I write therefore I am. I am therefore I write. One or the other.
A dear friend passed away on Tuesday. She’d been battling cancer for several years and leaves her husband and two teenage children. One of my college buddies died in March. He’d been with a bunch of us at the Breeders Cup in Kentucky last October telling jokes, drinking bourbon, and celebrating life. His wife found him dead on the couch from a heart attack. Another close friend, who I’ve known for over 40 years, almost died last year and still faces serious medical issues.
I could on but I can’t. I won’t. One of my favorite quotes is from the Ceylonese philosopher, Ananda Coomaraswamy: “I’d rather die ten years too early than ten minutes too late.” The more cynical interpretation of that statement might point to the lives of Joe Paterno and Bill Cosby – men who were idolized until their terrible secrets were revealed.
But that’s not how I interpret the quote. I’d rather be the first to go than the last. Saying goodbye to loved ones, watching their bodies wither away and suffer with pain, and seeing their mental abilities diminish with each passing day – those are the agonizing moments that are much harder to bear than any we experience for ourselves.
The flipside argument, of course, is that I’m being selfish. My passing would create pain for those left behind – so am I saying I’d rather have them suffer than me?
I actually don’t know the answer. All I know is that I miss my deceased friends and I worry about the living. So, please, everyone stay healthy and strong – and live everyday as though it might be the last.
My first book was the young adult novel Good News/Bad News published way back in 1980. It was the realization of a lifelong dream and I dedicated it to the person I loved most in the world: Lillie, my maternal grandmother. My father had died when I was eighteen months old, and Lillie came to live with us in the Bronx. My mother was working and so I spent my days with my grandmother, running errands, watching her cook, learning numbers and letters, playing games, and talking. She was always smiling and laughing. She had a uniformly positive view of the world despite becoming a widow in her thirties and having to raise six kids on her own. Grandma Lillie was a treasure over my entire life. She was always someone I could talk to. She was surprisingly open-minded – even about my high-school-dropout girlfriend whose hair was a different color pretty much every other day or that crazy rock-and-roll music I listened to.
My grandmother was in her eighties when the book was published. She smiled and got teary-eyed when she saw the dedication, but she was clearly a little confused. She seemed to think that the dedication was only on her copy. I told her it was printed on every single copy, and that’s when I got teary-eyed. In that moment I think I was more proud about having given my grandmother joy than I was about having written a book.
The dedication to my grandmother was a public affirmation of how much she meant to me, and I am eternally grateful that I was able to share it with her before she passed away. In the books and years since, I’ve written dedications to my wife, my children, and most recently to my dear Aunt Gloria and late Uncle Julie. That’s all good news, but the bad news is I’ll never write enough books to publicly recognize and thank all the people who have impacted my life.
So here’s the plan: I’m going to strive every day to express my love and appreciation for the people in my life. And here’s the rest of the plan: I want you to join me in expressing thanks – at least once every day – to someone who has made your life better in some way. Make sure they know how much they mean to you. Odds are they will pay it forward and, over time, the world will become a better place because you took the time to say, “I love you,” “I couldn’t have done it without you,” or simply “Thanks.”
There’s a Yiddish proverb that suggests, “If God lived on earth, people would break His windows.” The point is that even the ideals that live in our minds would not survive the harsh light of reality. This point is even more important today where far too many politicians and pundits wax poetic about the good old days and traditional values.
Consider the likely response if Jesus suddenly appeared in the twenty-first century in the exact human form he embodied in Jerusalem. How many people do you honestly think would accept his divinity, sing his praises, and offer adulation? As you’re thinking about your own response to a modern-day Jesus, remember that he’d probably be around five feet tall, the average height for that time. He’d probably look more like Saddam Hussein than the blue-eyed, sandy-tressed Adonis pictured in prayer books, paintings and religious magazines. And, if he remained true to his teachings, would look with love upon all men and women regardless of race, sexual orientation and political beliefs. He’d also shower love upon the adherents to any and all non-Christian religions. He would fully understand that very few people choose a specific religion on their own – they simply adopt the religion of their family. He would understand that even the most fervent Catholics and most devoted Muslims would likely be impassioned Jews if they’d been born into a Jewish family.
This modern-day Jesus would ask how could anyone hate or scorn or commit violence against someone whose only “crime” is following in their parents’ footsteps? Those footsteps will likely be different than the path your own parents took, but different is not a judgmental term. Different just means different – not better or worse. That understanding – simple yet profound – provides the bedrock to a lifetime journey on the path to human compassion, love, and understanding.
I’ve written several pieces exploring why the male characters in my novels tend to be misogynist A-holes. But I recently had an experience that made me realize I’m looking at the issue from the wrong perspective.
I was minding my own business, when three twenty-somethings sat beside me – two female and one male. It was clear they had just met and the “dude” (‘cause that’s what he was) was in full-flirt mode seeing which of the two he could most engage. He asked what they did and Female A said she was “an executive assistant.” Then she paused and said, “Basically, I’m somebody’s bitch.” Female B chimed in and said she was “also someone’s bitch.” Female A, either in humorous or competitive mode, augmented her status by saying, “I’m an executive bitch,” and Female B concurred saying, “I’m just a regular bitch.”
In the parlance they seemed to prefer, I wanted to bitch-slap both of them right on the spot. The conversation saddened and disgusted me. The idea that my daughter, nieces, or female students would ever describe themselves as “somebody’s bitch” made my skin scrawl. It was terrible on so many levels. The two women were recent graduates of a prominent New England university and just starting their careers. I teach at Boston College and I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it is for young people to land their first job. Those first jobs are usually nothing near what they had envisioned, but that’s okay. Every job is a springboard for the next job with more responsibility and higher pay. Every job is honorable and every job provides an opportunity to learn and observe. The world is full of stories of C-level female executives who began their career as assistants, including Christiane Amanpour, Donna Karan, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. I doubt any of them ever described themselves as “somebody’s bitch.”
Words are powerful, and the words we speak aloud define us. Referring to oneself as a “bitch” provides tacit permission for others to view you that way. There’s an old adage that recommends you dress for the job you want. It’s even more important that you think of yourself and conduct yourself in terms of the job you want. I remember hiring a young woman about ten years ago as my “assistant.” When I offered her the position I said, “someday you’re going to be running this place.” Her intelligence, ambition, and work ethic emanated from her words, body language, poise, and self-confidence. She – and anyone who knew her – would never describe her as “somebody’s bitch.” She wasn’t and would never be. Ten years later, her career is progressing on a steady upward arc and the sky remains the limit.
I worry, however, about the career path of these two young women. I worry about their self-perception, the choices they will make in life and love, and their ability to recognize and achieve their full potential.
I’ve long considered myself a feminist. I read and absorbed Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer back in my twenties. My two best bosses ever were both women. I always believed women could do anything men could do, but I’ve more recently come to the conclusion that women can do many – if not most – things better than men. That’s why I am so adamant and vocal with my female students to speak up for themselves and not be shy or hesitant to trumpet their skills and accomplishments.
That’s also why my novels feature strong female characters who put their male counterparts to shame. Those male characters may indeed be misogynist A-holes, but their failings are amplified in comparison to the smart and capable women they interact with. Their failings are also purposely exaggerated so male readers notice. Us males tend towards the Neanderthal and often have to be hit over the head with an insight before truly taking it in. And there’s nothing I like better than hitting Neanderthals over the head.
I can’t point to any specific event or moment in time. I’ve been an avid reader since early childhood. I remember being sick in bed with the flu when I was in grammar school. My father brought me a stack of books – mostly fiction and biographies – from the library and he couldn’t believe how fast I read them all and asked for another batch. I loved the way reading helped me escape the discomfort of being sick, and somewhere deep in my psyche the seed was probably planted that I would like to offer that same kind of respite and joy to future readers.
At what age did you know you wanted to be a writer?
For as long as I can remember. Like many kids I starting writing goofy stories for my own enjoyment and to share with friends. I sold my first article when I was 16. I’ve since sold three novels, two nonfiction books, three books of humor, and dozens of magazine articles (and self-published several other books). I’ve often said my tragic flaw is having too many interests – which is why I’ve written in such a wide variety of genres. Nonetheless, I do think it is curiosity that has driven my writing life.
Do you take notes when reading or watching a movie?
I trend to take notes everywhere. Ideas for plots, characters, and dialogue pop up while I’m showering, driving, falling asleep, walking the dogs, etc. When I’m reading or watching movies/TV, I’ll sometimes think about different ways a scene could have been handled. Depending on where I am, I often record my ideas as a voice memo on my iPhone or send myself an email reminder. Because I’m always taking notes I have way more storylines, situations, characters, and plot twists than I could ever use. I can’t point to how or why, but I do believe that inspiration derives from being open to new ideas and keeping my eyes and ears wide open.
Do you have a day job? What do you do?
I guess I’m in that stage of life called semi-retirement – meaning that I no longer have a 9-5 job. I do, however, mix and match four different jobs. Writing is certainly my focus and I write every single day. I’m also an adjunct professor at Boston College and I still do the occasional consulting project. And fourth, I’m a part-time chauffeur for a local car service company where I get to meet a wide variety of people and get inspiration for characters and storylines.
How often do you write?
I’m very disciplined about writing, so I write every single day. When I wrote Going Both Ways I had an objective of at least 500 words a day, 7 days a week. If you wait for inspiration, you’ll wait a long time.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently writing two novels. I’m finishing a black comedy about the current state of American politics. While I’m certain I could place it with a publisher, I think time is of the essence so I’m going to self-publish it around May 1. As my longer term project, I’m writing a “road-tripper” novel that explores love, loss, and the full range of interpersonal relationships.
One could make a strong argument that the three scariest words to state aloud (particularly in the political realm) are these: I don’t know. That phrase is an explicit admission that we’re less than perfect. Our fear of saying I don’t know is amplified by the worries that we should know it and that everyone else knows it.
There are two alternative approaches to saying I don’t know. The first is to remain silent. You might look away and hide your head, try to change the subject, or excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or refill your coffee. The second, and far more damaging in the long run, is to act like you know. Think about times when you’re asked a question and you’re confident about the answer. Your response will be concise, definitive, and coherent. If you’re anything like the rest of us, there have probably been occasions when you haven’t known the answer to a question but felt compelled to respond nonetheless. In those situations your response was probably lengthy, convoluted, and effectively meaningless. We use far more words to cover up a lack of knowledge than when we actually know what we’re talking about. And because we have no idea what the hell we’re talking about, we’re far more likely to commit a verbal faux pas that could haunt us in the future.
The recent campaigning in the New York GOP primary provides proof positive. The majority of politicians are Christians, but man do they ever love the Jews come election season. They chow down on bagels and gefilte fish, and wax poetic about core Jewish values like education, family, and hard work. But that’s where they stop, and that’s where John Kasich flubbed it. On a Brooklyn sidewalk, Kasich decided it was time to preach to the choir. These were his words regarding Passover: “It’s a wonderful, wonderful holiday for our friends in the Jewish community.” He could have stopped there and demonstrated a modicum of knowledge re the Jewish calendar and the fact that Passover was indeed approaching. But no, he felt compelled to go further and describe “The great link between the blood that was put above the lamp posts…The blood of the lamb, because Jesus Christ is known as the lamb of God. It’s his blood.” That statement is wrong on so many levels, but the key point is that Kasich would have been far better off keeping his mouth shut rather than spouting off gibberish that wasn’t just nonsensical but was actually offensive.
While Kasich was lecturing on Judaism, Donald Trump was nearby declaring, “I love the Jews. I love’em.” Trump probably couldn’t even spell “Passover” or what it means to the Jewish people, but who cares? He loves the Jews. Notwithstanding the cloying pandering inherent in “I love the Jews,” there is nothing controversial or offensive in the statement. That’s partly why Trump wins. He says so little that it’s difficult to assess anything he truly stands for.
The moral of the story? Do not “fake it ‘til you make it.” Either shut up or admit your ignorance. Acknowledging that you are not an all-knowing automaton is a sign of self-confidence. It will demonstrate your integrity, engender respect and, most significantly, encourage others to embrace the same openness. The culture of an organization, community, or family can be positively impacted when people feel comfortable about sharing their shortcomings. Over time you’ll experience a greater sense of teamwork, increased risk-taking, and more innovative thinking when the fear of looking dumb is removed. It’s a win-win by any standard of measure.
Going Both Ways, like my previous novel Still Counting, features a lead character who personifies every boorish male trait I want to protect my daughter from ever encountering. Patrick Morelli is a 27-year-old underachiever who still lives and acts like an adolescent frat boy. He stares at the slightest hint of cleavage and immediately undresses every woman with his eyes regardless of age, shape, race, or political affiliation. Actually none of those traits matter to him. All he’s concerned about is that she possess a complete set of female parts. You could say he’s a simple man with simple needs, but that’s letting him off far too easily. He’s never had a “girl friend” – i.e., a friend who happened to be female. His only interaction with women, other than his mother and sister, has been in their role as current or potential dating partners. As many women as he’s been with, Patrick doesn’t have a clue about what makes women tick. In fact, he’s pretty clueless about most aspects of life.
In Patrick’s defense, he does grow and mature over the course of the story. His every-other-day incarnation as a female (Trish) forces him to see the world from a decidedly different perspective. But in truth, he probably wouldn’t have fully evolved without the guidance and pointed chastisements of his sister Sarah. At the beginning of his alternating male/female embodiment, Patrick seems content to turn Trish into a similarly sex-obsessed “frat girl.” But then Trish has several encounters with Patrick-like boors and the proverbial light bulb goes off in Patrick’s head. He becomes a fully evolved male that both men and women would enjoy hanging around with.
So now, in my own defense, I am not condoning misogynist behavior. Instead I try to use it as a springboard to examine the male-female dichotomy. I use exaggerated boorishness because most of us males are not particularly good with subtlety. Male chauvinism is such a prevalent characteristic that we don’t notice or acknowledge it unless it beats us over the head with a two-by-four. It’s almost like we have to experience the Platonic ideal of misogyny to realize we want nothing to do with it.
But that’s not really the whole story. Patrick becomes a better person because of the women in his life – Trish, Sarah, and Gigi. I’m not certain that he would have matured so quickly (or at all) on his own – and that gets to the core of why my male characters tend to be sexist pigs. In my heart of hearts, I guess I believe women are superior to men in most of the ways that really matter. I see that in my wife, daughter, and nieces – and it’s my hope that more men will appreciate all the ways women make our lives and the world better.
I recently had an epiphany – actually two epiphanies that complement and affirm each other. In addition to writing, teaching, and consulting, I’m a part-time chauffeur for a local car service company. That’s when the first epiphany occurred.
I was driving a client from Logan Airport to a downtown Boston hotel. I knew exactly where the hotel was and how to get there. Nonetheless, we are required to have GPS running on all jobs. I was literally two blocks away from the hotel when the GPS suggested I take a right turn. It was a confusing intersection with three possible right turns. I took the middle one and was forced to get onto the Mass Turnpike heading out of town. I was able to remedy my mistake but only after wasting about ten minutes of my client’s time and my own. I can state unequivocally that I would not have made a wrong turn if I’d been navigating solely on my own. No way.
Epiphany Number Two occurred yesterday. I’m working on a new novel with a much larger array of characters than I normally handle. One of those characters suddenly took over a scene – in a way I had never envisioned but in a way that was totally in sync with his values and personality. That scene prompted a significant swerve in the storyline and is now leading me down a path full of additional creative opportunities. I love when that happens because it tells me the story is working. The characters are taking charge instead of me. So what was the core of the second epiphany? I don’t think the character revelation would have happened if I had been following a detailed outline (ordering me to turn right when I knew I should go left).
There are two types of novelists – outliners and “seat-of-the-pantsers.” I am decidedly a member of the latter camp. It’s not that I have anything against outlines. I can see how they might serve a purpose, but from my perspective they are a time-waster. When I get an idea for a book I want to dive right in, get to know the characters, and let the plot develop over time. My new novel, Going Both Ways, was close to half-written when the lead character made a mistake which turned into a decision which turned the whole book in a new direction.
I guess the bottom line to me as a writer – and a driver – is that I’m okay getting lost occasionally. But I want to get lost and rediscover where I am on my terms – not due to some lame GPS app or exhaustive outline. But that’s just me.