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.

The One-Millionth Storytime

I had originally intended today to gripe gently about a couple of topics.  During my research,on those topics, however, I stumbled across something else — check out Sue Coletta’s excellent blog from last week about “research rabbit holes” to read about how that happens — that I found to be very interesting and incredibly hopeful and which makes, I believe, for a better topic. 

Barnes & Noble (B&N) is celebrating today (September 7) and tomorrow (September 8) c something they are calling “Our One-Millionth Storytime.” I don’t know how they arrived at that number or how close it is to accurate. What I do know is that whenever I have been in a B&N store anywhere I have always peripherally noticed an announcement posted in or near the children’s section about a scheduled storytime. This is going back to 2001 or so, and probably before that. Someone who when they were two or three years old and may have been taken there by their parent for storytime may well be taking their own child there now, braving the gauntlet of books and book-related toys, dolls, stuffed animals and the like, to enjoy the shared experience of hearing a story, of being read to. The good folks at B&N have weathered several wounds over the years, some by circumstances beyond their control (drops in readership) and others by friendly fire (the, uh, Nook). They still, however, present those storytimes, week in and week out. 

That is dedication.  An undertaking of that type involves more than just pulling out a book and reading to a gaggle of children and a place and time certain. B&N has to have someone there who is good with children and who is ready to show up and smile even when they don’t feel like it, someone else to deal with the accidents that little ones have at the drop of a Huggies, and someone else to restore the children’s section to its pristine condition afterward. All of this is predicated on the hope of generating goodwill and planting the seed of love of reading in the minds of those assembled. Talk about your Hail Mary forward pass. They still do it, however, and someone has calculated that they’ve done it around one million times, collectively. Well played. 

I am not sure if every single B&N in the country is participating in this commemoration but if you are lucky enough to have a little person in your life, whether one or more generations down, you might want to consider checking to see if your local store is marking this event and if so taking your little loved one so that they can participate. If your financial circumstances permit you might also consider showing a bit of commercial appreciation to the folks at B&N by purchasing something for yourself or, better yet, your child. I like Kindles — my Fire HD8 is velcroed to my hand — but there are some things, darn it, that you can’t do with an eReader, and a group story session with a bunch of other kids who listen to the words while they hear the sound of pages turning is one of them. 

Thank you, B&N. And thank YOU for stopping by today. 


Perchance to Dream

Photo by Donovan Reeves courtesy unsplash.com

(This will be a short post today as I am hosting the most adorable granddaughter who ever walked the face of the earth and her friend for a sleepover. Pizza Hut stock may go up a point or two. I will still be answering comments though I may be somewhat late in doing so. Thank you.)

Regular visitors to TKZ on alternate Saturdays are probably aware that I am somewhat dream-conscious. I’ve written here and there about dreams inspiring my writing. They do more than that, however. Occasionally they scare me. Badly. 

I had an extremely frightening one this morning. The duration in dream time was extremely short. The entire dream consisted of me opening my front door to find the Angel of Death standing there. No “Hey-how-are-ya,” no “Are you making as much money as you wish you were?” or “Would you be interested in selling your home?”… no nothing. It just filled the doorway and I was swallowed up in blackness. Badda-bing-bang-boom! I woke up shouting, and, of course, couldn’t get back to sleep. I may not be answering the door for a few days. Or weeks. Maybe not until after Halloween.

The flip side of this concerns my favorite commercial of all time. It ran on MTV for a while in the late 1980s. Death played a prominent role. Even if you never watched a second of MTV or any music video you might almost certainly appreciate how clever it is/was so I have ever so thoughtfully included it here.

So…what has been the most recent dream that you have been able to recall? Do any of your dreams bother you? Have they ever come true? Have you used one or more for inspiration? Jack Kerouac made an entire book out of his. Please share if you are so inclined, and thank you as always for stopping by. 



Incident at the Library

Photo by Chuttersnap courtesy of unsplash.com

I still go to the library regularly. Books appear like magic on my front porch practically every day but there is something — a few things actually — about a library that you can’t beat. My favorite is a metropolitan branch office located in a shopping center a few miles from my home. It’s the type of library — location-wise, anyway — that I patronized as a wee lad and it will no doubt be the kind that I will be walking into when the engine known as “Joe H.’s circulatory system” decides to call a wildcat strike. Yes, the interiors of libraries and the services they provide, moving far beyond books, have changed from sixty years ago and will continue to change. Joltin’ Joe Moore wrote a blog about those modifications almost seven years ago (which you can find here) and it is still on point. There is something, however, that speaks to me about this library, whose exterior is so similar to the one I visited two or three times a week as a child.

I was in that library this past Sunday and was reminded in an up-close and personal way of the reason that we still need libraries. I usually go there just to pick up books I’ve reserved, and this visit was initially no exception to that rule. I got a few graphic novels, consisting of some collections of Ed Brubaker’s and Sean Phillips’ Criminal anthology series and the first two volumes of Brian Azzarello’s and Eduardo Risso’s 100 Bullets. I  also knew that the branch had a copy of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (which has been on my “must-read” list for three years) so I picked that up as well. It took me a second to find the non-fiction section amidst the CDs, DVDs, reserves, audiobooks, and magazines, but find it I did. Seeing the books with the Dewey Decimal System numbers on the spine was like greeting an old friend. I in due course found Hillbilly Elegy right where it belonged (“305.562 VAN”). I was about to go to the self-serve checkout kiosk when I noticed a book displayed on the shelf where I found Hillbilly Elegy. The book — Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (“302 GLA”)— looked interesting, so I checked that out as well, thanks to a librarian who liked the book enough to put it on display so that would stand out. 

Digital editions of books are becoming more popular, This has caused a bit of a dispute between publishers and libraries which you can read about here).  The market for physical books may be decreasing but it hasn’t collapsed. I like physical books — there is something about the tactile experience with a book that can’t be beat — but I have come to prefer eBooks for two reasons. One is that I can adjust the font and its size. The other is the “search” feature. If a novel has more than a couple of characters I often forget by page 135 who was doing what on page 40. One can obtain either format, regardless of preference, of many titles at or through the library. Take the aforementioned Hillbilly Elegy. There was a waiting list — a long one — for digital copies (author Vance is an occasional resident of the Columbus area) but a physical copy was readily available. And yes, many of you like audiobooks, which are available at and through the library as well. I am amazed at the width, breadth, and depth of audiobooks which are available digitally and physically through and at the library.

One last story. While I was browsing an announcement was made that the library was closing soon and that anyone who needed a ride home should contact the front desk. After I checked the books out at the kiosk I walked to the front counter, and asked the three women sitting behind it, “Who do I see about that ride home?” They all laughed, and one said, “Wellll…Uber, Lyft, Yellow Cab…” Everyone laughed again, and then the quick-witted librarian happened to look at the books which had been checked out by the half-witted patron. “Oh! I’m glad you got that,” she said, pointing to the copy of Outliers I had checked out. “I put that up weeks ago!” So there you go. You don’t get that type of human interaction on Amazon.


That brings us to you. Joe M., at the conclusion of his long-ago post, asked when your last visit to the library was. What I want to ask is when was the last time you recommended the library to someone. I did it two weeks ago. And when was the last time you visited the library and came away with something that you didn’t go looking for? Bedbugs don’t count.  But you do. Thanks for being here today.                




Photo by Daniel von Appen, courtesy unsplash.com

Let me set my current mood for you. It is a beautiful, picture-perfect summer day in Westerville, Ohio. One of my backdoor neighbors is having some work done on his home’s exterior, and the rhythmic sound of busy hands and happy hammers has been heard through our little corner of the world practically non-stop since eight o’clock this morning, which, all things considered, is a reasonable time to start working. The carpenters, however, are also playing music. The song they have been playing over and over without pause is “Photograph” by Ringo Starr. I decided that enough was enough about a half-hour ago. Since my emotional development was arrested at age eighteen and sentenced to life I decided upon a passive-aggressive approach. I am playing “Psychosocial” by Slipknot through a Bose SoundDock amped to eleven and pointed out the window in the direction of the workers. “Psychosocial,” for the uninitiated, sounds like a freight train commandeered by demons and driven straight at the listener. We’ll see how this develops. 

That said, today’s topic comes by way of a lifelong friend of mine. He spends what some might consider to be an excessive amount of time on YouTube but it gives him a unique perspective on what is currently happening in popular culture and, perhaps more importantly, where it is going. My friend suggested that I go to YouTube and search for “short stories.” I did so. A number of videos popped up on the menu. Some were videos which consisted of stills of pages of books in the public domain, synched with a sonorous reading of the appropriate page. There were also videos which displayed each page of a children’s book which someone read the page aloud. Those were interesting, but I hope that parents aren’t using that as a substitute for reading their children a bedtime story. 

I eventually found what my friend was referring to. I located several videos, each of which consisted of a written story, comprised of white text being slowly scrolled against a black background while an acoustic guitar played as accompaniment. The stories are original, (mostly) graphically erotic in nature,  and generally running from between three to twenty minutes. They have names such as “Pastor’s Daughter” and “Short Story #031.” The stories are variously credited to “Jim Bray” and “Stacey” but I suspect that the same person is writing each and all of them. I can’t attest to the quality of the stories as they weren’t really what I like to read. I was surprised, however, at the number of views that each of the stories has obtained. These ranged from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands. I don’t think it was because of the subject matter, either (though a number of comments for each of the videos were very laudatory in nature). 

The reason that I was surprised is that I don’t get it. I asked myself, and will ask you: why would someone go to YouTube to read a story in such a fashion? The format is similar to an eBook.  A reader, however, can control the speed at which one reads with an eBook, while this video book — let’s call it a youBook — scrawls at a slow pace which cannot be increased or decreased. It’s not as if reading material of an erotic nature is unavailable as an eBook, either. YouTube is free, of course, but one can sample almost any eBook on a Kindle at a similar cost and can often purchase the entire work for an amount equal to the change one can find under their car’s floormats. I asked my friend why he read them in the format. He told me that he doesn’t like eBooks but loves YouTube and that this was another way that he could enjoy the website, one that did not feed into his addiction to Taco Stacks videos and stop-motion animation.  

What say you? Forget about the erotic genre, which seems to be the exclusive genre in the format for the moment. Ask yourself if this format appeals to you as a reader of any genre or as an author. You could utilize YouTube in this fashion to get your own work out there — it apparently isn’t too difficult to set up  — in order to see if your work flies with an audience or not, but I’m not sure if it’s worth the trouble. I don’t really see this as something an audience would want, what with other, and to my mind better, formats being so readily available. I’m not always the go-to guy to ask about such matters. I appreciated the concept of eBooks almost immediately, but it took me years to embrace the idea of digital music. So what do you think, as a reader and as a writer? 

And just like that…no more “Photograph.” Enjoy your weekend.





The Graveyard of Stories

Photo by Chris Liu, unsplash.com

I have at least once before mentioned in passing how what we see with respect to a published novel — or for that matter, any work of art — is but the tip of the spear, the polished, honed, and sharpened result of a whole lot of effort. I happened across something recently that everyone who labors in the arts to whatever degree of success needs to read over and over about again about getting to that tip. 

You may know of John Clarkson. He is an extremely talented author whose novels, particularly those in his current James Beck series, stand as an example of what the job of writing looks like when it is perfectly and professionally done. John intermittently blogs and recently told a story about his current work-in-progress. I will summarize it but you really need to read John’s brief dissertation to get the full flavor of what happened. John describes the process of writing what would have been the third novel in the Beck series, and realizing, upon completion, that it didn’t work (and why). He concluded that it could not be fixed so he trashed it and started over. His account is illuminating, tragic, hopeful, and ultimately inspiring. Oh, and it is very brave, too. John, in workmanlike, understated prose gives us the reasons why what would have been his latest novel didn’t come together. Ouch. How many of us would willingly and intentionally exhibit what we perceived to be a screwup on the internet town square in a forthright manner and without reservation? I know of at least one person who would pause before doing so. He’s typing these words right now. 

The truth is that John is not alone in what he went through, though he is certainly walking point when describing the experience. Not every written volume of every successful series makes it to the finish line.  They lay on the blacktop and the finish line rises up to meet them. Sometimes being successful is as much knowing what doesn’t work as what does work, and being brave enough to pull the pin, rather than hoping that no one will notice. There is a term used for these books which don’t make pass the author’s own white glove test. Such manuscripts are called “trunk novels.” I am reasonably sure that every successful author has at least one. I daresay that we will probably not walk with Jack Reacher down every mile of middle America that he traverses, or that we see the account of every mystery that Spenser or Bryant and May encounter and/or solve. What is different here is that John takes us through the process of determining whether the book goes to the agent or the trunk. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s an informative one.

It doesn’t just happen with books.  Music? It happens all the time. I personally know of one band that was huge in the 1980s and labored for seven months on their fifth album. They spent well into six figures while doing so. There was a change of personnel at their record label and the new sheriff decided to pull the plug on the new record on the theory that the label wasn’t going to chase good money after bad. The band was informed of this in the middle of a tour. The same thing happens in the film industry. At least with books you can sometimes and to some extent control that portion of your destiny, as John has.

My best advice? Be like John. Confront the failure, embrace the suck, and try again. Oh, and you might pick up a book or five of his to see what he is striving for and will no doubt achieve once again. You won’t be sorry.

That is all I have for today. How is your summer going? Are things humming along or are you turning a project into compost and trying again? Good luck and best wishes either way. 



False Crime

Photo courtesy Emile Guillemot, unsplash.com

Before I get rolling let me say that I hope that you are all checking out Debbie Burke’s always informative and entertaining “True Crime Thursday”  feature which appears (by amazing coincidence on the last Thursday) of each month on TKZ. I am giving away the punchline here with my own “Fake Crime” post, which will not be a regular feature. I just could not pass this story up, however. It is amusing, cautionary, and interesting. I hope you find it worth your time. 

This past week police officers in my city responded to a “robbery in progress” call at a local car wash. The establishment in question is one of those semi-automated establishments usually found on the out lots of busy shopping centers. The reporting party was a distraught male who said that, while preparing to get his car washed, a pair of despicable cads had robbed him at knifepoint of his wedding ring. 

We have a wonderful police department in my city. Here is but one example: when my older son was a wee lad his bicycle was stolen. A police officer 1) came out to the house to take a report and 2) subsequently recovered (!) the bike.  They take all reports seriously, even ones that, um, might not pass the smell test. The fragrances in the case of this robbery included Eau de whystealaman’sweddingringwhentheycouldhavetakenhis wholecar perfum. However, the officers dutifully conducted a thorough investigation. This included taking a report from the complainant,  putting crime scene tape up around the carwash, and reviewing surveillance camera footage of the area during the time period when the alleged incident took place. 

The surveillance images told the tale. The complainant’s star turn showed him driving up to the car wash area, sitting in his car for several minutes, and then calling someone. The time of the phone call coincided with the time of his 911 call to the police department. The gentleman, when confronted with this evidence, ultimately admitted that he had staged the whole thing because he had lost his wedding ring and didn’t want to admit it to his wife. Wink wink. One might be forgiven for concluding that it is ordinarily difficult for someone, particularly a man, to lose a wedding ring while they are out and about if said ring remains on one’s finger. We will not presume to hazard a guess as to why he might have taken it off. He is already in enough trouble. Trouble, you say? Why, yes. I live in a city which actually prosecutes those who file false police reports. Our friend accordingly had to explain to his wife not only that he lost his ring but also that he filed a false police report to cover up that he had lost the ring. Oh, the humanity! The icing on this manure cake is that he later reported, somewhat sheepishly, that he had found the ring after all. It was not reported where he found it but my guess would be that it was discovered somewhere it should not have been. 

I found the story somewhat but not entirely amusing. It took two officers off of the grid to investigate what was an intentional goat fling. The car wash was shut down for several hours, inconveniencing potential patrons and keeping the owner from making the daily nut needed not only to meet fixed costs and but also to hopefully turn a profit for the day. It may not be a total laugh but it is a cautionary tale. Surveillance cameras are everywhere. Burp (or worse) in public and you’ve got a gaggle of ten-year-olds recording audio-visual of you from seven different points of view and then uploading it to YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms. That’s not good. “Character” used to be defined as behaving well when no one is around to see it.  We’re running out of those places. I went out to mow my lawn yesterday and didn’t mention it to anyone. When I got back in the house there was an ad on my phone asking if I was tired of mowing the lawn and suggesting I call a local lawn service. I was told that my cellphone probably heard my lawn mower going, noted my absence of cellphone/online activity, and figured out what I was doing. I wonder if it would send me an ad for scuba diving equipment if I threw it in a reservoir. In any event, be careful of what you do. Anywhere. 

Photo courtesy Siarhi Horbach, unsplash.com

To leave things on a totally unrelated “up” note…were you aware that there is something called a “motion activated bed light” being marketed. The idea is that if you are sleeping in a dark room and get out of bed a soft but very visible light appears and keeps you from stubbing your toe, stepping the residue of cat accidents, etc. You can find out more about the item here. I will confess to wondering if perhaps it might provide an unexpected light show under certain other circumstances but will leave that to the more fortunate of you out there to determine. 

Have a great weekend and Fourth of July…and thank you for yet again stopping by. 



The Churn of the Screw

Photo by Steve Johnson courtesy of unsplash.com

Last week I received one of those letters from the “Department of the Treasury.” It was not, alas, an invitation to apply for employment with the Secret Service. It was instead a letter from the Internal Revenue Service advising me that I owed additional money with regard to my 2018 federal tax return, and giving me three weeks to pay it.

Some of you may have had the pleasure of dealing with such a notice personally. If you are an author or derive at least some of your income from self-employment, your return almost automatically gets a bit of extra attention which may ultimately generate such a notice to you. Others among you may have friends or relatives who have for one or more reasons been on the receiving end of a letter. This particular letter wasn’t my first rodeo. I have worked for fifty-one years and filed an equal number of federal returns. I have in that time received five letters of this type which isn’t too bad a track record, I guess, but I’ve learned a little about what and what not to do as a result.

I am today accordingly going to provide some very basic advice about how you can deal with such a situation, and possibly save yourself some money in the process. I offer this to those of you who prepare and file your own tax returns, as opposed to having a local or national tax service do that for you. Some of those will represent you before the IRS. If so, contact your preparer immediately upon your receipt of the letter.

To begin: eat the frog first. If you don’t want to read the rest of this post, fine, because you’ve just read my most important piece of advice. Open the letter and read it immediately upon your receipt of it. Do not ignore it, set it aside, or assume that it is a mistake. Doing so will simply cause the generation of more notices to you. Interest will accumulate. Matters will escalate. Open the letter, read it, and see what the IRS wants.

Next. When you receive such a notice it is probably because the IRS wants money. The amount is usually stated up front. Forget that for a moment. You want to know the basis for the determination that you are deficient. That is usually buried deep in the notice but it’s there.

Find it. Then get out your Federal tax return for the appropriate year and review it, particularly with regard to the area which the IRS says is causing the deficiency. If you see that the IRS is correct, waiting or ignoring action will not cause the matter to go away. You will continue to receive letters. Your file will eventually be assigned to an agent and the letters will become more personal. The matter will become more difficult to settle. Instead, pay the amount owed if you are able. If not, there is a telephone number that will be listed on the notice which you can call to work out a payment plan. Interest will still accrue, but if you work out a plan and stick to it the letters will (or at least should) stop.  

What happened in my case is that the IRS said that I made a computational error resulting in a deficit. I got out my return and the IRS was wrong. I had actually made TWO computational errors. Whoever or whatever reviewed my return found one. I found a second error which substantially mitigated the first error. I accordingly set all of the paperwork aside and streamed the fifth season of Black Mirror, knowing that the IRS would eventually locate the second error and send a second letter with a recalculated deficiency.

Not really.

I got to work. The notice listed a number I could call if I disagreed with the agency’s determination. I got my ducks lined up in front of me in writing and called. I was on hold for forty-five minutes before I was told that due to a “network error” my call could not be handled and that I should try to call again later. “Network error,” I discovered, is agency-speak for “lunch.” Don’t call at or near the hours of 11:00A – 1:00P central time. Everyone is at lunch.

I called back at 2:30P EDT and after approximately a quarter-hour I spoke with a very businesslike but civil call center person.  I politely explained my position and stated that I was of course (of course) willing to immediately pay the resulting (lesser) deficiency plus interest. I also asked for the best way to proceed in order to prevent correspondence from crossing. I was told to put my position in writing and (snail!)mail it to the address from which I received the original notice. Done and done.

Next. If you receive a decision in your favor, all to the good. If not, you do have appeal rights. If the dispute has its basis in an issue of tax law that you are going to run into frequently going forward — a business deduction, for example — you may want to obtain representation. If it is a smaller amount arising over a one-time mistake (or two) or a misunderstanding, you may wish to attempt to resolve it yourself. If so, keep in mind that if you run into an IRS representative who won’t budge off of the one-note, thank them for their time and politely ask to speak to their supervisor. Primary level agents are firmly ensconced within the sinecure of the agency’s position. Supervisory level agents are more conciliatory toward the taxpayer. They are not giving anything away, by any means, but are more often more receptive to a taxpayer with regard to a contested issue. Just remember your polite words.

Oh. One more thing. You call the IRS. It does not call you. If you get a call from somebody purporting to be from the IRS (or, as I have in the past, the FBI, or the U.S. Attorney’s office) telling you to go to Wal Mart and buy Visa gift cards or whatever to pay off your account, don’t. It’s a scam.

Hopefully, you will never need any of this information and have never needed it. That said, does anyone have any tax stories they want to share? If so, please do. Whether you do or not, Happy Father’s Day to all of you dads!





Artwork Courtesy bridgemanart.com

“It” happened again.  

“It” is the story I presented in this spot several weeks ago. To wit: I awoke quite early after dreaming the beginning, middle and ending of a novel, got up, typed everything I could remember, and started an outline. That work in progress is now titled The Lake Effect and other than for those occasions where I get in my own way it has actually been fun. I am not finished but I am seeing the highway distance signs assuring me that I am headed in the right direction at speed.

However, “it” has happened again. I woke up Friday morning with a dream vividly lodged in my head, a dream that laid out another novel, beginning, middle, and end. I for a number of reasons (none of them really acceptable) could not get up but I had a pen and a notepad at the ready and scribbled a bunch of notes to my daytime self, all of which actually made sense when I woke up for a second time Friday morning with paper all over the place. The novel? It is, as with The Lake Effect, way outside of my writing comfort zone. The Lake Effect is a love story with a bit of science fiction attached. The latest dream —so far unnamed — is a dystopian thriller. I hate dystopian novels, as a rule. I have been able to read, enjoy, and finish two in my lifetime: Dahlgren by Samuel  R. Delaney and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. My humble effort could be pitched as “Long John Silver and John Wick team up at the end of time and make one final effort to hit the restart button.”

I haven’t decided whether to set this newly inspired work aside until I finish The Lake Effect or work on both. What I really wonder, however — and this is a rhetorical question — is…why now,  as I do the slim, slow slide into age sixty-eight (September 11, if you’re wondering when to send the Amazon gift cards)? Am I the recipient of some sort of precursor to the “check engine” light flashing on, or is a blood clot going to jackknife in the middle of my cranial freeway at rush hour in a couple of months, and is this last-ditch creative spurt is a traffic alert?

I ask because something else is happening as well. I’ve had a major change in appetite (food, that is) over the past five weeks. I suddenly have no desire for what had been my four major food groups: pasta, donuts, french fries, and kettle chips. I no longer find appealing what I had to resist. A friend brought over a large bag of my favorite potato chips — Zapps Mardi Gras Kettle Chips — the other day as a gift. Up until a few weeks ago I would have opened them to share with her as a pretext to doing a deep dive in the bag. They’re still sealed. Glory be, ‘tis a miracle, Father Mahoney. Meat is going the same way. I’m down to eating meat as part of one meal per day, at most. It hasn’t been a conscious or deliberate choice. It’s just what I feel. I’ve eaten more oatmeal and soup in the last month or so than I have in my entire life. My cupboard and refrigerator look as if they have been taken over by Jack LaLanne (well, that is a gross exaggeration, but it’s changed quite a bit). This all occurred after I dreamt The Lake Effect.

I don’t know if this is even worthy of a question, but since we have a bunch of artistic minds out there, and many of them are seasoned, let me ask: have any of you experienced a sea change like this? Was it a precursor to something good, bad, or indifferent? What ultimately happened? Thank you, and enjoy your weekend.


Message in a Book

A few weeks ago I took my granddaughter to a used bookstore. I, of course, did some browsing myself. I came upon a volume that was on my always-increasing want list and bought it. One thing led to another, as they often do, and the book — The Best American Mystery Stories 2015, edited by James Patterson — sat patiently on my headboard until a few days ago.

I was looking for something short to read before bedtime and which did not involve a screen. The aforementioned volume seemed to be the perfect source for something of that nature. I picked it up, opened it, and started turning pages. I reached the Foreward and found two small white cards inserted into the book’s gutter. One was a business card for a hospital liaison employed with a local senior living community. The other was the gift card which I photographed and have reproduced above.

I have since been intermittently preoccupied with this discovery. It does not look as if the book was ever read past the Foreward, if, indeed, at all. I would like to think that the recipient, after whatever life event occasioned their stay at the facility, quickly recovered and was too busy enjoying liquid (as the card suggested) and horizontal (as the card did not!) refreshments to read the book. This, I fear, is wishful thinking. It is probably far more likely that they have gone ahead, leaving the book behind to be packed up with others and taken to the used bookstore where it eventually passed to me.

That would be nosy me. I went so far as to call the person whose name and telephone number were on the business card, assuming, due to the close proximity of the cards in the book, that they were the giver. My intent was to explain that the book passed into my hands and to ask, generally, if the recipient ever got to drink that Manhattan, thinking that answering that question, as phrased, would not violate any HIPAA rules. Alas. The giver no longer worked at the facility. Another unsolved mystery.

I wonder what happened to the last owner of the book in question.  It bothers me, probably because of my age, and also probably because I’m in contact with a number of my high school classmates as we approach our fifty-year reunion in July. Many are joking that they are not going to send in their reservations before June 30. They are joking, but not really laughing. I totally get it. We inhabit fragile and temporary shells that slip and slide toward an unmarked and unknown use-by date.

Enough of sad-sack me for today. Have you ever found a cryptic message or note in a book? If so, please share. Thank you for stopping by, and enjoy your weekend.





One of my biggest problems when writing is that I tend to get in my own way. This has occurred with some frequency during my latest project, currently titled The Lake Effect, which I discussed here a few weeks ago. You may or may not recall that I dreamt the beginning, middle, and ending of what is a love story. All that I have had to do is write the thing. This I am doing,  and am having fun doing it. Occasionally, however, I can’t leave well enough alone. I know that I should simply tell the story. I’m doing that, but occasionally I seem to consider myself to be duty bound to insert into the narrative examples of how clever and knowledgeable I consider myself to be.  As one might expect, I am usually wrong. The result is that my narrative bogs down. I’m not getting tripped up in detail. Sometimes one should stop and smell the roses, so long as the scent is pertinent in some way to the story. My mistake has been that I will be moving from Point A to Point B but will insist on stopping and describing Points A1, A2, and A3 along the way as well. I don’t consider my reader, who (hopefully) will want to get to Point B with all due and deliberate speed. I do this and  wonder why it isn’t working, then realize that I am boring myself. If I am putting myself to sleep, then what am I doing to my poor reader, who will probably leave the building, never to return?

I have found that as a sort of enjoyable and tutorial penance for such a writing error I am best served by watching a few episodes of Highway Patrol.  It was one of my favorite television series in the 1950s and remains so today. Each episode was about twenty-five minutes long. They would shoot the episodes in two to three days, twice per week, and broadcast close to forty episodes a season. This was done on a very limited budget. There were no fiery car crashes or extended shootouts through shopping malls.  There were other constraints. Broderick Crawford was the lead actor. He played Dan Mathews, the taciturn, grizzled head of the unnamed Highway Patrol unit featured in the series. Crawford’s parts in each episode had to be shot in the morning because he was usually well-toasted by lunch. It somehow worked. Crawford delivered his dialog staccato-style (“Youshouldbesorryforwakin’meathishourwhaizzit?”) (“CorneraBrownanChocorantwoaclock”) (“21-50taheadquarters10-4”) when ordering his officers about. The cadence of Crawford’s diction, or lack thereof, was perfect for an episodic series where time was of the essence.  There was also a formula applied to the shows which becomes obvious after a few different viewings. It was simple. A crime would be committed, Matthews and his team would chase their tales, and some evidence would be discovered, all within the first half of the episode. The last half of the episode (all twelve minutes or so) would show Mathews and his associates bringing the evildoers to justice. Voice-over narration by a gentleman named Art Gilmore gave each episode a quasi-documentary feel (“Burglary is the alley cat of crime, wandering the night in search of prey”). At the conclusion of each episode, Mathews, as he was getting into his car, would stop, look at the camera, and break the fourth wall by directly addressing the television audience with a pithy safe driving platitude, such as “It isn’t the car that kills…it’s the driver!” Just so.  

Each episode of Highway Patrol was suspenseful and exciting even with such a cut and dry formula. Nothing ever really felt left out. Each minute — each second — was important. Highway Patrol was the first television series to utilize fast cutting — a few different action shots of just a couple of seconds’ duration (usually consisting of a police car racing to a crime, or chasing a suspect) — to move the action along.  They also didn’t spend a lot of time getting the viewer from Point A to B. Mathews would get a lead, jump up from his chair and say, “Let’s go!” The next scene might show him driving quickly down a street for about two seconds (stock footage was often used, as Crawford at one point during the series run had his real-world driver’s license suspended for driving under the influence) followed by Mathews getting out of the car at his destination and shooting it out with the criminals. Bing bang boom.

If while writing you find yourself stuck in a thicket of your own design and wondering what to weed and what to water watch a few episodes of Highway Patrol. It is possible that you will absorb its lessons about narrative and storytelling by osmosis. All four glorious seasons (Crawford said the series stopped because they ran out of crimes) can be found on DVD,  YouTube and a couple of cable channels. It works for me. If you already have a method of bringing your writing errors and ommissions on track, please share. And thank you. 1075 to 21-50. 10-4.