Monday, April 13, 2009

What A Fool Believes...

I was 19 years old, and I was on the beach at a quarter past six in the morning. Walking next to me with cool sand cloying thick to her bare feet and ankles, her rolled-up jeans and a faded hoodie, was That Girl. The morning breeze was chilly, but she brushed away the arm I tried to put round her shoulders.

We were going to have The Talk. The one that starts with "I really like you a lot. You're smart and you're funny..." and that's when you know that it's not going to end well. Sometimes, like this time, you also know that it's your own fault and that it didn't have to be this way at all.

It was one of those moments when life ought to have not just a rewind button, but a whole remote control, complete with zooms and pause and, especially, a fast forward button. Because you know this is going to leave a mark and it would be awfully nice to just zip on past it.

But, sometimes, you get the chance to at least try to correct the mistakes. Sometimes you get the chance to be the friend you should have been a long time ago, the one that sometimes she really did want you to be in the first place.

It'll never be what you wanted it to be so long ago, but you know what? Sometimes it's a helluva lot better to have a friend than to pass up a friendship just for the sake of being childish.

And sometimes you don't even realize how much you missed somebody until you get the chance to talk again.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Just a quick note...

Well, it has been a very long time, indeed, and with reason. Not especially GOOD reasons, but reasons nevertheless.

Life throws its curveballs, and eventually you learn at least to get out of the way of them even if you never manage to hit them back like you might hope. New job, new projects, new way of life, and now everything has finally settled back to a dull roar. I've missed you all, my cyber friends, and I will try to be less of a scary old hermit. Well, I'll try to be less of a hermit - can't do much about being scary and old anymore, now, can I?

Here's hoping that the Spring to come brings us all flowers and suchlike. :)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Faces of Our Fathers

"You have forgotten the face of your father."

For all his excesses and all his self-indulgences, Stephen King certainly knows how to turn a phrase, doesn’t he? The phrase above is a refrain that runs through King’s magnum opus "Dark Tower" series. The main character is a "gunslinger," a sort of fantasy world hybrid of an Arthurian questing knight and Clint Eastwood-style Western gunman, and the most powerful expression of shame in the world of the Tower is exactly that phrase above – "You have forgotten the face of your father." It’s one of the most succinct and profound expressions King has ever produced, and it goes straight to the deepest fear that many of us, myself included, harbor deep inside our chests – that we are unworthy to bear the names of our fathers, that we have failed in our first and most fundamental duty, to carry on the values we were taught while growing up under the roof and protection of the generation before us.

Some people probably have it easier than others, I suppose. I’ve heard horror tales about fathers who never passed on the things that mattered or passed on the wrong lessons. I was more fortunate, and maybe the most fortunate in that regard of anyone I know. My dad, as I’ve mentioned before, is a retired Baltimore City firefighter, decorated in the course of his service, a retired Marine, and one of the hardest working men I’ve ever seen, much less known. He grew up without a father of his own, but with the example of other men in the older generation who stepped up to take that mentoring role for him when possible. He never forgot what it was like to not have a dad, and he always did what he could to make sure my sister and I knew the face of our own.

I could, and have, passed along hundreds of stories about my father, about the things I learned from him over the years, about the values he passed along to me as much through his deeds as his words, but one leaps to mind.

It was the evening following my graduation from high school, and I had gone to a party at a friend’s house in the afternoon. I was scheduled for a three-hour shift that night at a local convenience store. We were celebrating; we had come through four years at a fairly tough Catholic school, and my friends and I were gathered in the back yard of Chris’s house, drinking beer, playing volleyball, throwing each other’s girlfriends into the swimming pool, and generally being rambunctious. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to leave the party to work for three hours, so I called out and told them I was sick.

It never occurred to me that my parents might stop by at the store and find that I wasn’t there. Ooops.

I was standing beside the picnic table when I heard the panicky voice of one of the girls hissing, "Oh, shit! It’s Don’s Dad!"

Twenty to thirty hands made hasty efforts to hide beer bottles and cans, and twenty to thirty faces tried to assume a guiltless nonchalance as the gate to the back yard swung open and my father stepped into the yard. He looked around impassively, nodding in acknowledgement as some of the kids tried a half-hearted wave of innocence in his direction, and walked over to the picnic table, where he stood beside me for a moment before turning to Chris, our host.

"Mind if I have a beer with you?" he asked, and Chris’s mouth dropped open for a long moment before he reached down into the clumsily "hidden" cooler and pulled out a bottle, handing it over silently.

My dad opened his beer, sat down at the picnic table, and calmly told us all stories for a half hour or so. Once everyone relaxed, realizing that he wasn’t there to break up the party or ruin anyone’s good time, he finished his beer and looked at Chris. "Nobody’s driving anywhere, right?" Chris assured him that all the car keys had been locked up. "If you need anything, if anything happens, you call me. Okay?" We all agreed that we would.

He pulled me aside for a moment. "Your mother wanted me to drag your ass home, but I’m not going to do that. I needed to make sure that you were all right, that nobody was getting out of control, that you guys were safe. Have a good time. But be smart, okay?"

And he left.

My mother wasn’t wrong, by the way. She was well within her rights to have me dragged out by the ear. I had screwed up, and I would do so again (and again and…well, you get the drift.) But I’ve never forgotten the way that he handled it, deciding that instead of showing anger or disappointment, he would calmly see to our safety. He showed us all that it was okay to make a choice, even the wrong one, as long as everybody got back home safe and sound.

I haven’t always followed his example as well as I’d like, but I hope he knows that I’ve never forgotten his face.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Mother's Day

She’s sitting on the living room sofa, one hand clutching a book, a finger hooked inside to mark her page. The other hand holds a series of black licorice strands that hang up and over in different directions like a crazy bouquet of limp stems. Lying beside and all around her are dogs, most of them small and all of them eager cuddlers. She is my mother, and this is the picture of her I carry in my mind.

It’s a composite, of course. I know this because I can never quite make out the title of the book, and because the dogs I see with her didn’t all live at the same time, but there they are, all united in their love for her.

I’m lucky. I’ve never had that love/hate relationship with my parents described by so many people I’ve known. There were rough times, yes, especially during difficult teenaged years, but even while I saw other families break upon the rocks of accusation, argument, and antagonism, I never had a moment’s doubt of the love my parents had for me and my sister.
She taught me to read, but more important, she taught me the love of reading, and the love of learning. She taught me that while we have to live in the world, there’s nothing wrong with taking a trip to dreamland every now and then. She taught me to love history, but to never be afraid to replace a legend with the facts. She taught me to look beyond the surface and to think more about the whys and less about the hows.

I’ve never given her enough credit, mostly because of my natural male inclination to talk about the things I learned from my father about how to be a man. I don’t mean to sell her short, however, because if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be the person I’ve become. I certainly wouldn't have been a writer.

I love you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Legends and Cold Reality

I've been doing deep research for my current project, intended to be a conspiracy-oriented thriller. When I kicked around some thoughts with a good friend of mine, he forcefully pooh-poohed the very idea of conspiracy, pointing out that plots inevitably fail, participants invariably talk. and the hard truth that our covert operators in reality are nowhere near as their counterparts in fiction.

I countered, pointing out the zealous mindset of determined Cold Warriors and hardened, trained patriots ready to sacrifice all on the altar of national security.

The more research I do, however, the harder reality is attempting to subvert the whole process. The legendary spymasters of the CIA, for example, are beginning to appear as a bunch of pampered, overeducated WASPs who blundered into one failure after another, benefitting largely from a PR machine every bit as effective as that enjoyed by the FBI during the halcyon days of Hoover.

James McCord, once an intelligence operative supposedly thoroughly seasoned by years in the CIA, was called out of early retirement to handle some surveillance for the Nixon administration. This crack operator went out and bought his bugs and transmitters at Radio Shack and corner drugstores. The operation's surreptitious entry was discovered when security doors the team had taped open were discovered. A security guard removed the tape from the door...and returned some time later to find that these stealthy operators had re-taped the door!

William Harvey became a legend in the intelligence community for his famous Berlin Tunnel, a daring enterprise that dug a tunnel straight under the Soviet Embassy in East Germany. It wasn't until years later that it was uncovered that the Soviets had known about it almost immediately, and had been using the tapped phone lines to send false information to the West.

It's hard to write a thriller when you realize how close it is to a comedy.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Grief is sometimes silent...

One of my heroes slipped the bonds of this earth in November, and I didn't even know it. As far as I know, no one did except for his immediate family, but Donald Hamilton has now moved on, no doubt carried aloft by the Valkyrie to eternal celebration.

For those who don't know the name, Donald Hamilton is best known as the creator of the "spy" Matt Helm (code name "Eric") - the quotation marks are there for a reason; Helm was a counter-assassin, pure and simple, and was only seen as a spy because of the popularity of the James Bond franchise at the peak time of the series. Helm was tough, surly, and vacillated between being as mean as a snake and as soft-hearted as a puppy. In that, I suspect, he was a true reflection of his iconoclastic creator, for Hamilton never skipped over a chance to rail against the superficiality of American culture. An avid outdoorsman, Hamilton had no problem with getting his hands bloody in pursuit of a good cut of meat, and had little patience for those who would eat a steak but recoil at the very idea of taking a rifle out and hunting for supper.

In later years, the Helm novels slipped from popularity, partially because of the decline in the straight-to-paperback market that showcased tough-guy prose and probably just as much because of Hamilton's tendency to lecture his readers, through Helm's voice, on soft American culture. From time to time, he let a troubling streak of the dinosaur show, and would sometimes paradoxically create a strong and vivid female character while propping up a cardboard, weak-stomached caricature within the same book.

What Hamilton did well, however, and in my opinion, better than Spillane or even Chandler, is give a credible and understandable portrait of a man whose stock in trade is violence. Throughout the series, Helm is cursed by the fact that this is really the only thing he's ever been good at, and while he can be downright pedantic when he's on his soapbox, the reader sometimes wonders how much of it is bluster to cover the scars that his way of life is leaving on him.

Hamilton spent the final years of his life in Sweden, where long-time Helmheads know he had special affections. Sailor, hunter, shooter, outdoorsman, and author, Hamilton passed away quietly in his sleep at age 90. Unlike Ed McBain, Mickey Spillane, or others of his ilk, Hamilton's passing was unknown and unheralded. To those who knew the wry humor and the taut plotting he brought to the table when at his best, his loss is a great one indeed.

So, for one last time, Eric out.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Sneak Peek

A little peek at the first part of Session One...

Why Write?

The first and biggest question that I would pose to any writer, especially any novice writer just getting his or her start in the field, is why do you want to do this? If your answer is anything similar to “I think it sounds like an easy way to make a ton of money,” then you should pick up your notebook, finish your coffee, and save yourself a ton of heartache by going home now, because I hate to be the guy who goes around squashing peoples’ dreams.

Writing is not easy. And, unless you are able to become a cottage industry like a Stephen King, an Anne Rice, or a John Grisham, there’s not a lot of money in it, at least not in relation to the blood, sweat, and tears you’ll end up spending on it.

See, the only real answers to that question are “Because I love writing,” or “Because I need to tell the stories that are inside me.” If you have that love and that need, then I can tell you this, here and now; every one of you can write a novel, and that’s what we’re going to be working through here for the next six weeks.

I’m going to give all of you my email address before you leave today. I urge you all to have or make at least one friend here in the class as well, because one thing that you’re probably going to need is a support system. Writers need to bounce ideas off one another, they need to commune with one another, and they need, on occasion, to drag one another by the scruff of the neck. You’ve all seen those war movies where a soldier gets wounded and one of the other guys in the unit slings the wounded man over his shoulder and carries him to safety? Look around the room here, because these are some of the people who’ll be sitting in the foxhole with you when you start to think that you can’t do this.

OK, enough scaring everybody and let’s talk about the fun stuff, shall we? What’s in it for a writer?

For one thing, writing is the only way that I know that you can play God, at least not without creating really awful progenies that will stalk the night and come back for you when you least expect it. You’re in charge, completely, and you control the characters and the very world they inhabit. The characters will express your feelings and emotions about the world you live in, and your view of that world, and your view of the people around you, and it’s all safely shrouded by the veil of fiction.

There’s a thrill that comes from telling a story, and the ultimate goal is to hold the end result in your hand; whether it’s a notebook filled with your own handwriting, or a printed ream of pages, or an actual book you can pluck from your shelf. You hold it in your hands and you can see that your dreams, your hopes, your hard work have resulted in art.

And, yes, it’s art. I don’t care if you’re writing a genre pot-boiler, a bodice-ripping romance, erotica, horror, it doesn’t matter. When a reader picks up that book, or that notepad, or that stack of pages, you have given him or her an experience – and that, my friends, is art.

And, hey, if you write a story that people want to read, and you catch a break or two, you might make a whole pile of money and get invited to speak on talk shows and have Ron Howard calling you up to offer you a wheelbarrow full of money for the movie rights, so there’s something to be said for art after all!

Workshop, Part the Second

This week begins the Creative Writing Workshop to be held at the Village Coffee House in Dundalk, MD. I have exciting news on this – the Dundalk Eagle has expressed an interest in printing a 1,500 word story or, if necessary, an excerpt from one of our participants, so you’ll have a shot at that most elusive of writing prizes – near instant gratification!

For those interested, the classes begin on March 11th, and the six sessions will cover such topics as:

Session One: Getting Started (4/11/07)
Ø Why Write?
Ø Tools of the Trade: Eyes, Ears, and Heart
Ø The Blank Page Terror
Ø Finding a Voice
Ø The Cold Open

Session Two: Character (4/18/07)
Ø Have We Met?
Ø Making Small Talk
Ø What’s In a Name?
Ø The All-Important Arc
Ø The Journey
Ø What’s My Motivation?
Ø Dialogue, he said.

Session Three: Readings and Critiques (4/25/07)
Ø Taming the Beasts
Ø Help! My Kid Is Ugly!
Ø Trimming the Fat
Ø Foot Cavalry
Ø Learn by Doing
Ø Having a Moment

Session Four: Plot (5/1/07)
Ø Outlines
Ø Mapping
Ø Upping the Ante
Ø Breaking the Story
Ø Drawing the Curtain

5/8/07 – Easter Sunday- no session

Session Five: Verisimilitude (5/15/07)
Ø Readings
Ø Research
Ø Experience
Ø Credibility


Session Six: Life and Art (5/22/07)
Ø Style Points
Ø The Second Draft
Ø The Goal
Ø The Need
Ø Now What?
Ø Alive! It’s Alive!