Thursday, February 22, 2007

It’s All Relative

I’m cold today here at my house in South Florida. It’s 63 degrees. Fahrenheit! I know, I know, it’s not a big deal to most people. Sixty-three is not very cold to some poor soul waiting out winter in Chicago, Buffalo or, God forbid, Nova Scotia. To me it’s relatively cold. Although the photo on the right is what it looks like outside right now. And the photo below is where crazy people live.

I remember my first day in the DEA academy. I hate to date myself but it was February of 1987. A blizzard had shut down Northern Virgina and Washington. The power had been knocked out at the Quantico facility where the FBI and DEA trained their recruits. I thought I’d start my career with my first snow day. Instead, our physical training instructor walked into the gym where we were all awaiting our first contact with the staff. He just sort of appeared in front of us and barked out, “Running shoes and sweats outside in five minutes.”

There were snow drifts six feet high. All the guys from New York, Detroit and other northern dreamscapes started bitching. The storm had already passed and it was fifty outside. I thought that was relatively warm. For a redneck raised in South Florida this was the coolest thing I had ever seen. The temperature was immaterial. We started our run and after about forty minutes our instructor broadcast that we were going to keep running since there was nothing else we could do. So we continued to run in formation, three across and about thirteen rows back.

The instructor would periodically trot in close to someone then step wide and say something like, “Mister Davis says we’re going too slow.” Then he’d pick up the pace. Then he'd make it sound like someone else asked to run up hill and off we’d go. After a few miles he came up next to me and said, “So, Florida, you cold?” I kept looking straight ahead and said, “No sir.” He said, “You tired?” I replied “No sir.” He leaned in close and said, “You a good runner?” I said, “Relatively good runner sir.” That was my error. The DEA does not deal in relative terms. At least not when you’re a recruit. The instructor said, “What’s that mean?” I panicked. I didn’t know if he as asking what the word meant or how good of a runner I thought I was. I stammered and he said something like, “You’re a good runner but talking trips you up?” I kept my eyes straight ahead and he said, “You think this distance s relatively long?” I simply said “Yes sir.”

That’s the day I learned that everything is relative. It turns out that a fifty minute run is not that long, relatively speaking. The instructor yelled out to the class something like, “Mr. Born thinks this is too easy.” That’s not what I meant. He just wanted to see how I reacted under a little stress and what my classmates might do if I had, in fact, been stupid enough to insist we continue to run.

My experiences in the DEA academy, which, I personally consider one of the toughest civilian academies around, (But I recognize others would disagree), taught me most things are relatively easy. The publishing business, while perhaps not fair or friendly, is relatively easy on people. The army is hard. Working in the drug trade is difficult. Being a compulsive gambler and borrowing from guys who do business out of their Cadillacs is difficult. Emergency room medicine is hard. Working is the garbage business is hard. Working in publishing is relatively easy. No one was ever inadvertently yanked into a trash compactor while working at Random House. To my knowledge, no writer was ever shot by a Taliban sniper while figuring out a plot.

Yet if you don’t do your best in publishing, whether writing, editing or distributing, you end up out of the business. Relatively quickly. I don’t read relatively good books. If I can’t say, “Wow, this is a good book," quickly I move on to the next in my mountainous stack. And I consider myself relatively well read.

All things in the world are relative. Pike’s Peak is relatively small compared to Mount Everest. Florida is relatively cool compared to Arizona. My wife is pleasant compared to Dick Cheney. Pauley Shore is a good actor compared to Lindsay Lohan. Paul Levine is a good writer.
Not nothing add there. He’s a good writer (which is important because the photo above proves he has trouble dressing himself). But you get my drift. If you’re reading this blog on a computer, inside, have eaten in last twelve hours and have not undergone a medical procedure you’ve probably got it relatively good.

The photo to the right is a result of relatively bad Florida weather.

So if you hear me whine about the relatively cold weather here, or my relatively wide ass or my relatively good job, smack me. I deserve it.


  1. Great post, Born. Loved the photo of the sailboat but it doesn't hold a candle—relatively speaking—to the one of you and Polly auditioning for the Don Ho show.

    p.s. The high today in LA is going to be 57 and it's raining. Better bring your umbrella when you breeze into town on your book tour in March.

  2. Actually, I'm in Michigan, where it's currently 35 degrees with winds up to 45 mph, which, compared to what it was like a couple weeks ago when it was -2, is relatively nice.

    I liked this post quite a bit. I'm a novelist, but I'm also a freelance writer and I recently completed a book-length business report filled with tons of data and statistics. I was having a meltdown about some of this and called a writer friend of mine who writes nonfiction books (and has the lawsuits to prove it) and we both commiserated on the oft-heard whine from novelists about how godawfully difficult novel writing is.

    It's difficult because there's no objective standard for quality or for how to do it well or even how to stay in the business, but compared to writing a nonfiction book where you're pretty much stuck with facts, or compared to almost every job I've ever held from piano teacher to research assistant to genetics technologist to dishwasher, novel-writing is not a hard thing to do.

    Some guy tossing 50 or 60-pound garbage cans into the back of a truck for 8 hours has a hard job.

    Some guy tearing off and putting on new roofs in the Arizona sun has a hard job.

    Some woman waitressing for 8 hours a day for $4.50 an hour plus tips has a hard job.

    Somebody cleaning out septic tanks has a hard job.

    Writing novels? That's a piece of cake. We just whine about how hard it is so non-writers will think we're actually doing something besides scribbling down our daydreams.

    Mark Terry

  3. "No one was ever inadvertently yanked into a trash compactor while working at Random House."

    Which is not to say that this is a good thing.

    Wonderful post.

    I believe that photo was taken at a John D. MacDonald event at the Bahia Mar Hotel in Fort Lauderdale. Both the Bornster and I were trying to look like Travis McGee. But people kept assuming we were the bartenders.

  4. A big congrats to J.B. for the OUTSTANDING review by mystery maven Oline Cogdill in the Sun-Sentinel.

    Oline says FIELD OF FIRE "crackles with authenticity" and that its "invigorating plot moves at a breakneck speed delivering not only an action-packed thriller but also a novel about corruption, greed and misplaced loyatlties."

    (I am being nice to Jim today in the event he possesses any more embarrassing photos).

  5. I couldn't help myself when I found that photo. It was at the JDM event where you kept me laughing the whole time.


  6. Bartenders? Really? I just don't see it! (I'm laughing here, in case you can't tell). God, that is so perfect. I can't wait to use it on my husband. He wears one of those shirts to work on Saturdays, when he stays in his office. " Hey honey, going to tend bar somewhere?" You never know what you might learn from this blog.

  7. Jim, I hope you wear that shirt in South Carolina this weekend so I can find you....

    Great post!

  8. from Jacqueline

    Loved this post. Even wrote a long comment earlier today. Don't know where it went though, somewhere up in the ether of cyberspace. Congratulations on the reception your book's receiving, Jim - well deserved.

  9. You have unusual posts. I like the messages you weave into your comments. That's a lot like your books. I'm very impressed, that's a talent.

    You never sound preachy.

    Good luck on the new book