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.

Preparing for the End of the Story

Photo Courtesy of Neptune Society, Inc. All rights reserved.

I recently attended three funerals over the course of a week. One of the deceased individuals was a month short of 90. The other two were much closer to my age. Of those two, one had an open casket. He looked good, but…you know. I had shared a number of meals and consumed a number of beers (when I did that type of thing) with the gent and seeing his empty vessel displayed in an open casket functioned as a wake-up call for me.

I decided to start pre-planning my funeral arrangements, or lack thereof. We talk of wills and trusts and of getting one’s affairs in order for the inevitable day of departure and the time that follows. What often gets lost is what is to be done in the minutes and hours that follow a death. The wishes of a deceased are sometimes noted in a will but a testamentary document isn’t usually looked at until weeks after passing. Telling your survivors ahead of time, with something in writing other than in a will, is an absolute must. I wanted to be cremated (and still do) without ceremony or recognition. Given that we are in the Age of Google, a quick search for “cremation” almost immediately in my devices being inundated with pop-up ads, emails, and phone calls from area funeral home representatives. This kind of browned me off, to be honest, though if you really want a lot of attention, google “housepainting.” That aside,  I was further upset by the refusal of the people contacting me to send me a price list concerning their services, insisting that I instead come to their offices for such information.  I know why. Funeral homes upsell. It is what they do. It is how they are able to stay in business. They have very high overhead and offer a service that almost no one else wants to perform. I just didn’t want it. 

I eventually as a result of my research contacted Neptune Society, a national organization that arranges cremation. I did this for a number of reasons. I wanted to be cremated. I contacted them, as opposed to them reaching out to me. They were upfront about their pricing and services. A friend of mine who would have found a problem with them if there were a problem to be found had personal experience with them (once removed of course) and strongly recommended them.  Their local office is on Cemetery Road(!) in a nearby suburb. And… they offered me a free lunch at a local restaurant where I could attend a seminar, even after I indicated to them that I would be using their services.

I showed up on the day and time appointed at a local sports bar with a few other crusty customers of the age where one wakes each morning with roughly equal amounts of surprise and regret. The other attendees eyed me uneasily across the table for a few minutes while I listened to them carp about the lunch choices (“I usually have a drink with lunch. Can I order a drink?”) and tut-tut about the cost of the services (“When my husband had this done ten years ago it cost less…”).  I silently promised myself to never be that obnoxious when I reached their ages. I learned over the course of the next hour that I was the oldest one there. You live and learn, even as you approach the end of the story.

The folks from Neptune Society were very nice and didn’t try to upsell me (“for just a little bit more, we can arrange a celebration of life for you”) or cross-sell me (“Don’t you think that a nice commemorative ribbon to match your urn would be a nice touch?”) as many funeral homes do. Their sales pitch was so low-key that it wasn’t an infomercial at all.  I was able to enter into an agreement with Neptune Society that afternoon and I became officially “pre-planned,”  meaning that my arrangements were paid for and my wishes set in stone. One item which was offered but not pushed was the “Travel Protection Plan.” I purchased it. The Travel Protection Plan is like “AAA-Plus” for a deceased, only better. If you have AAA or another roadside assistance service you are probably aware that there is a limit as to how far your car will be towed at no cost to you. If the towing mileage exceeds that limit there is a per-mile charge. It is not calculated in pennies. The same holds true for dead bodies. The general industry standard for funeral homes, at least in Ohio, is that if you die outside of a thirty-mile radius of your home the odometer starts ticking. Neptune Society has a seventy-five-mile radius, but with the Travel Protection Plan there is no mileage limit, even if the covered individual is out of the country. What this means is that should I pass away far from home Neptune Society’s sweet chariot will swing down and take me home at no cost.  The thought of my sons traveling to wherever I might be and doing a Weekend at Bernie’s trip to bring me back made me chuckle, but only initially. I paid for that and a storage box which I have taken to calling my “forever home.” Done. And done.

Photo courtesy of Al Thumz Photography. All rights reserved.

The surprise for me was how relieved I felt about making the arrangements, or lack thereof. I told my children that if they wanted a visitation to come to see me while I’m alive. If they want to celebrate my life, take me to Twin Peaks. It’s too late once that rusty gate swings open and I tapdance through. I also gave each of them a copy of my Neptune Society card so that when the time comes things would be taken care of promptly. 

All of this thought and consideration about death and its immediate aftermath of course sparked within me an idea for what I think will be a heck of a story with the potential to be much darker than The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. That brings us to you, my friends. Have any of you pre-planned your funeral? Have you thought about it? Do you know what you want? Or is the topic like that closet that you haven’t opened in years and are afraid of what you’ll find (or what will find you)?



Losing Your Identity

Good Saturday to you. Please consider this an update to Debbie Burke’s excellent post,  True Crime Thursday – COVID 19 Scams, of just a few weeks ago, as well as an addendum to the wonderful and still pertinent 2012 post by TKZ alum Kathleen Pickering concerning identity theft.

I groaned when I received my post office mail this past Monday. I knew immediately that someone was pretending to be me.

The moan-inducing missive was from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (“DJFS”). That agency in Ohio is tasked with administering unemployment benefits, among other things. There have been daily reports of individuals in Ohio having bogus unemployment benefit claims filed in their name using their personal information. The first hint that something is amiss is usually the receipt of a letter from DJFS, noting that they have filed a claim and that an account has been set up for them. That was precisely the type of letter I received, in spite of not having filed a claim. 

The fraud which is occurring is an example of never letting a crisis go to waste. The COVID-19 situation resulted in a great deal of unemployment concentrated in certain industries. Many states — Ohio, for one — wanted to get unemployment benefits to the unfortunate workers in those industries as quickly as possible. This resulted in some instances of “pay now, verify later.”  Someone figured out a way to take advantage of this. 

The scam is fairly easy to do once the scoundrel is in possession of another person’s name, address, and social security number. The despicable cad first sets up a bank account (usually with an online bank) utilizing a newly created email address and a burner phone for contact purposes. They then use the ill-gotten information to file for unemployment benefits and directing that the benefits be deposited to the online bank account. The victim, moi or vous, is usually unaware of this until the agency acknowledges the claim via letter to the victim’s snail mail address. At least two or three weeks of benefits have often been paid by then.  Should the person who is the target of the scam ignore the letter from the DJFS the fraudulent payments can go on for far longer.

It often isn’t immediately a problem for the victim. Whoever is doing this isn’t taking money out of the victim’s legitimate bank account. The problem with the false claim occurs later, as in the following year, when the victim receives a Form 1099 from DJFS noting that “their” unemployment benefit payment (which is taxable) has been reported to the IRS. There are of course other problems having to do with someone having your name and SSN. These would include the ability of someone else to open accounts and apply for credit in your name. 

There is a fix for this and it is free. You just need to do three things and do them immediately.  

The first is that you must immediately go to the website of the state agency that sent you the notification letter. You should find a link there that will take you to a page where you can report that you have had a fraudulent claim for unemployment benefits filed in your name. 

The second is to file an NCDF Disaster Complaint Form with the Department of Justice. This is not as intimidating as it sounds. It is actually quite easy to do and can be done online by following the link above which will give you some additional information and take you to another page where you fill out a form dealing with your complaint.

The third action actually has two components that concern protecting your credit. Part A is checking your credit report at http://annualcreditreport.com, which you should be doing anyway. Part B is placing a free, one-year fraud alert on your credit reports by contacting any one of the three nationwide credit reporting companies online or through their toll-free numbers. The bureau you contact must tell the other two. They are Equifax: 800-525-6285, Experian: 888-397-3742, or Trans Union: 800-680-7289. The companies will let you know if someone applies for a loan or credit in your name. Please don’t tell them that I sent you. 

I hope that you never need any of this. If my experience provides you with the germ of an idea for your next novel, however, that is all to the good. You can possibly ascertain how the personal information of the victims is being acquired. I believe that the databases of state departments of taxation are being cracked. I base this in part on the timing of my experience, which occurred a few weeks after I filed my state return. It could be for any number of reasons, however. 

Photo by sincerely-media on unsplash.com

My question for you today is whether any of you have had this experience within the past several months. that being a fraudulent unemployment claim being filed in your name. I hopefully am a loner, at least among my friends here. Thank you. 



Making a Movie With Spider-Man


(Note: Thanks and a tip of the fedora to TKZ’s Terry Odell, who noted that for some reason comments (as of 8:20A EST) cannot be posted. I am working on fixing that but having problems doing so. I’m sorry!)

(Update 12:28P EST: It appears to be a system problem as opposed to a PICNIC (Problem In Chair Not In Computer) problem. It will hopefully be fixed in time for Jim Bell’s post tomorrow. Thanks to everyone who is stopping by today. SJ)

(Update 12:46P EST: Comments are working. Thanks and a tip of the fedora to Lynne Reynolds, the Wizard behind the curtain! SJ)

The following occurred about a year and a half ago. I have had to remain uncharacteristically quiet about it until now due to an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) which blessedly expired on February 26. I left my home in central Ohio at 2:30A on November 27, 2019, and headed north toward Cleveland, a place where I misspent several of my formative years. I was to report, showered, shaved, and tap dancin’, at 6:00A to an address near Cleveland’s east side. 

I had been notified a few days previously that I had been selected for a (very, very small) part in a movie named Cherry. There was plenty of buzz about the project before it began, due to the presence of Tom Holland in the lead role and the involvement of Joe and Anthony Russo as directors and producers. Holland and the Russo Brothers had worked together before on such obscure cinematic projects as Avengers: Endgame and Avengers: Infinity War, with Holland appearing as Spider-Man and the Russos directing those films. Expectations for Cherry were high, my presence in the film notwithstanding. 

Shaker Heights, a somewhat tony Cleveland suburb, was my ultimate destination.  I misspent a good portion of my formative years in Cleveland. I had been to Shaker Heights only once, close to sixty years before, with my parents on a Sunday to go to a retail area named, by amazing coincidence, Shaker Square. I planned to take a look at the area while I was up there. Did I get to? Read on. 

I arrived on time at the appointed place. Despite being a little later in the morning it was somehow even darker and colder on Cleveland’s east side than Columbus had been three hours earlier. I parked and started following some hand-lettered signs through a parking lot, heading toward an unmarked building. A limousine pulled up next to me. Tom Holland got out, smiling, and yelled, “Joe! Joe Hartlaub! My man!” as he embraced me. Not really. Actually, a guy with an Eddie Murphy vibe exited the limo and asked me if this was the right place to be for Cherry. We had some introductory chit-chat during which he told me that he also had a very small part and lived about ten blocks away. I glanced at the limo. He said, “I was gonna ride my bike, but, like, how many times ya gonna be in a movie? Y’know?” I shrugged. He asked me how I had gotten there. “I coptered in from Columbus,” I answered, whirling my index finger around. I had him going for just a minute as he looked around us, perhaps hoping to see Jan-Michael Vincent lean out of a hovering whirlybird and wave. He was disappointed.

We walked into the building together and followed some more hand-lettered signs through a warren of what turned out to be dance rehearsal rooms that had been temporarily repurposed for storing movie equipment. We ultimately found a nice lady, complete with piercings, tattoos, and a clipboard, who checked us in and then directed us to a large room that had been set up like a cafeteria. Breakfast. It was a surprise. We were cautioned to use the serving line on the left and to sit in a specific area since the right line and the other tables were for the crew. Same food, no mingling. My fellow cast member looked at me and kind of smirked at the ironic separate but equal arrangement. We ate some breakfast, ate some more, and drank coffee. An hour passed before my new friend, a few other folks, and I were ushered through a different labyrinth of rooms to suddenly find ourselves outside and on Shaker Square, which looked both different and the same from how I remembered it.  We were given our assignments as the wind and sleet started up, and admonished that we were absolutely not to talk to Tom Holland if we encountered him since he would be working.  My acting assignment was to stand on the street in the wind while being peppered with ice pellets while reading a newspaper, all the while acting as if I were cold,  wet, and old. It stretched my abilities to the limit, let me tell you, but I am a true professional and got the job done, take after take. I was truly humbled by the applause I received every time I turned a page of the newspaper and the director yelled “Cut!”

We were all released at around 12:15 PM. I went into the diner to get some more coffee and saw my fellow actor. He was standing with a small group of folks and head-bopped me over. Tom Holland was standing next to him. Holland started talking to us after a couple of minutes about this and that.  Directives notwithstanding, it would have been rude not to have answered him. It turned out that he was/is a very personable guy. His younger brother was with him. Holland was much nicer to his brother than I would have been to mine under similar circumstances, but, then again, Holland’s brother wasn’t as irritating as mine was at that age. 

Photo by Joe Burdick. All rights reserved.

Things then became weird. I looked back across Shaker Square and recalled that, when I had been there on that long-ago Sunday, a drugstore had filled a storefront where a clothing boutique presently occupied. I had gone in there (probably to get away from my younger brother) and purchased some comic books with a dollar that I had saved from a week before (something I wrote about a few months ago). One of those comics was The Amazing Spider-Man #1.  My adult self kind of felt the earth and everything else shift for just a moment.  I didn’t have to wonder how eleven-year-old me would have reacted if he had been told that, in another sixty years or so, he would be standing across the street talking to the actor who played Spider-Man in a couple of movies while appearing in another movie “with” that actor. I would not have believed any of it.

Holland was called away to do more acting. I got my coffee and gave my new friend a ride home (a real come-down for him, I am sure, after his limo ride of the morning) and made the three-hour drive back home, thinking about life and how the choices we make and the chances we take often bring things back to where we start. 

Cherry was supposed to be released in July 2020 but…you know. That was changed to November 2020 and was delayed a second time. There was a limited (meaning not in Columbus) theatrical release on February 26, 2021, with a full release on Apple TV+ scheduled for March 12. I still don’t know if my scene made the final cut. I did, however, meet Spider-Man. If I could I would tell my eleven-year-old self, “Hang in there, Joey. It’ll be okay. Just don’t get involved with ________, __________, ____________, ______________, or __________. Oh, and you’ll get to hang with Spider-Man. Lastly, hang on to your comics.”

I don’t really believe in coincidence. Life stretched over many years just has too many moving parts. To paraphrase J.B.S. Haldane (and many have), life is not stranger than we imagine. It’s stranger than we can imagine. But we still try, don’t we? 

That is all I have today. I hope that I’ve been able to entertain you while you are waiting for your Coming 2 America feed to stop buffering. In the meanwhile, do you care to share a strange thing that has happened to you lately? 


Lupin, Then and Now…

I am going to attempt to fill a yawning void in your life by recommending Netflix series and the books that inspired it.

The Netflix series is titled Lupin.   It is a French production but dubbed in English for those of us who studied Latin in high school. It is also well-written and well-acted. Five episodes have been released so far on U.S. Netflix with five more coming this summer, so you can binge it relatively quickly. Lupin is interesting from the jump because no one in the series is named “Lupin.” The lead character is a charming and likable thief named Assane Diop. We meet Assane as an adult but there are frequent flashbacks to his childhood as well.  Assane as a boy emigrated with his father to France from Senegal. As an adult, Assane pulls off a major heist in Paris for the best of reasons, that being to clear his father’s name which has been sullied by a crime that he (possibly) did not commit. We quickly learn that Assane the adult is also profoundly influenced by a crime fiction series that he read as a child and continues to read. The books concern a master thief and occasional detective named Arsene Lupin. They were written by Maurice LeBlanc in the early 1900s. Assane as the episodes progress will often recall a Lupin story in a kind of “What Would Lupin Do?” manner. Lupin is actually an homage to, as opposed to an adaptation of, those books published so long ago. One of my favorite elements in Lupin is that one of the police detectives tasked with solving Assane’s crime is also a huge fan of the books. He sees similarities between what Assane is doing and what Lupin did. His fellow flics make fun of him but otherwise ignore the detective’s theory, though as he actually holds the key to solving Assane’s crime. Assane has a son of his own who shares his birthdate of December 11 with LeBlanc and who, to Assan’s delight, is a fan of the stories as well. 

The Netflix Lupin is more than worth your while, in great part because you can’t watch it without being drawn to the stories which it references. I knew absolutely nothing about Arsene Lupin or Maurice LeBlanc before binging the series.  It was easy enough to get up to speed. Most of the story collections are either online or available for free (if you dig a bit) in the Kindle Store. I thought I would try a few pages of one just to get the flavor of the character and wound up in a time suck. I couldn’t and can’t stop reading them. I quickly acquired all of the collections available and am working my way through them while enjoying every word. The Lupin of LeBlanc’s stories is a gentleman thief who changes identities more often than people change clothes. He is, in addition to being a master of disguise, an escape artist and pickpocket. Lupin has a frenemy in the form of Inspector Ganimard, a police detective who could well be the cousin of Inspector Javert, though the former has much more charm than the latter. Lupin also on occasion encounters Sherlock Holmes. LeBlanc did not take the time or effort to acquire the permission of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle prior to incorporating his famous creation into the Lupin universe, an act that provoked righteous indignation and protests from Doyle. LeBlanc, no doubt with the same twinkle in his eye possessed by his character, continued to use the English sleuth in his own stories but changed the name of Doyle’s character’s to “Herlock Sholmes.” “Sholmes” is no more successful in capturing Lupin than  Gaimard, something which no doubt also upset Doyle. 

The stories are delightful. There is always at least one little twist and turn that even the most seasoned reader won’t necessarily catch or expect. LeBlanc changes the narrator from story to story so that one initially never knows if Lupin is telling the tale or if someone else is doing the gabbing. The result is that it takes the reader a bit of time to figure out who is doing what to who, in the words of the famously salty limerick. Speaking of salty…LeBlanc’s stories are free of explicit sex, earthy language, and graphic violence. There might be the occasional fistfight here and there, but only to advance the narrative. One can accordingly recommend each and all of the Lupin stories to anyone of any age without concern.  Every story is also in equal measure clever and smart in the telling. The young Assane at one point in Lupin is asked, “Don’t you ever get tired of reading the same book?” Assane smiles and says, “No. I learn something new all the time.” Indeed. 

I consider myself to be fairly well-read and accordingly was stunned that in six decades of reading detective fiction I had never happened across this character. Aside from the reading benefits, there is much for a writer to learn here. One can study the stories for the manner in which LeBlanc makes Lupin, a thief who would ordinarily be an unsympathetic character, sympathetic, or even a hero of sorts. LeBlanc also demonstrates how point of view can be utilized as a sleight-of-hand device to make things a bit more interesting. Then we have the overall presentation of language and scenarios. I like sex and violence in stories as much as the next writer or reader but sometimes it becomes a crutch. We want it occasionally or even frequently in our reading and writing but we don’t always need it, even in so-called adult material. I know that things were a bit restrained in popular literature from over one hundred years ago but it is refreshing to encounter that restraint now. I’ve been redlining my own work here and there as a result. 

I hope that you enjoy Lupin the series or the books if you have the chance and inclination to try them. I would like for now to know if you have “discovered” a new-to-you author and/or character recently who has in fact been around for decades. If so, what influence if any have they had on you? 


Leading Them to Water…

Photo by Kelly Sikkema, unspash.com

I recently gave three books to S., my fourteen-year-old granddaughter. S. has up until now not been a huge fan of reading. She flirted with the Warriors series — I think of those books at least twice a day, which would be every time “my” feral cat shows up the back door, waiting for me to feed him — and manga books,  but the works that have constituted the “required reading” part of her educational curriculum up to the present would, I’m afraid, divert just about any fledgling reader to computer games, YouTube, and King of the Hill reruns. My own experience is that when something that is supposed to be enjoyable becomes a requirement it becomes drudgery. 

Cover Copyright (c) Charles Scribner’s Sons. All rights reserved.

I have gently attempted on a number of occasions to get her interested in reading. No go. I therefore recently decided to get the reading camel’s nose under the tent of her interests and/or needs through non-fiction. “Needs” won. S. indicated to me that she had experienced some difficulty with a couple of school writing projects. I could have blessed her with a couple of instructive boring grandpa lecture but instead gave her On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I picked that one because she had at least heard of King and the book isn’t just about writing. King also goes into his life, his background, what drives him, what derailed him, what got him back on track, and how important other people were and are to the process. With regard to the last, King’s name may be on all of those book spines, but there would not be nearly so many of them if not for Tabitha King, his wife, who worked in bakeries when he was unpublished, scheduled interventions after he was published, and ministered to him during multiple dark days and weeks after his life-threatening injury. I handed On Writing to S. and she smiled with the good grace that a well-mannered child does when given clothes instead of a pony for Christmas. I then said, “The great thing about this book is that when you read it you can hear the author talking to you.” She smiled as if she had received that pony after all. Oh, On Writing does cover the act and art of writing, too. It has helped S. with her problem. Now she enjoys writing and reading. 

Cover Copyright (c) Nicholas Hughes. All rights reserved.

I did not stop there. I chose a second book to give S. because she is with increasing frequency getting out more on her own. Dad and Grandpa, for a number of reasons, won’t always be around to smite the varlets who might otherwise accost her as she innocently goes about her business.  I accordingly placed How to Be Your Own Bodyguard by Nick Hughes into her hands. Nick has handled security for movie sets and rock musician tours (among many other things) and lays his subjects and advice out in a very personable and businesslike manner with plenty of interesting accounts of practical applications of his considerable skillsets. The volume discusses such topics as situational awareness, threat assessment, and, if at all possible, trouble avoidance rather than confrontation when one is exposed to adverse situations.  I gave S. my copy, which includes a personal inscription from the author (full disclosure: Nick and I consulted on presentation issues during the writing of the book but it is all his. I don’t get a penny from the sales nor do I deserve any) and thus increased its worth in her eyes. 

Cover Copyright (c) Hachette Group, Inc.

The previous two books contain advice that S. can use now. The third is one that she can look at now and utilize later. It is Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 535 Easy(ish) Steps by Kelly Williams Brown. Imagine your eighteen-year-old self standing at the entrance of a long, dark, and unfamiliar tunnel and having a friend who is several years older than you standing at the other end, advising you of the pitfalls you will encounter as you take your steps into the unknown. That sums up this book. It covers topics such as how to apply for a job, work once you get it, find an apartment, get a pet, deal with friends, and handle money. It is a cheat sheet, if you will, for the pop quiz that is early adult life. I don’t agree with all of the author’s suggestions but she picks all of the right topics, including the ones that young adults don’t think of until they come calling with little or no warning. All of this advice is given in a friendly and appropriately humorous voice. The book won’t solve every problem S. will meet within a couple or five years but it will hopefully give her a leg up on them. As I often tell folks in another context, better to have and not need than need and not have.

S. is now reading and seems to be enjoying the process. She is also hopefully learning some practical things along the way. Mission accomplished. Have you ever given or recommended a self-help book or a novel to someone younger than you? Was it with the hope that they would start reading, or at least start enjoying it? If so, what was the book, and did it work?

Thanks once again for dropping by. It means a lot.




“We Know You’re Great…”

Photo by Jarkko Arjatsalo/The Leonard Cohen Files

I have an odd relationship with the songs of the late Leonard Cohen. If I am depressed I can usually put his music on shuffle and feel better after a while, such as two or three months. If I’m feeling fine and happen to hear one of his songs — and they are all over the place, in movies and television series and commercials — I go so deep into the gloom cave that I think I’m never going to crawl out. 

So it is that I recently came across a quotation that instantly became my all-time favorite, in part because it so perfectly describes, however indirectly, the desk-to-market process of bringing art — and that would most definitely include your book, my friend — to the masses, even in this age of do-it-yourself. 

Cohen was initially signed to Columbia/CBS  Records (“CBS”) in the mid-1960s and remained with it right up to his death in 2016. He spent a great deal of his early career acquiring a cult following (and almost universal critical acclaim) based upon a series of album releases that to this day sound either compelling, unique, unusual, or unlistenable, depending on whose ears are being used. CBS, to its credit, never dropped Cohen, even when the sales of his new releases — which were not huge until much later in his career —declined for several years in the run-up to the point when he became a household name. CBS nonetheless at one point declined (initially) to release one of his albums. Cohen in 1984 presented to CBS a collection of songs which was ultimately released by a small label — and somewhat later by CBS — under the title Various Positions. Walter Yetnikoff was President and CEO of CBS Records at the time. Yetiknoff, as a preamble to telling Cohen that his label would not be releasing Various Positions, famously said: 

“Leonard, we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good.” 

Various Positions contains a little four and one-half minute tune titled “Hallelujah,” that — like Cohen’s “Suzanne” a few decades before — eventually became to megachurch youth services (with a couple of the verses edited) and to funerals what “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival was and is to weddings. The song became so popular as a licensed property that Cohen at one point somewhat meekly asked that a moratorium be observed on placing the song in commercials, movies, and television. Various Positions also includes a deceptively jaunty little number named “Dance Me to the Edge of Love,” which is considered to be a modern standard. 

Let’s consider that again…“Leonard, we know you’re great, we just don’t know if you’re any good.”  

So what does that mean, exactly?

Trust me on this. Every stranger who looks at your work with an eye toward becoming part of the publishing process on your behalf — be it agent, editor, and publisher —  may personally be in awe of your work. They might well think that you’re great. The issue is whether you’re “any good.” That term is another way of asking/guessing whether your creation will sell enough to make whatever might and majesty the prospective agent, editor, or publisher can throw behind it be worth their while, “while” being their time, effort, and money. 

Such a conclusion is often — actually, almost always — a guess. The odd thing is that most of the time whoever makes the decision is wrong in all of the ways it can possibly be. Great books are turned down. Books that are worthy, or “great,”  are published and then ignored by the reading public. They are great books, possibly, but by the objective standard of sales numbers they are not “any good.” The “right” choices pay for the “wrong” ones which is how the whole industry, whatever it may be, keeps rolling along until it doesn’t.

This state of affairs doesn’t exist only in the arts. There are all sorts of products that seem like great ideas but never make it out of the design room for one reason or another. The ones that do aren’t always successful, either. I used to think that if I liked a particular product — Rice Chex cereal bars? —my preference almost certainly spelled its doom. I don’t think that anymore. I am totally convinced of it. 

So how do you get around it? You ignore it. You cannot really control it.  Focus on being great. Write your own story, instead of a variation of your favorite author’s, or what is “hot” right now. Shine it up nicely.  Get yourself an editing program to go through your work. This past Wednesday our very own Terry Odell discussed an editing program named Smart Edit that seems to fill the bill. Don’t rely entirely on that, however. Go through it yourself and then have two other literate, nitpicking people review your review for you to find what you missed. When you think that everything is as perfect as you can make it send it to a prospective agent or editor Then sit back and say the short form of the Serenity Prayer, which is “(Expletive deleted) it. Just (expletive deleted).” Keep sending it out. You will know soon whether someone thinks that you are any good. Just don’t stop. Remember Mr. Yetnikoff, who wasn’t sure if Mr. Cohen was any good after listening to an album with two songs on it that are still popular almost three decades later. While you’re waiting, remember what Audrey Hepburn said: “Nothing is impossible, the word itself says ‘I’m possible’!” Just so. Illegitimi non carborundum.

One postscript to this: I had the good fortune to see and hear Cohen perform in the early 1970s at a small club named The Smiling Dog Saloon in west Cleveland. I went to the men’s room between what turned out to be the two best sets of live music I’ve ever attended and was taking care of things when the urinals on either side of me simultaneously became occupied. I glanced  — yes, at eye level! — to my left and there stood Dave Mason (of Traffic), dressed entirely in bright red, grinning beerily back at me. I nodded, somewhat embarrassed for whatever reason, then glanced away to my right. There stood Leonard effing Cohen. A few seconds later we went to the sinks and, after washing up, somewhat uneasily introduced ourselves — not that the company I was in needed any introduction — and shook hands all around. 

I stumbled back to my table, bumping into chairs and people all the way there. The lady I was with looked at me when I finally sat down, smiled, and said, “Wow. What happened to you? You look like you got hit on the head. Did you, like, run into Leonard Cohen or something?” She laughed, took a sip of her beer, and said, “Oh. I heard someone say that Dave Mason is here…we should try to find him.” Done. And done. 

Thanks for being here once again. If you’d like to share your best acceptance or worst rejection, please do. It doesn’t have to be book- or even art-related. Let the games begin!



Making Do With Dollar Tree

All photos by Al Thumz Photography

Happy New Year! Thank you for being here. I will apologize in advance for the length of what follows. 

Between the economic impact resulting from restrictions imposed on businesses in reaction to COVID-19 as well as other factors — the term “starving writer” wasn’t pulled out of thin air — those of us who labor in the grammar mine might be having some problems making ends meet. What follows is a shopping hack called “Dollar Tree.”

I had never been in a Dollar Tree until early October 2020, having until that time succumbed to what was and is a certain negative cache attached to dollar stores in general.  To my surprise I learned last year that one was going to occupy the last remaining storefront in a retail center a few blocks from my home. My invitation to the grand opening in April 2020 was apparently lost in the mail and as a result I didn’t learn until a few weeks before Halloween that it had been open for months, yet another reminder that behavior resulting in getting fitted with an ankle monitor can really cramp one’s style.  

Dollar Tree has apparently been upping their game with new and larger stores located in (somewhat) better neighborhoods. The one near me has everything one could want or need, or a variation thereof. It has cleaning products,toys, school supplies,  canned and paper goods, health and beauty aids, and automotive and tool products. The newer stores have a card section, a “Snack Zone,”  and a refrigerated/frozen food case. The best part of Dollar Tree is that, unlike many stores with the word “dollar” in the name,  Dollar Tree means what it says. Everything in the store can be had for a dollar. Period. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Greeting cards are two for a dollar. There is also a shopping cart at the front of the store full of reduced-price — fifty cents — items that have been closed out. Everything else? One buck. This includes the Snack Zone where, in addition to chips, candy, and Little Debbie cakes, one can purchase fruits and vegetables (just kidding) (unless pork rinds count). The frozen food case features microwaveable breakfast, lunch, and dinner items as well as ice cream novelties (which of course can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). 

Not everything in Dollar Tree is a terrific deal. A box of baking soda is a dollar, but one can buy that in a supermarket for almost half the price. Boxes of theater candy are pretty much a dollar everywhere (except, interestingly enough, at a theater, even before they all closed), as are Arizona teas. There are, however some interesting finds in a Dollar Tree. The stores also now seem to be just about everywhere so if you want to read this as you walk through the aisles of one near you, please do so. What follows is a random sampling and review of what you can find, and what you should get or avoid, at a newer Dollar Tree.

— Golden Crust Jamaican Style Puffshell sandwiches:

      The good: Everything. I’ve never seen these in a store outside of corner markets in New York until now.

       The bad: Absolutely nothing at all.

       Bottom line: Dollar Tree sells a few different varieties of these which, like Imperial Garden Egg Rolls (see below) all taste somewhat similar. That said, the Jerk Chicken is my favorite. Microwave it for two minutes and you can call it lunch or dinner, or both. Caveat: I don’t recommend eating one within twelve hours of a first date, second date, assignation, job interview. wedding, or any anniversary celebration before the tenth one. 


— Motor oil:

      The good: If your ex- asks you to top off their oil when they come over to pick up their stuff, this is what you want to use. 

       The bad: You don’t want to use motor oil that costs a dollar in your own auto unless you have a car like Fred Flintstone’s. 

        Bottom line: No.

— Zapp’s Potato Chips(!): 

      The good: My favorite potato chips! Voodoo Style! For a dollar! And I didn’t have to drive to Louisiana to get them!

       The bad: None!

       Bottom line: Life is good!

— Power steering fluid:

     See Motor oil, above.

— Colorform playsets(!!!):

      The good: COLORFORMS! For a buck! I didn’t even know Colorforms sets were still made. If Dollar Tree had a security guard, he would have been called to Aisle 3 when I initially found them. The discovery caused me to break out into my James Brown “goodfoot” dance. “YOWWW! HUNH! GOOD GAWD!”

       The bad: Colorforms doesn’t make a Bettie Page set, but that isn’t the fault of Dollar Tree. 

        Bottom line: Colorforms! What more can I say

— Folding Knife: 

      The good: It is very sharp and surprisingly smooth when opening and closing. 

       The bad: The blade is short.

        Bottom line: That isn’t a knife!

Now…THAT’S a knife!

— Copper Moon French Roast Coffee (Four K-cups):

      The good: Everything. 

       The bad: Nothing. 

       Bottom line: I’m kind of a coffee snob. I usually only drink the Cafe du Monde, Community Coffee, or Bustelos brands. This, however, was surprisingly good. It has a rich, smooth flavor and, if you melt a Hershey’s kiss in it, a deep chocolate profile.

— Healthy Chef Canola No-Stick Cooking Spray:

      The good: I wasted only one dollar on it.

       The bad: I wasted a whole dollar on it.

       Bottom line: It didn’t work at all. I actually thought about taking it back and getting a refund, but I would have looked like a cheap***. 

— Assured Men’s Shave Cream Regular:

      The good: It didn’t make my face fall off.

      The bad:  It didn’t make my face fall off.

       Bottom line: I intended to buy a five-ounce can of Barbesol but the 12 ounce can of Dollar Tree’s house brand for the same price was too good to resist. It has a nice scent to it but the lather is a little thin. It’s good enough, however, that I might buy it again. 

—”Tactical” flashlight:

     The good: It is actually bright enough to use for ordinary purposes.

      The bad:  It is not a tactical flashlight.      

 Bottom line: It fails to meet the definition of a tactical flashlight in durability, size, ability to be dual-purposed as a self-defense instrument, and luminosity.Throw it in the glove box of your car as a substitute for one that should already be in there. Batteries — 3 “AAA” — are not included. The batteries actually cost more than the flashlight, unless you buy the batteries at Dollar Tree.

— Imperial Garden Egg Rolls:

The good: They are big and they are very tasty. Get a jar of Chinese hot mustard (not sold at Dollar Tree) and you’ll be all set to bypass Uber Eats for the night. 

The bad: all of the flavors — chicken, pork, shrimp, and lobster — kind of taste the same.

Bottom line: These are not foodie quality but they get the job done. Dollar Tree could probably open stores near college campuses and turn a profit just on the sale of the egg rolls to drunken students on weekend nights or during exam week.

— Croc’s Refillable Butane Candle Lighters:

The good: The price.

The bad: None. 

Bottom line: I learned recently that it is perfectly legal to buy and possess a flamethrower in forty-nine states (Maryland is the only poody-pants). While I am waiting for mine I can practice with this lighter which is as good if not better than the ones that cost two dollars and up at other stores. It eschews the two-step operation that most use, utilizing instead the equivalent of a double-action trigger pull that you’ll find on your better .38 Special revolvers. I thought about buying a bunch of them (the lighters) as Christmas stocking stuffers for the neighborhood children but tamped down the urge.

— Handsaw:

The good: It’s great if you need one just to trim a couple of tree branches and don’t own a chainsaw.

The bad: At the price of one dollar it should not be considered as a long-term tool for you. It can, however, be replaced rather easily and inexpensively.

Bottom line: This is part of “Tool Bench,” Dollar Tree’s in-house tool line.  The irony is that the Dollar Tree where I purchased the saw is located in the former storefront of a Sears Hardware store. 

— Greeting cards:

The good: Hallmark actually makes a line of greeting cards branded “Heartline” (I wonder if I could collect a quick settlement for trademark infringement using a “confusion in the marketplace” argument?) that 1) are two for a dollar and 2) don’t have the price on the back. They’re nice, too. None of my children could tell the difference this Christmas.

The bad: Your in-laws might buy you the same card you bought them and thus will know how much you paid for it. 

Bottom line(s): 1) It actually costs more to mail the card than to buy it. 

2) Sending your ex- a birthday card from Dollar Tree is like saying “God bless you!” in Nashville or “Have a magical day!” at Disney World. 


The good: Cardboard boxes of obscure horror and thriller movies on DVD.

The bad: Cardboard boxes of obscure horror and thriller movies on DVD. 

Bottom line: I had not heard of most of the movies or of the actors in them. If you are a fan of schlock horror I would recommend going to Dollar Tree for no other reason than to pour over what they have for sale. The boxes are usually in the school supply and toy aisles.

I invite you to visit and walk around Dollar Tree to see what else they have. Heck, if you find yourself at the one at Sunbury Road in Westerville, email me. I’ll drive over and give you a personal tour. I am willing to wager that you cannot walk out without spending at least ten dollars while delighting in doing so.  A number of major brands, including Colorforms and Hallmark, seem to be offering products of a size that can be sold at the Dollar Tree price point. A Pepsi salesman was in the store during one of my (daily) visits and advised that the chain is one of their major clients.  I also read somewhere that the folks who run Dollar Tree want their customers to be surprised by what they find every time they walk in the store. Mission accomplished. I found within their book section a couple of mass market paperback collections of Elmore Leonard western short stories. They were priced at a dollar each. They were not marked down or remaindered or anything. They are part of a small but growing line of HarperCollins paperbacks targeted for Dollar Tree customers.

Oh. I also have to compliment the store associates. They actually seem glad to see customers walk in and are familiar with the inventory and where it is located. One of them was interested when I told her that I was going to post a blog about Dollar Tree. She has asked me a couple of weeks why she hasn’t seen it yet. Here it is (Hi, Holly!). Another laughs at my jokes on a regular basis and on cue (Hi, Maribeth!). They treat me so well that I may go there for my birthday this year. After all, party supplies such as tablecloths, hats, those packs of ever-important “thank you” notes, and Dolly Madison Zingers are just a dollar. I even put a visit to Dollar Tree into my WIP, once I was able to tear myself away from playing with my Jurassic World Colorform set long enough to get some writing done. The best part of all is that, even after you get that huge publishing advance and license your work for a Netflix project, you will still want to shop at Dollar Tree.

If so inclined, please tell us your favorite store(s), why they are your favorite, and whether you plan to insert them into your stories. Thanks again for being here. Be well.



Getting Through It


Source: passionatepennypincher.com

I have been working on a couple of different posts to offer as my last for this year. One has the working title of “Prepping for the Zombie Apocalypse at Dollar Tree.” The other is tentatively named  “The Two Best Books That I Will Probably Never Read. Neither Will Anyone Else.” You may see one or both of those next year. What happened in the here and now was that the rubber was meeting the road as far as decide-and-finish was concerned when I came across the chart that you will see above. Something told me that it was more important to share it than the bits of wisdom and whimsy that I had planned. Things blossomed from there and it was off to the races. 

It was and is a part of my program for embracing the suck that is 2020. The military term “embrace the suck” can be distilled to a simple admonition. That would be best described as acknowledging that a situation is bad and dealing with it, going over it, around it, or through it. That’s a bit of an oversimplification but close enough for rock ‘n’ roll. 

2020 will not go down as a wonderful year. It thus gave us, each of us, a wonderful opportunity.  It gave us the chance to embrace the suck. I don’t know anyone personally who died of COVID-19 but I do know several people who contracted it and many, many more who thought they had it and did not but were sick with something else. Virtually everyone I know experienced some adverse secondary reaction as a result of it. Let me count the ways. Isolation. Diminished income. Loss of jobs. Domestic problems. Each of them continued to get up every morning and did what they needed to do, went to bed, got up the next morning, and did it all again. They embraced the suck. I daresay that if you got up today and are reading this then you are doing the same thing. Woody Allen is credited with observing that ninety percent of everything is showing up. You showed up. You zoomed meetings and read and wrote and worked and shopped and made meals and probably helped others at some point. The sun came up every morning and so did you. Good on you. 

I have mentioned the late Miles Davis a number of times in this spot. Miles was a complicated personality who often got in his own way but he was an immense talent whose music still sounds groundbreaking and in some cases ahead of his time three decades after his death. His music wasn’t formulaic but he had a formula, which was “Play what you know, and play above that.”

That statement is applicable to life in general, and particularly life right now. For writing, it’s everything. Aim to write the best that you can every day, and write above that. It’s true of life, too. Live as best as you can, and then strive to live to do better. You’ll fail frequently, but you’ll succeed too. 

That brings me to the chart above which comes from the good folks at passionatepennypincher.com. I don’t reflexively think of food banks during the year, but every December our local one has a food drive. Their goal for this year’s drive — again, a tough year for everyone — on December 5 was to collect thirty thousand pounds of food. They collected sixty thousand pounds. In one day. A bag at a time. If you are inclined and you are financially or physically able to do so that reverse Advent chart above is a great guide to what you can do to do live as best as you can, and maybe a bit above. Or you can help someone out, be it a stranger or a neighbor, in some other way. It doesn’t have to involve a transaction. It can be as simple as an effort to give someone an extra smile or a hello or an assist. You can communicate a smile through a mask, by the way. It’s surprising but true. Even I, who really, really does not care much for people as a group, can do it. 

Oh, yeah. The Humane Society. They take care of my favorite people. If you like animals but can’t have a pet most humane societies are begging for folks to come in and interact with the animals there. I can’t do it. The last time I did I had a meltdown because I couldn’t take them all home. I contribute in other ways instead. One does what one can. Please.

Bottom line: be well, and embrace it all. Own it and conquer it. Write, read, watch, be good to yourself first, and then someone/something else. Be happy amid the noise and waste. 

Chag Urim Sameach, Merry Christmas in two weeks, and Happy New Year in three. I will see you back here on January 9. Thanks as always for being here. 


Slow Down. Please.

I had a different post (almost) ready to go. It is interesting, but a bit long. I thought that many of you might still be emerging from food comas two days after Thanksgiving and accordingly would appreciate something short with a striking visual and a gentle reminder.

And here we go!


The foregoing incident, as near as I am able to determine, took place in 2017 in a multi-goods warehouse in South Africa. Videos of similar occurrences in a cheese storage facility in England in 2015 and a Russian facility in 2017 are also online. This one, however, is the one to which I keep returning. 

We can learn a number of things from this video. Most are important throughout the holidays in a variety of settings but apply throughout the year as well:

— There is a reason that patience is called a virtue.

— Life, like football, is a game of inches.

— “Maximum load capacity” is not a suggestion.

—  When given a choice between “set-up” and “clean-up” always choose “set-up” and leave before “clean-up.”

— Never turn your back on the FNG (an acronym for a term meaning “the new employee”).

I hope that you continue to enjoy your weekend. If you are feeling overwhelmed, please try to remember that this too shall pass. The same, alas, cannot be said of the poor soul who found second gear on the forklift. Once. My understanding is that he did live through this but is working in a different occupation.

Have you ever witnessed a catastrophic incident? Did it provide you with a spark or element for a story?

Enjoy and be well. And thanks for stopping by today on one of the busiest weekends of the year.

Author/physician Steve Hooley will be taking over the alternate Saturday slot commencing next week on December 5. He is a terrific guy with multiple talents and will give us plenty to think about. 



A Space Without Answers

It has been by any standard a tough year. My cheery suggestion to folks — that any day above ground is a good day — still applies. So does the axiom that that tomorrow is the future, and yesterday is the past, but today is a gift, which is why we call it the present. Some may disagree, but everything benefits from perspective. Things can always be worse, as what I am about to write about demonstrates.

The situation that I am about to describe is still developing even as I sit at the keyboard. I may update up at some point in the future, depending upon what occurs. It has all of the elements of a classic mystery. What cannot be forgotten or denied is that it is steeped in tragedy, regardless of what, if anything, is ultimately found to have occurred. 

A Westerville, Ohio resident named Emily Noble was reported missing by her husband Matt Moore on the evening of May 25, 2020. Matt stated he and Emily had been out celebrating Emily’s birthday the previous night before returning home. Emily, Matt reported, was not at home when he awoke the next morning. Her possessions, including her keys, car, cell phone, and credit cards, were all that remained of her.

The matter might have ended there. It occasionally comes as a surprise to people that, all other things being equal,  there is no law prohibiting an adult from upping sticks and leaving their home either temporarily or permanently without notice. An absence of this type does not automatically lead to subsequent law enforcement investigation. Friends of Emily, however, vociferously argued that such a course of action — leaving without notice — was unlike her. Emily was gainfully employed and maintained regular contact with relatives and many of her aforementioned friends. The items which she left behind would have been things that she would have taken with her if she were undertaking a planned and/or voluntary absence. 

News of Emily’s disappearance quickly spread and led to conjecture on social media. It was argued that Emily if she were alive and able to do so, would have noted the hue and cry her disappearance generated and would have contacted someone if only to assure them that she was fine and had simply chosen to go away.  

Those circumstances initiated as thorough an investigation as has ever been conducted in this area. Westerville police searched Emily’s home but found no indication of foul play. Video footage from the area around her home was reviewed. Police searched a wooded area near Emily’s home that she was known to frequent as well as an area of several blocks where she walked.  The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, volunteers, drones, and cadaver dogs assisted. An out-of-state group with experience in disappearance matters was brought in as well. Surveillance camera footage in the area was reviewed. Emily’s friends also posted signs throughout the area offering a five-figure reward for information about her disappearance.  

All was for naught. It was as if Emily had vanished into the ether without sign or warning. Vigils were held. Friends and volunteers continued to search. Accusations on social media regarding who might be responsible for her absence were made by friends, acquaintances, and at least one of Emily’s family members. 

 Early in the evening of September 16, 2020, a body was found in the wooded area near Emily’s home. The body was in a state of decomposition such that the age, sex, and facial characteristics of the deceased individual could not be identified. Given that the wooded area is not a large one — less than half of a city block — the discovery of a body there was puzzling, particularly since the location where the corpse was found had been searched at least three times, with the first time being within a day of the report of her disappearance. 

The body was tentatively identified as Emily’s through dental records on September 22, 2020. That identification was confirmed by DNA  results on October 27, 2020. It was also noted that there had been decomposition of Emily’s body at the site. 

The investigation continues. There has been some signal chaff generated by conjecture. The majority opinion — still not confirmed at this point in time — is that Emily was murdered. Some individuals have not been shy about hazarding a guess as to the doer. There is also the possibility that Emily was the victim of a hit-and-run driver, given that the wooded area is adjacent to a moderately busy street. The problem with that theory is it presupposes that Emily’s body lay where it was, undiscovered, for almost four months despite multiple searches of the area. That is possible, but not probable. Emily also might have suffered a fatal heart attack and died suddenly as a result. There is the same problem with that theory as there is with the hit-and-run scenario.  Everyone has their guesses and opinions (as do I) but broadcasting them does not help and, at least with one scenario, has the potential to hinder any justice which might otherwise be done. 

There unfortunately remains the very real possibility that what happened may never be known. Decomposition might be such that the cause of death cannot be conclusively established. If Emily’s body lay where it was found from late May to late September she was exposed to warm, humid weather in an area teeming with insects, carnivorous wildlife, and the like. It would seem to be quite a challenge for forensic investigators to establish whether there is sufficient evidence to determine if a crime was committed. That issue is well outside of my skillset and closer to the wheelhouse of fellow TKZers Garry Rodgers and Steve Hooley. 

What is known for certain at this point is that with Emily’s absence there is going to be an empty seat — a space without answers — in one or more dining room tables going forward. What I have described makes for an interesting story, particularly for those whose reading interests include mysteries and true crime of the solved and unsolved varieties.  The emotional component occasioned by that void is far deeper and more important. 

Yes, it has in many ways been an uncertain year, but if you don’t have an empty chair at the table as you gather to celebrate the season, in whatever form that takes, you’re ahead of the game. I think so, at least. 

Happy Thanksgiving. See you next Saturday.