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.

Start with a Line…

 

.comPhoto courtesy Jordan Steranka from unsplash.com

“Start with a line…” Okay. How about…”My emotional development was arrested when I was eighteen and given a life sentence.” Actually, I don’t mean that type of line when I wrote the above title. I meant the modern version of the old campfire game where someone thinks of a sentence to start off a story, the person next to them offers a second sentence to continue the tale, the next person creates a third sentence, and round and ‘round the campfire they go until the story is complete or something like it. It was inevitable that someone would create a new version of this game. Several someones have, actually.

I learned about the new versions of this storytelling method through a friend whose high school and college-age daughters have been writing short stories and novels online in collaboration with like-minded people from all over the world. There are a number of websites dedicated to this purpose. Each has their own rules. One gives a potential contributor a couple of minutes to come up with a sentence with a set word maximum. Another imposes a character limit, in terms of letters, numbers, and spaces (as opposed to, you know, people in the story).  There is at least one that permits contributors to critique each other. I bet that gets interesting. The stories, as one might expect, can meander quite a bit and the quality of the contributions and the ultimate sum of the parts can vary wildly. A number of the finished products actually turn out pretty well, however.

Two of my favorite sites of this nature are Folding Story and Novlet, but there are others to be found if you google “stories collaborative written online” or something similar. My participation has been limited to reading as opposed to contributing (I’ve been too busy watching Love, Death & Robots on Netflix, notwithstanding the warning that it is for mature audiences). It seems likely, however, that these and similar sites would be good places todevelop the ability to craft killer sentences or paragraphs by hitching them to developing stories, get the creative juices flowing during an episode of writer’s block, or even suffer the slings and arrows of peer critique if you are looking for that sort of thing and Facebook happens to be down for the day.

Please take a few minutes, check out the sites I mentioned (or find your own!), and let us know what you think. If you have been a participant on one or more of them and are so inclined please share your experience. Thank you. And enjoy the first Saturday of Spring 2019. Boing!

 

7+

If You REALLY Want to Do This…

I want to speak to those of you who are at the early stage of what will hopefully be a long and successful career in the arts, whether it be with writing, performing, painting, sculpting, or whatever. Please note the word “hopefully” above. Many are called, but very few get there. I’m not attempting to discourage you. My attitude is that somebody is going to be successful and it very well might be me, or you, or both, so let’s go for it. Realize, however, that failure is a repetitive possibility, and that you have to be prepared to keep trying. 

That said, I am going to strongly recommend that you watch a documentary about an artist — a sculptor — who briefly tasted success and quickly lost it before dying in obscurity. Success? We’re talking a government-sponsored museum devoted entirely to his work. That is success of a sort by any standard. Six years after the opening of the museum, however,  it was closed and virtually all of the artist’s work was destroyed, memorialized only by photographs and some miniature models which he recreated. The guy picked himself up, supported himself with jobs that were by any standard a poor use of his talent, and continued to work at what he loved practically up to the day he died.

I am referring to Stanislaw Szukalski. Odds are that you have never heard of him. I certainly hadn’t until a friend recommended Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski, produced by George and Leonardo DiCaprio, whose family helped to support the man in the twilight of his life. The video, available on Netflix, is narrated primarily though not exclusively by Glenn Bray, a bibliophile and comic book collector. I want you to be as surprised delighted, depressed and as startled as I was so I am going to only give you the general highlights of what you will find. Bray discovered Szukalski’s work by utter happenstance in 1971 and became obsessed with it, the more so when he learned that Szukalski was living only a few miles away from him. Bray reached out to Szukalski and met with him, forging a friendship which lasted for some fifteen years until Szukalski’s death. Bray, who was active in the underground comic book industry, introduced artists in the medium to Szukalski as well. They had seen his work without knowing it, and in all probability you have as well. Szukalski designed one of the more intriguing and unsettling sets seen in the original film version of King Kong. It is his freestanding work, however, that is stunning. His sculptors and artwork are by turns breathtaking, disturbing, erotic, and startling. He never stopped creating, whether it be sculpting, drawing, or writing. Szukalski was also obsessed with the origins of humankind and the human condition. He devoted a significant amount of time researching and writing the theory of Zermatism, leaving the world several bound volumes containing over ten thousand pages of text and over forty thousand drawings illustrating and, to his mind, proving his point. He believed that humanity originated on Easter Island and that human beings have been controlled by…but you will want to watch Struggle to get the rest of that story.

Struggle is loaded with comments from Bray, DiCaprio the elder, and various artists. There are also still shots of Szukalski’s work from the 1930s through the 1980s. The most interesting elements, however, consist of video recordings of Szukalski himself which Bray made and preserved. These are worth watching for many reasons, one of them being to observe Szukalski’s arrogance and charm co-existing simultaneously in the same place. Anyone who encountered Szukalski no doubt experienced approach-avoidance conflict. Szukalski may possibly have been wrong about some things but, if Struggle is to be believed, he was never in doubt.

The takeaway from Struggle — and it really rubs your nose into it, however unintentionally — is that real artists, and really, really good artists, don’t always succeed. They never, however, stop creating. You may not reach the heights of a James Patterson, Ernest Hemingway or Nora Roberts, but if you have a story to tell you need to — you must — keep trying to tell it. So endeth the lesson.

To take Jordan Dane’s excellent question of yesterday — what book first inspired you to write — a step further, please tell us: who or what motivates you to continue to create even as success might remain elusive?

(All photographs and illustrations are (c) The Estate of Stanislaw Szukalski. All rights reserved.)

 

 

 

 

7+

A Little Something Extra

People love something that is free. The problem which those of us who offer commodities for sale face is that our audience after a bit not only loves “free” but also expects “free.” There is a way around this. It is the concept not of “free” but of “extra.”

Most of us infuse a bit of our personal knowledge and/or interests in our stories. If you do this you can take things a step further, giving your reader (who is also hopefully a buyer) a bit more about the subject matter or point(s) of interest in the book either within the narrative or outside of the story by providing further information within the book itself or through a link to a dedicated web address that does the same thing. It gives the reader a bit of lagniappe, a French term meaning “a little something extra.”

I initially encountered the term “lagniappe in New Orleans.  It doesn’t have to be big, just 1) kind and 2) deliberate. I chatted up a cashier at a Walgreens and when she was done with the sale she tossed one of those counter mints in my bag, I assume because I was nice to her. It’s a good marketing ploy. I still visit that particular Walgreens at least once whenever I’m in the city. It’s not a new concept either. When I was a bambino my parents would take their angelic and perfectly behaved children out for Sunday dinner to a restaurant called The Florentine which was a Columbus institution right up to its closing in 2016.  It was old school before there was old school, with oil paintings on the walls, linen table cloths, and food on the table almost as good as your grandmother’s. What we loved, however, was that the cashier, who seemed ancient in the 1950s, presided over a collection of penny candy. He would pass out an assortment of mini-rolls of lifesavers, Necco wafers, and the like. Naturally, my brother, sister, and I always wanted to go there for the weekly dinner out. We subsequently moved to another city in 1963, but when I moved back to Columbus in 1978 and visited The Florentine the guy was still there, seemingly no older and still passing out candy to the children whose families patronized the restaurant. More recently I found that another Scotty’s Cafe, another Columbus area restaurant, does the adult version of that. At the close of the meal, one of the owners presents the customer with a small but extremely delicious piece of cake or breakfast roll, gratis. Believe me, you’d come back to Scotty’s anyway for the main course, but the little extra surprise — the lagniappe — seals the deal. It tells the customer that they’re glad you came in.

I started thinking about this because of a new James Patterson (with Max DiLallo) novel I just read titled THE CHEF. It’s a thriller, set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras (great market timing, there), and is about a police officer who also runs a food truck. The concept, in case you’re wondering, actually works. My point in mentioning it, however, is that at the end of the book Patterson and DiLallo include the recipes for a number of the dishes mentioned during the course of the story. We’re talking Crab Gumbo, New Orleans-style grits, and the like. They’re food truck-ready recipes, which means that you or I could (probably) make them without setting our kitchens on fire. It was a nice surprise to find those. Lagniappe. Folks aren’t going to buy the book because of it, at least initially, but if the authors decide to turn it into a series readers might remember the inclusion of the recipes (or recall having read about them in a blog post or review) in the first volume and come back for more.

Other authors have a reputation for including similar information and/or lists in their novels. Ken Bruen, in the books which comprise his long-running Jack Taylor series (and yes, the Jack Taylor series on Netflix is based on those novels) includes exhausting but terrific references, usually through the voice of Taylor, to novels and popular music projects, whether in the text or as an epigraph. I actually keep a notebook dedicated to Bruen’s recommendations. I consider myself to be fairly well-read and my musical tastes to be broad and eclectic, but Bruen never fails to either surprise me with something new or remind me of something long forgotten. It’s not just me, either. I know of a number of his readers who buy his books with a mind to heavily underline the music and novel titles which Bruen drops like breadcrumbs throughout Taylor’s narratives.

Author Tim Dorsey does something similar in his series featuring a madcap, cheerfully insane serial killer named Serge A. Storms. While Dorsey invents fresh new Rube Goldberg-type methods of murdering the deserving in each book, the primary reason to read them is Storms’ non-stop, trivia-engorged patter about the state of Florida. One could literally plan a vacation — one week a year for twenty or so years — touring the sites mentioned in the series and visiting the bars, restaurants, and tourist traps noted therein, almost all of which are a bit off of the beaten path. Grab a volume and go. It’s better than a triptych. I know folks who have done this and read each book just for a new vacation idea.

Word gets out among fans, and you can help it along with regard to your novel. Note on your social media pages that your novel is about (fill in the blank) and that at the end of the book you provide a list of places/things/music/whatever pertaining to that topic for those who wish to explore it further. Or include a short story of a few pages. It doesn’t have to be huge, just large enough to say “thank you” to the reader who, when confronted with a mammoth number of entertainment choices, chose you.

My question for you: do you have an unusual interest that you have spun into your writing project? Does something like I have described appeal to you? And readers…do you make lists of referenced works, the way that I and others do? Please let us know.  

9+

Fighting Off the Fog

Photo courtesy Roman Mager from unsplash.com

My local news this morning reported that a gentleman with dementia — several years my junior — is missing.  I wondered: why him? Why not me? I have watched loved ones — relatives and friends — succumb to the foggy twilight of forgetfulness, bizarre and inappropriate behavior, and poor judgment in increasing numbers in the past several years. My greatest fear at this point in time is that I will join the ranks. As I approach the age status of “codger,” I would prefer to be described as “still sharp as a tack” to “If found, please return to…” or worse, “If found, please don’t return.”

I may some time ago have mentioned that I have scheduled the following entry to appear monthly on my Google calendar: “Are people telling me that I am forgetting things? Am I getting into trouble? Do I get lost in familiar places? Have I forgotten that I have left this message for my future self? If so, I may have Alzheimer’s Disease and need to either get help or end it all.” The message recently popped up for the first time (that I can remember, heh heh) on my calendar. I could honestly answer “no” to all of the questions that my past self asked my present self (except possibly for the one about getting into trouble. It depends on your definition of trouble). It occurred to me a few months ago, however, that I need to do more than just schedule a monthly self-check on my mental status. I must up my game as I get older. I want to pass into that good night the way that Robert B. Parker did. He was busily writing at his desk when Azrael tapped him on the shoulder, clapped hands, and said: “Let’s go!”  Similarly, Bob Hope, as befits a comedian, had everyone laughing through their tears as they gathered around his deathbed. His wife reportedly asked him if he wanted to be buried or cremated. His response, filtered through a raspy gasp, was “Surprise me!” Indeed.

Photo courtesy Gina Lin from unsplash.com

I’ve been doing a number of things to increase the odds of walking the final plank in as superlative a condition as possible, writing all the way. One is exercise. I don’t like it. I find it boring. I did engage in jogging for a while, many years ago, but the rum kept spilling out of my glass. I only enjoy such activity if I can call it something else and multitask while doing so. I love walking when I am in other cities. I can take mental photographs, get writing ideas, and occasionally sharpen my survival skills if I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t like walking in my own locale because for the most part the scenery is somewhat boring and I somehow always find myself wandering into a bakery, which is also dangerous. I accordingly bought a treadmill about a year ago and put it in front of the television. I have decided that I am not allowed to watch Netflix, Prime or Cinema HD (shhh!) unless I’m walking briskly on the treadmill. It works. I’m never bored, and I’m actually doing something constructive amidst the sex, explosions, and fisticuffs of what I’m watching. I walked for a couple of hours yesterday while watching American Gangster and loved every minute. The activity improves my mood which in turn helps me to think more clearly. It has increased my stamina as well.

Photo courtesy Aaron Burden from unsplash.com

Reading is another intellectually stimulating activity. Reading of any sort is good, but of late I’ve been shifting at least some of my reading time away from the mystery and thrillers I love and toward literature that requires a bit more concentration.  After perusing several articles about how to start and finish Ulysses by James Joyce I located my well-worn copy and started reading a page a day while successfully resisting the urge to burn my eyes out with hot coals. So far so good.

Photo courtesy Aaron Burden from unsplash.com

 

There is also of course writing, which I am doing right now. Maybe it’s true that a roomful of monkeys chained to typewriters will eventually randomly type the works of Shakespeare. Sometimes my contribution to this blog resembles what the chimps come up with before they produce The Tempest but my posts have to be done by a time and date certain That takes concentration, as does most writing. Another stick sharpened.

All of the above, however, isn’t enough. One thing I regret about my high school years is that I never really mastered mathematics beyond Algebra 1, primarily because I could never properly use a slide rule. Does anyone remember slide rules? It was a type of analog computer which went the way of the dinosaur once pocket calculators became so common. The last slide rule was made in 1976. I was simply born too soon. I have lived long enough to see YouTube, however, and there are all sorts of videos as well as self-instruction websites where a mathematics dolt like myself can work at their own pace and begin at their own level. I had a couple of false starts before deciding that I needed a refresher course in Algebra 1. I was surprised at how much I remembered, how much I had forgotten, and how much I still don’t understand. I am chipping away at it, however. I would like at some point to understand calculus but it’s as important for me to try as it is to succeed at this point.  I find that it helps to listen to music while I do it. I generally favor post-punk (Parquet Courts) or soul (anything that was released on the Stax/Volt labels) for pleasure but when confronting a math lesson there is something about a Louis Armstrong solo from his days with the Hot Five or a Miles Davis set from the 1950s to the early 1960s that brings a broom and dustpan to the frontal lobe.

Photo courtesy Chris Bair from unsplash.com

You don’t have to be old — by whatever definition — to start thinking about this. I know people who seemingly cannot function without a device in their hand, who haven’t read a book in years, and whose idea of exercise is adjusting the remote volume while they binge on a new Netflix serial. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. Just add some things into the mix that up your thinking game a bit,  clear the cobwebs, sharpen the instruments, and generally tune up the cognition. If you are doing something, no matter what your age, please share. And if you aren’t doing anything because you don’t feel the need, bless you.

11+

Three Movies…and What We Can Learn from Them

(My apologies in advance…my internet service has been out to lunch for the last few days. I have been getting by with cell phone tethering but that has been spotty as well. It’s weather related and since we’re going to have more of the same for the next several days I may not be able to respond to comments, etc. I will do so as time and ability might allow. Thank you!)  

I am old enough to remember when Netflix was a DVD rental service. It actually still does that, though it has almost single-handedly transformed and popularized video-streaming. There is so much available that it is easy to acquire decision stress over what to watch. It is also quite easy to become addicted to the point where one lets other, more important things (such as writing) slide.

If you’re going to watch Netflix but you want to justify paying the time bandit instead of following your Muse you can actually learn quite a bit by judiciously choosing what you watch. I’m going to briefly discuss a couple of movies that you can find in Netflix’ nether regions that you either may not have heard of or which flitted across your attention due to not being your type of movie. I’ll also mention another that just hit theaters (remember theaters? Those big cavernous places that you stopped going to because half of the audience thinks they’re on Facebook, and can yell out everything they want?) yesterday. Without further ado:

Train to Busan: I quit watching Walking Dead when Rick’s son lost his eye and then pretty much gave up on the zombie horror sub-genre altogether. Someone recommended Train to Busan on Netflix as a zombie movie for people who were tired of zombies or hated the genre. My friend was right. Train to Busan, a South Korean horror film, hooks you in the first three minutes, giving you a hint of what is to come, stepping back and featuring a bit of human drama, and then putting you on the edge of your seat for an hour and a half or so. The set up is that an overworked hedge fund broker takes the morning off to accompany his young daughter (who is the cutest little kid who ever walked the face of the earth) on a high-speed train to visit her mother. The zombie apocalypse breaks out on the train and off we go. These zombies, by the way, aren’t the usual shambling dodos that can be taken out with a well-placed arrow. They are fleet of foot (they can somehow stumble and run like hell at the same time) and extremely aggressive. My favorite line of the film occurs when a passenger gets on the train intercom and says, “Conductor, we have a situation!” No kidding, Sherlock. The film itself features an excellent example of how to hint at a problem at the beginning of a work, let the problem percolate off-screen (or off the page), and then bring it back with a vengeance. It also is a reminder that light rail, buses, trains, boats, or planes are to be avoided at all costs. 

Hell or High Water: This contemporary western finally made it to Netflix and will cause you to trade in your bird box or whatever. A man gets out of prison to find that the family farm has gone into foreclosure during his absence. He and his brother embark on a scheme to rob the branches of the regional bank which holds the mortgage and then use the money to pay off the loan on the farm. It could have been a comedy — and yes, as an exercise you could rewrite it as a comedy — but it isn’t. Things don’t go exactly as planned and the brothers soon find that law enforcement is after them. Jeff Bridges, in what might be the performance of his life, plays a Texas Ranger who is just weeks away from retirement. His investigation into the robberies will certainly be his last case and he wants to retire on top by identifying the robbers and bringing them in dead or alive. There is plenty of moral ambiguity to be had all around, a few quirky characters, and an ending you won’t see coming. There’s a bit of action and plenty of drama, all of it perfectly placed and paced,  but you will want to take notes on the dialogue, which is first class from beginning to end and which is just as important for what is not said as for what is.

Serenity: I obtained days before its theatrical debut an advance copy of this new Matthew McConaughey vehicle without knowing anything about it. I assumed from the title that it was a film about sobriety, ala Clean and Sober, but contrare mon frere. It’s a noir tale with many of the elements of Body Heat but which, alas, goes adrift. McConaughey plays a charter boat skipper whose ex-wife shows up, telling tales of abuse, drunkenness, and cruelty at the hands of her extremely wealthy new husband. She wants McConaughey to kill the despicable cad, promising great rewards of the material and carnal kind. One can understand why McConaughey loses his wrestling match with temptation but that is the only element that truly works here. The story gets sidetracked needlessly and pointlessly, giving one the feeling that some of the scenes were inserted to make Serenity long enough for theatrical release. There is also a twist to the story that is ridiculous by any standard. The result is a textbook case of what occurs when 1) you try to grow a story with scenes that aren’t the equal of the existing product and 2) throw a shell game into the plot which makes the audience the patsy. The Coen Brothers (who have nothing to do with Serenity) do this occasionally with UFOs, for reasons best known only to themselves. It doesn’t work for them. The cleverness inserted into Serenity doesn’t work either, and the result is a work which robs you of two hours of your life which you will never get back. It’s a great example of a waste of elements and actors, a model of what not to do to your target audience.

My question for you: what film, television show/series, or whatever have you watched recently which provided one or more teachable moments — good or bad —for your writing? And how so?

 

6+

Comic Relief

Photo courtesy Natalia Y on unsplash.com

Happy New Year! I hope that your holiday was as good as mine. I learned something which may have some major repercussions for me going forward.

I am not sure how what follows originally came up for discussion. The source, however, was my twelve-year-old granddaughter. She talks quite a bit about some things and not at all about others, with the border between the two constantly shifting and changing. Sometimes it is hard for me to keep up, which is okay. It gives her the freedom to chatter away and me the impetus to keep trying to figure it out. So it is that during one day of her Christmas vacation she was at one moment talking about a manga character and the next was talking about something she called “comic sans.”  I assumed at first that she was referring to comic book character that she particularly revered. As she continued for a bit longer, however, I realized that she was referring to a type font.

We each and all have a favorite font. Actually, that’s wrong. We each and all have a font that we use by default. Mine, since Jesus was in short pants, has been the boring and predictable but nonetheless popular Times New Roman. Many prefer Arial. It’s not something we usually even think about, particularly when reading. A great number of books make a point of referencing, usually on a page at the back, the font in which the book is printed and providing a three or four sentence summary of its history. To wit:

This book was printed using the Beelzebub font designed by a group of renegade Tantric monks in the early 18th Century. It was once popular but fell out of favor due to the spread of a superstition that the Universe would end upon the setting of the one-billionth charact

I in any event never really paid much attention to the topic other than to occasionally check out the pull-down menu on whatever word processing software I am using and to marvel for a moment at all of the choices. I realize that my choice of Times New Roman is similar to walking into Baskin-Robbins, checking out the thirty-one flavors of the month, and choosing vanilla. Most editors and the like prefer Ariel or Times New Roman, however, so it’s a safe bet. Only…only…there seems to be a bit of discussion among the younger set regarding “Comic Sans MS.” or “Comic Sans” for short. It was originally developed as a typeface for comic book narration and word balloons in 1994. A short, light-hearted video about it with a sample can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34fOZgy4TqI One doesn’t use it for formal documents such as a will, a contract, or an all-important postgraduate thesis. But. But. The discussion taking place among the young ones concerns the use of Comic Sans as a creative tool. Proponents say that there is something about it that aides the creative process, one that seems to cause words to flow almost unbidden from brain to fingers and beyond. Opponents (my younger daughter, among them) say it doesn’t do any such thing and looks like crap besides.

 

Photo courtesy Raphael Schaller on unsplash.com

I checked Google Drive to see if I had Comic Sans as a choice and sure enough, there it was, theretofore unnoticed in the menu. It looked godawful though somehow familiar. The familiarity should not have been a surprise, given that it mimics the text that was popular in comic books, which I read by the boxfuls for decades. I opened up a new document and started writing with it. Two hours later I was still writing, stopping only after being entreated to make a pizza run. I was, as they say, in the zone. I found that for the first time in my life I actually preferred writing to reading. The words simply seem to flow, just like the kiddies say with Comic Sans than with Times New Roman or anything else I have used. God forbid that I would submit anything in Comic Sans unless it was specifically called for, but it is certainly easy enough to convert into another format for a submission or final copy.

Check it out, particularly if you are having problems, as we all sometimes do, with getting things going in the grammar mine. I can’t really explain why it works for me and apparently for others, but work it does. I find that writing with purpose is often a struggle — as with many things (but not all) it’s a lot more fun to want to do it than have to do it — but the line has been blurred. I’ve been writing and writing quite a bit, each and every day, since I have made the change. If you would, please check out the typeface — I’m having a PICNIC (Problem In Chair Not In Computer) problem so I can’t duplicate Comic Sans here — and please tell us what you think.

Photo courtesy Ilnur Kalimullin on unsplash.com

I have to mention something else. I think it is terrific that young people, or at least a segment of them, even give a flying fig about a font, what helps them write, and what makes them better writers. My generation at that age really didn’t care or even think about fonts. We only thought about the print being large or small. We knew there was a difference in fonts among newspapers, books, comics, and instructions but we didn’t remark on it or give a flying fig. Younger folks do and they’re talking about it and other elements on their way to writing the best stories that they can. They are not just writing. They are reading, which is encouraging, or should be, for all of us.

 

6+

The Organ Recital

Photo courtesy of Sydney Rae, unsplash.com

Where did the year(s) go? Is there a way to slow things down, before one reaches the age of the organ recital? What is that, you ask?

A friend of mine who is a bit ahead of me agewise has a weekly meeting with an ever-dwindling group of his friends from high school. My pal recently referred to one of these gatherings as “the organ recital.” I asked him what he meant, and he said, “Y’know, this guy talks about his liver problems. That one is talking about starting renal dialysis in two weeks. We’re going to have to change our meeting day. I’ve had two heart attacks, and my pancreas won’t survive another Christmas of Reese’s Trees and Giant Eagle Egg Nog ice cream. The bags of all-season cheese curls probably don’t help either. We all try to one-up each other about how sick we are, whose organ will go first and which one it will be.”

I’ve noticed this practice among my own circle of friends of a certain age. Their daily routines seem to be intervals between trips to this specialist or that specialist. I don’t engage in this because I don’t go to the doctor. It’s not an act of denial. I know what’s coming.  I just don’t care to know which of my bodily parts might be planning a suicidal onslaught against me or if they’re going to collaborate on some sort of kamikaze run at an inopportune time, like when I’m attempting to navigate the silly-string pattern of I-65 through downtown Nashville, when they’ll say, “Let’s cut the strings on this puppet right NOW!”  Oh, sure, I wake up at 3 AM and wonder momentarily if that sudden, tear-inducing pain in my side is a tumor the size of Milwaukee, boldly shouldering aside everything in its ever-increasing path, or if that twinge of chest pain is a signal to the conductor that, thanks to regular patronage of Arby’s and Sonic, that left anterior descending artery is blocked up and the remaining available tracks can’t handle the freight. They all go away, however, and everything still seems to work okay, so I forget about them until the next minor complaint arises. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

Young folks don’t think about this, but they normally don’t have friends who have died suddenly in their sleep, or after a series of hospital stays, or while unable to recognize loved ones or even themselves as they spend their final days in an institution which has come to be known, ironically enough, as a memory facility. When you are in your thirties, such things seem miles away, over the river and through the woods, something that happens to others, to old people. They don’t realize how fast time passes. That distant toll of the bell all too soon becomes up close and personal.

2018 wasn’t been one of my better years, but there have been worse, much worse. The worst of them were the worst of them due by and large to self-inflicted damage and will hopefully never be repeated, thanks to acquired wisdom and accumulated guile. 2018 was sadly memorable for watching a number of folks I have loved to varying degrees lay down their swords and shields and pass ahead to the next stage. I am fortunate at the moment, however, to be more Harry than Tonto, more weekend than Bernie. There is still much for which to look forward. My children continue to surprise me in good and great ways, and my granddaughter promises much and delivers more. On the cultural side, there is a new James Lee Burke novel — The New Iberia Blues — and a new season of Luther coming. The new year also has the promise of some new horizons to see before any final sunset, if good fortune prevails. Hoping for the best while preparing for the worst seems to cover all of the bases. Until that moment when it doesn’t, of course.

While I have the chance let me tell you that I am so thankful for each and every one of you that I can’t adequately express it.  Thanks for stopping by, reading, commenting, and being a friend to everyone at TKZ. You are the reason why we show up. And please: keep writing, writing, and writing until the tip of that spear you call your story is as sharp as you can get it. That friend I mentioned at the beginning of this piece is fond of saying (in another context) that a used key stays shiny. Keep using your talents and shining them up until they are so bright that they cannot be ignored.

Thank you. Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See you in 2019.

6+

MISSING

Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger from unsplash.com

I sit this evening perplexed by mysteries, personal puzzles that really have no point in being discussed here. Pull one thread, however, and it catches another and then another, whether they be in the material or intangible world. So it is that I occasionally obsess for a few moments about a couple of local puzzles that are commemorated to varying degrees on the anniversaries of their occurrences.

The first of these occurred — or at least manifested itself — within walking distance of my home. I live two blocks away from Hoover Reservoir, a body of water consisting of five square miles which is by turns a water source, park, and recreation area. A gentleman named Rob Mohney also lived nearby until 1996. He abruptly disappeared one evening in July, leaving the door to his home unlocked and the supper on his table untouched, a still-life, landlocked model of the Mary Celeste. He was still missing when his car was noticed at the reservoir a few days later. One of the initial theories of explanation regarding his disappearance was that he had parked at the reservoir, then walked to the pedestrian crossing over the dam, where he had done a Peter Pan for whatever sad reason into the waters crashing beneath. We are not talking Niagara Falls, however, and the waters in question quickly give up their own when there is anything to give. Mr. Mohney was never found.

Local law enforcement still pursues the case. A tip led them to a nearby rural plot of land where a backhoe failed to give up any secrets. Mohney still lives, however, in the local lore. A year after his disappearance a group of drunken seniors from one of the local high schools reported seeing his shade wandering late at night on the far banks of the reservoir, and sightings are still reported by their successors some twenty years and change later.

Thousands of people are reported missing each year. Most are found in one condition or another, either reunited with loved ones or bound over to the state of deep and seemingly unending mourning, depending upon circumstance. The truth, however, is that some people just…disappear. There is no law against it if the person missing is an adult and the absence appears voluntarily. While the occurrence often raises suspicion of what is known as “foul play,” it isn’t always. Some people tire of their lives and decide to up sticks and reinvent themselves elsewhere. Stories abound of how the quick-witted and -footed took advantage of the 9/11 terror attack in New York and left a hated job or a tired relationship behind to go on permanent vacation in the Mohave.

It is hard to classify the second and better known mysterious absence which has occurred in my area. Theories about the perplexing disappearance of Brian Shaffer abound. Shaffer, a 27-year-old medical student at the Ohio State University in Columbus, seemed after a deep personal tragedy to have the world by the tail with a downhill pull. On Saturday, April 1, 2006, as he and two friends began a bar crawl through the North High Street campus area. Shaffer needed the break. His mother had died a few weeks earlier following a long battle with cancer and his life seemed to be entering a new and better chapter. Shaffer and his girlfriend were scheduled to leave the following Monday for Miami, and he had planned to propose to her after they reached their destination. The evening was a way of properly lubricating the beginning of the much-needed spring break. The trio entered a loud and boisterous two-story establishment named “The Ugly Tuna Saloona” (a dive bar with pretensions). Shaffer became separated from his friends soon after they entered. Their calls to his cell phone went straight to his voice mail. They eventually left the bar, assuming that Shaffer had gone home to bed. Their assumption was partially right.  He was gone.

The area in question was — and is — heavily blanketed in security cameras and monitors. Columbus Police detectives assigned to investigate the case repeated reviewed hours of video from the night in question and were able to account for the exit of each person who entered the bar that night but for one, that being Shaffer. Cadaver dogs went through every inch of the building but found nothing. The Saloona has gone to that great tavern in the sky, and the empty premises have been examined again, but it still refuses to give up its secrets. Shaffer went in but apparently never came out.

A disappearance such as this leaves its own uncomfortable ripples behind. Shaffer’s father died two years later as a result of a home accident without knowing what happened to his son.  An online memorial posting following his father’s death, allegedly from Shaffer and purportedly from the Virgin Islands, was concluded to be a hoax. Elaborate tips phoned into the detectives led nowhere. Rumors continue to this day, the most persistent being that Shaffer is pursuing a different life in a suburb of Atlanta. There have been “Where’s Waldo” sightings of him literally all over the world. Each false tip is a fresh wound for Shaffer’s brother, who understandably remains haunted and perplexed by the incident. The oddest post-disappearance manifestation, however, was experienced by Shaffer’s girlfriend, who is no doubt haunted to some degree by what occurred and what might have been. She continued calling his cell phone on a nightly basis after his disappearance. Her calls went straight to voicemail, each and all but for one that she placed approximately six months after he vanished. That call rang four times. It was found that the call had “pinged” off of a cell phone tour in a suburb southwest of Columbus. It was, unfortunately, another dead end.

Where did Shaffer go? And how did he get there? I’m repeating myself, but that area of High Street is heavily covered by surveillance. He was not seen leaving the building. It is all but obvious, however, that he did. I have my own theory, one that is unkind in some ways and that I accordingly keep to myself. Someday there might be an answer. Or not. There is no rule of the universe that states that all questions will one day be answered, that all mysteries will be revealed, other for than for the divine. The lesser ones, however, will still matter.

I’ve prattled on long enough, perhaps too long. Disappearances. What is the most puzzling unsolved one near you? Please share. And thank you as always for stopping by…

…and, like Columbo…I’ve got just one more very important item: Chag Urim Sameach to all of our many friends celebrating the Festival of Lights commencing tomorrow! We join you in spirit!

9+

Giving Thanks

(c) Copyright Uncooked Media UK. All rights reserved.

I am going to meander a bit today. Please bear with me. I’ll get to the point somewhere in here and probably veer off again, but I’m sure you’ll understand.

I received a bit of sinus-clearing news early Thursday morning a couple of weeks ago. Let me give it to you in the manner in which my older son gave it to me, via cell phone:

“Samantha (his daughter, my granddaughter) is fine. She got hit by a car on her way to school.”

Samantha and my son live three doors and a crosswalk away from her middle school. She was crossing said street — in the crosswalk, with the light, in a school zone  — when a woman turning left struck her from the side and rear. Samantha went up on the hood of the car, rolled off, and fell to the ground. She, fortunately, landed on her side (as opposed to on a joint or, God forbid, her head). I won’t go into detail with regard to the legalities of what happened afterward as that is still unwinding (I incidentally while questioning Samantha about what happened used some of the techniques which Sue Colletta noted in her wonderful TKZ post of November 5). What is important is that Samantha is okay so far (and yes, we are keeping an eye on her) but she picked herself up, submitted to medical examinations, and went to school the next day, where she basked (probably the wrong word) in the vague celebrity that shines on someone of her age (she’ll be 12 next week) who experiences a near catastrophe and comes out of it (relatively) unscathed.

Am I grateful or thankful that she was apparently uninjured? I’m not sure. “Thankful” and “grateful are appropriate but don’t quite cover it. I don’t think I have the words. I am considering, somewhat seriously, leaving all of my worldly goods behind and joining a monastery where I can devote every waking moment to prayer and good works as a small step toward balancing the scales that tipped so that Samantha could emerge intact. There is at any given moment only a hair’s breadth between a sigh of relief and the scream of anguish that herald’s the worst day of someone’s life. The birthday party we will be having on Thanksgiving might have been spent in a hospital waiting room. Or worse.

So. Flash forward to this past Tuesday. I had been trying to think of something, some minor gesture, to uplift Samantha a bit and tilt her world away from what happened and into the right direction. I happened to be in one of the local Half-Price Books stores and passed by the magazine section. There was a space jammed with a magazine called Weekly Shonen Jump which I quickly recognized as a manga magazine. For those of you over the age of forty — and what follows is a bit of an oversimplification — manga is the general name for a Japanese comic book. It is distinguished from anime, which is what we might characterize as a Japanese animated movie. The styles of both media are the same and very distinctive. I am not a fan — it gives me a headache to read/watch it — but Samantha is a huge follower. Weekly Shonen Jump runs upward to five hundred pages an issue and reprints previously published stories. Its nickname in both its American and Japanese incarnations is “phone book,” because of its thickness. The English language version (which is what I had found) goes for a cover price of five dollars an issue which isn’t a bad price at all. The bookstore was selling the issues for fifty cents each, which is, um, even better. An extremely helpful clerk who saw me looking at the magazines directed me to another stack of a publication titled Neo, a slick-paged magazine which concerns itself with manga, anime, and Japanese video games. I bought the entire kit and kaboodle of both, dropping around ten bucks for seventeen magazines that ultimately took up most of the room in the box I needed to transport them to my car.

Samantha’s school was just letting out by then so I drove over to my son’s place and showed up at the front door with the box in hand. When Samantha got home from school, I handed the box over with the words, “For you.” She opened the box and started going through it, making exclamatory noises which were followed by the awe-struck statement, “This is the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen in my life.”

(c) VIZ Media. All rights reserved.

Thankful? Grateful? Yes. My granddaughter is alive, well, and loves to read. Like I said earlier, however, I don’t quite have the words to express how I feel. I’m thankful for other things. I wake up in my own bed every morning and can put my own feet — I still have both of them. Many people don’t — on my own floor and can put on my own clothes without assistance. And I have clothes. I also have windows and doors that I can open and close at will in a house that I own free and clear in a neighborhood that is (for the most part) quiet and peaceful. If my reach occasionally (okay, frequently) exceeds my grasp, I have both arms, both hands, and ten digits with which to fail gloriously and otherwise. I also have an ungrateful and unappreciative cat who somehow still elicits the best out of me several times a day, every day. There’s food in the refrigerator and the water, heat and air conditioning works on demand. I can still work at my job and if I get tired of it I can go do something else. I have four wonderful children, who are each successful in their own way. And. I get to do this — communicate with you — which is what I am doing right now. I am thankful for you. But to have a granddaughter who loves to read and appreciates a small gift that elicits a response like the one she gave o me…as I keep saying, I don’t have the words.

Happy Thanksgiving. Please keep reading, and for those of you who fight the good writing fight, please continue to do so in order that Samantha and every child who loves to read will have great stories to enjoy for the rest of their lives. May they and you be safe for all of the remainder of their days and yours. Thank you.

10+

Requiescat in Pace

Photo courtesy John Ehrlich on unsplash.com

This past Thursday, November 1, we lost a great and terrific guy named David Williams. Many of the regular contributors and visitors to The Kill Zone know that name.  

David told me on a number of occasions that the very first thing he did every morning was sit down in front of his computer and read the daily post of The Kill Zone. When David would choose to comment he always made the post just a little bit better, no matter how superlative it was to begin with. I told him quite truthfully that it was that knowledge which frequently gave me the inspiration to write something when it seemed like the well was dry. It’s accordingly more than fitting that David is the subject of today’s post. Hopefully, I will be forgiven for stating that today he is undoubtedly reading this from a place of comfort which he has earned and deserved. I accordingly really, really need to make this post a good one.

I got to know David through correspondence generated by The Kill Zone. We then became the modern day equivalent of “pen pals” through email and telephone. I learned over time that David wore a number of hats.  He was a minister, theologian, photographer, author, and student of the human condition. David was a man of deep and abiding faith which, in spite of personal obstacles (and maybe because of them) inspired him to bring comfort to others in their hours of greatest need. He also took it upon himself to record and share the images of God’s creations with photographs that he took, each and all of which had something to recommend them, something that an ordinary observer might have missed. The stories which David wrote may not have made it to prime time, but they were surely worthy of it. The most recent one he shared with me — rejected inexplicably a couple of times — haunts me still. Most importantly, however, David was a husband, father, and friend. David’s wife Betsy was (and is, for all eternity) his rock, particularly during these past few months, weeks, and days.  David’s good cheer and generosity of spirit — traits which he exhibited right up to the end of his life — belied a number of health problems, discomforting at best and excruciatingly painful at worse. They, to paraphrase Hemingway, took him from us gradually and then suddenly. His major concerns in his final days, as always, were not for himself but for his family and his Creator.

I miss you, buddy. I wish I had made it to Kansas City to fang down on a slab or two of ribs with you. Maybe you can arrange to have the grill heated up when I pass over to your side. Failing that, I’ll certainly need your influence with the powers that be, not to mention a miracle or two. In the meanwhile, you are neither gone from our hearts nor forgotten from our memories. It is with the following words, the Prayer of St. Francis, that I will remember you:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy.

 

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen.

Requiescat in Pace, David.

 

12+