Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Reflecting on Change

"I feel just like somebody else
Man, I ain't changed, but I know I ain't the same." -- Jakob Dylan 

Change has been much on my mind lately. Aside from the fact that we are now a week into what is that most transitory of seasons, at least around here, my personal life has been in upheaval, too: kids have gone overseas and came back, last child graduated high school, we're dealing with the empty nest, and, most recently, I hit one of those life milestones, a birthday made more significant by the roundness of the number. Pulling back from me a bit, our nation is on the cusp of an election that could result in a significant change in the direction of the country, and our world is similarly embroiled in political and military struggle, while the changing climate looms over all. And, of course, I'm in the process of revising a novel, and since I don't write Hardy Boys mysteries, it's important for my characters to change, too. You can see why I've been consumed with this.

This past weekend I spent four days in a large rental house with 14 people I've known, in some cases, since kindergarten, people I've been tight with since junior high school. These people are my core friends, my closest friends, the ones who have my back and are there when I need them. The event was organized by someone who realized many of us had not seen each other in a few years, and that we are getting to the point where we'll most frequently see each other at weddings and funerals. It was time, he thought, to do something about it.

What amazed me about the weekend was how, even though some of us haven't seen each other for several years, even though time and relationships and children and jobs have conspired to separate us, we fit together, just as we did in the past. Also interesting was how quickly we slipped into the same roles: The Party Boy. The Mother Hen. The Production Manager. The Snarky One. On one level, it could be depressing to see that no one has changed (except for the weight and the hairlines). Yet change--some obvious, some subtle--was evident, both in my relationship to these people and in the general outlooks on life expressed by my friends. And as comforting as it is to see you can still laugh your ass off at the same silly stuff you laughed at 30 years ago (and the same kind of silly stuff as 30 years ago), it was even better to see how those people have grown and matured and changed.

In a book, a character's transformation typically occurs in a few hundred pages that most usually represents a time frame of days, weeks or months (exceptions abound, of course). This transformation is the result of a series of events that cascade off of one thing, the fabled "inciting incident". Unless you're writing Nancy Drew or, maybe, Jack Ryan (it's been a while, but I'm pretty sure Jack Ryan doesn't change much from one book to the next, except he gets a better job), the character is going to be significantly different than at the start--otherwise, why read? But what about real life?

I know for me, on first glance I don't feel much different than I did at 40, 25, 20, but as Jakob Dylan said, "I know I ain't the same." Unlike a literary character, however, I can't point to one episode and say, "That's what made me who I am today." Rather than a Mount St. Helens-style explosion that flattened everything for miles and utterly transformed the landscape, change in my life has been gradual, subtle, like continental drift. Even the big events--marriage, the births of my children, the deaths of my parents--as important and impactful as they've been, did not create instant, massive change. Instead, it's been the result of one thing after another, piling up slowly over time, building like a river delta. Writing a book about my life would no doubt provide a reader with some amusing anecdotes and poignant stories, but it would lack the drama and trauma to make it a worthy read. I'm not complaining, though; I think I like it better this way. Thank you as always for reading.

And, since we invoked the song at the beginning, here's The Wallflowers with One Headlight:


Monday, September 28, 2015

Help A Fellow Writer Out...

...and head on over to agent Carrie Pestritto's blog. Leave a critique on the posted query and help the writer potentially receive a 100-page critique from Carrie. I can tell you from experience that Carrie does excellent critiques. And as I've said ad infinitum, critiquing queries is an invaluable experience for the critiquer as well as the critiquee.

I am exhausted after a long, eventful weekend (a very positive long, eventful weekend). If I can get my act together on this, I will post about it tomorrow. See you then, and stop by Carrie's. Thanks!

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Short Quiz

A short quiz for today--no Googling, please:

How many of you non-football fans out there know why New England quarterback Tom Brady was in the news all summer?

How many of you non-hockey fans out there know why Chicago forward Patrick Kane has been in the news since early August?

One was accused of masterminded a scheme to tamper with game equipment.

The other was accused of rape.

One was the focus of an exhaustive league investigation, which resulted in a 100+ page report and a suspension.  He appealed, lost, and took the case to federal court, where his suspension was set aside.

The other was welcomed to training camp this week.

One was no doubt targeted at least in part because his team has a history of stretching, finding loopholes in, and out-and-out breaking the rules. This is, of course, an affront to the integrity of the game and must be punished.

The other was not targeted, despite having a history of bad behavior, which includes an arrest for assault, a weekend in Wisconsin that is the stuff of frat boy legend, and now a rape accusation. But hey, it's okay, he's only 20/23/26 (his age at the time of the respective incidents), right? I mean, boys will be boys, right?

Granted, in the one case, the investigation turned up actual wrong-doing, while the rape case is still at the grand jury stage and no charges have been filed. It says something, however, that screwing around with footballs is much bigger news than rape.

Now you may Google away.

Monday, September 14, 2015


Years ago, when I lived here...
...we received permission to throw a party. We sat down to plan and arrived at the only weekend date between Thanksgiving and Christmas that was available. That day turned out to be December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, which commemorates those who died in the Japanese attack in 1941.

The people I lived and worked with at the big house there were all shaped to a certain extent by World War II. We all had relatives who fought in the war or grew up during it. My father was 5 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Two of my uncles that I was close to served in the US Navy; so did my grandfather. Another uncle flew combat missions in the Army Air Corps. I have three close friends whose fathers fought across France and Italy against the Germans. And, it turns out, my future father-in-law (though I did not know him at the time) was a Pearl Harbor survivor.

We knew our history, and we knew, at least on an intellectual level, the horror of Pearl Harbor. It did not stop us from capitalizing on the day. The invitations we sent out said "Come and get bombed at our Pearl Harbor Day party." We decorated the hall with cutout airplanes and falling bombs on the walls. No one complained. If they had, we might have told them:

There was no harm in it, as far as we could tell. We were young, and full of the insensitivity and tactlessness that young people can be famous for. The party was a blast, and that house was every bit as good for a party as you might imagine.

Flash forward 20-something years. On Friday, while Rapi-scrolling (TM) through endless images on Facebook of the Twin Towers intact and the Twin Towers burning; of dust-covered firemen, and flags tattered and whole; a post from my cousin caught my eye. It showed the Twin Towers, with the Statue of Liberty in the background. But what really got my attention were the words. Said my cousin:

"I was surprised, angered, and disappointed when somebody called out 'Happy Remembrance Day!' this morning. Before I could stop myself I blurted out 'What's happy about it?' Later on, driving through [town name redacted for privacy] I saw an electronic billboard that was listing all the victims 9/11 by name. Most appropriate."

Honestly, I had no idea what Remembrance Day was, or even if it was. In looking it up, I came across something I did not know: in December, 2001, Congress declared September 11 to be Patriot Day (not to be confused with Patriots' Day in Massachusetts, which commemorates the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775). Furthermore, each year since 2009 President Obama has signed a proclamation declaring September 11 as "Patriot Day and National Day of Service and Remembrance." I guess I'm just not up on these things.

September 11 was a world-changing day, our generation's Pearl Harbor, and needs remembrance. Ironically, as my cousin's experience indicates, giving it an official designation on a calendar may actually make people think about it less. After a while, it just becomes another blip on the calendar, like National Boss Day or National Frozen Food Day--or, worse yet, a day that everyone looks forward to because they get the day off work and stores are having sales. I can envision a cheesy animation of the Twin Towers falling while a Crazy Eddie-style announcer shouts, "Our prices are COMING DOWN!"

A story I heard on NPR on Friday afternoon made a surprising point. "9/11 is already ancient history on some level," said Alice Greenwald, director of the National September 11 Memorial Museum. The story noted that approximately 25% of Americans now living either weren't born yet on September 11, 2001, or were too young to remember it. Time marches on. And I suppose I have to get used to the idea that there will be those in the near future making jokes about September 11 because the impacts to them will not seem visible. It doesn't make them bad or wrong or stupid--it just makes them young, without the same frame of reference and emotional response that those of us who lived through it have. I note that for myself, my own level of respect and reflection for Pearl Harbor Day, Veterans' Day and Memorial Day has increased over the years; I suspect it will for them, too.

Monday, September 7, 2015

And Now...Deja Vu

Three (!) years ago, I wrote a piece here called The Second Week Blues, in which I chronicled how The Magpie had done great at school for the first week plus, then hit a bump. What I didn't tell you is that there was more to the story. Yes, she had picked up a nasty computer virus which kept her up late into the night, but around the same time, there was something else that kept her up all night as well. And I woke up early (as I tend to do) on a weekend morning and found a message on the answering machine from her, a very unhappy message that was left after a very unhappy incident involving one of her suite-mates that pulled The Magpie in because the walls are thin in those dorms.

Flash forward three years. Yesterday morning it was The Catbird leaving an early-morning message, again due to an incident involving a dorm-mate that began around 3 a.m. and left her a little shaken. The good news is no one was hurt as far as I can tell. Alcohol was involved in this case, as it was in the incident in The Magpie's dorm 3 years ago, as it is in so many things that go wrong on college campuses these days. How this one will play out remains to be seen, but it raises a question: How do you know the difference between being homesick and knowing that a place is not for you? (This is not The Catbird's question; despite the incident, she's still pretty solid)

The person in the incident in The Catbird's dorm has a very bad case of homesickness and has declared her intention to leave school. My wife and I are in agreement here: one week is not enough to know (in most cases, at least); you need to give it more time. But how long is long enough? How much time do you need to power through to the other side? At what point do you go from saying, "Give it more time, you'll get over it" to "Okay, come on home"? Everyone is different, so the answer will vary for each person, but it IS a good question, an important question. Some people are not ready for life away from home at 18, and some people are not suited for every place. I do not envy this person, or her parents. Withdrawing from a college is a big decision, one that should not be made lightly, and I hope they make the right decision.

And now, music. Something melancholy, I think, given the mood.

Finally, I should point out that Agent Carrie is once more open to submissions for her Query Critique Contest! If you've got a query ready to go, check out her blog and find out how to enter, and then check back to critique the query when it's posted. Critiquing queries is a great way to hone your own skills at writing those oh-so-difficult beasts that are oh-so-necessary.

That's it, have a great week!