Remembering Bill

This is an unusually long and personal post. I normally don’t include much about my life outside of writing, but I recently lost a very dear friend, and I felt compelled to put some thoughts together, not only to honor his memory, but also to clarify my own jumbled thinking at this difficult time.

When I started out, I wanted to write a long, hopefully eloquent, essay describing my relationship with Bill and how much his friendship meant to me. But for some reason, my memories came out in little bursts, like self-contained snapshots that were not particularly connected. Maybe that’s the nature of grief and memory. In any case, here’s my tribute to my friend, Bill Breeden.

Bill Never Met A Stranger

I met Bill in 1978. He was a freshman at Western Illinois University and he lived in Henninger Hall next door to my good friends Ken and Keith. I didn’t attend WIU at that time, but when I’d visit Ken and Keith, I’d also hang out with Bill. We quickly became friends.

The thing about Bill is that he never met a stranger. He befriended everyone he met. During his sophomore year at WIU, Bill’s roommate was a guy named Rhett. Bill didn’t know him. The school paired them randomly to room together.

Rhett was an odd guy. He came from a wealthy family and was older than the rest of us by five or six years. Where he had been before he landed at Western was a bit of a mystery. It seemed to involve heavy drug use and perhaps some jail time. It really wasn’t clear. Even though Rhett was very different from us, Bill always made sure that he was invited to hang out with us. Rhett and Bill had very little in common, but that didn’t stop them from becoming friends. That was just Bill’s way.

Sleeping with a Laundry Basket

My first year at WIU, Bill and I lived on the same floor in Henninger Hall (That was the year Rhett was Bill’s roommate). A couple of years later, Bill, Ken, Keith, our friend Brett, and I lived together in a house on East Murray Street in Macomb. What a year that was. A couple of years after that, Bill and I were both in grad school and we shared an apartment together. With the exception of my family, I lived with Bill more than any other person.

Bill was a great guy, but he wasn’t always the most organized or tidy guy. His room in our house on East Murray was a disaster.  There was stuff scattered everywhere. You couldn’t even see the floor because of the clothes, books, papers, and food wrappers lying around.

One time after doing laundry (which was a rarity), Bill threw his clothes into a laundry basket and put the basket on his bed. He pulled clothes out of the basket as needed, and at night, he somehow contorted his body in his tiny, single bed so he could sleep around the basket. After several days, Keith and I noticed that the basket hadn’t moved from his bed, so we kept an eye on it. The laundry basket stayed in place for weeks before Bill ran out of clothes and the process started all over again.

Bill and “Stoney” Al

Things weren’t always easy for Bill. As far as I know, Bill’s father was never much of a presence in his life, and his mom struggled to provide for the family. When Bill was in high school, his mom moved the family to Galesburg from their home in Momence, a small town near Kankakee, IL. Things didn’t work out as planned in Galesburg, and Bill’s mom decided to return to Momence. But Bill had become established in Galesburg, and their local minister volunteered to let Bill stay with his family so Bill could finish high school.

Also living with the minister was a guy by the name of Alan Bryan. I seem to remember that Al had been adopted by the minister and his family, but I’m not sure. Al and Bill were the same age, and they became like brothers. They graduated together from high school, then went off to WIU together where they were roommates their freshman year.

Al was the most straight-laced guy we knew. He didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, and didn’t do drugs, so naturally, we called him “Stoney” Al. I guess we thought the irony made us seem clever. After that first year at WIU, Bill and Al went their separate ways. Al eventually joined the Marines (Correction: Al was in the Air Force) and served his country for several years. In fact, he still works as a civilian at the Pentagon. But despite their different paths in life, Al and Bill remained close. That shouldn’t be surprising. That’s the kind of guy Bill was.

A Passion and A Purpose

Bill loved his job as a teacher at Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in Illinois. I knew he liked his job, and I knew his students and co-workers were very fond of him. But what surprised me after Bill’s heart attack and passing was how many lives he touched, and the depth of the love and respect others felt for him.

After Bill’s heart attack, both current and former students posted on Facebook talking about how much Bill meant to them. They talked about his willingness to listen, his sage advice, his corny jokes, and how he had changed their lives. Fellow teachers wrote about their appreciation for Bill, how he had helped them, supported them, and mentored them.

After Bill had his heart attack, but before he died, one of his students wrote: “Finding out my all-time favorite teacher isn’t in a good place right now is super heartbreaking. I met Mr. Breeden when I was just a sophomore, from that day on my life changed forever. Mr. Breeden believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself, if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have even graduated high school. I remember always looking forward to seeing him every single day, he could brighten up anyone’s day. He’s such a funny person with such a big heart and lots of love to give. I remember him always helping me in the mornings with my math work. He gave such great insightful advice. I could literally talk to him about any and everything. I’m so grateful to have the privilege to even know him.

Another of Bill’s students said: “Getting off of work to hear that the best teacher I’ve ever [had] has passed away is the most heartbreaking thing ever. Bill Breeden, you were what other teachers should strive to be. You gave me confidence in school, which is something I never thought I would have and you constantly made everyone around you smile and laugh. I’m so lucky to have had you as a teacher. You’re greatness will be missed.

And yet another student wrote: “RIP to someone who left [too] soon and one of the best teachers I ever had. [T]hank you for being someone I could look up to and go to if I needed help with something or just to talk.

One of Bill’s fellow teachers wrote: “Today was my first day back to school without working with Bill Breeden. To say it was hard walking in where he should have been is an understatement…He was a great inspiration to many, fun to be around, an amazing teacher, and just an all around great guy! I feel honored to say I knew him and worked with him…He will be greatly missed.

Another one wrote: “Bill was one of a kind! He was a good friend and mentor. As I was finishing up my master’s degree and would often sub in special ed, he would request me as his sub. The irony is, Bill knew math was my worst subject and I was terrified of teaching his classes. He would go the extra mile and make me an answer key, work out all the problems for me, so that I and the students would be successful. He told me, ‘Ange, it’s ok to not know all of this, you know the kids, do your best and you’ll be fine.’ Knowing Bill had your back was a true blessing. He was loved by many, touched the hearts of all who knew him and will be missed.”

And a teacher shared this story that captured Bill’s personality beautifully: “One of my favorite Bill Breeden memories was when I was his assistant basketball coach back in 2007-2008. He put me in charge of calling an out of bounds play after a timeout. I told the girls what to do, then sent them on the floor. After it was too late, I noticed we had 6 girls on the court. I realized it, Bill realized it, but the ref did not. We passed the ball in bounds, ran the play, scored, then he quickly called a timeout before anyone knew what happened. He just looked at me and shook his head and said “Really, Gamble???” while trying not to laugh. It was the last out of bounds play I called that season, but it was the start of years of ridicule.

The amazing thing to me is these are just a few of the many posts people have made for Bill. The one common thread in all of them is that Bill was kind, he cared, he listened, he supported. When you’ve known someone a long time, you can forget what makes them special. Thank you to Bill’s students and co-workers for reminding me of things about Bill that I’ve known for a long time, but maybe took for granted.

An Ugly Sport Coat and a Little Italian Porn Music

One thing that I loved and appreciated about Bill was his eclectic taste in music and fashion. His taste in fashion was, quite honestly, odd, and his taste in music was constantly changing.

Bill loved strange looking sport coats, although I suspect he didn’t view them as all that strange. Almost anything unusual was to his liking, the louder and more garish, the better.

A few years ago he picked up a kitschy (His principle called it “hideous.”) red, white, and blue plaid sport coat and wore it to school on the day yearbook pictures were being taken (See the photo above). He complimented the sport coat with a white shirt and blue bow tie. Rumor has it he was also wearing Bermuda shorts, but the photo doesn’t include his lower body. The photo was a hit, and Bill repeated the same look every year afterwards.

Bill and I were once having a conversation about what music we had on our iPods. My taste in music is pretty conventional. Most of what I listen to comes from the 70s and 80’s, with a few newer bands thrown in.

Bill’s iPod was all over the board. At the moment, Bill explained, he was really into music from 1980’s Italian porn movies. When he said that, I laughed. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. He had actually downloaded 1980’s Italian porn music (Where would you even get that?). He had been listening to it for a while, and he really liked it. That was pretty typical of Bill.

A Kind Word and A Smile

Bill believed that small gestures could have a big and meaningful impact. In addition to teaching, Bill was the head high school golf coach. At the last golf match of the season, Bill walked the course with the seniors. It was a chance for him to discuss the golf season, share some thoughts and memories, and let the senior players know that, although they might be moving on with life, away from high school, he’d always be there for them. It was just one of the many ways Bill showed his students that he had their back, that he’d lend an ear if they ever needed to talk, and that he believed in their ability to do great things.

When one of Bill’s co-workers announced that she was pregnant with a boy, Bill wrote a letter to the teacher’s unborn child. He wanted to let the boy know that he had a great and talented mother. Bill realized he could have a positive impact on the lives of other people, so he put in a little extra time and effort to do so. That was Bill’s way.

Packers vs Bears

Bill was a fan of the Green Bay Packers. I’m not sure how that happened. He was raised in Chicago Bears country but came away cheering for the Packers. And he was always more than happy to remind anyone of his fandom if they ever forgot, although it would have been hard to forget considering the ugly green and gold Packers sweater he often wore.

Bill loved to point out the Packers recent (And by recent, I mean the last thirty years) dominance over the Bears. He was heartless and relentless in his support of the Packers, especially when they played the Bears. But in recent years, something changed. He toned down the rhetoric a little. There were even times that I didn’t get a message from Bill when the Packers humiliated the Bears.

It could be that Bill was getting soft in his old age. I think even Bill, the ultimate Packers fan, was beginning to feel a little mercy toward his friends who were Bears fans. I could be wrong, but when it came to the Packers-Bears rivalry, it was almost like Bill was beginning to feel something akin to compassion. He wanted the Packers to destroy the Bears. He wanted the Bears to walk away humbled and emasculated. But he didn’t want to see his friends suffer anymore. Or maybe I’m just trying to ascribe human emotions to Bill when it comes to his Packers fandom. I don’t know. That seems unlikely. Like I say, I could be wrong.

I Hope It’s Not Too Late

I loved Bill Breeden. He was a wonderful husband to Sierra, a great and supportive friend, a talented and passionate teacher, and an all around good guy. I was proud to know him, proud of the career he built for himself, and proud of the man he had become. The sad part is, I never told him. I didn’t tell him I loved him. Guys just don’t do that. I didn’t tell him how proud I was of him for the job he had done as a teacher and a coach, or how impressed I was of the way he handled the role of husband, father, and friend. Why didn’t I tell him?

I don’t think I’m unique in this regard. It’s not unusual for any of us to compliment a stranger on a job well done, but never tell those closest to us how much they mean to us. And I don’t think it’s only men who withhold thoughts and emotions, although I think it’s fair to say that guys are probably worse about this than women. The point is, we’re all guilty.

Telling someone you are close to that you love, respect, and appreciate them can be hard. It carries risk. What if they reject you? What if you embarrass them? What if they don’t feel the same about you? So we hold back, we don’t put ourselves out there, we play it safe. But just think about what we’re losing by keeping our feelings to ourselves.

One of the biggest things I regret as I say goodbye to Bill is that we didn’t open up to each other more. We were both products of the macho Western male mentality that requires men to be strong and reign in their emotions. I get that. But I still wish I had told Bill that I loved him. I wish I had told him how much his friendship meant to me. I wish I would have shared how happy I was for him for his professional successes and his personal triumphs. I wish I had told him how proud I was of the life he had built for himself, a life that included a wife he adored, a son he loved, friends he treasured, and a work family he cherished. I wish I had shared how impressed I was with the way he related to his students, the way they confided in him, and the way he listened, motivated, and supported them. I wish I had said all of this because it was important to me for Bill to know how I felt. How I still feel.

I hope, in some cosmic way, that it’s not too late. That, somehow, Bill knows.

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The Best Books I Read in 2017

In my review of the best books I read in 2016, I mentioned that I had not read many good books during the year. I read a few really good books and a lot of mediocre ones. That’s not the case with my 2017 list. For me, 2017 was a very good year for books. But before I get to my list of the ten best books I read in 2017, let me complain a little bit.

Expectations can be a funny thing. If you’re expectations are low, it’s easy for a good book to surprise you. But the opposite is also true. If too many people tell you how great a book is, it can be hard for that book to meet your expectations.

So, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that the two Harry Potter books I read this year—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets—were disappointing. I had heard people wax poetic about the Harry Potter series for years. They loved J.K. Rowling’s books and the movies that were made from them. They dressed as Harry Potter characters for Halloween (and sometimes not on Halloween), and they made pilgrimages to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando. These people were true fans. Me, not so much.

Author J.K. Rowling has had great success with her Harry Potter books, but I wasn’t impressed. I thought the writing was just okay, and there were big problems with the plots in both books. As you can imagine, neither book made my list for 2017.

I was also very disappointed in Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro is a Nobel Prize winning author who is highly regarded in literary circles, so I had high expectations when I read his 2005 novel. But it didn’t turn out that way. I found his writing on the sentence level to be competent, but his storytelling was far too slow and boring. There’s an old joke about literary writing: nothing much happens, but it happens in great detail. The reason the joke works is because there’s a great deal of truth to it. Ishiguro’s work (at least Never Let Me Go) is the truth behind the joke.

That brings us to this year’s list. Remember, these are books I read in 2017, but they may have been published years ago. Let’s do the list in descending order. Don’t skip ahead. Let the tension build.

10. Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk – Is it possible to like a book and be disappointed in it at the same time? That’s exactly how I felt after reading Fight Club, the popular novel first published in 2005. I had heard great things about it, but had never read it. I had heard great things about the movie version of the book, starring Brad Pitt, but had never seen it. So, I came to Fight Club with high expectations, maybe too high. I liked the book, and the psychological nature of the writing, but I can’t say that I loved it. I would definitely recommend Fight Club, but I won’t over-hype it. It’s a good book worth reading, but don’t let the book’s (and movie’s) popularity set your expectations too high.

 

9. Perfume River by Robert Olen ButlerPerfume River was published in 2016, and in 2017 was nominated for the Andrew Carnegie Medal. I had heard a little bit of buzz about the book, so I decided to give it a read. I’m glad I did. The book takes a look back at the Vietnam War from the perspective of Robert, a seventy-year-old history professor at Florida State (where the author is a professor). The Vietnam War split his family apart when his brother, Jimmy, chose to live in Canada rather than serve in a war he didn’t believe in. The family remains split up for nearly fifty years until the family patriarch, a World War II vet, takes ill and dies. The father turned his back on Jimmy when he went to Canada, and it’s up to Robert to try to reunite the family for the father’s funeral. In the meantime, Robert’s marriage to Darla is being strained, and Jimmy’s relationship with his long-time girlfriend becomes more and more complicated. Perfume River is a well-written, engaging story. Although it can be a little slow at times, it’s definitely worth the read.

8. Jimmy Buffet: A Good Life All the Way by Ryan White – This is one of two nonfiction books that made this year’s list. I’m a fan of Jimmy Buffet’s music, but even more, I’m intrigued by the lifestyle that has grown up around him. Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurants and hotels have become ubiquitous in resort areas around the country (and a few internationally). Margaritaville has even moved into the 55-and-over residence business. Buffet was behind the creation of Landshark Beer, now owned and marketed by Anheuser-Busch. He is an interesting fellow who has parlayed his easy-going, toes-in-the-sand lifestyle into a wealthy life. And his fans—who refer to themselves as Parrotheads—love him for it. The book chronicles Buffet’s early life in Pascagoula, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama, his time as a struggling songwriter in Nashville, and his serendipitous move to Key West, where the Jimmy Buffet lifestyle was officially born. To be sure, Ryan White’s book is not a critical look at Buffet’s life and success. It’s more a biography written by an unquestioning fan. Even so, I enjoyed the book and the temporary escape to Margaritaville.

7. Train by Pete Dexter – I have been reading a lot of Pete Dexter recently, and the more I read, the more I appreciate Dexter’s writing and his ability to tell a story. Train is not a new book. It was originally published in 2003 and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction that year. The book takes place in 1953 and follows Lionel “Train” Walk, a young black caddy at a San Diego country club, and his benefactor, Millard Packard, a tough San Diego police detective who makes his own rules, and seems bored with ordinary life. Train appears to be going nowhere in life until Packard shows up at the country club one day. Time and again, Packard intervenes in Train’s life, seemingly without ever asking for anything in return. Train doesn’t understand this white man’s interest in him. In fact, no one seems to understand Packard, who is fearless in any situation, to the point of recklessness. His wife, the victim of a horrific crime Packard investigated, loves him, but also doesn’t understand his unorthodox behavior. Eventually, she fears what she cannot understand. One criticism I have about the book is the ending. As any writer will tell you, endings are hard. In this case, as good a writer as Dexter is, I’m afraid he swung and missed at the ending. Even so, the book is still good enough to make this year’s list.

6. The Life We Bury by Allen EskinsThe Life We Bury was published in 2014 and was nominated for several fiction awards. The story is about Joe Tolbert, a college student who has to write a paper for his English class. The assignment is to interview a stranger and write a brief biography. He reluctantly trudges off to a local retirement home to find someone interesting, and he is introduced to Carl Iverson, a Vietnam War hero, and convicted murderer of a teenage girl. Carl has cancer. He was medically paroled to the nursing home and only has a few months to live. Joe has trouble reconciling Carl’s military heroism with the brutal murder he is accused of committing, but the evidence seems overwhelming. As Joe digs deeper, he becomes convinced that Carl is an innocent man. But can he find enough evidence to overturn Carl’s conviction before he dies? The Life We Bury is a fun, compelling read that kept me intrigued from start to finish.

5. The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock – Published in 2016, The Heavenly Table tells the story of the Jewett brothers, Cane, Cob, and Chimney, and their hardscrabble, murderous journey from the dirt farms of Western Alabama to bucolic Southern Ohio in 1917. As police close in on them, the Jewetts meet Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler, a hard luck couple who take in the brothers and show them a kindness they have not previously experienced. Pollock does a masterful job with his characters. They are flawed and loveable and abhorrent and forgivable. No one is perfect and no one is evil. Just like real people, they are a mixture of good and bad. What comes out depends on the circumstances each character finds themselves in. The Heavenly Table is a terrific book. I plan on reading more Pollock in the upcoming year.

4. Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by Laura Kipnis – If you’re not on a college campus, or at least in occasional contact with academia, you may not know that there is a sexual assault crisis going on at universities across the country. Reports claim that 1-in-5 female college students will be raped or sexually assaulted during their time on campus. Yet, author Laura Kipnis, professor at Northwestern University and noted feminist, thinks that not only are the stats misleading (or flat out wrong), but that the focus on women in constant danger of sexual assault on college campuses makes victims of all females and ultimately hurts feminism. In the book, Kipnis lays out the case that not only are cases of sexual assault on campus overblown, but that there is a certain group of feminists who are weaponizing sexual assault claims for political purposes. The book is wonderfully written, meticulously researched, and quite eye-opening.

3. Bear Town by Fredrik BackmanBear Town has been included on many of the “Best of 2017” lists I’ve seen floating around the internet. And with good reason. It’s a terrific book. The village of Bear Town is a tiny community that has seen better days. A lot of the best and brightest have left town, but those that have stayed believe better days are ahead. And they may be right. The junior hockey team—the pride of the town—is on its way to the national championship, a heady honor for such a hard luck town. But carrying the weight of an entire town on such young shoulders is tough business, and when one of the players is accused of raping the daughter of the team’s general manager, loyalties are questioned and friendships are torn apart. I highly recommend Bear Town, not only for the terrific writing and storytelling, but also for the sensitive way the author handled an often-taboo subject. Any other year, Bear Town could have easily been the best book of the year.

2. Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan – Let me say up front that Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite writers. I was a big fan of A Visit From the Goon Squad, and I had high hopes for Manhattan Beach. Egan didn’t disappoint. The book begins in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Twelve-year old Anna Kerrigan is the apple of her father’s eye, and is his companion when he goes to see Dexter Styles, a mysterious and powerful man who lives in a big house and has uniformed servants at his beckoned call. Years later, Anna’s father has gone missing, and Anna, now a young woman, is working in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, with most of the men in the area off fighting World War II. One night while out drinking with a friend, Anna runs into Dexter, and the chance meeting changes their lives in ways they could have never imagined. Like Bear Town, in any other year, Manhattan Beach could have been the book of the year.

1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – Saunders is well-known as one of the world’s great short story writers. Lincoln in the Bardo is his first attempt at a full-fledged novel. On his first try, he hit it out of the park. In fact, in a sense, Saunders created a whole new genre. I know that’s quite a claim, but if it’s not a genre unto itself, then at the very least, it is a literary journey like I’ve never experienced before. Lincoln in the Bardo imagines the conversations of the dead-in-waiting in a Washington, DC cemetery. The Civil War is raging, and President Lincoln’s young son, Willie, has died. Lincoln visits the cemetery to hold his young son’s body. The visit, and Lincoln’s grief, cause a stir among the residents of the cemetery, resulting in strange acts of penance, long gripe sessions, and reflections on lives lived and ultimately lost. I listened to the audiobook version of Lincoln in the Bardo and it was a wonderful experience. I suspect reading the book would be just as enthralling, but I can’t say for sure. Saunders humanity permeates the book and its characters. My guess is that this will come through in the print book every bit as much as it does in the audiobook. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It is a true work of art.

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The Life and Times of Randy Lanier

“Racing makes heroin addiction look like a vague wish for something salty” — Peter Egan

When I was writing Driven: A Novel, I was inspired by the stories of several people. John Roberts and Mickey Munday, stars of the documentary Cocaine Cowboys, had a big influence on the story. So did Bill and Don Wittington, brothers who raced sports cars and indy cars, and paid for it all through their marijuana smuggling operation. The incredible story of another racer, John Paul, Sr., added to my knowledge of drug smugglers who used their ill gotten gain to pay for their racing addiction. But the guy who really influenced and inspired the book was an interesting and unassuming guy by the name of Randy Lanier.

Randy was born in Virginia and raised in South Florida. He fell in love with racing in the late 1970’s after attending a car show and stumbling across a booth for the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). They were promoting amateur club racing, and Randy was an easy target. He loved the idea of pushing a car to it’s limits on a race track, so he signed up for an SCCA drivers school, where he received his competition license. Little did he know that his passion for racing would shape, and eventually derail, his life.

Randy drove a Porsche 356 in regional events, but he wanted to move up and race against better competition. He was having some success and making a name for himself, but his big break came at the 1982 24 Hours of Daytona. Famed racer Janet Guthrie fell ill, and her Ferrari team owner asked Randy to fill in for her. The car retired early with transmission trouble, but the effort earned Randy an invitation to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France later that year.

It’s important to point out how unusual all of this was. Randy was a relatively low-level racer when he was invited to join the Ferrari team at Daytona. It was a fluke. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time. To then parlay that into a ride at Le Mans is amazing.

Randy’s finishes at Daytona and Le Mans were nothing to write home about, but his personal performance impressed people. This new guy was pretty good.  And the experience cemented Randy’s decision to be a professional race car driver.

In 1984, Randy co-founded his own team, which he called Blue Thunder Racing. His partners in the venture were brothers, Bill and Dale Whittington. The team had great success, even winning the IMSA GTP championship in their inaugural season.

Randy tried to translate his success in sports cars into open-wheel cars in 1985. He attempted to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 that year, but officials decided he was too inexperienced to take on the speedway. Randy would not be denied. He came back in 1986 and set the rookie record for qualifying, previously held by Michael Andretti. Randy ran a good race, finished tenth, and was named Rookie of the Year. Not a bad result for a guy who had only been racing professionally for three years.

Meanwhile, Bill Whittington and his brother Don were arrested on charges of conspiracy to distribute marijuana. It was alleged that the Whittington drug importing business was where they had gotten the money to fund Blue Thunder Racing.  Both Whittingtons eventually pled guilty, Bill receiving a fifteen year sentence, and Don got eighteen months. Randy wasn’t implicated, and he denied having any knowledge of the Whittington’s illegal business. But the Feds weren’t too far behind Randy. Eight months after the Whittingtons pled guilty, Randy was indicted on charges that he had smuggled 150 tons of marijuana into the U.S. When the government obtained a second indictment against him, Randy went on the lam. He left the country, eventually making his way to Antigua.

Randy was out in his boat on a bright, sunny day in the Caribbean when he saw a large ship blocking the entrance to the port, preventing him from entering. He had a feeling something was up, so he took a smaller boat onto the beach and tried to get back to his home. Law enforcement wouldn’t cooperate, instead chasing him around the island until he was caught and sent back to the United States. Randy was eventually sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole under the Continuing Criminal Enterprise (AKA: Drug Kingpin) sentencing guidelines.

It seems incredible that anyone could be sentenced to life in prison for importing marijuana. The drug is actually legal (or decriminalized) now in several cities and states. To be fair, Randy was guilty. He even agreed to spend a reasonable amount of time in prison, but the Feds weren’t in the business of being reasonable, not when it came to drug smugglers. So, Randy languished in prison until October 2014. It’s unclear why he was released, but the Federal Government agreed to release him after more than twenty-five years in prison.

I find Randy’s story endlessly interesting. I would love to talk to him in person, and it would be great to actually race with him in an amateur endurance race. I just bought a new race car. You never know, maybe it will happen.

If you’re interested in reading a fictional story with a lot of factual inspiration that explores the intersection between drug smuggling and sports car racing, I invite you to check out Driven: A Novel, now available on Amazon and other fine book stores.

 

 

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Blind Ambition: The Theme Behind Driven: A Novel

Have you ever wanted something so bad that you’d do just about anything to get it? That’s the question I had in the back of my mind as I was writing my new novel, Driven.

In the book, Alex Booth is a twenty-four year old living in South Florida who has a burning desire to drive race cars professionally. He has a little experience in low horsepower cars, but he wants to step up to the big, expensive, high horsepower cars, the ones at the front of the grid. And he wants to get paid for his efforts.

When he loses the opportunity to drive a powerful Porsche 935K, Alex is forced to pay to race a low horsepower car as a way to further prove himself. Problem is, he doesn’t have any money. He’s been barely scraping by, often relying on his brother, Jimmy, to help pay the bills. What’s a wannabe race car driver to do? Well, in 1982 in Miami, if you need to make a quick buck, you can always smuggle drugs. Jimmy thinks that’s a great idea. Alex isn’t so sure, but since he doesn’t have any better options, drug smuggling it is.

Thus begins Alex’s journey into the world of fast boats, faster women, and big-time drug running. Alex doesn’t view himself as part of the drug culture—he’s generally a straight-laced, by-the-book kind of guy—but when your dream is as big and expensive as Alex’s, you sometimes have to do things you normally wouldn’t do. And the deeper in you go, the harder it is to get out.

Driven is all about Alex’s hesitant entry into the world of marijuana and cocaine smuggling, and how that world can lead to big money and big trouble. But Alex isn’t the only one with dreams. Gina, Alex’s girlfriend, dreams of living a normal life with a normal guy, complete with a 9-5 job, a mortgage, and two-and-a-half kids. And even though her dream may not seem as big or as bold as Alex’s, she is just as determined to get what she wants.

Jimmy, Alex’s brother, dreams of owning the coolest, most popular nightclubs in South Florida. His rise from manager of a beachfront bar to owner of Rum Runners, Miami’s newest and trendiest nightclub, is a sight to behold, exceeded only by his sudden and spectacular fall.

Cristina comes from a famous, wealthy family. She loves her lifestyle, but hates having to rely on her family for everything she has. She wants to make her own way in the world. By all means, she wants to continuing to live a life known only to the wealthy, but she wants to be able to pay for it herself. What will she be willing to do to realize her dream?

Most everyone is a nice, normal person until they’re presented with an opportunity to do or have that one thing they have desired their whole life. Driven is about how people act in that moment. What are they willing to do or say, and how far will they push things, to get what they want? You might be surprised.

Driven: A Novel is available beginning Friday, December 8, in both ebook and paperback formats, at Amazon and fine book stores everywhere.

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A Passion for Passion

I love passion. I’m not talking about romantic passion (Although I like that, too). I’m talking about the enthusiasm and drive and single-minded focus that people exhibit when they pursue a goal or cause that is near and dear to them. Passion doesn’t exist when you like something (i.e. I like chocolate, dogs, and the beach). Passion only becomes involved when you love something, you can’t live without it, and you can’t think about anything else.

Over the years, I have shared stories of my friends who have followed their passion, and who are pursuing it with all their might, devoting their time, money, and energy to creating or accomplishing something that they feel compelled to do.

For instance, my buddy Randy Pobst has devoted his life to driving race cars, and now writing about races and race cars. His pursuits keep him on the move constantly. During the week, Randy can be found testing cars or creating videos for Motor Trend magazine. On weekends, this former professional race car driver can be found at one or another race track competing in amateur races. He doesn’t get paid to race anymore, but he still shows up because he loves racing so much. Randy spends twenty-five to thirty nights on the road each month. It’s a crazy lifestyle, but I don’t think he would (or could) live his life any other way. He absolutely loves what he does. He has a passion for it.

Grant Peele is another guy who is living his life based on his passion. Grant tried a lot of ways to earn a living. He owned rental properties, ran a used car lot, had storage units, even owned coin-operated games that he placed in bars and restaurants. He was chasing money. Today, Grant is a filmmaker, having worked on Emmy-nominated shorts as well as full-length documentaries. He tried to deny his passion, holding it at bay while he tried some other things to pay the bills, but he finally gave in. His passion for telling stories on film has taken him all over the globe, and he has shared his stories with millions of people. Becoming a filmmaker wasn’t easy. And maintaining the filmmaker’s lifestyle, traveling away from home all of the time, still takes its toll. But telling stories is what Grant was born to do. He has a passion for it, and feels compelled to do it, no matter the costs.

When I was writing Driven: A Novel, I was thinking about people like Randy and Grant and others who have devoted their lives to their passion. I wanted my main character, Alex Booth, to be the same kind of guy. Alex has a passion for auto racing. He eats, sleeps, and breathes the sport. What he doesn’t have is the money he needs to pursue his dream. So he makes the decision to smuggle drugs to get the money. It’s not the choice most (or many) people would make, but such is the power of Alex’s passion. He’s a generally well-behaved guy who always colors inside the lines, but his desperation to feed his passion leads him to make some decisions that allow him to pursue his dream. He  gets wealthy in the process, but his decision leads to some bad consequences he doesn’t anticipate.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little bit more about Driven. In the book, Alex isn’t the only one who has a dream. How each character reacts when their dream is threatened or when an opportunity to realize their dream presents itself is what really interests me about this story and these characters. More on that tomorrow.

Just two more days until Driven: A Novel is published. Things are getting exciting.

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Driven Cover Reveal

Here is the cover for my new book, Driven: A Novel. The book is the product of a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.* Tomorrow, I’ll tell you a little about the book. For now, I just wanted to introduce the cover.

The book will be available in just a few days, so don’t buy those stocking stuffers just yet. Driven is on its way.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I did not bleed or shed any tears as a result of writing this book. I may have sweated, but it was inadvertent and probably unrelated to the act of writing. Even so, I worked really hard on the book. That was the point I was trying to make by using an overworked but ultimately inaccurate cliché.

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Revisiting the American Dream

Three years ago today, author Brandon Sneed asked me what the American dream meant to me. Brandon was in the process of writing Behind the Drive: An Honest Story About What It Really Takes to Chase The American Dream, the biography of Kenny Moore, the founder of Hwy 55 Burgers, Shakes, and Fries, and he was asking various people how they viewed the American dream.

I’m internet friends with Brandon, so I appreciated him asking my opinion, but I didn’t think he would include my thoughts in his series. And yet, that is exactly what he did. I found it interesting to re-read my thoughts from three years ago. Perhaps most surprising, I still feel the same way now about the American dream as I did then.

Here’s what I had to say three years ago:

From Brandon Sneed’s blog:

There was a time several years ago when the American Dream for me was getting wealthy.  I spent my time chasing money, first in a corporate job and then in a business of my own.  At the time, self-satisfaction and self-expression took a back seat to making money.  This worked okay for a while, but I felt really empty.  I was making good money, but I envied people who were living life on their own terms.

These were people who were doing things they loved, but weren’t necessarily making much money.  I got to know some of these people and found out that with very few exceptions, they were happier than me.  These people had more freedom, lived a more adventurous life, and had stronger relationships with their loved ones even though they weren’t making as much money as I was.

It dawned on me, maybe I would be happier if I did something I loved rather than chased money.  When I did, I found I had much more freedom and could live the life I wanted to live despite the fact that I was earning substantially less money.

For me, this is the American dream.

Actually, I’m not sure it is uniquely American.  People from all over the world can benefit from this type of lifestyle, but I think it needs to be said that Americans tend to kill themselves earning a living even though they (we) have as many or more lifestyle options as people in any other country on Earth. We have a cultural expectation that values hard work, income maximization and poor lifestyle choices at the expense of health, happiness, and relationships.

I’ve chosen to abandon (or at least move away from) this American cultural expectation in favor of chasing my dream of being a writer, being healthier (a work in progress) and above all, being happy.  It took me a long time to come to this decision, so I’m starting a little late in life, but when it comes to living a happy, fulfilled life, it’s definitely better late than never.

 

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Getting Closer to a Completed Novel

This past week has been an exciting one for me. Last weekend, I finally finished revising my new novel, Driven. The book takes place in Miami in the early 1980’s, and is about a young man determined to become a professional race car driver. When money stands between him and his dream, he turns to drug smuggling as a way to make the money he needs. In the process, he wins races, falls in love (a couple of times), and becomes wealthier than he could have ever imagined. But not everyone wants to see him succeed, including his fellow competitors and the cops.

For some reason, this book was difficult to write. I had planned on it being finished several months ago, but as happens so often, life got in the way. I never gave up on the project, but I did have to attend to other matters from time to time. Despite the difficulties, I’m really happy with the book that resulted.

On Sunday, I sent Driven off to the editor, who promises to make it even better. He’s working on it now and should have it back to me in a few weeks. While I’m waiting, I’m having a book cover designed, and I’ve already started on my next book, a time travel novel. Once I get Driven back from the editor, I’ll need to make final revisions, finalize the book cover, send it to the proofreader, and get it ready to publish. I hope to have all of this completed by the end of October.

Finally, late this past week, I started the process of creating an audiobook for my novella collection, Road Stories. Right now, I don’t have a feel for how long the recording process will take—it’s more involved than I initially thought—but I hope to have it completed in the next couple of months. Once that’s done, I’ll start the process of recording the audiobook version of Driven.

I’m excited to complete these projects and send them out into the world. It really is a joy to create novels and audiobooks. The only thing better is to have you read them, listen to them, and enjoy them.

Happy reading (and listening)!

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Update on Driven

Wow! It’s been more than three months since I last posted on the blog. I hate to go that long between posts. Sorry for the long absence.

The good news is that I have been very busy on my next book, Driven, during the last few months. In fact, I completed the first draft of the novel a couple of weeks ago, and I am currently hard at work on revisions. At the moment, things are going very well.

To get you up to speed, let me tell you a little bit about the book. It takes place in the early 1980’s, primarily in Miami. The main character, Alex Booth, is an aspiring race car driver who is long on talent, but short on money. Alex reluctantly turns to drug smuggling to fund his racing dreams. In the process, he makes a lot of money, a few enemies, builds a racing career, but makes a mess of his life.  Is realizing his dreams worth the headaches and potential prison time?

In the next few weeks, I should be able to share the book cover design with you. In the meantime, I’ll be working on revisions and trying to make Driven as good as it can be

Talk to you soon.

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Three Stories from Bret Anthony Johnston

Bret Anthony Johnston 3Bret Anthony Johnston is one of my favorite writers. He is a former competitive skateboarder from Corpus Christi, Texas who went on to become the director of the creative writing program at Harvard. The reason I’m so attracted to his writing is because it tends to be sparse while still being detailed and evocative. Normally, that would be a contradiction, but in Bret’s writing, it’s not.

A couple of years ago, I studied with Bret as part of the Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa. One of the things I liked about him was his no nonsense approach to writing. A lot of writers—especially literary writers—treat writing like it’s something beyond our comprehension. It’s part imagination, part magic, part inspiration, and it’s all controlled by the muse. Bret pretty much blew that approach out of the water. His philosophy was that good writing had much more to do with hard work and time in the chair than it did with magic and inspiration. I tend to agree.

I wanted to share three of Bret’s short stories with you. The first is “Dixon.” There are two reasons that this story resonates with me. First, it shows a glimpse into Bret’s creative mind. He takes something relatively mundane (kid’s meals toys from Dairy Queen) and builds a complicated, yet easily understood, story out of seemingly nothing. I like that because I think that’s what our lives are like, mundane moments that, when taken together, become something much more. The old saw, “the sum of the whole is greater than its parts” definitely applies here.

I also like the way Bret uses place in the story. In fact, place is always important to me, and Bret does a great job of using his former south Texas home as a background character in the story. Much of Bret’s writing takes place in south Texas, and it’s obvious that he knows the place like a family member.

The second story is “To a Good Home.” Bret usually doesn’t get too political in his stories, and this one isn’t purely political, but it will make you question your preconceptions. I know it did for me. I’m not sure how I feel about the ending. I wanted more. More information? More resolution? Something. But maybe that desire for more is what a good ending does. If Bret was writing a mystery, this ending wouldn’t work well at all. But for literary fiction, maybe it does.

Finally, my favorite Bret Anthony Johnston short story is “Republican.” This was the very first story from Bret I ever read, and it remains my favorite. There’s a sense of humor in this story that I really connect to. It’s not a humorous story, but there’s humor in it. I just really like it.

Enjoy these stories and let me know what you think.

If you didn’t catch the links to the stories above, here they are again:

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