Saturday, November 29, 2014

Influences In My Life – part 2

I have had three men in my life who have deeply influenced me, each one at a different phase of my development as a human being. The first was my father, who shepherded me into manhood. The second was my first lover, who I lived with for sixteen years, and who taught me the value of education, and infused me with the tools to become successful. The third is my husband and soul mate, who more than anyone, has taught me—through example—to be a compassionate human being. In all three cases, it was not their accomplishments that had an impact on me, but rather, the strength of their character that shaped that part of my life.

For this second installment, I’ll focus on my first lover. I met John Aherns in Corpus Christy, Texas while stationed on the naval base in Kingsville, Texas. He was living in Huston at the time, and for several months we carried on a long-distance relationship, spending two or three weekends a month together. It was nothing too serious because I knew I would be leaving Texas the very minute I received my discharge from the Navy, but he was handsome and successful and more refined than anyone I’d ever known, so I was determined to spend as much time as possible with him. But about six months before my discharge, to my surprise and delight, John quit his Huston job and moved to Kingsville, announcing that when I left for California, he was coming with me. I moved off base, lived with John in a studio garage apartment, and we got along like a house on fire. So began a sixteen-year project of what I like to call, Educating Alan.

We started this project when John joined a book club that sent us one leather-bound, classic per month. He and I would both read the book and then spend several days discussing the meaning, characters, and style. For me, there was something wondrous about reading a finely made, leather-bound book. I loved the feel and smell of the pages, the weight of it. I confused the act of learning with the smell of fine leather. I saw myself doing something that only, or so I thought, intellectuals did—sit quietly for hours on end reading important books. Not all of those books were a pleasure to read, but each one was a stepping-stone to a place of more confidence for me. As the number of books on our little shelf grew, I began to imagine a room filled with bookshelves that were crammed with tomes, all mine, where I’d spend my time letting literary people carry me away into distant adventures. Thus, we joined two more book clubs, receiving three books a month, and I began to see that dream take shape.

Those early months were more than just reading, of course. It was a time when I learned, quite unexpectedly, that I could have a loving, monogamous relationship with a man. Until that point, I had assumed that my life as a gay man would be hanging out in bars, always on the lookout for someone to spend a few precious hours with, or days and possibly even weeks or months if I really scored.  It seemed like such a lonely future, but John—in those quiet hours of reading together, of cooking a meal and watching TV over dinner, of crawling into bed with the same wonderful man every night—showed me a loving relationship was not only possible, I was already living the dream. I think it was during that time of awakening to what we had, what we were, that turned my admiration of John into love for him.

After I was discharged from the Navy and we had settled into an apartment in Sunnyvale, California, John took a Computer Programmer’s job in San Francisco, and I landed a job operating construction heavy equipment in what is now Silicon Valley. John convinced me to attend night school at De Anza Community College. By that time I had begun to realize how woefully inadequate my education was, and it was never so obvious as when we attended parties of his work colleagues, and they would look down their noses at me, talking down to me as whispering behind my back (loud enough for me to hear) calling me, “John’s sexy nitwit” (the term boy toy was not invented yet.)  I became hungry to catch up, to show them all. This would be a pattern for nearly our entire sixteen-year relationship, him working one job and taking care of me, me working a fulltime, lower-paying job during the day while attending night school.

Two years after moving to Sunnyvale, I finally decided on a career path to study for. I wanted to program computers, like John. There was an opening at his company for an entry-level person, basically a gofer, that paid next to nothing. I took that job, we moved to San Francisco, and I began attending SF State, taking a half load at night.
The next five or six years were among the most exciting and colorful years of my life. Being gay and living in hottest gay hub in the world was exciting enough, but once I began taking computer classes and working my way up the corporate ladder, I felt like a man with a mission and a full head of steam. For the first time in my life, I had lofty goals and the confidence to know that, with enough commitment, I could achieve those goals. My attitude became: nothing will stop me, I will become as good as the best of them. John had created a monster, and there was no turning back. There are times, now, when I picture a mountain climber, struggling up K2, exhausting himself with each heavy lift of his boot, and each lurch up the slope, until he’s expended every ounce of energy. But he finally crawls his way to the summit, and then stands tall while shaking his fists at the valleys below.

Over the next decade, we moved from San Francisco to Sausalito, and two year later we moved further north to San Rafael where we bought a lovely three-bedroom home. As I steadily climbed the corporate ladder, I also hung my diplomas on the wall—Associates of Arts degree in Computer Science, a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics, and a Master’s degree in Creative Writing. In all that time, John continued to help me with my schoolwork, proofread my papers, giving me encouragement. While working toward by economics degree, he even took classes with me so he could better help me. And in all that time, we continued our reading together and discussing books. He also introduced me to opera, classical music, and jazz, giving me lessons in what’s considered the fine arts.

I had originally entered the writing program at the University of San Francisco as a way to improve my business writing skill, but the by time I had attained my degree, I had fallen in love with the creative aspects of writing fiction. My dreams had changed. I no longer wanted to continue climbing the corporate ladder. By that time, there were only three rungs left to climb, and I had become frustrated with corporate management. I wanted to quit and become a full time writer. I was caught in the early stages of a midlife crises. The problem, however, was that John was already eyeball deep in his own crises and wanted to cut and run. We made a deal, I would support him while he went to medical school to become a physician’s assistant (he felt a strong need to help sick people) and once he had a good paying job again, he would support me while I walked away from Corporate American to become a full time writer.

Our roles were reversed for the first time. I was working like a dog while he attended school at UC Davis, and I would help write his papers. But cutting our household income in half had a dramatic effect on both of us, and the stress became unbearable. It took years for John to achieve his degree, and I supported him for most of that time, but the stress of both of us in a midlife crisis and not enough money to pay all the bills at the end of the month took its toll on our relationship. He eventually moved out of our San Rafael house, and I got a loan to purchase his half of the house in order to give him the money to finish his schooling.

Braking up with John, I think, was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through, even more emotionally damaging than the death of my father. It became a drawn out, painful process that took several years to recover from. For sixteen years, John was my lover, my teacher, and the epitome of everything I wanted to achieve. He patiently guided me down a path, starting at dirt stupid and ending at reasonably intelligent. By the end of our relationship, I had attained my goal—I was his equal in intelligence, career level, and earning power. And the funny thing was, as is human nature, by the time I had attained those dreams, I no longer valued them.

John and I are best friends today. He and his husband, Jeffery, live in the mountains a short three-hour drive away. Herman and I regularly visit them, and we all enjoy each other’s company. John and I still love each other, but we are happier living apart. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Gay List Book Reviews Give First Exposure Its Highest Rating

I’d like to share a recent review Teddy, at Gay List Book Reviews, did for my latest novel, First Exposure. You can read the original post at
He gave my novel the highest rating, and had this to say about it:
Review:  I came across this quote recently “Beginnings hook readers, endings create fans”, I don’t remember where I read it, but it came to mind as I started to write this review. I have been a big fan of Alan’s work since reading the first chapter of ‘Butterfly’s Child’. Alan’s writing always sits so well with me, I love his creative descriptions of the mundane to that of pure beauty. His words always flow so well on the pages, and his characters are not made to be unrealistically, hot or hideous. They’re perfectly natural beings, with real emotions and flaws. Not one character is too perfect to be real or too mysterious to be anything other than human. You could pass one of Alan’s characters in the street, meet them on your journey to work, work alongside them possibly or whilst hanging out with friends. Now it’s not because these characters are boring that I’d associate them with everyday life, but because Alan has the ability to give them life in the pages of his books.
The characters in First Exposure are not just a photographer or a painter or a sailor. Alan’s descriptions are expressed so well that you can almost hear the click of a camera, the flick of a paint brush and feel the crispness of a shirt. With each character all sides of their personalities are revealed, allowing you to know them intimately. A character you may feel uncomfortable with at the start could well be the one you fall in love with at the very end. 
Petty Officer Second Class Skylar Thompson, is aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln supercarrier. Skylar is married to Rosa and they have a son, Hunter. Skylar questions his career choice as his family struggle to make ends meet on his pay from the Navy. This leads Skylar into turmoil over his actual career and that of his preferred, dreamed of vocation as an artist. Although he is popular and has friends on board his ship, he often feels uncomfortable in the company of the other men who are loud mouthed, shallow and crude. Skylar doesn’t like the sexual connotations made against some of his fellow crew members, especially one man, Dumphy. Skylar is a straight man but feels compassion and a little sorry for Dumphy, he admires Dumphy’s courage to stick it out. 
Seaman Ezra Dumphy has had life pretty tough, he is a young gay man with a love of photography. Never without his camera, Ezra is fascinated by Skylar and craftily steals shots of the man. I really liked Ezra as he is a survivor, Ezra falls into terrible situations. Life has a habit of kicking him where it hurts, but he’s a toughy and despite his appearance he does his best to take care of himself. He wants to be loved, have friends but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly and he gives as good as he gets. With a father who beat him and a mother who doesn’t appear to have protected him, he spent much of his teens living on the streets. 
When Skylar and Ezra are brought together serving aboard the same ship they unexpectedly find themselves looking out for each other. Through this story their worlds collide leading them to new friends, new lives and sanctuary, but it’s not without tribulation. Fueled by resentment and revenge Skylar and Ezra have to first sail through some very rough seas. 
If you love a gritty tale, true friendship and forgiveness you’ll not be disappointed here.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Influences In My Life – part 1

My life has not been filled with influential people. I’ve known numerous men and women who I have admired, but for the most part, I did not come to know any of them personally, and because of that, they held little inspiration for me.

My family, on both mother’s and father’s side, had no notable personalities, or at least nobody who could claim any pronounced abilities or achievements. I come from a family of farmers and ranchers. I did, later in life, come to hold my grandfather in high regard, because he could neither read nor write, and yet he worked a rather sizable farm in Ogden, Utah, and raised seven conscientious children. He was a man who worked hard all his life, and expected nothing more than what he earned for himself and his family. His only goal was to instill a sense of integrity into his children, and pass on something to each one of them to help them get started in life. As his children grew of age and married, he parceled off one-seventh of his land and gave it to them as a wedding present, until he had nothing left—rather like King Lear. But because my father moved us to California, not only did we forfeit the land, I rarely saw that honorable man.

I have had three men in my life who have deeply influenced me, each one at a different phase of my development as a human being. The first was my father, who shepherded me into manhood. The second was my first lover, who I lived with for sixteen years, and who taught me the value of education, and infused me with the tools to become successful. The third is my husband and soul mate, who more than anyone, has taught me—through example—to be a compassionate human being. In all three cases, it was not their accomplishments that had an impact on me, but rather, the strength of their character that shaped that part of my life.

I’ll first focus on my father. Bernard Franklin Hurlburt was born into a family of sheepherders in Western Colorado, up around Grand Junction. Shortly after entering the seventh grade, he was forced (I suspect it didn’t take much encouragement) to abandon school and work the ranch through depressed times. That turned into a hard, dull life, which he was finally able to escape via the United States Marines. He enlisted as soon as he came of age, and I believe that all his life, he considered his stint in the Marines as the happiest time of his life.

As a young solider, Bernard was footloose, handsome in his dress blues, and had money in his pockets to impress the girls. He was, by all accounts, a ladies man. By the time he reached his twenty-first birthday, he met a beautiful deaf girl of eighteen years, and he fell in love. He met my mother, a farmer’s daughter, in Ogden, Utah. I’m not altogether sure whether he was on leave or stationed nearby. I do know that they met while he was still in the service of his country, and that she was the main reason he left the Marines for civilian life. They were wed and took up residence in Ogden.

Bernard had no skills other than ranching sheep and precision marching (as a marine, he was a member of a precision drill team). For years, he hung around a mechanic shop in Ogden, learning the trade of auto repair. Those were hard times, because he didn’t get a salary. Members of the Mormon Church dropped by weekly with a box of food. The rest of our food came from my grandfather’s farm. Clothes were all hand-me-downs. My mother tells of walking to the general store and bringing home discarded, cardboard boxes, and then unfolding the boxes flat and nailing them to the walls so keep the winter wind from coming through the gaps between the boards. The first few years of my life were spent in a shack. The rent was ten dollars per month, and in two years we fell six months behind on the rent.

By the time I was two years old, Bernard landed a paying job as a auto-body repairman, and life got easier—at least my family didn’t rely on the Church to feed us. By the time I was five, my father had grown tired of my mother’s protective family giving him grief, and he moved us all to San Jose, California. There he bought a house and opened his own auto repair shop and towing company. Life began looking better, but was by no means Ozzie and Harriet.

Throughout my grade-school and high-school years my father kept food on the table and clothes on our backs through working his shop, The Santa Clara Body Shop. Life was still difficult, much harder for him that I realized at the time, because he couldn’t read and he needed an adding machine to do even simple arithmetic. Add to that he developed a drinking problem and liked to chase women. Mother, being deaf, totally depended on him for income. It became a heavy burden for him, and as the years drew on, the burden became heavier.

Those school years in San Jose are the time he held the most influence over me. He taught me valuable life lessons, molded my character, and also taught me destructive behavior.

My father was a man with many qualities, and the foremost was his tendency to take risks. When people told him he couldn’t do something because he didn’t have the education or the money or the knowhow, he found a way. Once he set his mind on something, his determination grew as strong as tempered steel. As the example above, learning a new career, his fortitude kept him showing up at that mechanic shop, day after day, year after year, doing odd jobs for no pay, because he knew someday it would pay off, some day he would be his own boss.

More than any man I’ve ever known, he made the most with the hand life dealt him, and he never let his shortcomings stop him from attaining something he truly wanted. I remember learning to ski with him. He refused to pay for lessons or rent proper equipment (which was so typical of him). We simply borrowed someone’s old, dilapidated skis, boots and poles, took the chairlift to the most difficult runs, pointed our skis down hill, and flew until we fell. Then we picked ourselves up, point the skis down hill again, and off we sailed until the next fall. At the end of the first week, we could make it down most of the slopes without falling, and we never returned the borrowed skis. That was how he rolled, and that’s the paramount lesson he taught me—never be afraid to go after something, no matter the obstacles. Just do it, and keep doing it until you become good at it.

Even at an early age I admired him for his determination, his grit. I still do.

The negative side of that equation, however, was that early on, he drummed it into my head that I didn’t need an education to become successful. As long as I didn’t dream too large, reach too high, I could blow off schooling, which is what I did. I became, like him, streetwise, and held a mild distain for people who worshiped in the halls of higher education. I became convinced that I could live a comfortable life by not playing by the rules, or more accurately, by living by my father’s set of bull-in-a-china-shop rules, and living by the seat of my pants.

So high school was a waste for me, I never cracked a book; I learned little or nothing there. That attitude was fortified during my four years in the US Navy, where I got along quite well without being educated. In the navy I was in my element, surrounded by others like me, being always governed by the officers (men who were college educated).

It wasn’t until I met my first husband, John Aherns, that my dreams grew larger than my education. John was cultivated, professional, and respected. He worked as a computer analyst, spent money frivolously, and for whatever inexplicable reason, he became enamored by me. Almost over night, he quickly became everything I wanted to be. Because of John, I was no longer content to live a smallish life, held back by the limitations my father had pounded into me. My dreams expanded, like climbing a trifling foothill, only to finally see the glorious mountain range beyond.

I will always be both grateful and resentful of my father’s lessons. It has taken a lifetime to undo that initial damage, yet he also instilled the determination to never give up, to dream big and make it happen, even if it takes a lifetime.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Writing Tip: Don’t Muddy the Waters

I recently read and reviewed a 750 page, self-published novel that was written by a talented writer, and yet, I had a great deal of trouble muddling through the story. Not only was I not totally satisfied with the read, but the author contacted me after I posted my review to let me know I had missed several of the themes he had woven into the story. I freely admit that, although I caught some of the more obvious themes, several he mentioned did blow right over my head. He was very disappointed. It was a shame because much of his story was quite entertaining.

I’ve been thinking about his novel, my review of it, and the author’s response to my review for weeks now. The most prominent complaint that I expressed in the review was that the story was simply overwritten, and could benefit from cutting up to three hundred pages from the story, to tighten the storyline and focus more on the major themes.

After weeks of thought, I stand by my first analysis. I believe the main, and possibly the only, problem was the writer tried to encompass too much, too many ideas, into his story. He was so ambitious, trying to make his story grand, that many of the themes got lost in the shuffle.

I often do this myself when writing a first draft. I don’t realize what the major themes are until I’m deep into act three and all the subplots are coming together for the climax. But once the lightning bolt hits and I understand what my subconscious was striving for, then I’m ready for a major rewrite.

Once I know the premises, I write a theme statement, or two if there are multiple major themes, and I post them on my tack board over my desk. From that point on, the theme statements are my litmus test for cutting or keeping.

Particularly while writing the second draft, anything I find that doesn’t advance the major themes gets cut. Once while writing The Lonely War, I cut the first two hundred pages in half. The result was a cleaner read, and everything that was left did advance the themes.

My point is, be clear about what ideas the subtext of your story is creating, and keep the number of themes to a minimum. Two is good, one is better. In short, don’t muddy the waters by trying to do too much.

For my stories, I like to have two different subplots going on that are loosely linked, each with it’s own theme. At some point, usually deep into act three, I bring the two subplots together to pound home one overall premise. This approach is nothing new. In fact, writers have been using this technique since Rome was a village.

Again, the point is, know your theme, and cut anything that doesn’t progress that idea. Hopefully, you’ll end up with a tighter, cleaner manuscript.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Good Morning, Bangkok

Yesterday was one long-ass day. Left the house at 7:30am, with Jimmy driving us to the airport. Twenty-six hours later, we arrived at our hotel in Silom, Bangkok. Didn’t sleep on the plane, but did manage to watch five movies, one of which was terrific (I Origins), two others that were enjoyable, (Chiefs, Begin Again) and two that were basically “Hollywood” duds (Grand Budapest Hotel, And So It Goes). In And So It Goes, Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton had zero chemistry and a tired cliché plot. Keaton has done too many of these types of slick comedy/romance movies, all of which were better than this one.

The one thing I’m completely sure of at this moment is that the older I grow, the harder jetlag hits me. I soon may need to take shorter hops to get to a destination. Takes more time and money, but so much easier on the body.

I managed to get a lot of reading in. I’m reading Isherwood on Writing, which presents Christopher Isherwood’s lecture series on writing he gave at various universities in Southern California during the early sixties. After having read his diaries of that time in his life, I’m really enjoying his personal views on his writing processes, which during that time in his life were mostly autobiographical. I do love his writing, and I will need to re-read A Single Man as soon as I return to California.

Jetlag aside, I’m thrilled to be back in Thailand. Love this culture, people, cuisine. I’ll be here for two months before moving on to Burma, and then Vietnam.

To all my friends back home, I already miss you and I’ll see you in the Spring.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Knack of Packing for a Long Trip

On Monday morning Herman and I board a plane for Southeast Asia, where we’ll vacation for the next three months. We plan to visit Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, and possibly Hong Kong. All preparations have been made:

-House sitters are moving in Monday afternoon
-Gardeners and pool man are prepaid
-Bills are paid electronically
-All flight & hotel reservations are made
-Visas are acquired
-Currency has been exchanged
-Said goodbye to all friends
-Ride to and from the airport is arranged

The only thing left to do is pack the bags.

The secret for packing for a long haul vacation is to take as little as possible. Herman and I each carry one backpack carry-on that holds our computers, phones, travel documents, toiletries, books, and our Kindle. We each have one checked piece of luggage, but those are very small bags. We take few clothes, and get them cleaned at Mom&Pop laundries as often as possible. Laundry service is Asia is very cheap. A kilo of clothes—wash, iron, and fold with one-day turnaround—costs only a few bucks.

Fortunately, SE Asia is quite warm this time of year, so we need not take any heavy clothing for cool weather.  Beside what we wear on the plane, shorts, T-shirts, sandals, and an outfit for fine restaurants is all one needs in that climate.

So for the next few months I’ll be posting travel pics from Asia. Hope you enjoy.