Strangers In A Yearbook

Putting up Facebook photos of our ongoing Florida holiday (my uncle demands to see them!), and noticing those who “like” and “comment” on them, abruptly has led me this afternoon to realize I have zero contact now with anyone non-family whom I knew pre-university.

Which led to this quick post. Much as I hate to admit this, yes, guys, I’m in my later forties. My friends today are all people I have met from about age 20 to the present.

Am I odd? I suppose the way I’ve lived has contributed. I left home and that was pretty much that. (I even left the country.) I’ve never been to a high school reunion, nor was I really even interested in attending one.

In our Facebook era, do they still even have high school reunions? I’m sure if I went to FB and had a nosy around, I’d find old school chums on there. But why bother? After all, no one has sought me out either.

Indeed, by now, if I engaged with any of them, those old schoolmates would feel mostly like strangers. How do you start that interaction anyway? “So, uh, hey, what you been up to for the last 30 years?”


Maybe they figured I “ran off”? If any have ever “stalked” my Facebook page, among my friends now they’d find not a single non-family friend any of them know. Anyone who might have done that has probably thought, “Who are these people?”

Naturally we fall away from many in life and make new relationships as we mature. There are those I once liked a lot – even since high school – who I’m pretty sure I’ll never see ever again. That’s no one’s fault. Life merely takes us all in different directions.

Then there’s the opposite bunch: relatives I can’t stand. You too may have to endure the same sorts of detestable people you are lectured you are supposed to like because they are termed (by those doing the lecturing) “family.” Sadly, to slightly rework the old saying, you can indeed choose your friends, but you could relocate to Antarctica and you still couldn’t get entirely the hell away from certain “relatives.” ;-)

Fame Or Fortune?

About five years ago, we had a laugh with my English niece (now 16) and nephews (now 19 and 12) about which would they prefer: fame or fortune? At the time they said they wanted “fame.” We told them you don’t want fame, because you might be famous and unable to put food on the table.

But as young kids not having to put food on the table for themselves, naturally they didn’t quite get what we had meant. Things have moved on. We asked the question again recently of the older two, and this time they were emphatic the other way: they wanted “fortune.” My niece, in particular, loves money in her pocket – as we discovered a year ago when she was visiting with us here in New York; she could have shopped until we dropped.

The default position seems to be everyone wants to be “famous.” The assumption narrowly in our context here is if you blog, or use social media, you are cravenly just seeking attention. However, I don’t buy that as applicable across the board.

Free Stock Photo: Miley Cyrus singing on stage.

Free Stock Photo: Miley Cyrus singing on stage.

Yes, out there are certainly the likes of my HarperCollins published uncle. He is a complete extrovert. He loves being on TV. He relishes being the center of attention in the room. Facebook is the worst invention imaginable for him: he can carry on to a couple of hundred “friends” about how he wishes he’d been in the Spanish Republican army in 1936 or something. (God, I hope he never sees my blog. Then again, he’d probably laugh, because he knows I’m right.)

Myself, I just want to write entertaining novels that stand on their own, which when a reader finishes she/he says, “I enjoyed that.” I seek to use this blog and Twitter to help spread the word and to be there for those curious about my books. However, I have no desire to be a “celebrity”…. as odd as that may sound in the novelist biz today. :-)

Rural U.S. Healthcare In Action

We flew from Heathrow to Newark, N.J. yesterday. It was a decent flight, but flying is always wearying – the time change never helping. Unsurprisingly, we’re a bit tired today.

Before it’s back to the Catskills, we’ve detoured to see my parents. My soon to be 73 year old Dad’s recently recovered from a bout with pneumonia. When my Mom took him to the urgent care two weeks ago, this is how the initial sign-in went:

The admitting nurse/ receptionist, questioning him: “So tell me what were you doing when you first felt that pain in your back?”

My Dad (having trouble breathing and barely able to speak): “Uh, I was outside, pulling weeds….”


The nurse: “You were smoking weed?”

The waiting room went dead silent. Welcome to rural Pennsylvania. I’m trying to picture an NHS nurse making that observation. ;-)

“A German bomb hit No. 257….”

We spent Bank Holiday Monday – which coincided, by chance, with U.S. Memorial Day – unexpectedly on the receiving end of impromptu family recollections of the Second World War in Britain. Over our London lunch table, my in-laws (aided by red wine) shared some childhood memories with us. We’d heard some before; but others were new to us. Here are a few particularly poignant ones:

Father-in-law: “We got one egg a week, for three of us. My mother would boil it and carefully slice it three ways.”

Mother-in-law [to my wife]: “Your father’s father was out in Patricia Bay, with those Canadian women chasing after him. He had a lovely war.”

Father-in-law: “Uncle B’s tank was hit by enemy fire in Tunisia. He spent months in hospital there. As soon as he was better, they sent him back out to fight. He ended up at Monte Cassino, but he never talked about it. It must’ve been hell.”

Mother-in-law: “My father stationed in Scotland would send us food packages. I just remember meat. At the cinema once we saw an American film in which children were sitting at a dinner table. One complained to the mother, ‘Oh, no, not chicken again.’ The whole cinema groaned. What we all would have given to have had a chicken dinner.”

Father-in-law: “Uncle M. trained with the RAF in South Africa. He qualified as a pilot just as the war ended. Lucky devil. Saw no fighting.”

Mother-in-law: “I don’t remember fear. Once I remember a ‘V’ bomb hitting not far away. We didn’t think anything of it. Maybe we were so young, we didn’t understand. It was a lark.”

Father-in-law: “At night, the Luftwaffe would fly overhead, and the air defence had these huge searchlights all around London that illuminated as far as the eye could see. Occasionally, they’d spot a German bomber, and our boys would knock it out of the sky. They were kids, just like our lads. 18, 19, 20 years old.”

Mother-in-law: “I spent the beginning of the war with my aunt in Ireland. But my older sister didn’t go. My mother finally sent for me to come back to London. [Tears in her eyes, she added] She believed if we were going to die, she wanted us all to die together.”

Father-in-law: “You can’t imagine how terrifying it was to see the RAF dogfighting in daylight with the Germans. You would see planes circle and circle, leaving their wakes behind them. If one of them went down, we always cheered when we knew it was the bloody enemy.”

Father-in-law: “A German bomb hit No. 257, across the road from our house. It blew out all of our windows. My mother screamed to us to get under the stairs.”

 Free Stock Photo: Illustration of St Pauls Cathedral in London, England.

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of St Pauls Cathedral in London, England.

Mother-in-law: “We wouldn’t have won the war without the Americans….”

Me: “….We were a bit late turning up.”

Mother-in-law: “What mattered is you came and we couldn’t have won without you.”

As soon as I could, I jotted down what I could recall of what they had said. You don’t hear stuff like that twice sometimes. What one may learn during what starts out as an innocuous meal….

Name That Actor

We discussed TV drama – specifically mumbling – yesterday. By coincidence, how about this gem from “The Department of You Couldn’t Make This Stuff Up”:

  • Mother-in-law: “Robert, you know the name of that actor who was with Elizabeth Taylor? In the 1950s?”
  • Me: “Uh, I need a little more info than that?”
  • Mother-in-law: “Back in the 1950s. You must know. Oh, what was his name?”
  • Me: “Sorry, I don’t know.”
  • Mother-in-law: “He was tall and blond. Oh, you know. A big American Hollywood star from back then.”
  • Me: “Uh, Bogart? Just kidding. Randolph Scott?”
  • Mother-in-law: “No, no. Not him. I’m sure Catherine will know. I’ll ring Catherine.”

[Mother-in-law proceeds to call her sister.]

  • Mother-in-law: “Hello. How are you? We’re fine. Stop talking for a moment and listen. I’ll put you on the speaker. I have a question. Robert doesn’t know. He’s being useless. I thought all Americans knew all about Hollywood. Anyway, we’re trying to remember an actor from the 1950s. You must know him. What was his name? Tall? Blond? American?
  • Aunt Catherine [through the speaker phone]: “Van Johnson.”
  • Mother-in-law: “That’s him! Van Johnson!”
from the trailer for The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954)

from the trailer for The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954)

[Wife and father-in-law both erupt in laughter.]

  • Me: “Seriously? On that info?”

Yes, seriously. I’m still laughing too. Call it, “I can name that actor in, uh, three notes….”

Pen Names: Our Secret Identity

We know it is commonplace. If you write, you may well do so under a pen name. “R. J. Nello” is mine.

And social media is vital in authoring nowadays. I use Twitter and this blog, which are entirely my “published persona.” However, I cannot readily use Facebook because of that pen name.

Yes, I have also “squatted” on “R. J. Nello” on Facebook as a public figure so no one else gets it. But Facebook had been – and is – for the real me under my real name. “Robert” is my real first name, and the real me on Facebook long predates my recent novelist efforts.

Thus the root of the problem is found in my new “double identity” – meaning who knows what I have been authoring vs. who doesn’t. Some of my Facebook friends do know what I have authored under my pen name, and those who do happen also to be trusted English relations/ friends or European friends. On the other hand, no one from the American side of my family has a clue what I’ve been up to.

Even my parents apparently think I am working as I had been, in consulting, in partnership with my wife. (My wife still does alone – generously allowing me this “sabbatical” to try my hand at writing these books.) In fact, when visiting us in the Catskills, my parents never even seek to set foot in our study (fortunately it is in a loft space, and they don’t care to walk up to it), so they never stumble on my novel and assorted related materials often lying around near my desktop PC. I’ve just now realized how very “Bruce Wayne-like” that sounds. ;-)

As I have also written on here previously, in the books I fictionalize some real experiences of real people I know. In addition, I borrow from some of them for various fictional characterizations – especially to bolster some of the American characters. Unsurprisingly that creates a potential for varying degrees of discomfort should they find out.

But all of that makes for some unintended “secret identity” amusement also.

A real uncle of mine is actually a real, and reasonably successful, novelist. He has been interviewed on TV numerous times over the years, and has also been involved in a major film. As such, he has also been an inspiration for me. Naturally I can’t tell you who he is, but, let’s just say, bless him, and I love him, but he has provided me with plenty of useful story material as well. ;-)


Last year, I came close to spilling the beans with him about my then almost finished first book. During a phone chat, after his ritual complaining that my mother never calls him and he always has to call her (it’s not that one-sided; my mother in turn complains all he does is whine and she can take only so much), he explained how he tires of friends and acquaintances who’ve been newly bitten by the writing bug sending him their unpublished manuscripts. I recall it going something like this:

“I have my own writing to do,” he moaned. “You know, nephew, I just don’t have time to critique everyone else’s. And a lot of it is just bad. If you’re a surgeon, Robert, why the hell do you want to be a writer? Geez….”

“Oh, yeh,” I replied sympathetically. “That must be such a pain. Everyone out there thinks they’re Hemingway, don’t they?”

[And yours truly then moved the phone to the other ear, and smiled to himself.]

Recently he had also been on at me to publicly share some of a private Facebook exchange we had had about life in Europe. These are a couple of bits from his messages to me about what I had written to him:

….First of all Robert I love this and with your permission I would post it on my fb page. You should post it and share it, you do have a way with creative non fiction it is really nicely done. Do it..have a blog of sorts not so much but a day by day sort of where u r and what u know. I’ve learned more in the last piece u wrote than I had known….

Do I have a blog? Uh, well, where do I start, Uncle….

….your writing on these subjects, for me and many Americans, although there are a number of Europeans on my fb page, your writing is absolutely wonderful enlightening stuff. …. there are a number of writers as well as a number of my students on the page that would take great pleasure from your sharing. Robert it is very well done, trust me I’m a pro I know the difference….

“Thanks for the praise! Gotta go, Uncle! Bye for now,” I signed off. (His “my students” reference is to his teaching creative writing part-time. Incidentally, as you likely noticed, he also writes in a very relaxed manner on Facebook. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation are never a priority for him on it.)

There has also been sadness too in borrowing from those I once knew. I found in writing the original that sourcing even somewhat from deceased family and friends is, even for fictive purposes, often gut-wrenching and emotional. As I write the sequel, I continue to feel that way – particularly now when I return to writing lovely “Valérie.” A couple of times I have caught myself typing with tears in my eyes given who she is partly based upon.

Those who know my secret – “Bruce Wayne” on Facebook and “Batman” in publishing – also know never to reveal my “crimefighting writing identity.” Indeed that creates some awkwardness. For instance, no one who knows the real me on Facebook may post a Facebook link to my book, or mention it, or even “like” it on Goodreads, in case doing so gives away who I am to mutual friends and family on social media who don’t know about my “secret identity.”

I have been asked by several people who know the truth, “Why not just tell everyone?”

My response: “I know not everyone who is fictionalized will greatly like everything that appears in my novels. So if the books are never big sellers, why do they need to know about them? Why stir up any potential troubles if I don’t have to? But if the books eventually do well and ‘my mask’ falls, well… I’ll, errr, cross that friends and family bridge when I come to it.”

Have a good weekend. I’m off now again…. “to the Bat cave!” ;-)

Quick Take 3: “Uncle Bill”

How many of us have a handsome and charming uncle who is a successful crime novelist, considers himself a nuanced observer of the passing global scene (in a world made up mostly of those who invariably lack his uniquely well-informed outlook), and never allowed his marriage to an attractive Italian immigrant to the U.S. to get in the way of his pursuing other women…. and now, given time stops for no one, as he ages they are becoming increasingly younger women?


Okay, true, most of us aren’t related to a successful crime novelist, of course. ;-)

But James has that for an uncle. Moreover, some of those women actually do return Uncle Bill’s interest. As James’s mother – Bill’s younger sister – castigates her brother:

“You always really goddamn know everything, don’t you…. other than to not use a joint credit card to cheat on your wife.”

Part rogue, part wannabe family man, he is a contradiction; and even he appears to grasp that. There are moments he is so obnoxious and infuriating that seemingly everyone wants to punch him in the face. Yet, at other times (sometimes only moments later), he is sagacious and a useful person to hear out thanks to, one might say, his, uh, world of experience.

See related:
Quick Take 2: “Valérie”
Quick Take: “Virginie”