2008-06-06 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

Sleepless in Belle Harbor
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

As I write this, we're no more than a few days away from the Rockaway Music and Arts Council's Second Annual Literary Arts and Film Festival at Gateway's Fort Tilden. In fact, by the time you read this (if you get your Wave on Friday when it hits the newstands and mailboxes), we'll only be a day away, because the first films begin showing Saturday night and the book side of the event happens on Sunday. It's been nine months since we kicked this off but, if we've done our job right, this isn't the first you're hearing about all this. I've been writing about it pretty steadily in this column for months (until I've nearly run out of new things to say!) and we've reached out to all the papers we can think of. Last year we got over thirty authors participating; this year we count over forty, including literary novelists, genre writers, humorists, memoirists, journalists and more. Last year we tossed a number of film clips into the mix, but this year we've put together a genuine film festival to screen a series of original films made by local and regional filmmakers in the evenings.

The big book event, of course, kicks off at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday morning with a panel on health and keeping fit and a workshop for new and aspiring writers on the ins and outs of book promotion. Throughout the day, thereafter, we'll have a series of back-to-back panel discussions with various authors, a chance to meet and talk with many of them about their work and, of course, plenty of opportunity to pick up a few books. The local library will have a table, too, offering used books and information about library programs. For those who just like the action, there'll be live performances on the outdoor Moon Stage (I still haven't figured out why the RAA calls it THAT!), with dramatic readings, poetry and live music highlighted by an appearance, in the afternoon, by noted DJ Pete Fornatale to talk about his own new book, Simon and Garfunkel's Bookends. Food and drink will be available all day from Belle Harbor's own Rockaway Seafood, which will set up a concession for the day and serve dinners in the evening (5 p.m. - 7 p.m.) between the end of the book panels and the beginning of the final night of films.

But I don't need to go over all this yet again because, if all's gone as it should have up to this point, you already know about it. And even if you don't, all you need to do is turn to the middle of this newspaper because today's Wave carries a four page insert telling you everything you ever wanted to know (but were afraid to ask) about the RMAC's Literary Arts and Film Festival. I couldn't fit it all into my allotted space here if I tried, anyway. Besides, I'm pretty much written out on the subject and you're probably tired of reading my take on it. I'm actually looking forward to the day after when I don't have to think about the issues anymore or worry about all the contingencies that make planning something like this so daunting.

Of course it'll be a letdown, too. But it's one I'm ready to live with, at least as of now. So why, if this is so exhausting a process, you ask, did I undertake the darned thing in the first place? The usual answers spring to mind: "He wanted to do something nice for the community," I can already hear people saying. "He wanted to give something back." Well, not really.

Of course I wanted to do something in which folks in our area would enjoy participating. If people don't come by, after all, what's the point? But in the end I did this just because it's the sort of thing I like. I love writing and browsing in bookstores and hobnobbing with writers so, naturally, I hope others in the community will share that passion. Still, there's enough to worry about in doing it that it's kept me up nights. Because you never know how things like this will work ("it's always a crapshoot," RAA president Geoff Rawling told me the other day), there's lots to sweat about. Will we get the good weather we need? Will all the authors who promised to show up make it? Will the bookseller have the right books? Or enough of them? Or arrive on time? Will everyone know what to do with so many tightly planned activities going on at the same time? Will enough people even come by to make it all worthwhile?

Last night I was out of bed several times, disturbing my wife who kept asking what was wrong. "Nothing," I mumbled as I groped my way in the dark to the bathroom for a drink of water and to splash some over my face, going over in my mind, yet again, the seemingly endless checklist of final things I knew had to be done. "No problem, at all," I told her from the bathroom door. But I wasn't telling the truth, of course. I was worrying about all the things I was afraid I had forgotten to worry about up to that point.

So why do I bother? Because it has something to do with the way I've lived my life until now, I guess. I spent most of my career on the go and my last stint with the City was a pretty much 24/7 deal where I'd get emergency calls in the wee hours of the morning and have to shoot out, in the darkness, to attend emergency sessions downtown or handle crises at any number of sites for which I was responsible. During daylight hours I had to worry about staging and managing capital renovations at some 25 buildings, while orchestrating various events and other logistical activities involving movements of large numbers of people and materiel.

When I retired I guess I kind of missed the action so doing something like this is, I suppose, a way of recapturing that, of keeping the adrenalin pumping, of keeping myself from getting old . . . while getting old.

However this thing finally turns out, at least we had a good run making it happen - and a good bunch of people on the team, too; people who, for the most part, seemed to care as much about pulling this off as I did. That helps. I couldn't begin to thank them all here so I'll leave that for another day when this is all behind us. Yet, there have been missteps, as well. One I particularly regret happened when a mother from Breezy, having read of the upcoming Festival, called and said that, while she and her daughter were only summer residents, her daughter, an aspiring writer, was keen to participate in our student writing competition.

At my invitation, her daughter sent in a short story and I took a look at it. This fifteen-year-old summer resident from Breezy, I realized, wrote with a confidence, a sensibility, and a level of skill that had eluded me when I was her age. Still, because she didn't attend a Rockaway school, the competition's rules committee concluded that she couldn't be allowed to participate with the other Rockaway students. Considering the level of talent she had demonstrated, I was disappointed. But I had to reluctantly admit that I had only myself to blame for not making it clear at the outset that the student writing competition must be open to all school age children from the area regardless of the school they attend. This girl, I suspect, will go on to make a splash in the literary world despite being shut out of our contest, but somehow it just seems wrong that an event like ours, intended to find and nurture talent like hers, should have ended up turning it away instead.

So I don't know what's going to happen next year with the Festival or even if this year's will match last year's in attendance or excitement. I can only hope for the best at this point while expecting to continue to lose a few more hours of sleep over the next few nights as we continue the countdown to the big weekend. By the time you read this you'll probably have a better feel for how this is all going to go than I do now. But at the very least my wife can certainly look forward to fewer disturbances in the night once this weekend is behind us. rockirreg@ aol.com

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