A Farewell to Car

A beloved central character from Bowling Across America has passed on. At 4:39 CDT on March 21, Mom’s Honda disappeared from view around the corner of a car dealership’s maintenance bay. She is survived by her former owners, Mike and Amy Walsh, a well-worn atlas, and a Salted Nut Roll that had been in the console since 2003—its wrapper fading from sunlight—in case of a desperate hunger emergency. She was 15.

In a life that spanned some 125,966 miles, Mom’s Honda saw a great deal more than most cars of her era. As air travel has become more affordable and fewer cross-country family vacations are taken by car, only the rare family auto can claim to have visited more than a handful of states. Though the last few years of her life limited her to Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio, in her prime she visited each of the contiguous states, and even spent about 20 minutes in Mexico—earning a thorough strip search on the return border crossing.

At the time of her passing she’d seen better days, to be sure. A hole in her exhaust system had turned her engine’s gentle purr into an embarrassing growl that announced her presence long before she came into view. What had been a small cancer of rust on the rear-right door blossomed into a fist-sized boil in the salt-and-sub-zero days of this most recent Chicago winter. A recent water pump replacement foretold additional costly mechanical adventures to come, though she proved resilient (and profitable) just two weeks before her passing when she was involved in a fender bender that yielded an $850 check from the offending party’s insurer. This was slightly more than the $750 value that CarMax saw fit to attach to her. While hardly worthy of the term “priceless,” Mom’s Honda was certainly worth every bit of the $1,600 she generated in her final days.

In fact, despite the installed car phone (circa 1997) and spending the last 7 years under the under-watchful eye of an inattentive owner, the only negative scores Mom’s Honda received in the dealer’s assessment were for body damage: the scuff on the right-front bumper from a hit-and-run while parked in Jackson, Wyoming. The aforementioned rust spot. The scars from years of parallel parking on bumpers back and front. The indent on the hood from the rear-mounted tire on some careless parker’s SUV. The tires, the interior, the engine: all were ready for another cross-country road trip.

My first car was a 1981 Audi 4000 that had been owned by each of the men in my family beginning with my father and each of my brothers. I wept openly when I drove it on one last tour around the block, reflecting on the highs and lows of the three adolescent years we’d shared together. Before selling it, my father, whose sentimentality about cars I apparently inherited, removed the knob on the gearshift as a keepsake. That Christmas he presented it to me, crudely mounted on an old plaque he had in the shape of the state of Ohio. Overtop the plaque’s original text he taped a photo of me, at age five, alongside what was then his brand-new sedan. In it I am astride my first bike, a rugged blue one-speed, which, like the Audi, had been driven by my brothers before me.

I took no memento from Mom’s Honda, save the Salted Nut Roll (and that I only took in case of hunger emergency in the next car). In many ways the memento is the book itself, which would have turned out quite differently without the car’s unfailing reliability. So instead of taking something, I left a memento with it. Tucked in the map pocket behind the passenger’s seat is a copy of Bowling Across America and a note to whom it may concern explaining the car’s storied past. (I fully realize that the “whom it may concern” here will likely be an hourly employee of CarMax who will toss it into the lost & found pile without a second glance. But there’s that small chance it will make it to the next owner, and inspire a new adventure altogether.) In the book itself I wrote the only thing one can write to a trusted vehicular friend—the sentiment from a song Neil Young wrote for his car decades ago. The inscription reads:

“To Mom’s Honda— Long may you run. Mike”

Before handing over the keys, we took a few last photos in the car dealer’s parking lot. Not wanting to cry in front of the salesman, I looked for a sign to reassure me. Any kind of sign to say, “This is right. This is appropriate. This is the place to bid farewell to the car that carried you so faithfully in your life’s work, from bowling alley to bowling alley.” That sign appeared, literally and spiritually, from across the service road. Seen just above Mom’s Honda’s windshield in the photo below, it’s the sign for Hillside Bowl.

Neither Mom’s Honda nor I have ever been there, but I’m sure I’ll check the lot whenever I drive by on the Eisenhower Expressway, on the off chance of a reunion.

Panned in 17 syllables

At least I think it’s a pan—I’ve never been good at interpreting poetry that doesn’t rhyme. Regardless, the author of this haiku seems to have boiled me (or BAA) down to either being a “hot shot” or a “beer-soaked loser.” The latter term is unambiguously negative, but “hot shot” could be read as vaguely positive if in a charitable mood. I’m interpreting it as “arrogant prick” though, so this might not be the time to ask me for a donation to the adopt-a-family program the office is undertaking for Christmas. Now, at the risk of proving her point(s): I’d like to think I’m both those things, though at present it is bourbon that’s doing the loser-soaking.

Highlights from the tour

A few photos and anecdotes from the first few events following the book’s release.

October 28: Zero hour

At long last, the release date came, with much self-generated fanfare in the form of a party in Chicago at Seven Ten Lounge.

There were native Peruvians (the Indiana Peru).

Former co-workers bowling with Mom.

Current co-workers bowling with Mom.

Current co-workers taking action shots of Mom bowling by herself.

Bowling shirts.

Cuddly moments with the wife.

Surprising inscriptions in books.

And trivia contests with fabulous prizes like the kind of mustaches that you can’t get from a box.

Then came the reading aloud

Following the party I went on a brief tour, bringing my unique brand of nervous energy and vacation slides to book stores across the Midwest. At each, I take the audience on a breakneck-paced tour of all 50 states using photos I took on the trip, interspersed with a few passages from the book. First there was Chicago:

Borders on State Street

And then Oak Brook, IL

My father’s sister and cousins from his side of the family were among the attendees.

Then Cleveland, where I did an interview on the local morning show…

…and where my in-laws hosted a reception followed by a standing room only reading at Joseph Beth Booksellers.
.Cleveland reading
A quick road trip down I-71 brought me to the world-famous studios of Emmy Award-Winning Reporter Gail Hogan, who appears in the book, and on whose show I appeared to promote that night’s signing.

And that night, another standing room-only reading at Borders in Columbus.

Having an insufficient number of chairs is a good way to ensure SRO at events.

And finally, St. Louis, where I followed Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols on a radio show, and did my best to defend the Cubs…a daunting task when the birds have won a World Series in the past 100 years. Then a reading at a far-flung Barnes & Noble where my sister’s family and friends made the crowd. I spent the afternoon of the event at Saratoga Lanes, where Jim Doody’s company made me remember exactly why I took the trip in the first place.

More importantly, Jim gave me some of the best directions I’ve received in my travels, helping me make it to the reading with time to spare.

On historic Tuesdays in Chicago

Like many of you, no doubt, I never thought I’d see it in my lifetime. But on that historic Tuesday in Chicago, it happened. There, near the storied grounds of Grant Park, a new day dawned.

I’m writing, of course, of Tuesday, October 28, 2008, the day that BOWLING ACROSS AMERICA: 50 States in Rented Shoes was finally published. After a long struggle of many years, its presence in the front display of the Borders Music and Books on State Street was surreal. A triumph of dumb luck.

On that historic Tuesday, my family joined me in Chicago, along with a hundred or so friends, to usher in the new era of literary hope in a part of the city named for the truly noble man who rose from obscurity through the Illinois State Legislature to lead this great nation. The Lincoln Park location of Seven Ten Lounge hosted the party–a celebration of unity, semi-athleticism, and canned beer.

As the soothing sounds of DJ Cesare’s jet-set era lounge groove gave way to the jarring grind of his Foghat-heavy set, it was time to go home and rest up for the reading tour. Borders on State Street bore witness to my first stammering-but-pleasing-enough reading, complete with slide show and visual aids. The next day it was Borders in Oak Brook, IL for another too-fast reading and signing.

Having taken a brief holiday from history the week of November 3 to refine my presentation and prepare for the remainder of the tour, it’s now off to Cleveland, Columbus and St. Louis this week. Hopefully I didn’t miss too much in the way of world events while polishing my one-man-reading-aloud act. Regardless, the readings promise to go much smoother and be even more entertaining than the first few. Hope to see many of you there.

On being reviewed favorably

Twice this weekend I received notice from friends who’d seen reviews of BAA I didn’t even know were out (or even happening in one case). Both reviews (Chicago Magazine and The Denver Post) were favorable and thus did nothing for my humility. Then a thought struck me: what if there are other, negative, reviews out there–and no one’s telling me?

Is that the case? Are you reading this, thinking better about sending me a note that the Picayune Dealer-Sentinel-Tribune-Herald panned me? If so, please don’t hold back. My condo is small enough without my ego further invading Amy’s space…

On being reviewed

They say you shouldn’t read your own reviews, good or bad, lest they affect your self-opinion, or your creative product. And you certainly shouldn’t respond to them. But, having received my first ever review, I feel compelled to dwell on it, internalize it, rationalize it and meekly lash out at it.

In my more honest moments, I’ll concede that it’s exactly the review I expected. Aside from being impressed at the reviewer’s ability to summarize the book so thoroughly in so few words, I anticipated comments like “lacks dramatic tension” and it being light on transformative life lessons. Generally a fair, if less than glowing, review. But…

…in my more self-righteous moments I wonder what set the reviewer’s expectations where they were. “From the moment he sets out…Walsh’s ability to complete his mission is never in doubt.” Well, the title does include the phrase, “50 States in Rented Shoes,” so arguably one wouldn’t have to read past the cover to discern that. (My apologies for not including a spoiler alert at the top of this post…and on the book jacket as well.)

On the “transformative life lessons” note: is it the red and blue bowling shoes on the cover that suggest this is the kind of book that offers such things? Granted, the description on the inner flap does say, “…insightful, and at times moving…an epic journey that will enthrall readers…”, but it also describes “an innuendo-laden e-mail” from a woman calling herself “Bowling Spice.” This doesn’t exactly promise A CATCHER IN THE RYE. It would be as accurate to conclude the review with, “those looking for the world’s greatest chili recipe will have to look elsewhere.” As accurate, and as relevant.

Ahhh. Having now proven why one should never read nor respond to reviews, I’ll close by reiterating that it’s what I expected, and largely fair. Still, I prefer a friend’s distillation of it, which reads:

“DRAMATIC TENSION…[f]rom the moment he sets out…Walsh’s ability…is never in doubt…a transformative life lesson.”

On getting published

“If that guy can get a book published, anyone can.” So spoke a friend recently, in reference to someone else’s tortured prose. Realizing his phrasing may have caused offense, he quickly clarified that he’d enjoyed the advance copy of Bowling Across America he’d read, and his point was that this other book didn’t compare. Well….

The story this book captures took place in late 2002 and early 2003. Getting it published is what happened between then and now and, my friend’s observation aside, it took a fair amount of work and rejection to get to where we are now, just a month from BAA’s arrival at a bookstore near you.

It began in 2003 with an agent who came across the story as my trip was still in progress and thought the book had a good chance of “finding a home” (in the parlance of the industry) with a reputable publisher who would pay me to write it, then distribute it to bookstores everywhere, and pay me more if it sold well. Some of the feedback my initial proposal elicited from editors at reputable publishers:

“This is very diverting and the author lards his writing with many sly/funny/naïve/ touches that made me grin. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this book is…an exercise of some artificiality…”

“I loved this. ABSOLUTELY. For real…[but] thanks for allowing me to send you the most casual of rejection letters.”

“….neither the subject nor the writing really knocked me out.”

“I would have trouble figuring out what I could do with it”

“I can’t believe Mike Walsh hasn’t written a book before….but it might be a tad difficult for it to break out.”

“I love this guy! He is hilarious, and clearly a great American…I found it palled as I went on…”

“He’s a lovely writer, but this feels just a tad on the frivolous side for me.”

And my personal favorite:

“I was laughed out of the room by my colleagues [for proposing making a] ridiculously low offer for this book”

Each of these rejections was paired with a sweetly optimistic note from said agent, along the lines of, “being laughed out of the room is actually a good sign.” Or, “It doesn’t technically say, ‘no.’ It sorta says, ‘no,’ but not entirely.” Or, “one of the most positive rejections I’ve gotten in a long time.” I lost count, and have long since taken the printouts off the wall where I’d posted them out of motivation and/or self-pity, but there were over thirty rejections in all. A valiant effort by a great agent who put a lot of faith in an unproven writer, but alas a failing one. Having exhausted his efforts, he moved on to books that actually got deals, and I returned to re-writing the book on my own.

I finished a complete draft about a year after the last rejection note came in, and spent more time re-writing portions of that, all the while holding out hope that the book market would come around.

Enter John Murphy, a publicist at St. Martin’s Press, in early 2006. He liked a proposal I sent him enough to champion it to a few editors at St. Martin’s, one of whom—Tom Mercer—agreed to take it on. Tom suggested a slew of edits and re-writes, all of which improved the book immensely. As Tom’s responsibilities at St. Martin’s shifted, so did the book’s home, to the desk of an editor named Marc Resnick. Another round of much-needed changes at Marc’s suggestion, some further “suggestions” from a proofreader and a lawyer, and here we are.

Nachos Consumed: 61 Miles added to mom's car: 25,211 Rented shoes worn: 65