I know I’m off by a few days, but I thought I’d pretend it’s still Father’s Day and devote this blog post to my late, great old man, Jack Woodward Haywood:
He passed away fifteen years ago, but his impact on my life remains profound. Anyone who’s ever heard me relate my “writer’s story” — the blow-by-blow of how I came to be a professional author — knows that it all started with “Big Jack” (as his cousins liked to call him).
An architect by trade, Dad was a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy, and you couldn’t take two steps in my parents’ bedroom without stumbling upon a mound of paperback novels by such authors as Isaac Asimov, Robert E. Howard, Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury. The covers of these novels always featured fantastic illustrations of spaceships and aliens, Martian landscapes and muscle-bound, loin-clothed giants locked in mortal combat with oversized serpents and spiders . . .
. . . and they were as great a siren call to a seven year old boy as hot dogs on the dinner table. Reading behind my father became my great obsession, and in that obsession I soon found my calling in life: writing.
It was an ambition my father encouraged with a very light hand. Secretly, I think, he wanted me to become an architect like him, but as he would never actually say so, he was content to let me pursue a career in letters instead. This is not to say, however, that he did much in the way of cheerleading. That wasn’t my Dad. His style of parenting demanded he leaven every word of positive reinforcement with three of constructive criticism, and sometimes the former was hard to make out in the forest of the latter, especially for a kid who really only wanted to hear how great his latest story was, not how much better it could have been had he only . . .
My father, in other words, was a difficult man to please. I like to say that had I one day rushed home from school to report I’d just won a Pulitzer prize, Dad’s response would have run somewhere along the lines of, “That’s fine, son, but if you’d really been trying, you would have won two.”
Eventually, I figured out that nothing I wrote or did was ever going to earn his unconditional approval, and so started tuning him out as a Nattering Nabob of Negativism (as Nixon Vice-President Spiro Agnew might have once called him). The old man would say something and I’d nod my head, as if in complete agreement, when in fact I’d be dismissing this latest lesson in life as simply more of his pessimistic nonsense.
Except that it wasn’t always nonsense, of course, and sometimes it took me years to separate the wheat from the chaff. Doing the math now, I’d have to say my father was right more often than he was wrong, and the things he was right about were generally those that really, truly matter. It was with this belated realization that I opened my first novel, FEAR OF THE DARK, with the following dedication:
For My Father
Jack W. Haywood
Whose wisdom I often mistook for raving lunacy.
(Hence the name for my personal blog, Wisdom Mistaken For Lunacy.)
I won’t even attempt a full list, because neither you nor I have the time for it, but here is a partial accounting, at least, of the many lies my father told me over the years that turned out to be not only true, but incredibly valuable for a writer to know:
You can scramble eggs in the frying pan.
Watching him do this for the first time (and probably last, now that I think about it — Dad wasn’t a big presence in the family kitchen), I was absolutely convinced he was nuts, skipping the whip-the-eggs-in-a-bowl step in making scrambled eggs entirely. But hell if the damn things didn’t look — and taste — exactly the same when they were done. Who knew?
The vast majority of published fiction is crap.
The year was 1977 (or thereabouts). He’d taken me to dinner and we were browsing a newsstand afterwards. I asked if he’d be willing to pick up the tab for a paperback and he said yes (miracle of miracles). I chose a Starsky and Hutch novelization:
Just like you are right now, no doubt, he laughed in my face and told me if I wanted him to plunk down his hard-earned cash for a book, I’d have to do better than that piece of crap.
I was appalled. “Piece of crap”? How did he know the novelization was a piece of crap? He’d barely glanced at it, let alone read it. He knew nothing about the author. How could he so casually dismiss a published novel — a book legitimized as genuine literature by its very existence on that newsstand — as crap?
“Because ninety percent of the fiction published in the world is crap,” he said matter-of-factly.
Naturally, this triggered a lengthy and rancorous debate that ended only when I’d capitulated and chosen another book for him to buy for me, which turned out to be THE AFRICAN by Harold Courlander. (Interesting aside: Courlander would later successfully sue author Alex Haley for plagiarism, claiming Haley had based much of his blockbuster novel ROOTS on scenes taken from THE AFRICAN.)
While I’ve since come around to my father’s way of thinking regarding the abysmal quality of most published fiction, give or take a few percentage points, all I could do that night was agree to disagree with him, chalking up his stance on the subject once again to the tunnel vision of negative nabobism.
Weeks later, having read THE AFRICAN, I would refrain from admitting to the old man that he’d been right: Courlander’s book was terrific, and was almost certainly a better read than that Starsky and Hutch novelization — crap or no — could have ever been.
Touch typing is not for sissies.
Boy, did we go around and around over this one. I wanted to take something useful like archery for my tenth-grade elective class, and Dad wanted me to take typing. Typing! What in the hell did the man think I wanted to be when I grew up, a writer or something?
He was relentless. I took the typing class.
I thank God every day of my life I did.
Pizza is to die for.
Another boys’ night out with the old man, and he decides we’re going to have pizza for dinner.
No way, says I, that stuff is nasty. The only pizza I’ve ever tried to this point is that cardboard cheesy crap my mother likes to order between movies at the drive-in . . .
. . . and one bite into such an affront to all that is edible should be enough to put any man off this so-called “Italian delicacy” for the rest of his life.
“Boy,” Dad says — “boy” being his favorite synonym for “you big knucklehead” — “that’s not pizza!” And the next thing I know, I’m at Miceli’s pizza parlor in Hollywood, where my father has to all but force a slice of meat lover’s pie down my throat.
WTF??? This is pizza?
I guess Jack W’s not such a dummy, after all.
Hyundai is a car company to watch.
It’s a good thing I didn’t have the power to have my father committed when he first suggested this, because he would have found himself strapped into a straight jacket within five minutes if I had. This was back in the Korean automobile manufacturer’s earliest days importing cars to America, and everything they built at the time made a Yugo look like a Rolls Royce by comparison. Hyundais were so bad and ugly, in fact, that I gave my fictional private investigator, Aaron Gunner, one to borrow from a cousin whenever he wants to be all but invisible during stakeouts and surveillance runs.
But look at Hyundai now. Kicking mucho Toyota ass and taking names. How Dad could lay eyes on this . . .
. . . and see this in Hyundai’s future . . .
. . . I’ll never know. Maybe he was just lucky?
It’s for sure I was. He wasn’t the perfect father, by any means, but he got enough right as a parent and mentor to earn my enduring love and respect.
Thanks for the education, Big Jack. We miss you.
Questions for the Class: What “lies” steeped in truth did your parents teach you?
My Dad is exactly the same with marks/achievements! First year in psychology, first experiment write-up… I got the top mark across the whole of first year university. However, the mark was 75% and when I gleefully shouted it was the highest mark, all he could say was that I needed to speak to my tutor and lecturer about 'the other 25%'. Sigh.
Anyway, great post.
Lies steeped in truth…mmm…my mum told me I couldn't be an astronaut, which broke my heart. Thought it was a lie then – does that count? Can't think of any others at the moment, but I loved your post. Such a wonderful tribute and insight into a father-son relationship.
PS I do scramble my eggs in the frying pan. Then again, we don't have a dishwasher so it saves me washing yet another bowl!
Gar, what a wonderful post! Brought back many memories of my dad, who set the bar high. I recall when as a senior in high school I told him I'd been accepted to Stanford and Harvard, expecting the outpouring of praise and excitement I'd received from my mom. He looked up from what he was reading, said, "Well, I would have been disappointed if you hadn't," and went back to his book. I think it was a generational thing; many of my friends' fathers were also members of the Be-Careful-Not-To-Praise-Your-Daughter-Too-Much-Lest-She-Become-Soft club.
Really great post, Gar. And funny, too. The fact that Big Jack earned your enduring love and respect, and you're telling us about it, is a wonderful tribute to his memory.
My dad's been gone a while now, and I'm only beginning to try an understand him. Today would've been his birthday. Happy Birthday, Dad, wherever you are.
Beautiful post, Gar. I can never hear too much about your dad. You should write his biography one day.
My father was a practical man, a pediatrician, and he'd also studied music while in school. I went to a music school to study jazz and my father's advice was, "You should also study something to fall back on." My attitude was that people who have a "fall-back" plan will always fall back. Without a fall-back plan one must succeed at what one really wants to do in life. Unfortunately, it isn't so simple as that.
This post reminds me of CEMETERY ROAD, a book I think you'll recall me describing as a work only a father could have written. That wise irony or ironic wisdom you have, which perhaps you inherited at least partially form your dad, registers in every word. Loved reading this, felt privileged actually.
It sounds like Stephen and I had the same dad — now THAT would be something to blog about. But my dad also advised: Never run after a woman. They're like trolley cars. Another will come around in five minutes. (This is advice he never followed himself, remaining married to a woman whom I personally was praying he'd divorce. Where;s that goddamn trolley car you keep telling me about, I wanted to scream.)
Hope you had a great father's day, btw.
THIS POST REMINDS ME OF cemetery road, A BOOK I THINK YOU RECALL MY DESCRIBING AS SOMETHING ONLY A FATHER OCULD HAVE WRIRTTEN
One of my Dad-the-psychologist's favorite jokes was to tell us kids, apropos of nothing, "Don't be defensive," and then chuckle as we tried to come up with a response that *wasn't* defensive. It took us far too long to figure out that "Okay, Dad" would spike his guns.
But it's not such bad advice, really.
Great post, Gar. I never knew my dad (he died when I was very young) so it's always interesting hearing how other people for on with theirs. It also meant I didn't have a blueprint for being a father to my kids and just had to wing it. I can hear echoes of my own behaviour in his too. It's hard knowing which way to go sometimes – too lenient or too strict. But I've never spotted anything in a Hyundai, though.
Mind you, for Father's Day my youngest daughter got me all my favourite sweets and my eldest daughter got me a Doctor Phibes mug. Guess I must be doing something right after all.
Nice post, Gar. Love the insights and the personal touch.
Not sure I'd categorize any of my dad's advice or wisdom as "lies." But he dispensed a ton of it over the years and I miss him horribly. His advice was often more along the lines of telling a story, like the one about when he was maybe 12 years old and one night decided to shoot out all the streetlights in town (it was a very small town). And he finished with: "The first 7 or 8 were pretty easy. It was the last couple that were tough." And left you to figure out why, exactly, that might be.
I think the only flat out lie he told (and he did this ALL THE TIME) was when I was reading and came across a word I didn't know and I'd ask him what it meant. And every single time, without fail, he'd say, "Don't know. Look it up." And then hand me the dictionary. He was an English teacher and the most well-read person I've ever encountered. He knew damn well what the words meant. I'm eternally grateful he never told me. I still look stuff up, though at this point there are very few words I don't know.
THANK YOU! !