About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

Knowing When to Be Quiet

Photo by designecologist on unspalsh.com

I am writing this on Thursday, May 28, after writing and rejecting two posts over the past week. You might or might not see them at some point in the future. One is about a couple of stories by Ray Bradbury that use climate in very different ways. The other is about the application to writing of the subject matter of what was once a regularly published newspaper cartoon whose author’s name has entered our lexicon.

You are not seeing either one of them now because I couldn’t hit the bullseye with either post. Both of them in my opinion had some great turns of phrase, were entertaining in places, and utilized multi-media presentations. They were ultimately, however, bowls of air that looked nice but were leaking badly, perhaps fatally so. If I wasn’t happy with them I didn’t think that you would be either.

The common denominator was me. I decided that at the core of each post I was being too clever and talking too much about things which really weren’t all that interesting to anyone outside of my own life at the moment. There wasn’t a fix, either. Pulling anything out caused the entire post in each case to collapse under its own weight. 

The major problem that a writer has — this writer anyway — is filling that white space with black letters. Resolving that problem isn’t enough.  Miles Davis used to say that in jazz knowing what not to play was as important as knowing what to play. The same is true in writing, whether it’s a post for your blog or your character’s interior dialog in your breakthrough novel or something in between. Sometimes it works. At other times you have to be quiet, walk away, and start somewhere else entirely. 

That’s what I am doing. Have a great weekend.

But wait, there’s more. Please permit me, in lieu of our regularly scheduled programming, to introduce to you a handy little tool called a “title case converter.” There are only a few rules to remember when properly capitalizing the words in a title but this is a quick and dirty way to check yourself to make sure that you have it right. Enjoy!

5+

Stone Libraries

I was recently asked by a family member as to whether I had a preference with respect to being either buried or cremated. My immediate response, ala Bob Hope, was “Surprise me.” 

The sincere question and my flippant response brought to mind a story that my mother told me many years ago. A college professor of hers took her class to a graveyard near Cincinnati where they examined headstones. Over half of them bore the same year of death for those occupying the graves beneath. The reason for this, according to the professor, was that an illness — it might have been smallpox — had swept through a village adjacent to the graveyard, all but wiping the population out. 

I then found myself thinking about cemeteries generally. I have visited many graveyards and cemeteries in Louisiana — in Baton Rouge, St. Martinville, and, of course, New Orleans — but have neglected what is practically in my own backyard of Westerville, Ohio, just northeast of Columbus. While the Westerville cemeteries do not contain the remains of anyone of the notoriety of Marie Leveau or Huey Long, the very ordinariness of those who now rest hidden from view of the living  provides grist for conjecture. The collection of granite headstones and markers constitute what I have come to call stone libraries, which tell or hint at stories in words carved rather than printed or spoken. What follows are three of many.

1909 was a tragic year for the Ballard family. The document standing in evidence of that conclusion is a tombstone in Pioneer Cemetery. The cemetery is a relatively small plot of land which somehow has managed to constitute a tranquil island in the middle of a sea of commerce which has formed around it over several decades while Westerville made its transition from a farming community to a bedroom suburb.  The Ballard gravestone is large, though neither Ozymandias-sized nor ostentatious by any means. It notes the location of the remains of the three Ballards, being  Bessie L., Herman F., and Irma Ruth. It is Irma Ruth — remarked as “Daughter” — whose birth and death years are listed as 1909, who gives us pause. History has not recorded the reason for the shortness of her journey, but we can certainly draw the conclusion that she was not forgotten in her wake. Bessie L. and Herman F. are recorded as “Mother” and  “Father” rather than “Wife” and “Husband.” It is understandable if we conclude that a sorrowful chill permeated the home of Irma’s mother and father until their respective passings some six decades later. 

Otterbein Cemetery is a fifteen-minute drive north from its sister Pioneer and is tucked into the corner of a quiet residential neighborhood, not far from a private college.  The oldest part of the cemetery is in the back.  There one will find the grave markers for the Hanby family. Benjamin R. Hanby is a major figure in Westerville. Hanby was an abolitionist and minister but is best remembered now as a composer. You know his work. His song “Lovely Nellie Gray” was recorded by Louis Armstrong with the Mills Brothers, later by Bing Crosby, and as “Faded Love” by Bob Wills, but it is “Up On the Housetop” for which Hanby is most famously remembered.  Hanby’s compositions were popular but did not gain a wide audience until a half-century or so after his death in 1867 at the age of 36. The fame of his compositions aside, probably no one of that era would have been more surprised than Hanby himself to learn that in Westerville an elementary school, a small shopping center, and a street have been named after him. He might also be somewhat nonplussed to learn that the cemetery to which he is consigned, as well as the private college nearby, is named after his brother.  Hanby’s life was unexpectedly cut short thanks to a visit to a disease-ridden locale known by its residents to this day as “Chicago,” where he contracted tuberculosis and passed away after a short hospitalization. Hanby was survived by his family which included his father, who was also a minister, and his brother, who was a physician. I have no way of knowing but I would guess that as each of them wondered at the premature passing of their son and brother they must have concluded that neither of their fields of vocation fully possessed the answer to the question as to why a life so demonstrably full of promise was taken so quickly.   

A similar question was undoubtedly asked by the Kern family, who rest near the Hanbys in the Otterbein Cemetery. Ruth Ann Kern was consigned to dust at the tender age of 13 in 1863. She was so young, undoubtedly on the cusp of the promise of adolescence. Her death at that age could have come from any number of sources. Perhaps it is better that we don’t know.

In death, we mark the inevitable as tragic. The converse is true as well. The world is a dangerous place, one in which we — or most of us, anyway — drag our feet as we are inexorably tugged toward the final precipice. It is that tragedy and inevitability which, ironically, make our world and the stories we tell — the ones ultimately marked in those stone libraries — so interesting. It is one reason that I often tell people that boring, as a day-to-day state, is good. 

I looked neither long nor hard for the stories I have remarked upon. It took me about a half-hour to find them and others in two different cemeteries. There are undoubtedly more in cemeteries near you, waiting for you to give voice to what you find.

Today’s fun fact: the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery is that a graveyard is a burial ground located on the property of a church or occasionally on a family farm. A cemetery is a larger burial ground not usually affiliated with a church. I did not know that until today, demonstrating that life and death are learning processes. 

Good day and be well. And be boring, in your life but not your writing. 

Photos by Al Thumz Photography and used with permission. All rights reserved.

10+

Don’t Forget the Mask

Brunias, Agostino, A West Indian Flower Girl and Two Other Free Women of Color, 1769, Public Domain

You may be familiar with the tignon laws which were applied to free women of color in Louisiana in the late eighteenth century. A “tignon” is a scarf worn to cover the hair. The purposes of the laws were 1) to infer that the women to whom they were applied belonged to the slave class and 2) to make the women unattractive to white men. 

What the women who were selectively targeted by the law did was ingenious. They observed the letter of the law by wearing scarves, but arranged them in elaborate patterns and accessorized them with jewels, beads, and feathers, among other things. The tignon laws were abolished after the United States purchased Louisiana, but the style continued. You can still encounter proponents of the fashion — primarily women of Creole descent — in present-day New Orleans.

The evolution of the tignon laws is an interesting research topic but is a little off the track of my visit today. I suggest that you do a deep research dive into the topic on your own. You won’t be sorry. My purpose for mentioning them, however, is that we are seeing somewhat the same thing — in practice though not purpose — occurring with government-mandated face coverings. While the majority of folks around me (and my age group) seem to be eschewing fashion for the familiar white or generic medical mask look, others are taking it a step or three further, utilizing designs, colors, and the like when they go stepping down Aisle 4 of the local supermarket. What started as a safety precaution has become a fashion statement. Some companies have begun selling entire outfits that coordinate with a face covering. Or is it vice versa? You can see some examples of this here, and they are interesting, to say the least. 

My purpose in mentioning this during our regularly scheduled Saturday morning visit is aimed at those of you who find writing fodder within our current collective experience.  If you are working on your dystopian novel using the coronavirus pandemic as a backdrop (as Mark Alpert encouraged you to do in his “Turning Crisis into Fiction” post last week) you might want to utilize the prevalence of masks or facial coverings as a plot element, particularly if you want to straddle genres and insert a crime of some sort into the proceedings. You need only peruse your local newspaper to discover that crimes of all sorts are still occurring in spite of or perhaps because of the secondary effects of the pandemic.

A mask as a general rule is an instrument of concealment. In the now, when most people in public places are wearing face coverings either by decree or due to being “strongly encouraged” to do so. This is fine as far as people with good intentions are concerned, but it gives the wolf in your story an opportunity to stalk unnoticed among the sheep since he is “dressed” pretty much like anyone else.  A mask can also distract, however, particularly if it is accessorized or otherwise made different from those worn by others in the immediate vicinity. Witnesses to crimes tend to remember, to the exclusion of much (if not most, or all) else, a mask, particularly a distinctive or memorable one. A mask or face covering can also with a bit of planning be quickly removed, disposed of, or changed to another more generic type to confuse things further, should such be advisable.   There is also a romantic and/or erotic element that the anonymity of a mask can occasionally spark. Ask anyone who has been to Mardi Gras or a costume party. 

It is a small detail, but conflagrations can result from tiny flames. I hope that your creative one burns long and bright as you hopefully take advantage of the free time created by the current impromptu gardening leave.

Enjoy and be well.

 

 

 

 

10+

Fallout

I submit to you on this fine day — and every day above ground is a fine day — that a bit of perspective is in order as we continue to deal with the cleanup in the surreal aisle. Whenever I hear one of the network talking heads talking about how the current situation is something that is “unprecedented in our lifetimes” my immediate response is, “Well, maybe in yours, Junior. You apparently never had a fallout shelter in your house.”

A little background might be appropriate. The Soviet Union and the United States in 1961 were engaged in what was known as “The Cold War.” It threatened to heat up when the possibility of atomic warfare between the two nations was thrown into the mix. People were scared. There was a headline in one of the local newspapers that read “30 Minutes: Moscow to Columbus.” We were saying the Prayer for Peace in church every day. The Catholic school I attended was rehearsing what students would do if the air raid sirens sounded while we were in class, which was to either put our heads down on our desks or to huddle under them. What they didn’t tell us was that we were figuratively tucking our heads between our legs and kissing our posteriors goodbye. More on that in a minute.

Somewhere along the way, it was suggested — nay, encouraged — for American families to either designate an area in their homes (preferably the basement, if you had one) as or to outright construct something called a “fallout shelter.” 

A fallout shelter wasn’t a man cave. It was supposed to protect the folks huddled inside it from radioactive debris in the event that an atomic bomb or missile was launched at (fill in the name of your city) and hit its target. The term “fallout shelter” really became chiseled into the national consciousness when President John Kennedy suggested in a letter published in Life Magazine that the state of world affairs was such that the utilization of fallout shelters was advisable.  

The collective shirtsleeves of the nation were rolled up. Areas of government buildings were adapted to that purpose but it wasn’t as if they could hold a lot of people. No one wanted to be caught napping when the sirens went off and thus be the one standing outside when the doors got locked after the shelter got filled to capacity.

The alternative which people went for was making their own. Most folks, like the Hartlaub family, dedicated a portion of their basement to the task.  It wouldn’t have withstood a stick of dynamite, let alone a 50 megaton indirect hit, or anything in between, but that’s what we had. My dad solemnly stated over dinner one night that our dog and cat would have to remain above ground while we were downstairs. The rest of the family replied that we would be upstairs with the pets if that were the case. As with the United States and the Soviet Union, neither side’s resolve on the issue was put to the test. 

One could also buy plans to construct fallout shelters, and some construction companies made a killing by building them.  I don’t know anyone who did that, but people did. Apparently there are still some that can be found as outbuildings in older neighborhoods, the same way that you can occasionally find Fotomat kiosks done over as drive-up keymaking services and the like in shopping center out lots

Whichever course one took, their fallout shelter needed to be stocked with food and supplies. I don’t recall lines at the supermarket, shortages,  or anything like what we are seeing now — people were, generally, a little more polite and genteel than they are now — but it seemed for quite a while as if everyone had a supply of groceries stashed in a special room in the house that they called the fallout shelter. 

Photo courtesy Smithsonian

The basic awful truth was that it was a way to keep folks busy and distracted. Busy hands are happy hands. If the big one had dropped we would almost all have been toast. Burnt toast. No one talked about what the aftermath would have been like, either. Time passed, however. People continued to go to work and school and stopped cringing every time a plane flew overhead. The repurposed room in the house got repurposed to its original purpose. Things got back to normal after a year or so. Then the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. That’s another story, for another time. 

Fallout shelters are more or less forgotten now. The term lives on in popular culture here and there. As recently as 2015 a semi-light-hearted video game named Fallout Shelter was released for PlayStation. It wasn’t a laughing matter in 1961. There was nowhere to run. Putting on a mask or maintaining social distance wasn’t going to change things. We were quietly terrified as we went about our business. 

My favorite story of the era was and is “Inside the Fall Out Shelter!” It was a comic book tale that was published in Marvel Comics’Tales of Suspense #30. It was written by Stan Lee and drawn by Steve Ditko, the gentlemen who created a little known, all-but-forgotten character named Spider-Man. “Inside the Fall Out Shelter!” was one of those five-page understated masterpieces that populated the Marvel monster comic titles in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

Copyright Marvel Worldwide Inc.

The plot of the story was simple enough. A guy named Mr. Clagg constructed a home fallout shelter for one, that being himself. He installed a timelock on the door that would not open for a month from either the outside or the inside. Clagg also bought enough groceries to last him for the duration in a manner which we would now call “hoarding” and announced every couple of panels that he wasn’t sharing with anyone. He actually seemed eager to have something happen so that he could test drive the shelter and at the end of a month be one of the few (if any) survivors.

In due course — page three or so — the NORAD emergency alert sounded. Mr. Clagg rushed into his shelter and locked the door behind him. He almost gleefully listened to the people outside pounding on the door and laughed at them for not planning ahead as he had. Clagg decided that he would open a can of — beans? soup?— to celebrate his foresightedness. His celebration turned into hysteria, however, when he realized that he had forgotten to pack a can opener (ring pull tops had not been invented at the time). Oh, The Humanity! The End. Well, almost the end. The point of view shifted to outside of the cad’s shelter, where the folks who were pounding on the door walk away, unable to tell Clagg that the siren was only a test. That’s The End. 

Copyright Marvel Worldwide Inc.

I am accordingly a little blase about the current situation. I’ve been through worse. So, too, the majority of the world’s population, who deal with hunger, disease, and lack of shelter and water on a day-to-day basis. How would you like to be a cane cutter in Haiti who is helplessly watching their child suffer from dengue fever? I wouldn’t. I have food, internet, a computer, a television, a radio, a solid home, a bed to sleep in, and chairs to sit on. I also get to watch my cat watch a bird resolutely taking twigs one at a time to a nest it is building in a tree in my backyard, which is much more entertaining and informative than Tiger King, if you think about it.

Coronavirus? Isolation? Travel restrictions? I think I’ll have a Bud Lite. Or a peach soda. And keep writing.

6+

Salt Pork Bacon

Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

You may have noticed that things are a little interesting at the moment. Jobs, schools, vacations, careers, and the like are all upended. We are not used to that on such a wide and all-encompassing scale. We all to varying degrees have become used to getting what we want when we want it and doing what we want when we want to do it. All that got upended, however temporarily, in a hurry just a few weeks ago. Were you ever told that it only takes one person to change the world? That turned out to be true. All it took was one guy licking the wrong bat and here we are…

…so I was in the middle of working on something when a new album crossed my desk by a vocal group calling themselves “The Legendary Ingramettes.” My first thought was “Wow. Not too humble.” My second thought, which I had about thirty seconds into the first song, was “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.” I have been playing the album over and over since then.  The song that I want to share with you today, particularly if you feel as if all of what is going on is never going to end, is “Beulah Land/I Wanna Go There”, or at least the first three minutes and thirty seconds of it. That introduction is a narrative spoken over a piano/bass accompaniment, with the narrator’s voice threatening to take right off to the stratosphere on every tenth syllable or so. She is telling a story that everyone needs to hear right now. It’s better and more vivid than anything you will see or hear on Netflix. Consider it as an example of oral tradition. 

Some of our younger visitors may not be familiar with the term “oral tradition.” I would ask that they think of it as an ancestor of the podcast. Before we had our television, computers, and phones people sat and with family and friends and told stories. Some had been passed down to the storyteller from older relatives while others were cases of first impression, but the best of them were told and retold. Some folks, particularly those in the American South, became really good at it, which is why some of our greatest authors come from that region. 

What you hear described in the first few minutes of “Beulah Land” is about growing up without and finding joy in it. The story told is not an exaggeration. I have heard similar stories from people of the same age and background as the Ingramettes. One wonderful lady of my acquaintance had four sisters and grew up in the rural South in a very small home that had one bathroom. She told me that she never saw her dad use the facilities because, when nature’s call came upon him, he took a walk (sometimes a run) into the woods to answer it, so as to not tie up the facilities should his wife or daughters need them. The common theme that runs through my friend’s story and the story in “Beulah Land” is generally, “Yeah, I guess we were poor, but we never knew it. It wasn’t that bad.” I listen to “Beulah Land,” and I remember my friend’s story, and when I come out the other end my conclusion is that I am the most fortunate person who has ever walked on earth, comparatively. Particularly now. Next time I get impatient waiting in line or get cut off by somebody passing across two lanes I’m going to try to remember the story about salt pork bacon and getting ready for Sunday morning on Saturday night. I’m going to particularly attempt to remember it in a few weeks or months when things are more or less back to normal. 

Please enjoy and be comforted.

 

7+

“Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “You are.”

Photo by Dimitri Houtteman on Unsplash

The best-laid plans…

I was so proud of myself for writing today’s blog ahead of time and finishing it on Monday, March 16. It was supposed to be about the ways in which authors could spend their time while dealing with all of the hoo-hah about social distancing and the like. The feeling lasted until Thursday, March 19, when the wondrous and wonderful Jordan Dane posted her blog titled “A Writer’s Guide to Surviving Social Distancing and Quarantine.” 

Whoops. Jordan’s post was so much better than what I had prepared — no surprise there — that I couldn’t even be frustrated. That said, one might expect that such a state of affairs would have put me into a state of panic, given that my deadline was near. Well,  contraire, mon frere. I have it covered. There is always something, and something else, to discuss. 

I am of the age at which one may find oneself attending at least one organ recital on a weekly basis, if not more often. By “organ recital” I refer to one of those gatherings which takes place — or at least used to until recently — at a coffee shop or diner, where a group of duffers might gather and trade war stories about their latest hospitalizations, surgeries, doctor visits, blood work results, and gradual deterioration. I don’t want this to be that at all. But here goes.  

I have for a few years experienced occasional episodes where I’ve been awakened at night by knocking. Two knocks, to be exact. My impression has in each instance been that someone is knocking at my front door. My bedroom and its window are in front of the house on the second story. I leave an outside light on at night as well. I accordingly can quickly obtain an excellent view of the front yard. I never see anything, such as a neighborhood urchin dashing madly way, following these knocking episodes. I also go downstairs and check to see if possibly Steve Harvey, Michael Myers, out-of-season after curfew trick-or-treaters, or missionaries are there. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

These episodes don’t happen frequently or regularly. I can go a year or more without one and then experience one every few weeks. In the past, I have forgotten about these episodes until I have had another. After experiencing one earlier this week, however, I did a little research and discovered that I apparently have something called EHS.

Photo courtesy quickmeme.com

What is EHS? It’s “exploding head syndrome.” EHS is described as being benign, and it is, in my experience. The condition was first noted in medical literature in 1876 by Dr. Silas Wier Mitchell but was given its charming name in 1988 by Dr. John M.S. Pinafo…er…Pierce.  Those who experience it hear loud noises and occasionally see flashes of light at the beginning or end of a sleep cycle. There is no medication for EHS but some prescription sleep aids have been reported anecdotally to be helpful. It doesn’t bother me enough to take Halcion or Ambien or one of those medications whose potential side-effects include walking down a highway disrobed while singing the soundtrack from Hamilton. It’s not worth it. 

EHS may have been around for quite a while. I found a British legend that solemnly declares that if someone is awakened by one phantom knock it meant that good fortune (Steve Harvey) was coming. If awakened by three, however, it meant that death (Michael Myers) was imminent.  The legend is moot, however, as to two knocks. Maybe hearing two knocks means that nothing will happen. I should be so lucky.

Have any of you heard of EHS or experienced it? My most experience has inspired me to fool around with writing a Cthulhu Mythos story, even though I don’t know what I’m doing with it.  Porter stumbled toward the front door, jumping each time the ponderous knock sounded. As he reached out to turn the doorknob Porter heard a slithering and hissing noise, as if hundreds of snakes were seeking entrance via the door hinges.  Porter tried to keep his voice steady as he yelled, “Get back, I say, get back! The Innsmouth Police are coming!” I might share it here if I finish it. Or not. In any event, be well and safe. Thanks for dropping by The Kill Zone, where you don’t need to call or knock first. 

Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

 

4+

To Buy or Not to Buy…

I recently had a defining moment in a used bookstore.

I have mentioned here on a number of occasions that my formative years were delightfully and wonderfully warped by perusing crime fiction on a regular basis. Every drugstore and supermarket had at least one revolving wire rack of paperback novels with several — I’m thinking twenty-four — pockets which could hold four to six books in each slot. Not all of these contained mysteries and detective fiction but it seemed as if more than half of them did. There wasn’t any particular rhyme or reason to the display, either. It wasn’t neat and orderly, with everything arranged by genre or alphabetically by title/ author, Each slot might have as many as six different titles. The book in the front of each slot concealed its brothers and sisters behind it. Browsing accordingly took a while. It also seemed as if titles were only there for a few weeks before they disappeared and a new crop of books took over.  Most of the covers were variations on a theme — weapons wielded by women in various suggestive stages of undress were the order of the day — and had little or nothing to do with the stories. My favorites were the Carter Brown stories and Richard Prather’s Shell Scott mysteries. Scott on each and every cover sported a blond crewcut and a knowing leer. I decided I wanted to be Shell Scott when I grew up. I kind of got my wish, but that’s another story. There were also titles by authors whose names are only remembered by their families, if that, but who no doubt had the same excitement, however briefly, that we do now when we see our names in print and for sale in public.

I used to spend hours browsing those books. I could on a rare occasion sneak one into the house but given that I was ten or eleven it was tough. I still have a few of them but at some point wistfully came to the realization that I was born too late to buy most of them at their cover price of thirty-five to forty cents apiece. Life, however, goes on. 

Flash forward sixty or so years. Last week I was in a local used bookstore and noticed that there were new displays of used paperbacks all over the premises. These weren’t just any displays of used paperbacks, either. What I saw were many of the books that I saw a few times in my youth at this or that drugstore. Each of the titles on display at the bookstore was priced at three dollars, eight or nine times the cover price but a bargain in the current collector market.

I buttonholed a clerk I knew and asked him what the story was. He said that the books had been owned by an elderly gentleman who had recently passed away after an extended illness. His longtime caregiver had been tasked with disposing of his estate, which included over fifty boxes of the paperbacks that the store now had on sale. The deceased had a longrunning interest in genre fiction (as well as several boxes of some other printed material which I was told that the store couldn’t, um, “appropriately” sell). There were so many books that the store did not want to go through the books and individually price each one appropriately. It was decided that three dollars per book was a fair average price. I was also told that if a fine gentleman such as myself wanted to make a reasonable offer on the whole kit and kaboodle, as it were, such an offer would be entertained and probably accepted. 

I thought about it. Picture the scene in the movie Animal House where the debate between the devil and the angel unfolds on the shoulders of Larry “Pinto” Kroger. The devil was telling me “Buy ‘em! Buy ‘em all, you f*****k! Who cares if your granddaughter goes to college?!” The angel was at the same time telling me, “You have all of those books at home you haven’t read yet! You should donate the money to a charity instead!” 

Twenty or thirty years ago I would have jumped on the opportunity to buy those books like it was a three-dollar government mule. My plan would have been to read every one of those books and eventually sell most of them, though not before enjoying their presence and inhaling the scent of old paper and ink. And yes, admiring the covers, too. In the here and now, however, I am aware that even under the most optimistic of estimates I have fewer reading years left than otherwise. There is also the consideration of space. I don’t have room for what I already have and am trying to downsize my possessions. Where would I put some additional fifty-plus boxes of books? How would I even get them home, realistically? Yes, I would still admire the covers. It just wasn’t enough of a reason to do it. I accordingly walked out empty-handed, though not before calling a friend who collects old Nick Carter books to see if there was anything he could use (he laughed and told me that he had a complete run of them).  I do have to admit that I tried to cajole the caregiver’s contact information out of the bookstore clerk, given that I was curious about that material that the store didn’t buy. He laughed but would not tell me. It’s just as well. 

I wasn’t a dollar short but I was two or three decades too late. It’s okay. Everything happens for a reason, including a situation where you have the opportunity to wisely walk away from a temptation that, like most temptations, is more trouble than its worth. I still find myself intermittently thinking about those boxes full of books, however, the way you might think of a stranger who you encountered and found attractive but who kissed your cheek and said, “I’m trouble. Bye” before walking away, never to be seen again. Still, I occasionally wonder what I would have done should I have had some of those revolving wire racks at home. 

*****

But wait, there’s more. A day or so after writing the above, I read a brand new mystery novel —published this week, actually — titled Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson. It is Swanson’s sixth book, and in some ways, his best. Eight Perfect Murders is a dark love letter to the mystery genre, used bookstores, and readers. The book, which you really should read, in part concerns a bookseller who compiles a list of eight classic mystery novels,  each of which features a murderer who gets away with “it.” I was brought up short by one of the books which made the list of the character in Swanson’s novel. It was The Drowner, an all but unknown stand-alone work by John D. MacDonald. A character named Travis McGee brought MacDonald fame and fortune, but he wrote a number of other books of lesser note as well. Indeed, when I was standing in that used bookstore trying to decide whether to buy those boxes, it was the presence of The Drowner, with which I was unfamiliar, among those rows and rows of all-but-forgotten books that almost — almost — tipped me over to the dark side. When I saw it on that fictional bookseller’s list in Eight Perfect Murders I felt my world tilt on its axis for just a moment. Maybe I should have bought those books. If so, I’ll chalk it up to a long list of mistakes and keep moving forward. 

That’s it, my friends, for me and for now. Be well.

 

5+

A Miss That Should Have Been a Hit

I submit to you that a personal recommendation from a friend with respect to a book, movie, or film is gold. I’ve been fortunate to have had a number of folks who know my eclectic and yes, flat-out bizarre tastes in the various arts and who keep me from becoming staid in my reading, viewing and listening. Chief amongst these good, long-suffering folks is a gent who I have known for well over a half-century. My friend possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of literature and films which runs long and deep. He recently recommended a movie to me that is almost a quarter-century old but is still in some ways ahead of its time.

The movie is Mad Dog Time.  It is worth viewing and studying for a number of reasons, chief among them being the manner in which it adheres to its puzzling yet addicting voice and pace from beginning to end.  You say you’ve never heard of it? Maybe you know it by its other name, Trigger Happy. Still doesn’t ring a bell? I’m not surprised. I had never heard of it either until last week, in spite of it having a stellar cast (Richard Dreyfuss and Jeff Goldblum, among others). It suffered from poor reviews. Actually, that’s not right. The reviews were vicious.  It topped at least one “worst movie of the year” list. Rotten Tomatoes? As I write this Mad Dog Time has a critics’ score of 17 percent based on six reviews against an audience score of 47 percent. It grossed six figures and cost seven to make, proving that you can make a small fortune in the arts if you start with a large one. 

I’m leading with all of the bad stuff about Mad Dog Time because that was the way it was introduced to me before I bit the hook. The sharp end of that is that Mad Dog Time is a gangster/caper film that defies several conventions. 

The opening moments of Mad Dog Time consist of what is kind of a poor man’s Star Wars trailer which informs the viewer that what they are about to see takes place in an alternate reality. Yeah. That’s about right. The plot is right out of the late 1940s. A mob boss named Vic (played by Dreyfuss) who owns a popular nightclub is being released from a mental health facility after several weeks of treatment for what we would now call anger management. A rival mobster who has been plotting to take over Vic’s empire is bringing in hitmen to get the job done, given that Vic has a reputation for engaging in homicidal violence with minimal provocation.  Mickey Holliday (Jeff Goldblum) is Vic’s enforcer and finds himself standing between Vic and the power grab. Mickey, however, has in Vic’s absence been keeping company with Vic’s girlfriend while also seeing her sister, unbeknownst to either of the siblings. Other things are going on, including frequent duels by firearm that take place in the basement offices of Vic’s club. There are other shootouts, as well as fights, double-crosses, and the like, right up to almost the very end of the film.

If all of the above was presented in a straightforward manner then Mad Dog Time might not have gotten the awful critical reception it received. The film has its quirks, however. Mad Dog Time was written and directed by Larry Bishop, the son of comedian Joey Bishop, who was part of what was known as the “Rat Pack” with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr., among others. There are a number of not-so-subtle references to that lineage, including a brief appearance by Joey Bishop. What is more interesting, however, is that the entire film looks like a period piece for which the director never attempted to acquire time-appropriate props. It is accordingly is a 1940s story that looks like it was filmed in the 1990s — which is when it was filmed — and which somehow doesn’t look dated in 2020. That doesn’t make sense, but it is entirely accurate. Bishop also repeatedly uses a plot device that is unsettling and which violates a rule of commercial filmmaking. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but you’ll see it when you watch the film and start saying “What the (heck)” every ten minutes.  I kept thinking, “Wait a minute! He can’t do that!” That isn’t quite accurate, of course. Maybe Bishop shouldn’t have done it, but he could do it, and he did. The result is that the viewer never knows what is going to happen next.

At least one of your favorite old school actors, regardless of who it might be, is more than lkely in Mad Dog Time. What was interesting for me is that it features an actor I can’t stand — Jeff Goldblum — leading the cast. And you know what? Goldblum gives the performance of his life. I never would have pictured Jeff Goldblum as a believably deadly mob enforcer who is also studly enough to be balancing relationships with two women to the extent that neither is the side-piece (or maybe they both are). I almost didn’t watch the movie when I found out that he was in it, but I’m glad I did. He hasn’t looked this good since he played “Freak #1” in the original (Charles Bronson) version of Deathwish. Goldblum is so good in this film that I actually missed him when he wasn’t on screen. 

There’s also an intangible element existing in Mad Dog Time. The entire movie is just a bit off-kilter, which is possibly where the alternate universe thing comes in.  My friend likened it to the manner in which Billie Holliday often sang just a beat or two behind the music. It’s a perfect comparison, so much so that I wonder if Larry Bishop was giving his audience a hint of it with the name of Goldblum’s character. 

You won’t find Mad Dog Time/Trigger Happy on any of the streaming services. There is a print that is accessible on YouTube but the video is totally out of sync with the audio and it is thus unwatchable. You should, however, be able to find it in DVD format (which is excellent, by the way) at your local library though you might have to hunt for it. You should do so. 

Let me give you two more quick suggestions before I leave you to your day: 

In books, Andy Davidson’s newly published The Boatman’s Daughter is the perfect Southern Gothic horror novel and may be the perfect novel, period. If you read it and you like it you will want to read his first book, In the Valley of the Sun, which concerns a pair of vampires on the loose in Texas during the fall of 1980. Fun stuff.

As far as music is concerned, I have recently been listening to a band named 16 Horsepower. They are no longer together. The creative force behind their music, however, is a gentleman named David Eugene Edwards who currently helms a band called Wovenhand. Edwards is considered to be the father (almost, after Johnny Cash) of a music subgenre known as “gothic Americana.” The songs in both bands are darkly religious with a heavy emphasis on the failings of human beings, who will be judged by the angry and vengeful God of the Old Testament. Not surprisingly, Edwards’ music has been rejected by secularists for its religious overtones and by the Christian rock community for hewing too close to fundamentalist beliefs. What’s left? Well, Edwards has a huge following among atheists, believe it or not, especially in Europe. If nothing else, please have a listen to 16 Horsepower’s “Black Soul Choir.”

I hope that you enjoy all of the above and have a terrific and entertaining weekend. And please, feel free to offer some obscure recommendations of your own.

 

 

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Under Siege

Photo by Annie Spratt from unsplash.com

I try not to be a Danny Downer when it is my turn in the Saturday morning TKZ barrel. That’s what I am today, however. 

There is a simple reason for this. Our libraries are under siege, and not from lack of funding. The barbarians are at the gate and in the parking lot.

I posted a blog here several months ago about one of my local library branches and how wonderful it was. I stand behind every word.  I think that many of us take them for granted in several ways. They were here for us when we were children and we assume they will always be here as a place to borrow free books, music, films, and graphic novels, among other things. We also might tend to forget that libraries were and are also places where kids could go to study. Additionally, libraries were also the original “safe space” before that term got co-opted by college students. Back in the day parents and teachers used to tell kids who were lost, were being bothered, or just needed a quiet place that they could go to “the library.” 

The problem is that the space we know and love is being disrespected. People used to know how to act in a library. Everyone used to know, and if someone forgot the librarian said “Shhh” and you “shhhed.” That increasingly is not the case. Folks are using the space for naps, panhandling, hookups, and worse. They are harassing library workers and patrons, sometimes while under the influence of adult beverages and controlled substances and sometimes not. I’ve been to a couple of branches locally where I have had to walk a gauntlet of aggressive requests for money as I walked through the doors. I can deflect that type of thing quickly and effectively enough. What about the parent who isn’t so prepared, who is just trying to take their little kid into the library for storytime? They’ll probably just stop going. Then what? 

Don’t take my word for it about this. I found several articles regarding this issue, though it was this one that resonated most strongly with me. What reminded me about this issue, however, is a recent murder that took place in Columbus, Ohio, I don’t live in Columbus, but my profession occasionally takes me close to the area where the murder took place, a neighborhood called Driving Park. The killing occurred in the parking lot of the library that serves the neighborhood.  The library building, which was built a few years ago to replace an older facility, is the one bright spot on the street, which is not a commercial destination for anyone living outside of the neighborhood. I occasionally will stop in that library and browse for a few minutes if I find myself running early to an appointment. My observation is that the people who do use it — primarily students who live in the area — are well-served. The library does not suffer from a lack of resources. It’s a place where students can and do go to study quietly and without disturbance, where reliable online access is more likely to be obtained than it might be at home, and where the librarians are happily kept hopping by the requests for help. 

You can read an article about what happened at the Driving Park library here.  The police have the alleged shooter in custody. What is clear is that this incident didn’t occur because of an argument over who was going to check out the last copy of American Dirt.  It didn’t happen because two people wanted the same parking space. No, the reason for the killing was a street beef which caused more than a dozen knuckleheads to gather in the library parking lot because it was convenient. This is in a neighborhood where parents walk their kids to the library to give them a chance to do well. 

There is some discussion occurring under the radar on a nationwide basis about what to do. Some systems are retaining special duty police officers. There are some librarians who are objecting to this on the basis that the presence of a police officer makes the library less “welcoming.” I understand their point, though I would submit that the sight of a drunken adult dropping a dooky on the carpet in front of a five-year-old isn’t exactly a welcoming sight, either. Neither is the sound of gunfire or the sight of a knife fight.

I don’t know what we do here. The problem isn’t going to get any better on its own. It’s only going to get worse. And while the problem, in general, isn’t confined to libraries in disadvantaged areas it certainly impacts them harder —  places where libraries are needed the most — than those located in areas that are financially better off. The mother quoted in the article I linked to above is, I would guess, going to be less likely to let her child go to the library, with her or without her, if it is no longer assuredly a safe place — a safe space, if you will — either inside or out.  The kids are being scared away. The parents of those kids are being scared away. So where does a kid like that go, someone who could turn out to be anything from a teacher to a doctor to an astronaut with a little encouragement and a lot of available resources?

Is this a problem near you? If it is, are you hearing about it anecdotally or is it being reported in your local media? I take the sense is that it is happening primarily in metropolitan areas as opposed to those with smaller density populations. Am I wrong? 

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Setting Yourself Up for Success

It is happenstance that I follow the excellent question posed by James Scott Bell yesterday in this space about the concept for writers of “Failing Up” with some thoughts on success and how to achieve it. The collection of individuals known as “writers” and “authors” have any number of motives for writing. One of the ones at the top of this list hopefully would be that each and all of them want to do so. Those of us who show up every week or two at this space with a post that we have written do so because we want to do it. We seek to help others, hope to entertain, and/or wish to sound off, among other things. The big one, however, is that we want to write. 

Some authors have reached the enviable point in their careers where they are under contract and must write in order to fulfill a contractual obligation, but wanting to do it is hopefully still their primary motivation. Sitting in front of a screen trying to fill a space beats looking forward to a day where a shovel and a ditch constitute the primary scenery and the scenery never changes. Others are trying to get to the point where someone is willing to pay them to write. They are honing their work in hope of piercing the hardened heart and mind of an editor. Again, however, they have to want to. And so it goes. In each case, a writer assembles the tools, skills, and ideas at hand and gets to work. 

It sometimes helps, however, to sit back for a moment (as opposed to a week, or a month, or longer) to discern what is one’s prime motivator, regardless of what they are trying to accomplish. I was reminded of this last week as I listened to a lecture titled “Counseling Your Client to Reduce Stress & Succeed in Litigation” given by Alan S. Fanger, Esq., as part of the lawline.com legal education series. Mr. Fanger, the president of EmpowerLegal, Inc. touched upon many subjects dealing with how to prepare a client for trial.  My major takeaway from his presentation, however, was a discussion concerning how to successfully accomplish a task. Mr. Fanger put forth the proposition that it is more important to focus upon what needs to be done to perform the task successfully than upon the consequences of the failure to do so. He concluded that focusing on consequences rather than how to do the job will guarantee failure.  

Mr. Fanger used an example from the world of professional football to illustrate his point. You don’t have to be a football fan to appreciate it.  There was a cringe-inducing moment during the 2016 NFC Wild Card playoff between the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks. A Vikings player named Blair Walsh was tasked near the end of the game with kicking a field goal which would have, all other factors being equal, won the game for Minnesota. It was a short kick (for a professional football player) of twenty-seven yards. Walsh missed it, in front of God and everybody. It wasn’t as if Walsh was pulled out of the stands to make the effort, either. The game in question was a low scoring one. Walsh had actually scored all nine of Minnesota’s points during that game by kicking field goals from longer distances. He missed that last one, however. It was indeed a bitter pill to swallow, one that some football fans remember to this day. While none of us can accurately predict what goes through anyone’s mind in the moments before making an attempt at a task, Mr. Fanger submitted that perhaps Blair Walsh was more focused on the enormity of what would happen if he failed — losing the game and thus failing to advance to the Super Bowl that year — than upon what he needed to do to succeed. 

That conclusion may or may not be true. It makes sense, however. You may have heard of something which is currently called “analysis paralysis.” It’s a term applied to overthinking, which is easy to do because in a very subtle way it delays the need to make a decision as to what to do. Let’s look at a very famous incident that required immediate decision and focused implementation. I am sure that the name Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is familiar to all of you. Captain Sullenberger was piloting a commercial airliner when a bird strike shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport disabled his aircraft’s engines. Captain Sullenberger, a veteran Air Force and commercial pilot, made some calculations and concluded that landing at an airport wasn’t an option. He made a decision and told his control tower, “We’ll be in the Hudson.” That is where he landed his plane. The conclusion of that particular incident would have been quite different if Captain Sullenberger had focused upon and overwhelmed by the consequences of failure — job loss, destruction of property, and, oh yeah, loss of life — instead of upon the best method (under the circumstances ) of landing the plane and the passengers with which he had been entrusted. He made a decision and acted on it, focusing on what he needed to do to succeed. “We’ll be in the Hudson,” Just so. 

Think about Captain Sullenberger the next time you sit down to write and find that the old bugaboo — “I gotta finish this” — gets in the way. You probably have near at hand everything you need to succeed, including writing instruments, a command of language, imagination, the will to start, and your own mind.  I had all of those within reach when I began writing today’s post. I didn’t consider what would happen if I didn’t. It was more constructive and more fun, actually, to start writing and see, to paraphrase Dorothy Sayers, where my whimsy would take me. The finished product is just a bit different than what I had envisioned it would be, but that’s okay, too. I’m happy with it. I don’t know if I kicked it between the goalposts, but I think I landed in the Hudson, and I hope I didn’t lose anyone.  

Thank you for stopping by. Enjoy your weekend.

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