Adventures In Editing, Part VI

September 18, 2014

fansSo far we’ve been ruminating about the care and feeding of different kinds of authors. How does it work when your author isn’t an author at all? That’s what you face when you enter the land of celebrity books, always one of the hottest aspects of publishing.

I’m not talking here about biography, which doesn’t require the cooperation of the subject. I edited beautiful bios of the writers Terry Southern and Michael O’Donoghue and a haunting account of the parallel lives of Tim Buckley and his son Jeff, and in all three cases we had access to some private material — each of those books is the last word on its subject and will be used as a reference from now on — but no estate had any input into, or approval over, the finished manuscript. What I’m getting at instead is celebrity autobiography, usually by a star of stage, screen, sound or sport, or by a politician who is planning to run for President.

Pop-music autobios have always interested book publishers, nearly all of whom are boomers or later. And just now a notable subset is doing pretty good business: the Summation of the Aging Rock Star. It was probably kicked off by Bob Dylan’s CHRONICLES and Keith Richards’s LIFE, both huge bestsellers and genuinely good books, which have encouraged a host of other musicians (or at least their managers) to crack open the laptop: a month rarely passes without the announcement of another classic-rockin’ book contract.

That’s figurative, of course, the laptop: most celebrity books are co-written by someone who at least has recorded hours of tape, at most researched and reconstructed a life and spit it out in the subject’s voice. The good ones are so good that you can’t tell the difference. They’re credited as “with” or “as told to” in teeny type on the book cover. There’s no shame in that: it doesn’t mean the celebrity is incapable of forming a sentence, only that she became famous for something other than writing a book, and the best way to get an assured voice on the page is to hire a pro. (I heard that Bob Dylan actually wrote his book himself, and there are undoubtedly others who’ve rolled up their sleeves as well. David Byrne’s HOW MUSIC WORKS isn’t about his life but his art, yet it sure feels like it comes straight from the horse’s mouth.) There are also people who have celebrity thrust upon them, like Captain Sully Sullenberger, the commercial pilot who safely landed a huge Airbus A320 in the Hudson River in 2009. To write his book, the captain collaborated with a pro — not a “ghost writer,” since Jeffrey Zaslow’s name is right there on the cover. My old friend Bret Witter is making quite a career out of helping “ordinary” people relate their extraordinary narratives; he’s now officially a multiple New York Times bestselling author.

psychological-skills-training_eMusicians who write their own material are artistic cousins to authors; they’re firing similar synapses. Actors, on the other hand, and especially sports stars, are confronted with a type of expression that is utterly foreign to them. Their talent isn’t a natural fit with the process of writing a book. In my experience, some have been better than others in bridging the necessary gap. Once my company published a very famous athlete who was confronted with some incendiary comments in his book (you want to make news if possible), and not only did he deny making them, he was also a little too candid when he denied having read his own autobiography. That’s one extreme.

It all comes down to the individual, and one common attribute. When you’re evaluating a celeb proposal, you’re not only trying to predict how much interest there could be out there, you’re also judging the subject’s ability and plausibility as a storyteller. Because that’s the heart of any celebrity autobio, and here’s where actors regain some advantage, particularly those who’ve enjoyed long careers. It is the rare actor indeed who isn’t also a raconteur. If you can get that delightful quality on paper, you’re in for some fun.

snakenbaconIt helps if you yourself enjoy the subject’s work, though you normally can’t go so far as to persuade her to do a book (I made a pest of myself trying to talk the Lucasfilm folks into asking George Lucas to consider an autobio in his own voice. Wouldn’t you like to read that?). The already-assembled package usually lands on your desk through an agent, who is shopping the personality as much as the proposal. Which isn’t to say that you can’t sometimes create a book on your own. In the mid-Nineties we kept seeing hilarious, so-retro-they’re-hip cartoons by one “P. Revess” in places like the (late, lamented) Oxford American. I made a few calls, searched on this new Internets thing, and tracked down Michael Kupperman in my very own New York. I called him up out of the blue and asked him if he might consider doing a collection of his work, along with some new material. At first (he later told me) Mike suspected it was a prank call. I invited him down to the office to establish my bona fides, and a year or so later we published SNAKE ’N’ BACON’S CARTOON CABARET; in a sense, it’s his autobio. No agent was involved, by the way. I’ve published two other books sans agency, but in all three cases I knew the authors’ work-ethics very well (one reason to have an agent), and each time I proved worthy of their trust by doing everything I promised I would, so they didn’t need protection from me (the other reason). Mike has since gone on to greater things, including a cover illustration for Fortune and many inside illos in The New Yorker and elsewhere, and he’s seen some of his work animated for television. Last year he won the Eisner Award, the Oscar of the comics industry. I didn’t discover Michael Kupperman: those magazine editors did that. But by God, I published his first book, which introduced him to Robert Smigel, who brought his stuff to tv…

al_green_bw2-905x1024As I said, it helps if you’re a fan. Some celeb books are bought because somebody at the publishing house wanted to hang out with the notable, and that can be tremendous (if expensive) fun. I “inherited” (see Part III) the autobio of the incomparable Al Green when I got to Avon Books, and upon putting it together after heroic work by Al’s co-author Davin Seay, there finally came that wonderful moment when the finished books showed up and the angels sang. Al (or “Reverend,” which is what everybody in his entourage calls him) came to New York to meet with us, do a signing or two, and headline a Central Park concert opened by Odetta. (!) I’d ridden in Rev’s limo to take him to to lunch and then the book signing; we talked about Memphis and music, it was an out-of-body experience in that I remember thinking how lucky I was while words were still coming out of my mouth. Rev invited me to bring my wife backstage before the concert, and we found his trailer just before Odetta went on. He hugged me like I was a long-lost brother (he’d met me only the day before), and after kissing my wife’s hand, he looked deeply into her eyes and said, “Tonight, I’m going to sing ‘Simply Beautiful’ for you.” As we were strolling away toward our seats, Linda noted, I realize that was probably the five millionth time he’s used that line, but my knees still got a little wobbly. I have never met a more adept, more piercing, more sex-exuding, let’s say ladies’ man, than the Rev. Ever. And it only happened because I happened to be a book editor. That’s what I mean: to enter such a milieu, book publishers fight for celebrities.

You may be a fan, yes, but as an editor you have to play dumb. Any celebrity autobio has to be understandable to a reader who’s never heard of the author. You can’t assume the reader knows about the time her boyfriend did that thing, or the day they got thrown out of that hotel. You can’t assume anything; the subject’s life should be understandable to a Martian. (Besides, if the reader knew everything, why in the world would he need to buy your book?) The exception that proves the rule is, you guessed it, Bob Dylan. His highly enjoyable CHRONICLES begins in medias res and jumps around in time, fitting his mercurial, iconoclastic nature perfectly. Some find it excruciating to make the leap. When I was at Bantam, we’d held the contract on Hugh Hefner’s mega-late autobio (wouldn’t you like to read that?) for many years, then one day the accountants said: time to clean house, cancel the contracts that are just fairy tales and get our money back. At Avon, we had a deal with Todd Rundgren to do the most amazingly creative autobio I’ve ever imagined. Upon inheriting the project, I was so reluctant to jettison it that I invited Todd up to the office to see if he was still serious. He showed up and said he was. But I think his creative eyes were bigger than his creative stomach, because he couldn’t make any progress and we had to cancel, me sobbing all the while. (It would have required die-cuts, a different kind of press run…don’t get me started!)

hillary-clinton-book-signingOne intangible which you frequently only discover on the fly is, how active will the celebrity be in promoting the book come crunch time? With a politician or a notable who is pushing a particular social issue, well, as the old saying goes, the most dangerous place you can be in Washington is between [POLITICIAN’S NAME] and a camera. (Conservative gasbags are having fun piling on Hillary Clinton right now, but Henry Kissinger — who, it’s safe to say, is not running for President — has been nearly as ubiquitous promoting his new book.) And book publicists, who usually spend too much of their day hearing the word no, enjoy finding themselves able to apportion appearances by their famous temporary clients. But artists and athletes have such a range of personalities that sometimes a guaranteed number of signings or tv appearances becomes a contractual deal point. No promote, no check. I’ve noted reluctance in some celebrity authors (interestingly, never directed at their fans), but then there were people like Richie Havens who not only played music at his signings, but also lunched with booksellers and spent hours autographing books and posters for key accounts. That’s another extreme.

imagesBooksellers, especially staunch independents (of which there are never enough, my friends), are sometimes ambivalent about celebrity publishing. Does a wall full of gold records give this “author” any right to the hallowed lectern occupied last week by Margaret Atwood? Most of these people have never set foot in my store before and never will again! But as I say to anyone who’ll listen, anything that causes anybody to enter a bookstore is good for everybody, whether the come-hither attraction was Jorge Luis Borges or David Lee Roth or Kathie Lee Gifford. A rising tide lifts all bookselling boats, in a bit of cultural magic most recently performed by young Master Harry Potter. All true book professionals are pleased (ok, maybe a tad jealous too) when anything becomes a huge hit, because it brings in customers all set to read something and eventually inquire about something else. The unfortunate part is that a year or two after any trend establishes itself, all the lesser pretenders show up, just as in movies and tv. Where books are concerned, I think the paranormal teens have just about worn themselves out in favor of the ordeals of Hungry Divergent teens, but, as noted, right on cue, here come the geezer rockers to make their grandparents happy!

MAC40_BOOKS06Publishers guarantee too much for celeb autobios because they bid against each other and it often boils down to, which house employs the biggest fan? You have to get your money back quickly because every year the notable’s career continues puts your book that much farther out of date, and only a well-researched, dispassionate biography can stick around long enough to strike gold on the backlist. Why are there so many serious bios about dead people? Hmmmm. Very few autobiographies can stand the test of time, and the ones that can damn sure don’t come from the entertainment field. But try not to begrudge the “author” who never picked up a book when s/he was in school. Maybe it’s nothing more than time for a little literary payback.

NEXT: Some final thoughts as our Adventures In Editing conclude.

 Previous Adventures:

Part I   Part II   Part III   Part IV   Part V


Serendipity At Pinehurst

April 26, 2013
My Aunt Ellen (c.), surrounded by Dupree dames: Regina (l.) and Diana.

My Aunt Ellen (c.), surrounded by Dupree dames: Regina (l.) and Diana.

My brother John and I, along with our brides, flew down to Seven Lakes, North Carolina last weekend to participate in the memorial for our beloved Aunt Ellen. She passed away two weeks ago, far too young, from unforeseen complications following stints in chemo for breast cancer. Her husband, our Uncle Buddy, has sort of defined the word “avuncular” all our lives (“Golf? I shoot in the low 80s.” Me: REALLY? “Yep, any hotter than that, I don’t even go out!”), but Ellen was everything to him, and we hated to have to help Buddy send her off.

The service on Saturday afternoon went fine, though my heart lurched as I saw my uncle, sitting right in front of me, just loose his shoulders and slump a little as the homilies began: he had busied himself for days by taking care of all the little details, and now there was nothing left to do but mourn. John and I had met Ellen’s grown daughter Tammy for the first time the night before. She looks and sounds exactly like her mom (they’ve even fooled Buddy once or twice on the phone), which turned out to be eerie and comforting at the same time, at least for me. The service hit Tammy the hardest (she was close enough to her mom to call her on the phone every day), and it broke our hearts to see it.

Ellen (l.), my brother Rick, and my Uncle Buddy, who looks like he's about to order a hit on somebody.

Ellen (l.), my brother Rick, and my Uncle Buddy, who looks like he’s about to order a hit on somebody.

I clambered up to offer a few words on behalf of our family. At the reception afterward I received a brand new kind of compliment. “That was a WONDERFUL speech,” a longtime parishioner told me. As I was gearing up to say how easy it had been to praise Ellen, she elaborated. “You spoke so SLOWLY and CLEARLY. I can’t UNDERSTAND most of the families at these services.” For English teachers: this lovely lady was a fan of form, not content, but I’ll still cherish those heartfelt props until it’s time for my memorial service.

We went back to Buddy’s for more food – provided by neighbors, the church, etc. – but we were just noshing. Our emotional fuel was spent. After a while, the group began to dissipate; some of them had five, six-hour drives back home. The four of us – John, his wife Regina, my wife Linda and me – decided to caravan back toward our hotel, stop at the nearby village of Pinehurst (yep, the storied golfing spot; next year Pinehurst’s fabled No. 2 course will become the first venue in history to host both the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open, back-to-back), and have a beer or something at a little pub to wind down.

The Carolina-Pinehurst Resort.

The Carolina-Pinehurst Resort.

We waited in the charming town square’s parking lot, but it took John & Reg a few minutes to pull up. They’d taken a wrong turn and found themselves driving by the magnificent Carolina Hotel at the Pinehurst Resort. You gotta see it, they said. The azaleas are out, this place is way Old South. So we paused for a second and said, let’s have our drinks there. After all, we’re already dressed for it. So we hopped into John’s car and drove over.

Inside the breathtaking lobby.

Inside the breathtaking lobby.

They weren’t kidding. We strolled down a spectacular azalea-studded pathway at dusk on a perfect late-spring evening. Everything, even the temperature, was gorgeous. Just being there lifted our spirits. We walked into the main house, grand enough to impress Scarlett O’Hara, and passed through a sumptuous lobby. It’s all about golf: memorabilia all over the place. The bar is the “Ryder Cup,” get it? I ambled up to the dining room entrance and caught a sidelong glance at the menu. I later confessed that I didn’t read the selections on the left, only the numbers on the right, just to make sure we weren’t out of our league. Then I said, let’s not blow this chance. Let’s have dinner here. (Like the Omega Mus in REVENGE OF THE NERDS, we were being spontaneous.) The maitre d’ stepped on a pet peeve of my brother’s by asking, “Do you have a reservation?” while crickets were chirping in the nearly deserted room over his shoulder. He allowed as how he might be able to squeeze us in. “When would you like to dine?” Um, let me think: how about right now?

Your humble obedient blogger (l.) and bride Linda in the dining room, seconds before I gave my brother the stink-eye and said "ut-pay the amera-cay OWN-DAY."

Your humble obedient blogger (l.) and bride Linda in the dining room, seconds before I gave my brother the stink-eye and said “ut-pay the amera-cay OWN-DAY.”

Turns out we were overdressed, which was a brand new sartorial experience for me, as any of my friends can assure you. See, we had neckties on. As the well-heeled golfers began to trudge in (they filled up many more tables, but, miraculously, ours was not needed!), the drill became evident: blazer, slacks, dress shirt, no tie. We ordered drinks and scanned the menu. Our server, a Wilford Brimley lookalike, was named Ted. The immense room was right out of GRAND HOTEL. John got us started properly after we told Ted why we were in town, we’d just wandered in serendipitously, etc. He expressed his sympathy, then John sprung the trap: “…so if you have a bereavement discount, that would make it perfect.” Funny guy, a real sit-down comic.

For the next two hours, the four of us had the most wonderful time together, talking about everything under the sun. GAME OF THRONES. John’s company, Sprint, and which suitor was more likely to win its hand. Texas politics (that’s where they live). Whazzup on Broadway. Cabbages. Kings. We have such chitchats at our annual family reunion, but generally in larger groups. This was different. The weight of Ellen’s passing was mitigated by the warmth of the company: gradually, organically. The only thing which would have really made it perfect would have been having my youngest brother Rick and his wife Diana there too, but he had a huge professional obligation he just couldn’t get out of.

A parting view.

A parting view.

It was still lovely outside as we walked back to the car. It had been really rewarding to do something we hadn’t planned on, just when we needed it most. If we hadn’t already been dressed for a memorial service, we might have spent a desultory hour in some pub instead. But that’s life. You never know what you’re missing. You just never know.


Saints Alive!

February 8, 2010

Which group of athletes has the temerity to claim that their abilities are superior to our Sainted footballers on the gridiron? Which group of athletes? Which group of athletes?*

Those of you who’ve never lived near the Gulf Coast may have trouble understanding just how big yesterday’s Super Bowl victory really was. It’s not simply Katrina, though that makes for a great story. In reality, the frustration and humiliation borne by Saint fans go back much, much farther. I’ve never worn a bag on my head, but I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around a winning season, much less staring down a perfect season, much less being in the conference championship and winning it, much less taking a trip to the Super Bowl – I kept nervously looking over my shoulder for the cruel reality-show camera that’d reveal it was all a gag. Impostor syndrome showed up.

We weren’t supposed to get past the conference, and wouldn’t have without two pieces of luck: an errant Brett Favre pass, and winning the sudden-death overtime coin toss. Now we faced perhaps the greatest quarterback ever, a guy hailing from New Orleans to boot! Sometimes you make your own luck, like the onside kick that began the second half and permanently revved the Saints into championship gear. And sometimes you just have to trust that when you’re dealing with a bunch of Saints, there have to be some miracles around there somewhere.

When they asked the question, I used to make people smile by saying, “I don’t follow pro football. I’m a Saint fan.” (When the Saints were out of the picture, which was usually about halfway through the season, my allegiance shifted to whatever New York team was still standing: when the Jints – led by young Master Manning – won it all in the last seconds a few years ago, I was yelling right along with them.) But not any more. Nowadays, perhaps through a sniffle or two, “My friend, I’m a fan of the NFL Champion New Orleans Saints!”

*In Cajun: “Who dat say gone beat dem Saints? Who dat? Who dat?”


Tiger And Eldrick

December 16, 2009

Although I miss her every single day, I’m glad my mom didn’t live to see the Tiger Woods scandal. It would have broken her heart. She always said he seemed like a “fine young man,” and of course that’s the PGA Tour’s intended judgment on all its players; a guy like John Daly is an anomaly (that’s part of what makes him so naughtily lovable, besides being able to hit it a mile). Pro golfers are supposed to be boring until the instant they tee it up. I’ve read recently that Tiger’s unearthly golfing ability, his beyond-belief powers of focus and concentration through adversity, made him the perfect corporate spokesman – not for Hooters, but for the faceless Accenture, marketed only to other big-shot businessmen who imagine themselves champions in their own pear-shaped ways. Well, that’s the sponsor which dropped him first.

Watching the O.J. trial, one had to wonder: weren’t you satisfied with your worldwide fame, your generous NFL pension, your Brentwood mansion and your hottie (ex-)wife? We can now ask the same questions about Tiger. All you had to do was to live normally. But those of us outside looking in can’t really fathom the culture of superciliousness that surrounds such fame and power. That’s why Bill Clinton thought he was bulletproof, too. Watch any episode of BEHIND THE MUSIC for more. “Tiger” is a stage name for a marketing persona. It was Eldrick Woods who revealed himself as a flawed human once he put away the tights and cape. Tiger’s brilliant caddie, Stevie Williams, says he had no idea, and I can maybe even buy that, since top pros don’t fraternize much off the course. (Though some players say it was an open secret that Eldrick was a horndog, at least with the eyes, almost from the day he arrived on tour. Did no other caddies talk to Stevie? Or Fluff, his first caddie?) But somebody knew. They had to. An international celebrity like Tiger Woods can’t travel without security. Not to excuse or downplay Eldrick’s transgressions, but there are some enablers lurking in the background, and maybe one day we’ll know their names.

The latest dish is that Tiger’s wife wants a divorce. I can’t really blame Elin. But the one and only thing he’s done right during this whole mess is to say, “I’m taking an indefinite break from golf.” His career’s not nearly as important as trying to patch up his marriage, if that’s even possible at this point: there are kids in the picture! Dodos may be thinking, he’s got all the money he needs, why not hang it up? But luxury isn’t the most important thing to a real champion. We’ll see how long the hiatus lasts, but if Tiger Woods isn’t standing in the teebox at Augusta in April for the season’s first major*, you’ll know this is bigger and sadder than anybody ever imagined. Then comes the ultimate test: playing four rounds of world-class golf with millions of eyes on him — but they’ll be squinting now. Only then can we really evaluate Tiger’s ability to focus.

*5/11/10: He did indeed stand there, and he finished fourth, not bad at all after such a long layoff. But very soon, his game showed signs of rust (he blamed neck problems caused by coming back before he was fully conditioned), and by May he was talking about missing the season’s second major.


Swatting Flies

August 24, 2009
DC029

The Nats stadium that night.

Last Thursday night, my dear friend Doug Ross and I hied ourselves hence to Nationals Stadium to plop butts in his season-ticket Washington Nats seats. First of all, the in-person baseball was lousy, because the temp was near 90 and so was the cloying humidity. Even President Obama, a Hawaii native (or is he, mmmwahahahah!), split town the next day for Martha’s Vineyard and bronchial comfort: Michelle, kids, this weather stinks!

Wetness without rain means that even solidly struck baseballs don’t go as high or as far as they ordinarily would. Those of you who couldn’t care less about the previous sentence (“couldn’t,” not “could,” goddammit!) are free now to skip to this sign: ***

I love baseball in big-league stadiums (stadia?); you had me at “baseball.” So much so that now I’m going to sit in unendurable heat with Doug, only he’s such a VIP that we can duck into the air-conditioned horizontal shopping- and food mall whenever we want. In fact, whenever the doors to that VIP mall occasionally open, a burst of A/Ced air fans out and cools everything for about :10. But hell, it’s still thrilling to be sitting there as nothing happens, which is basically what occurred in the first three innings. You can talk casually while you’re witnessing an (ever-increasingly corporate and) amazing spectacle. The Nats are currently the worst team in the Show, but I liken the experience to watching a Broadway musical composed entirely of understudies: the stars aren’t there, conceded, but the overall  level of expertise is still mightily entertaining. The very worst big-leaguer, whoever he may be, is still so much better at his job than you could have ever dreamed when you were a kid swatting a Tee-ball. (They didn’t have that sport when I was growing up, but still.)

I became an honorary but heartfelt Nat fan (Doug gave me a Nat hat!) the moment the Presidential Race took place before their 4th inning: four Presidents, with costume-heads so huge that their flailing feet make them resemble Hanna-Barbera characters, book it from left center field to the first-base dugout, and “Teddy,” who is always the fan favorite, has to compete against “Abe,” “George,” and “Tom.”  “Teddy” always loses, mostly inventing ways to lose. I loved it, and so did the fans. Only in Washington.

Please don’t think I have anything against the baseball team. But when the Presidential Race was announced as “The Main Event!” I felt for the players. (A guy came down the stairs with a popcorn box and told his buddy, “We made it!” He was talking about the Presidential Race, not the game.) Doug and I left after the 7th. I felt too many Nats fans had done the same, but it was a brutal evening. Coming soon, why the Nats and Mets play real baseball, but the Yankees don’t.

*** We also got in a round of golf (Doug is good, but he’s also one of those encouraging personalities, so my blatant suckage didn’t feel so bad), and he and Kathie are oenophiles, so it was a swell long weekend in Arlington. You cannot drive past the glorious monuments without feeling a patriotic twinge. Hey: Washington must have really been the father of our country, if you get my drift…


A Yang Fine Golfer

August 16, 2009

Y.E. Yang of South Korea, not even ranked in the world top 100, today became the first Asian golfer to win a major championship, and he did it by staring Tiger Woods down. He is the winner of the PGA Championship and will instantly become a hero all over Asia, where they are already mad about golf. It was the first time since just after Tiger turned pro that he relinquished a 54-hole lead (golf tournaments are 72 holes unless there’s a tie). Mr. Yang kept his cool, tagged ball after ball straight down the fairway, and chipped in from off the green on a hole where it really counted.

Golf is very cruel, and there were at least seven Tiger putts that just barely missed; if only half of them had dropped, it wouldn’t even have been close. Padraig Harrington of Ireland, Tiger’s #1 rival right about now, had a disastrous quintuple bogey (that’s five over par!) on one hole. Yet through it all, Mr. Yang (who took up the game at age 19: Tiger took it up at maybe 19 months) had a fabulous time, smiling and mugging for the CBS cameras and then nailing golf shot after golf shot. For him, this was fun, and I think that’s a worthy attribute in a champion of what is, after all, nothing but a game. Congratulations, Mr. Yang, and please come back on future Sunday afternoons!


Wii Will Rock You

August 14, 2009

While visiting my sister-in-law Gale and her husband Donnie in Appleton, Wisconsin, a few months ago, we were introduced to several new things. Brats, for one, made deliciously by Curly’s Pub at Lambeau Field, home of the Packers. And curds, the “poor man’s shrimp,” yummy and chewy in cocktail sauce. But one new thing in particular really changed things around here. Gale and Donnie showed us their Nintendo Wii Fit setup.

I lost interest in video games about the time Pac-Man and Missile Command were still sucking quarters out of people’s pockets in bars. I had no desire, none, to play those ladder games like Super Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong, and when they graduated to endless horizontal scrolls in the home versions, I could only watch my nephew play for a couple minutes tops, then goodbye, with a slight twinge of annoyance. So I never cared about the differences between, say, an Xbox or a PlayStation. But this Nintendo Wii is a mutha.

To begin with, the wireless controller is loose in space with you. It can track any movement you make with your arms, which comes in handy when it’s time to curve a bowling ball or put topspin on a tennis forehand. The Wii Sports disc, which is the platform’s most popular software, also lets you play baseball or golf, and – by far the most popular sport on the disc – box against a computer fighter.

But the sports disc isn’t what sold me a Wii. It was the fitness software that made my jaw drop.

Now we’re using the wireless controller with an expertly selected combination of yoga, strength, aerobic and balance exercises. For most of them, we’re standing on a sensitive plastic board which can judge our footwork and balance in minute detail. This is how the system can rate the user numerically and assign points to every iteration of nearly every exercise. So you’re competing against yourself for better form and posture, and with anyone else also using the system.

You have a computer-generated “personal trainer” who encourages you (“Way to go!”) or chides you (“You’re swaying a little.”), whatever you deserve. The “personal” interchanges can be comical: I use Wii Fit every morning, while Linda stays in shape with long, leisurely runs. (She’ll probably be a more frequent customer when it gets cold.) So every few days, the machine says, “You know, I haven’t seen Linda lately.” Once it asked, “How do you think Linda’s posture looks today?” and gave me a multiple choice. I said it looked great. The response: “Well, why don’t you tell her so?”

The yoga poses and strength exercises look pretty much like what you’d see in a class or a gym. But the balance and aerobic sections are full of the wild flights of fancy of the Nintendo gang – who, let’s face it, are really video game designers. Your pals kick soccer balls which you bounce off your head for points, but occasionally an old shoe comes your way, or the head of a panda, which looks just like a soccer ball until the last second. You box in rhythm, stepping forward and back on the Wii’s commands. You run around a lovely CG island, or even through your own house, as long as it’s wireless distance. You can walk a tightrope, negotiate a ski jump or slalom course, float downstream inside a giant bubble and try not to hit the many sharp points on the shore, or sit so perfectly still that you don’t disturb a candle flame. Everything regarding aerobics or balance, they have made into a game.

You are represented by a little computer figure called a “Mii,” which you can deck out however you like. Since our Wii is connected to our wireless router, we can also download Miis created by others, which then populate our cartoon world: they cheer us along on the running path, applaud in the audience as we step on and off the balance board in perfect rhythm. Everybody is so earnest about my getting fit that it’s delightful, in a postmodern way.

And does it work? Well, I lost 11 pounds in the first two months, which is a pretty good pace. (It lists my ideal weight if I want, but I’ll never see that again, bub.) I get real-world fitness tips too: for instance, if you can’t exercise at least ten minutes in a stretch, at least 30 minutes in a day, you’re not doing yourself much good. But the most important contribution is that I’m more aware of my body. The Wii weighs me every morning, and it’s become painfully evident that there are two things involved in losing poundage: the exercise, and being more careful about what I cram into my piehole. Most astonishingly, I’ve begun to look forward to my daily workout. I hate to exercise, but this thing makes it fun.

Just this morning I installed the new Wii Sports Resort, more sports games including something I’ve wanted all my life, a Frisbee dog. They’ve come up with this new controller called Motion Plus, which is way more sensitive and makes it that much harder to properly release an arrow or swing a golf club. But the real anticipation is for the October release of Wii Fit II, more ways to have fun and do right by my body. It didn’t turn out to be a trend or fad – it’s legit workout gear, and whenever I’m home, I wouldn’t start my day without it.


%d bloggers like this: