity play in which a fellow shepherd hilariously tripped on his flowing robe and fell flat on his face. The next morning, Stuart was in full meltdown mode as I left for work. Judy says I wearily joked, “There once was a boy who could only say ‘Baa.’”  I don’t recall saying that — but do remember I was always grateful to escape the chaos and felt both guilty and relieved leaving her to deal with it.

Judy sat down at the kitchen table and wrote, in rhyming verse, a story that began, “There once was a boy who could only say ‘Baa’ “ about a speech-delayed little boy with a one-word vocabulary who saves a Nativity play gone awry. She showed it to me when I got home —- I loved it — and stuck it in a drawer. Over the years I reminded her that she really should try and get it published, but she had higher priorities, including raising two boys and running a household while juggling freelance writing assignments. 

Fast forward to early 2023 when the media started reporting that speech therapists are seeing a huge spike in the number of language-delayed children that need treatment. The reason for the increase? COVID-19. Because of the pandemic, kids who should have been learning verbal skills by interacting with other children and adults, were instead sequestered at home, unable to communicate with anyone other than their immediate family members, causing many of them to be slow to speak.

Sensing the timing was right, Judy dug out her story and we began shopping for a literary agent specializing in the children’s picture book genre (ages 3 to 8). We were discouraged to learn that most agents stated in their profiles that they 1) were looking for books about social issues, 2) wouldn’t represent books about religion (even though “Baa" isn’t Christian per se, much of the action takes place during a — horrors! —  Christmas pageant) and 3) wouldn’t even consider books written in rhyming verse. That was particularly baffling since Dr Seuss’ rhyming books, nearly 80 years after his first was published, are still at the top of the children’s best-seller list, and we knew, from having two sons and two grandchildren, that little kids love silly rhymes. After a few months of emails from agents saying her manuscript was beautifully written but not what they were looking for, we decided to publish the book ourselves, and created our own imprint, Old Wagon Books, named for the street we lived on when Stuart was a toddler.

We went online looking for children’s book illustrators and found the perfect one — Rosie Brooks, a London-based artist who has illustrated three previous children’s books including one celebrating King Charles’ coronation. It took six weeks of back and forth — Zoom calls and numerous emails — but the art was finally perfect. There were only a few hiccups along the way. Rosie, for instance drew the boy in his bedroom with a sink on the wall. Sinks are common in English bedrooms but not in American, so we asked her to lose the sink and she cheerfully complied. Rosie was lovely to work with — upbeat and happy. Her first name suits her perfectly.

Simultaneously, we started looking for a children’s book designer to combine Judy’s words and Rosie’s pictures and found him across the pond, too — in Wales. Ryan Webb was as helpful, talented, and accommodating as Rosie. How could anyone who creates children’s books for a living be anything but nice to work with?

The end-result exceeded our expectations. “The Boy Who Said Baa: A Christmas Story” is a 36-page Dr. Seuss-y silly, sweet and inspirational picture book about a child who is relegated to the unimportant role of a sheep in a Nativity play because the only word he can say is  (drumroll) …  “Baa.” Everything goes awry during the play. The only performance that comes off perfectly is the boy’s, whose “Baa” saves the day and reverberates around the world, bringing joy to all who hear it and giving him, for the first time, a sense of pride and self-worth. The words sing, the artwork is adorable (I hate that word but it’s appropriate in this case) — colorful and hilarious, tinged with poignancy on the part of the speech-challenged boy, until his triumph at the end,

The hard cover version is published by IngramSpark, a Tennessee-based on-demand printer that prints and drop ships books as they are ordered, eliminating the need to produce and warehouse copies we might be stuck with if they don’t sell. The paperback and Kindle versions are produced by Amazon kdp (Kindle Direct Publishing). All three versions are available through and the hardcovers can be ordered from just about any bookseller worldwide. Someone in Australia ordered one and, thanks to digital technology which enabled the print-ready files to be sent from Wales to Florida to Tennessee to Australia, it was printed in, and shipped from, IngramSpark’s facility down under. 

Will “The Boy Who Said Baa” become a best-selling kids’ book? As much as we hope it will, it probably won’t. With only a few exceptions (e.g. “Fifty Shades of Grey” which Baa most emphatically doesn’t resemble in any way), self-published books rarely reach the best-seller list. Traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores refuse to stock them (especially if they are produced by Amazon which they hate because it has pretty much put them out of business), and the New York-centric publishers, controlled by five major companies, retain a stranglehold on the industry, accepting scripts only from agents, most of whom have probably never read a kids’ storybook to an actual child — otherwise they would know little kids love stories that rhyme. Have none of them ever heard of Mother Goose? She has sold even more rhyming picture books than Seuss. 

Achieving best-seller status in today’s book publishing world requires publicists to arrange for author appearances on talk shows, recommendations from Oprah, advertising, press events, and endorsements from social media influencers. The big publishers can afford those things, but we can’t. (Oprah, are you by chance reading this? Would you like a copy?) It also helps your children’s book become a best-seller if you’re a celebrity or related to one. Recent kid’s best-sellers include books by Hoda Kobh, Jimmy Fallon, Jenna and Barbara Bush, Matthew McConahay, Seth Meyers, Reese Witherspoon, Tim Tebow, Chelsea Clinton, and Meghan Markle. All are on display at my local Barnes & Noble. “Baa,” which is better-written and illustrated than any of them, isn’t and most likely never will be sold at B&N. Judy should have married a prince, been a president’s daughter or played football. 

And if you’re wondering about Stuart? By the time he was five, thanks to two years of twice-weekly speech therapy sessions, his speech was age-appropriate. He’s 37 now, has multiple degrees, and is a bank executive. He turned out even better than we could have imagined. 

So did the book his worried young mother wrote to reassure herself her little boy would be okay.