You Never Forget Your First

They say you never forget your first. No, not that first! I mean your first big book event!

It was exciting and humbling to participate in a panel of local memoirists at the iconic RJ Julia bookstore in Madison, CT earlier this month. RJ Julia is a dying breed – an independent book store that draws big name writers while also supporting new writers. I had been to RJ Julia while visiting my lifelong friend, Donna (she’s in my book) who lives in Madison. We even went to a reading by one of my favorite authors, Jodi Picoult. Jodi drew such a crowd, they had to move the event to the local high school. This bookstore is hallowed ground.

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Our event was much more humble but equally inspiring. I was joined by my fellow She Writes Press author, Roni Beth Tower, author of Miracle at Midlife: A Transatlantic Romance. Who doesn’t love a good romance? I chuckled as she read a scene from her book, her first date with her husband. Her husband attended the event – oh the support! – and didn’t so much as blush as Roni read that flirtatious scene. Sherry Horton shared Witness Chair: A Memoir of Art, Marriage, and Loss as her husband battled cancer. Hearing Sherry read her words, I thought, “what beautiful writing,” so it made sense to learn that she is a writing teacher. Shawn Elizabeth George spoke about yoga and religion from her memoir My Journey to Live from the Inside Out.

I read a scene from The Sportscaster’s Daughter, the chapter “Escape Night.” It’s a tough scene, a scary scene when my brother, sister and I try to run away in the middle of the night after our mother goes bezerk. We don’t run away that night, but our father does get sole custody of us the following weekend. People at the event said the reading was riveting. I have sometimes cried when having to do a reading in writers’ workshops, reliving so much of the pain of the past. The only cure to this is to practice. Practice, practice, practice. Authors have to try for that out of body experience. I had to keep telling myself: “It’s not me now; it’s the child version of me.” My voice still trembled, equal parts the vivid memory and a brewing cold (the first cold all winter, less than ideal timing!). I also greatly appreciated a tip from another writer: make your reading an excerpt, specifically edited for a live reading, adding context, and deleting parts that would have required someone to have read the previous chapters.

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Some other things I learned from my fellow writers: bring some props. Sherry had an art theme and brought some things her husband had made. As I have a book club event at Oakland Library next week, I am contemplating playing one of my father’s old radio airchecks. But then, at RJ Julia, only a few people had even ever heard of George Michael. This has been my book’s duality: many are drawn to it because of the universal themes of family and self-esteem, some because of my father’s fame.

Other tips for my fellow writers:

  • Be prepared for the hard questions. One person asked, who do I now think is more of a monster-my father or my mother. My answer: neither. Another asked: are my brother, sister, and I still close, because that is how “The Escape” chapter ends; our father tells us we have to stick together. The answer to that is the long, sad story of my book.
  • Thank your hosts: Book stores rarely sell enough books at an event to justify the costs of hosting them. It is as much a labor of love for them as it is for us writers.
  • Remember the big picture: Your event may not be a sell out. If you have just one good interaction, be grateful for this. There is also the long tail of the associated promotion of the event, whether in papers, social media, the store’s newsletter and website.

I have another first this week: a reading and book club discussion at a library. This is not just any library, it’s the Oakland Public Library. Oakland is the town of my childhood when my dad first got custody of us, where the chapter The Golden Years takes place. I fully expect to be emotional. I can only hope also to be inspirational.

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Birthdays: A Hard Day to Be Estranged

It was my birthday this week. Birthdays are often a time of joyous celebration, a look back on the highs and lows of the last year, and anticipation of things to come in the next year. But if you are estranged from a family member, a birthday can be a difficult day, marking another year of an unresolved rift.

In high school, my birthday was always a moody day for me. It falls during the busy football season, leading up to Super Bowl. My father, George Michael, was just getting started as a sportscaster in Washington, DC, so he was either away or too busy to celebrate it in January. We usually celebrated my birthday in late March, jointly with my father’s birthday. In those days, it was my friends who made my birthday special, with a surprise cake, or one year, by filling my locker with balloons.

Later, after my father disowned me, I downright dreaded my birthday. New friends, who knew nothing about my family circumstances, thought my birthday angst had more to do with my age. It didn’t. It marked another year he didn’t want me in his life. It was the one day of the year I could not resist Googling my father’s name to see how he was doing. Or more painful, perhaps, watching one of his shows on YouTube.

And yet, it was this annual habit of mine that gave me hope. It was January of 2008 when I stumbled across a story in Washingtonian magazine in which my father mentioned me by name, Cindi spelled correctly with an i at the end. He was recalling his wedding day, his second marriage, when my sister and I were maids of honor. My father had recently retired and this mention seemed to reinforce my belief that much of our rift was caused by my father’s fame – that once he slowed down, he would realize all he was missing out on as a father and grand father. I didn’t know then that my father was battling cancer. Neither of us knew that he would die within two years, too late for a reconciliation in this lifetime.

He’s been gone seven years now. There is no new news about him to torture myself with. At most, I might see a reference to how he shaped the career of another sportscaster. This year, I stumbled across a few tweets about him, people reminiscing about how innovative his show was at the time. I don’t even know why I searched on twitter this year – maybe it was because the Packer’s game was more painful to watch. In an odd way, these new mentions comfort me as I am glad other people still remember him.

I no longer have to lament that we didn’t reconcile in the last year: he’s gone, he couldn’t. So my birthday is a little less painful. And my present family always knocks themselves out to make it special. This year, we went to see Carole King’s Beautiful on Broadway, the music moving and inspiring. And there’s cake, always made with love when the kids are home, or when not, bought with love as my husband doesn’t risk that undertaking on his own. Whip up a Beef Wellington, any day. Bake a cake, no way.

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Where I Write: Planes, Trains, and Poolside

 

A few years ago, we were visiting Key West and I got to see where Hemingway wrote. It’s a cozy room, separate from the main house. A place of solitude and creativity. I wish I could say I wrote in an equally inspiring place, but instead, much of my writing is done on planes, trains, and poolside. If I waited to write until I was in more conducive surroundings, I would never write. If you have a New Year’s resolution to write more in 2017, that means writing whenever and wherever you can.

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Hemingway’s Writing Room – Key West

I started my memoir, The Sportscaster’s Daughter, in 2009 with a New Year’s resolution to make more time for creative writing. I had made—and broken—this resolution before. My day job as a big data expert also demands writing, but of the technical kind, leaving little time or inspiration for the creative kind. By the end of 2009, I had a grand total of two chapters. Then, on Christmas Eve, my father, George Michael, died, suddenly and unexpectedly. He died without saying goodbye, not having spoken to me in years. I had been assuming our reconciliation was nearing both because my father had mentioned me by name in a recent interview and because he had just retired. I had long assumed that my father would only come to his senses and have time for reflection when he slowed down. I was wrong, devastatingly wrong. Or I was right, and my father ran out of time.  Writing helped me cope with the shock of it all. It helped me grieve and allowed me to spend time with him, reliving our happier times.  That year, Fridays became my designated writing and grieving day. On those Fridays, I tried to write from the sofa of my living room, gazing out at the Kittatinny Mountains of New Jersey. For sure, I could not write emotionally traumatic scenes at my desk with three computers beeping at me.

My day job also means I often travel to conferences and clients across the country. If I am traveling on a Sunday, I have the choice of curling up with a good book on the plane, or buckling down and writing.  A six-hour flight is a longer stretch of writing than I could ever carve out at home. I wrote the scene when my dad first told me never to come home again during a layover at Denver airport. In way, it was better I was not home that night to tuck my children in bed. I needed to be alone in a hotel with that painful memory, not wanting the past to contaminate my idyllic present.

As a swim team mom, I often took my daughter to swim practice at 7 a.m., Saturday mornings, a 45-minute drive each way. Parents weren’t allowed on deck to watch practices, so this became another window of opportunity to write. I’d drive to the local Starbucks, then return with my coffee and climb into the back seat of the minivan to write for an hour. For her swim meets, I often officiated, but for weekend invitationals, I would only work the meet one of the days.  On my off day, I would sit in the corridor between races, writing on the iPad. It’s distracting, yes, as there are dozens of parents to chat with, going back on deck to cheer for friends, and watching the clock to be sure I didn’t miss her next race.  And yet, for a half hour here and there, I would transport myself back to the 1980s to a first love, flirtatious banter, and a man who introduced me to country music, me the daughter of a rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey. No doubt, passersby thought I was streaming a comedy show, as I chuckled to myself at the dialogue I was writing.

Revising is harder to do on the go, because I prefer to revise from the printed page. I was speaking at a conference in Rome, and for the flight home, I planned to review several chapters. I was in the business center at the hotel, printing sections of my memoir. Another American came in to print his boarding pass, and I sheepishly apologized for my 25 pages. Thank goodness I hadn’t printed all 50 in one go! He struck up a conversation, as I tried to hide my memoir. It felt out of place in a “business center.” He said he was from Maryland, and I mentioned I had gone to high school and college there, but now lived in New Jersey. There are two things that tie people from Maryland and DC together: The Redskins and politics. He must have brought up the Redskins, because next the stranger said, “Oh, the best sportscaster we ever had was George Michael.” My father. Had he seen his name on the page? Subliminally?  The pain of his absence and our tragic ending was still raw.  Normally I would have just walked away, silently at that point. But it was Rome, and I had been to the Vatican that morning, and the whole exchange felt both surreal and divine. I acknowledged, then, that he was my father. The stranger shook his head in disbelief. “I taught your sister, Michelle, in junior high.”  I couldn’t believe it. The stranger added, “She had a tough time. Your father was never home, and the divorce was ugly, if I remember correctly.”

I ask you:  what are the chances?

So on that plane ride home, I made some major edits that had been troubling me for months:  how much to include scenes in which my father hurt my sister the most. I had wanted to paint a full picture of our family dynamics and to create empathy for my sister. But this chance encounter with a stranger reminded me that her pain is her story to tell, not mine; there were whole scenes I decided to cut on the flight home.

Would I have made the same edits had I been revising from the solitude of my living room? Maybe, but more likely, this chance encounter influenced the edits. It’s a good thing I write wherever I can.

Happy New Year!

Cindi

 

 

 

 

An Early Christmas Gift and More

I got an early Christmas gift last week:  Redbook Magazine named The Sportscaster’s Daughter one of the best books of 2016!  I am both humbled and in awe. It seems surreal to be listed in the same list that includes such greats as Alice Hoffman and Colin Whitehead.

I also have been really happy to see some of my articles in a number of other magazines that I have read for decades:

  • Writer’s Digest “Writing My Memoir Was Healing but Almost Killed Me, Again” And note the picture – those are my real Writer’s Digest books dating back to 1992!
  • Working Mother “Trying to be A Better Mother than My Father”
  • First for Women “The Day My Father Told Me Never To Come Home Again”
  • WeHeartWriting “My Split Personality: The Technical Writer and the Memoiristt”

Beyond the articles, it has been a pure joy to hear from readers via email, Facebook, and in person at a few book clubs. I was moved to hear a woman quote from my book on the meaning of unconditional love.

And yet, this week is always a hard week for me. Tomorrow marks seven years since my dad passed away. It is harder to greet Christmas Eve with the same joy I once did. I make a conscious effort to stay focused on my present joy and to lock past traumas tightly in a box.  I focus on the cookies we bake, the carols we sing, the random acts of kindness all around. There is my husband’s sheer joy of homemade mince pies and the cats’ mischief in wrapping themselves in garland. And I repeat the words of Henry van Dyke: “If you truly believe that love is stronger than hate, then you can keep your Christmas.”

By the way, I only discovered that quote in the church bulletin from December 24, 2009. Coincidence?

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Cindi

 

 

A Halloween Football Poem from the 1980s

My father worked evenings so many of our daily communications were via notes left on the kitchen counter. One day, I came home from high school to find a note from my dad asking me to write a Halloween football poem to go with some video highlights.  I wrote a lot of poetry in those days. He suggested it should have liberal use of “fear,” “hit,” “hurt,” and “scare”.

My dad’s draft:

From ghouls and ghosts and long legged beasts

Pete Rozelle, please deliver us…

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A note from my father

But they might as well have played touch.

They tried to run, they tried to pace

Maybe it was their uniforms, all orange and black,

By the end of the game, we knew we didn’t want to come back.

You can imagine my pride at my dad asking me to write a poem for his sports show! But truth be told, I knew so little about the game then and was never good at writing on command. My father and I drafted a poem, back and forth. It was fun to hear my words eventually read through the TV on what was then Sports Final, later The Sports Machine, football highlights overlayed with images of jack o‘ lanterns.  Unfortunately, I didn’t save our final poem. I wonder if I will ever stumble across that video clip on YouTube; someone did recently upload a bunch of shows from the 1980s so you never know!

These days, I know more about football (thanks to my son), so if I had to write it again, it would go something like this:

A Halloween Football Poem

Playing in the NFL can feel like hell—

Torture and pain for the smallest gain.

The only reprieve is on All Hallows Eve.

When spirits of past players whisper in your ear,

“There’s nothing to fear.

That ball is yours to take back.

Go for that QB sac.”

Those O-Line men are monsters in disguise

With their evil eyes and massive thighs.

The right tricks on the field

A touchdown can yield.

A win is what you want.

A loss will forever haunt.

Happy Halloween everyone!

Cindi Michael, author The Sportscaster’s Daughter

 

 

My Memoir’s Published: The Emotional Roller Coaster of Month One

“An emotional roller coaster!” That’s how one reader described my memoir, The Sportscaster’s Daughter. The same could be said of the book’s first month of publication.

The official publication date was August 23, but it seems that only the likes of JK Rowling can keep those boxes sealed until the release data, as friends advised me Amazon pre-orders had shipped the week before.  So my local book club had an early, impromptu gathering. I advised them:  they were only invited if they agreed to be brutally honest – about the book and its secrets that most of them hadn’t known. They are a highly educated, opinionated bunch. Just don’t get us going on The Red Tent, and keep that wine flowing!

It’s no doubt a tricky thing to discuss a memoir. How can you critique a character in the same way, when it not a fictional character, but rather, a real living, person sitting in front of you? I had to assure them that writers’ workshops are a tougher audience and showed them samples of marked up manuscripts that had more red pen than black typeface.  The conversation started with the usual comments:  my book club hadn’t known how heart breaking my childhood had been and some of those scenes were tough to take.  Some revealed that their husband’s borrowed their book, because they wanted to know about the famed sportscaster, George Michael.   They criticized him for his failings, but credited him for the things he did right. And then the conversation that every writer hopes for:  how my story made them reflect on their own family relationships … what is the limits of their own inner strength.

During book club, one friend asked me, “Does it hurt you when we criticize your dad?” This is a tricky question. And over the past month, I’ve learned that so much depends on who is criticizing and how. I am still protective of my dad; it’s so important to me that people recognize him for when he was a good father (The Golden Years chapter) and understand the challenges he had from his own abusive child hood.  A Deadspin article on the memoir and only on my father’s worst mistakes most certainly hurt. But I guess that is also that site’s style. People don’t like to have their idols tainted in any way, and I suspected the book would draw anger from those fans. Beyond that, I do love hearing from people who remember my dad as a disc jockey. Those were happy times. And I’m not thrilled to hear that people preferred Glen Brenner over my dad. He will always be my favorite sportscaster.

There were a few posts on Good Reads that gave me pause. Ironically, even though I am an avid reader, this is not a site I had used before. One reader said they would have liked to have heard more of my father’s side of the story. I would have too! But in memoir, we can’t make things up. All I could give you was the chapter The Letter, because that is the most he gave me. From my sister, the only explanation is that I hurt him … how remains unclear. By moving away? By getting married without him being there? That was his choice as described in the chapter Fairy Tales. I’ve included speculation by others – his Uncle and a therapist, but their views are their own interpretations of trying to explain that which my father probably didn’t understand himself. I mean, really: he wasn’t reflective to begin with and his work schedule didn’t allow much time for soul searching. As I’ve said, his coping technique and mine works for a period —being a workaholic can dull an unnamed pain.  I find it no small coincidence that my father died less than two years after he retired of an illness he should have been able to beat. Did too much free time allow for too much time to think (Repeating the Cycle chapter)?

Another Good Reads reader surmised that I must have left something out— that I must have done something worse to lead to being disowned. Nope. I would have preferred to leave out the chapters My Fall from Grace and Dying. Reliving those scenes almost killed me, again, but to leave those out would have been misleading to a reader and unfair to my father in explaining that first rift.  Victims often blame themselves, as I did for a time. It’s taken me years to come to realize the fault was not mine.  And as a mother, I really can’t think of what my own children could ever do that would justify a disowning, period. As one person pointed out to me:  did the Jews deserve what happened in the Holocaust? How could Hitler have convinced an entire country to persecute the innocent? And yet, it happened.  A more light hearted comparison:  The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Beyond the readers’ reviews, it’s been so nice to reconnect with some long forgotten friends, to hear from people who say their book helped them reflect on their own family dynamics, and of course to be compared to one of my favorites The Glass Castle.   I am honored the book made a few important fall round ups:

I never thought of myself as a trailblazer, only a survivor. Thank you for reading!

Cindi Michael

 

The Tale of Two Book Covers (or Three)

It’s official:  my final book cover has been redesigned to move the word “Sportscaster” so that it is no longer covering my father’s eyes. It seems that, as first impressions go, some people thought this was a printing error. It was not an error. It was a designer’s artistic rendering, meant to convey how my father was blinded by his fame. Ot stopped seeing me. Or that something was not quite right. All would be true. Early reviewers interpreted it as something sinister, and I hated that connotation. Sinister is too strong a word for my father’s and my family’s struggles.  I also was sad: this photo was taken in 1980 from a happier time in my life and when my father and I were close. I had felt that the picture had somehow been tainted, but I had to defer to my publisher’s more experienced eye. I was also assuaged that the full picture was reproduced on the inside cover.

The same could be said of the book’s title as well. The original title was Cracks in the Sidewalk, for the past five years.  My original book cover mock up showed a man drawing a heart in a freshly poured sidewalk, a little girl riding her bike on the same sidewalk. To understand the significance of this, you will have to read chapter 1, Digging for Baby Clams, and chapter 25, Going Home.   In the meantime, here is the photo from that symbolic cracked sidewalk.

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So personally, I’m glad the cover has been changed, even if it is at the eleventh hour. The book is now at the printer, due out end of August. It would be worse if someone say, at Barnes and Noble, sent all the books back based on the cover. I heard from my publicist that this was the case with one of her clients– 25,000 books trashed over the cover design. Yikes!

Regards,

Cindi

Coming soon: my memoir

When I started this blog six years ago, I posted anonymously. I was afraid to share my story and real name of my somewhat-famous father:  George Michael of The Sports Machine.

People who read this blog in its early days re-affirmed that I am not the only one suffering from a family rift. My disowning may have been more extreme and made worse by my father’s public figure, but so many have their own stories. I hope by sharing mine, I can give strength and hope to others. Reading has been both my solace and inspiration from the time I was six. This memoir is my way of giving back.

Some will read it purely for a dramatic family story.  Others will read it because they want to know more about my father and his rise to fame. Whatever the interest, I hope I have told our story right.

The book is due out in August, but can pre-ordered from Amazon.  I started the memoir in 2009, before my father died, in the hopes he would read it and remember. I finished in the hope of understanding and healing.

 

 

 

My Two Fathers: The Sportscaster and the Bachelor

I had two fathers: the famous sportscaster, George Michael, and the single dad who fought for custody of me and my siblings when I was eleven. He won sole custody in 1976, despite being a bachelor and rock ‘n roll disc jockey in New York. The other father is the one who disowned me when I was eighteen. How could he go from the extreme of saving me, to so fully abandoning me, never again saying my name?

My father died suddenly on Christmas Eve 2009. I am not listed as a survivor in his obituary. I still wonder if that was my father’s dying wish, or my step mother’s final word. I only have the clues he left behind, and the jigsaw of his life that I am still piecing together.

My father and his Pop were never close. I was afraid of Pop, who Dad described as using the belt, a lash for each minute he was late for dinner. But Dad and Pop made peace when Pop was dying of cancer, or so I thought. It’s only now that I wonder if my father never forgot Pop’s remark, “You’ll never amount to anything.” Is that what drove my father to perfection and to work eighty hours a week? So many men do. Whether it’s ambition or an attempt to fill a void that someone has left behind, I can only speculate.

My mother and father separated when I was eight and he was a disc jockey on WFIL in Philadelphia. The obituary in The Washington Post said my mother ran away to Mexico with an eighteen-year old, which was one of my father’s embellishments, and a story the Post didn’t bother to fact check. They both had their flings after they separated, but for sure, my mother broke his heart, and in return, he broke her. For three years, my mother neglected us and eventually she lost custody.

My father shined in those first years he had custody of my brother, sister, and me. Even though he worked in the city and got home after eleven each night, he made us pancakes and French Toast before school in the morning. He chaperoned my school field trips and came to my school plays. He taught me how to do laundry and clean the house. He taught me to be perfect. For a while.

As a mother myself, I started to wonder about family patterns. My father repeated so many of the same mistakes Pop had made, something he vowed never to do. And what of my father’s oldest sister? She too had been disowned; my father never made peace with her, never said her name, even after Pop and she reconciled. Would I make a mess of things with my own children? I started motherhood as an over achieving workaholic, that part of the pattern is clear. So I pressed the panic button and became a stay-at-home mom for two years. I imagined my father’s disappointment if we had reunited at that point in time: I hadn’t amounted to anything. It’s been a bumpy journey to learn how to be successful at work and at home.

My father taught me how to be a good mother, the way he was the first three years he had custody of me. My children feel loved, as my father once made me feel. They know they come first.

I watched my dad’s final broadcast on NBC4 in Washington, D.C., when he thanked his viewers for giving him the best twenty-seven years of his life. The remark stung. I wished his children or grandchildren would have given him the best years of his life, as my present family has done for me. But I get it now. Fatherhood is no match for success and fame, the frenetic pace of the sports world.

On Father’s Day, then, I don’t celebrate the sportscaster. Instead, I think of how my dad once was, the man who once said, “I may not have a lot of money, but I am the richest man in the world because I have my kids.”

Happy Birthday, Dad

Happy Birthday Dad.

You would have been 75. I feel your presence constantly, but more so around your birthday. Is it because you died before your time and before we had made peace?

There have been some uncanny coincidences in the last few weeks. A mention in USA Today, a call about one of your horses being inducted into a hall of fame. Then, I’ve worked with a man for 20 years, and over drinks a few weeks ago, I learned that he was once an engineer at WABC in 1980, just a few months after you were fired. He worked in the same studio, with the same engineers and disc jockeys that you once worked with. It was the same studio I once spent my Friday and Saturday nights in, coloring in my coloring book while you worked. This colleague and I swapped pictures, and I was a child again. I cried with a longing that I normally keep tightly tucked away.

He connected me with another engineer, Mike, one of your favorites, and my favorite too because he was always so nice to us kids. Mike spoke of the time Michelle, age five, went to school in her pajamas, before you got custody of us. I called you at work, while on the air, upset that Mom let this happen, frustrated that I hadn’t been able to take care of my sister. I was only ten myself, and I left for school before she did, before I could be sure she was dressed.

How were you able to take my call, then return to the mic to introduce the next song, and still sound upbeat?

A few months later, you got sole custody of us, marking the beginning of the time that I consider our family’s golden years.

So I have to wonder: is this what you do in heaven? Do you remember the good times and send messages to be sure the living remember them too? You don’t need to, Dad. I have always held those memories close in my heart, because those were the years when you were at your finest. Life was crazy, and crappy things happened, but you were there for me.

The same was not true when you became the famous sportscaster. I only wish you could have been both.

Had you lived to your 75th birthday, retired, and lived at a slower pace, would you have come to your senses and made peace? Or would fear and pride keep us divided?

I like to think we would have reconciled. I would have baked you a cake—probably Magaha apple cake—one of your favorites, and the same cake that I now bake for my own children on their birthdays.