Monday, January 26, 2009

Random Things I Learned From My Dad

It's hard for me to believe, but my dad's been gone eleven years tomorrow. I'm 49, so that means that nearly a quarter of my own life has passed since he lost his; exactly a quarter if you take away those five years or so when I was in my teens and I knew everything and he knew nothing.

Hardly a day goes by that I don't think of my father. He was a huge influence in my life and in determining the person I grew up to be. Hopefully that's a good thing.

Anyway, here is a random listing, in no particular order other than how they occurred to me, of things I learned from my dad.

- I learned the value of hard work. My father spent most of his life working for the telephone company. He wasn't an executive or a management guy, he was strictly blue collar. His union went on strike a number of times when I was a kid, and I remember him taking one of those jobs that people say Americans won't do any more to pay the bills - he worked as an apple picker. Those guys worked long days and he was no kid at the time, but he did it because he felt that a man who could work should work. End of story.

- I learned how to change my own oil and tires, and when to do it as well. My dad wasn't big on paying other people to do things he could do himself, so he did a lot of his own work on our cars when I was growing up. Before he died he had accepted that automobiles had become too complicated for backyard mechanics to work on very much anymore, especially if they didn't have all of the proper tools, but he still changed his own oil until he got too sick to do so.

- I learned how to swear emphatically and with gusto. One thing my dad wasn't blessed with was an overabundance of patience, and hanging around with him while he was working on those cars was a truly, shall we say, ear-opening experience for a little kid. I learned a lot of new vocabulary words that way, and most of them weren't ones you would ever learn in school.

- I learned to think for myself. Never one for following the crowd, my dad stressed to both my sister and I not to believe things just because they were trendy or hip, two things no one would ever have accused him of being. He was a pretty conservative guy, but he never once told me that I should think like him, only that I should think about all sides of an issue before coming to a conclusion about it. I still do that to this day, and more often than not, that technique leads me to conclusions I think he would have reached as well.

- I learned how to drive a stick shift. It's something he believed everyone should know, and I regret that I haven't been able to teach my kids.

- I learned how to approach a deadly, life-sucking illness with humor and grace. I hope I never get terminal cancer, because I know I could never live up to the standard he set as his life was slipping away.

- I learned how to be a Red Sox fan. It sounds like the easiest thing in the world to be now, with their success over the last few years, but my dad lived almost eighty years and all he ever experienced as a life-long Sox fan was heartbreak. He didn't live long enough to see the success, the two World Series wins in the last five years, but I know he's gloating about it right now wherever he is.

- I learned that who you are is more important than what you wear. Also what you drive, how much money you make, or how big your house is.

- I learned pretty much everything that has become important to me as my own life has ground on. I like to think my dad would be proud of me. I hope so, anyway.

Monday, January 19, 2009

I Took Your Advice, Mr. Literary Agent

When I was in New York last summer for Thrillerfest 2008 and had the opportunity to pitch my novel(s) to dozens of literary agents, one of them asked me, when it became clear he wasn't interested in the manuscript we were discussing, what I do for a living in the real world.

I told him I was an air traffic controller and he said something like, "Why don't you write an air traffic control thriller?"

It wasn't like the thought had never occurred to me. I realize that I have what a lot of people would consider to be a pretty cool job; a job which most people don't really understand.

The problem was that I have been doing this pretty cool job for almost 27 years and it really isn't all that interesting to me any more. Sure, it has its moments, when it gets tense and exciting and dramatic, but for the most part it is like any other job - kind of tedious. So I wanted to write books about other things, things which I personally find interesting.

Which I did. And so far, agents and/or publishers have not exactly been knocking down my door for those two manuscripts, not that I'm giving upon them, don't get me wrong. I still think they would both make very good books.

But in publishing, they really like an author, especially a new author, to have some sort of hook; to be an expert in the subject he or she is writing about. I thought about it and decided, sure, I can write an air traffic control thriller, why not?

Plenty of thrillers have been written from a pilot's perspective - hell, if anyone had written about a pilot landing his crippled, fully-loaded jet in the Hudson, saving everyone on board, publishers would probably have shied away from it, calling it unrealistic - but there aren't many books written from a controller's perspective, at least not that I'm aware of.

Anyway, I concocted what I believe to be a pretty tight, realistic plot, and wrote what I believe to be a pretty tight, hopefully exciting manuscript. I'm just about done with my first round of editing and rewriting and the end is in sight. I still have more work to do on it but I'm beginning to get that nervous, excited feeling in the pit of my stomach that comes when I'm ready to start sending queries out to agents.

I'm not sure why I'm telling you this, other than that you clicked on my blog and so, in a way, you asked for it. Wish me luck if you're so inclined; I have high hopes for this one.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Quick, I Need Those Nuclear Launch Codes!

Just before cell technology took off and the price of cellphones dropped to the point where any teenage girl could afford to buy one and use it as the perfect driving accessory - because, let's face it, driving isn't enough of a challenge for most teenage girls, it's good to add a little more of a handicap, just for fun - mobile phones were all the rage.

Remember them? They were sort of like the precursor to cellphones. You could make and receive calls in your car, but the phone was hard-wired to the vehicle. They were the dinosaur in the portable-phone-evolution-chain.

Anyway, I used to drive an hour each way to work, and I remember being amazed at the number of people who absolutely had to be yakking on their mobile phones while they drove up and down the highway, usually at speeds that would make Dale Earnhart Jr. blush. At the time, I figured that at least fifty percent, and probably more, of the people making these calls were just faking it - trying to look impressive to all the peons like me looking out our side windows as they passed by.

Then technology evolved to the point I mentioned above, where even a Luddite like me has a cell phone and actually even uses it once in a while. So it's not unusual to see people talking on their cell phones pretty much anywhere. I expect to go into a restaurant sometime soon and see my server chatting with a phone to his ear as he tosses my overpriced entree onto the table and forgets my silverware.

But I was picking my son up at work this afternoon - he will be getting his license in a couple of months, but until then, needs rides back and forth to work - and I saw a guy walk into the grocery store where my son works, accompanied by, presumably, his wife and two young children. As he passed, I saw he had one of those ridiculously pretentious Bluetooth wireless headsets stuck to his face.

This guy was with his family and couldn't even be bothered to remove the thing that looks like a cancerous growth long enough to actually, you know, pay attention to them. Wonder how that makes his kids feel? Do they think, "Wow, dad's so cool and important he has to be in touch with his minions at ALL TIMES!"

Or do they maybe look at him and go, "Dad's an asshole. I sure wish he'd take that stupid thing off and have a conversation with me for a change."

Now, I know I'm making sweeping generalizations here. Maybe the guy's a bigshot investment banker and he needs to be in constant contact with his lawyer. Or his parole officer. Or maybe he's a bigshot surgeon whose patient is at a critical point in his recovery and it's imperative that he be available at all times, should the patient slip into a coma or something. It happens all the time on "Grey's Anatomy," right?

Or maybe the guy's an arrogant, self-important gasbag who's a little too impressed with himself. Hopefully the headset thingie is really important to him because he has to know everyone is snickering behind his back. I know I was.

Oh, wait - I was right in front of him. That's okay. I'm sure he was far too busy to notice, anyway.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Long and the Short of It

In a fascinating display of synchronicity (I'm not really sure if it is truly synchronicitous or not, but I really love that word), both the longest and the shortest short stories I have written to date recently got accepted for publication within days of each other.

My long short story, "Uncle Brick and Jimmy Kills," weighing in at roughly nine thousand words, will be featured in the summer, 2009 issue of Mysterical-E. This is the longest thing I have ever penned (Or keyboarded, if you're really a stickler for accuracy) if you exclude my three novels.

I had almost given up on anyone except my loyal circle of readers (Hereafter referred to as my loving family, or Those Who Don't Have A Choice In The Matter), ever seeing this story, simply because of its length. Most print and online short-story venues have upper limits of anywhere from 3500 to 6000 words, meaning that when I wrote it, my verbosity nearly doomed "Uncle Brick and Jimmy Kills" to the very same Island of Inactivity in which my novels currently reside, despite the fact that it really is a good story.

A few days later, I learned that my first and thus far only foray into the murky world of one hundred word flash fiction stories, "Ned and Helen," at a lean and mean ninety-five words, will be featured in the February 16 issue of FlashShot. If you've ever scuffled with your spouse over the television remote - and who hasn't? - you will want to check out this story. At least I hope you will. After all, what have you got to lose but maybe thirty seconds of your time?

I've discovered that all of the stuff I write, whether a 95,000 word novel or a 95 word flash piece, are like my children. I've birthed them, agonized over them, and eventually set them free to make their way in the world, so I love them all. But I'm particularly happy that these two stories found a home, since I wondered whether either of them ever would.

I'll be bugging you about both of them, as well as my other material, as they get closer to publication, so you can rest easy; I won't let you forget. But I would appreciate it very much if you let me know what you think of them, if you're so inclined, when they come out. Thanks for reading!