31 December 2021

Writer, Feed Thyself

 Photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash
I was all of 23 years old, and working at what would be the first of many Crappy Editorial Jobs. I had recently reconnected with a college buddy of mine, who would call from time to time during office hours so we could chat and stave off our mutual boredom. I was working at a teenybopper magazine in Teaneck, New Jersey; my friend was designing corporate stationery for an accounting firm in Washington, DC. Back in college, the two of us had majored in journalism. But who were we kidding? In our hearts, we knew we were fiction writers. At least, we hoped so.

Nearly every time he called, my buddy would ask: “What are you working on?”

I’d start to describe for him whatever the current project was that I was doing for my employer. He’d cut me off immediately. “I don’t care about that,” he said. “What’s going on with your writing? What’s up with the fiction?”

And I’d lapse into a long diatribe about how exhausted I was writing magazine articles. By the time I got home each night, I had no desire to touch my own work. Someday, I assured Stuart, I would make time for the work that mattered to me. Just not now.

A few calls later, my friend lowered the boom. “I hate to break this to you, but someday you’re going to die. Life is short. If you want to write, you have to make time for it now.”

Of course I was pissed at him for bringing this up. Offended, even. Who the hell was he to remind me of my mortality? He was literally two months older than me.

At age 23, you don’t just think you’re immortal. You are immortal.

But even at that age, Stu was somewhat wiser than I was. (He still is.) The truth of what he was saying sunk in, and I finally committed to my own work. I started a novel that year that would became the first I wrote as an adult.

This was a good decade before email was available in the workplace. So when Stu or I came across a cool article, we shared it the old-fashioned way: snail-mailed a photocopy to the other person’s home.

Some years later, I opened an envelope from Stu to find a piece he’d come across on a trip to the west coast. The article, “The Talent of the Room,” which first appeared in LA Weekly, was written by a writer named Michael Ventura. The piece was so powerful that I’ve re-read it nearly every year since, and have shared it with many writers. Ventura makes it available for free at his website; I hope you will take the time to read it. It’s the best gift I can give any writer as we hurtle toward the end of another year.

The gist of Ventura’s lesson is this:

If you’re going to be writer, you have to have to be comfortable hanging out by yourself, alone in a room, for hours, days, or years at a time. The irony is that what the outside world feeds you, you bring back into that room. When you’ve used up that nutrition, you’re obliged to seek out more of it in the outside world. Whether you accept it or not, this is the struggle all writers face. To put words on a page, you must enrich yourself or you dry up.

We’re going on two miserable years, folks, when it has been hard to sate ourselves on the company of friends, family, and loved ones. I know that I have felt the loss of that restorative influence; I’m sure some of you have too. When I do get out in public these days, I’m astonished how giddy I am, and how seemingly innocuous conversations linger in my memory for hours or even days later.

“I was really very hungry,” M.F.K Fisher says in one of her classic essays, and though she is renowned as a food writer, you get the sense that it wasn’t just food she craved.

If you are a writer, you are always hungry. Your psyche must be fed. It’s drinking in snatches of dialogue, sopping up real-life anecdotes that can be repurposed as plot points, and absorbing emotions that emanate from other peoples’ voices. We do this instinctively, often without noticing what we are doing. It is our superpower. The horticulturist perceives leaves and sunlight. The fashion designer notices fabric, weave, and drape. The mechanic hears the rasp of an ailing engine. The writer sees, hears, and breathes story. But if we don’t get what we need to fashion story from the real world, we wither.

I’m not one for resolutions. Staring down the last dregs of a calendar should not be the thing that forces me to make a promise to myself. If something is worth resolving, chances are I’ve sensed it long before midnight tonight. I’m not in my twenties any more, and I’m long past fooling myself.

I am hungry, but I’ve always been. Time is short, but it always has been. Those two things should be enough to carry me into 2022.

I wish you all a beautiful, lustrous year, filled with sustenance and stories.

* * *

See you in three weeks!


30 December 2021

The Problem of Time

It's December 30.  2021 is almost over. If you expect an elegy - well, I'm not sure how this is going to turn out. It might get bumpy.  For one thing, 2021 whipped by like a cobra in the jaws of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, which raises the question, shouldn't everyone have a pet mongoose, even if imaginary?  But let's move on.

The good stuff is that I've been writing and working at the penitentiary and writing some more - and all have been going very well.  Murderous Ink Press and I have grown very close, also the Bould Awards, and Michael Bracken has accepted 3 of my stories for 3 different gigs.  I sold my 31st piece to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine!  Life is sweet.  And other stories are out searching diligently for a home...
The bad stuff is that Covid is still with us and in South Dakota it apparently isn't going anywhere.  We've all lost somebody we loved, and more whom we liked, and many, many more we simply knew,  talked to, waved at, and all will be missed...  

Time slips and turns and knots you, 
time slips and goes and leaves you 
living in a haunted world, 
full of ghosts that linger inside your lids 
when you close your eyes.
— Eve Fisher, last stanza of "The Terror of Time"

Time is a tricky subject. Back in 1999 a man named Julian Barbour wrote The End of Time "advancing timeless physics: the controversial view that time, as we perceive it, does not exist as anything other than an illusion, and that a number of problems in physical theory arise from assuming that it does exist. He argues that we have no evidence of the past other than our memory of it, and no evidence of the future other than our belief in it."  (Wikipedia)  

Well, I read it, and felt the way I feel about a lot of philosophical approaches to whether or not or how or why anything is real, from time to free will. It can all sound pretty logical and/or convincing, but then there's the simple fact that, for example, I'll bet that Mr. Barbour still asks when dinner's ready, or "Do I have time for a quick shave?" Just as people who say there is no free will or that it's all Fate will still ask you to pass the salt.

So no, I don't buy into "time is an illusion" any more than that this whole thing may be an Alice in Wonderland dream (which I find much more plausible), simply because there's a whole lot of things that simply can't be done, but have been done, are being done, and will be done, here and hereafter, that have a beginning, middle, and an end:

Pregnancy and childbirth.
Natural disasters.
Taking a walk.
Learning a language.
Learning anything.
Teaching anything.

Yes, there may be spooky action at a distance between particles, twins, lovers, etc. but something's moving, something's changing, something's interacting.  Maybe it is all in our minds - but what's wrong with that? The rules still hold. It's only in dreams that they don't. 

"It's astounding
Time is fleeting
Madness takes its toll
But listen closely
(Not for very much longer)
I've got to keep control" 
— Richard O'Brien, "Time Warp", Rocky Horror Picture Show

And time always fleets forward. No wonder time travel has always been popular in fiction, from H. G. Wells on. Most of writers adhere to the general theory that if you can go back in time, you either wouldn't be able to alter the past or if you do, you'll completely disrupt the present you came from (see Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder).  Some writers have used time like a thread to knot in on itself like Robert Heinlein's By His Bootstraps, which seems weird until you read his All You Zombies, which gives the knots an extra twist.  And I simply do not have the time to analyze all the timeless time shenanigans of Kurt Vonnegut, except to say that I can hardly wait to see Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time.

COMPLETE SIDETRACK:  There's also some pretty bad time-travel writing, and my secret cringeworthy favorite is Michael Crichton's Timeline.  Let's face facts, it's basically, a male Disneyworld Joust fantasy, where all the male time travelers are in awe of how brimful of zest and zowie and kabang the Middle Ages are. At last, life lived to the full! It helps, of course, that they didn't arrive in a plague year, they didn't have to experience medieval dentistry or medieval childbirth, and they keep escaping everyone who wants to kill them by (mostly) running like hell. And they can all eat, drink, & use up precious resources - not to mention kill people who were real in the past - without changing the quantum future they came from. Which is impossible, because it's like a maximum of 20 generations and you'll find a common ancestor with every other individual alive on the planet - so sooner or later one of them had to have wiped out their great^20 grandmother and they'd go poof! But no one goes poof. Whenever I want a really good laughing rant against bad time writing, I read Timeline.

Yes, I know, some of the same arguments could be made about Claire Randall in the Outlander series, but they don't bother me because they're romantic fantasies and Gabaldon never pretends any of it's serious science. Crichton always did.  

But back to the problem of time:  Personally, I think we're never comfortable with time because is it's alien to us. Time is always too fast or too slow.  The nostalgia of the endless dreamy Saturday afternoons of childhood is counterpoised with the endless horrific waiting for medical test results. The measure of time is a steady beat, but our impressions of it are infinitely elastic. The time from Christmas to Christmas for children and for adults are entirely different. And then there's boredom:

"The English are not a very spiritual people, so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity." — George Bernard Shaw

“Millions long for immortality who don't know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” ― Susan Ertz

We never get used to time. We are not fish in water, or birds in air, or even humans in air. All our lives, we struggle with time, fight it, lose it, find it, watch it, use it, beat it, waste it, fear it, hate it, try to conquer it, and eventually lose it. Time, that continuum in which we live and move and have our being, is not our natural habitat. Alien to our dying day. It's a container, a prison, a fiendishly complex videogame, etc., that I believe is specific to this space/time continuum we live in for right now

What comes next - well, to each their own spin. Maybe we're all right.


"May we always be grateful for the past, find joy in the present, and remain excited for the future." 
— Anonymous

Goodbye, December!

29 December 2021

My Adventures with the Fiction Elves

Something weird happened to me.

Back in 2018 I thought up an idea for a short story.  That wasn't weird.  It happens, though not as often as I would like.

So I wrote the story. But I was editing it a year later (I take a long time to edit a story, usually going through at least ten drafts) and I saw a fatal flaw.  I was basing it on technology that was out of date.  Setting the story in the past would not work as a solution.  I could not think of a way around the problem so, with a sigh, I left the story on the virtual pile of never-to-be-published tales.  Too bad, because I really liked parts of it.


Jump ahead to 2021, and I am visiting Greece.  Somewhere around Dimitsana I found myself thinking about my poor dead story.  And suddenly I saw a solution to the problem.  It meant ripping out half the story and writing some more, but I could keep the best parts.

So back in the good ol' USA I pulled up the last version of the story and started reading it.  And I got a shock, because that's when I found something weird.

On page two there were a couple of paragraphs I didn't remember.  I had no idea why they were there or what they had to do with the rest of the story.  I kept reading and on the next-to-last page I found another addition, completely unfamiliar to me.  It tied into the first and together they solved my technology problem!  In fact, it was a better solution than the one I had thought of in Greece.

I felt like the shoemaker in the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale, who entered his shop one morning and found that overnight elves had finished the shoes he had left half-made.  

Not a big believer in the fae I assume that I must have solved that problem in a bolt of inspiration and then forgotten about it.  The additions appeared only in the last (twelfth) draft of the story.  (Lucky for me that I didn't pull up version 11 by mistake.)

So now I have to start editing and polishing my newly recovered tale.  Only the future will reveal whether the elves provided me with a pair of Manolo Blahnik Gold Grosgrain Crystal Buckle Mules or a couple of cheap knock-off tennis shoes.  Either way, I would be happy if they show up again.

28 December 2021

The Importance of Persnickety Little Details

I read a published short story recently in which one character poisoned another. The poison affected the victim immediately, and within a couple of minutes he was dead. I sighed because that particular poison doesn't kill so quickly. It takes hours. Sometimes days. Not two minutes.
Pulled out of the story, which had been good until then, I went to check my poison books, then did more research online to be sure I was right. I was. And so that story, which I had considered for republication in Black Cat Weekly, went into my No pile.
I read another published story recently in which an amateur sleuth was able to catch the bad guy by gathering certain information from public records. That sounded great. How clever of her. Except the information at hand would not have been available in a public record at that time, nonetheless the specific public record mentioned in the story, because this was a historical story and this information would not have been gathered at that time. Moreover, even if the information had been in the public record, there was no way the sleuth could have gotten the information in the short amount of time she did because the story was set before computers were ubiquitous. I rolled my eyes, frustrated.
A good story can be ruined by sloppy research or doing none at all. I've heard authors say that they're writing fiction, and they're not going to let persnickety little details get in the way of a good story. Well, let me tell you, getting those persnickety details wrong can be the thing that makes readers throw a book across the room and vow not to read that author again. Or make an editor pull a story from the Likely Yes pile and drop it into the Hell No pile. The editors of the two stories mentioned above apparently didn't notice their problems--let's hope they didn't notice rather than that they noticed and didn't care--but writers shouldn't count on things like that.

If you want to be a good writer, you have to write a good story AND get the persnickety little details right. I'm not saying you have to be perfect. Mistakes happen. I've made them. You think you know something, but you have the details wrong. Or there are things you're unaware of that can cause problems in your story. Maybe a law in the state you set your story in would make something that happens in your story unrealistic. Or you simply wrote an error into the story as you were typing so ardently, without even thinking to check if you got a certain detail right. This is why it's always good to have at least one reader you trust before you send the story out for submission. Some acquiring editors will take the time to work with you to fix such problems. Others will have 200 submissions for 20 spots and be happy to have a reason to say no to your story.
I know how hard it can be to have a great story idea and then learn that your story will not work the way you intended. But the solution--after doing your research and concluding you have a problem--isn't to shrug and act as if the problem isn't a problem. The solution is to look for a work-around. Be creative. Change something so the story will work. I edited a story recently that had a great voice, but it included the use of a poison that didn't work the way the author wanted it to. (This is a different story than the one mentioned above.) I couldn't think of a poison that did work the way this author needed. But the bad guy worked in a lab, so it was believable he could create an unnamed poison that did the job the author needed. It might not be a perfect solution, but it hopefully will be enough for any persnickety readers out there. 
In the end, there's a difference between making an occasional mistake and having an attitude that it isn't important to try to get things right. Someone who makes the occasional mistake is human. Someone who routinely makes mistakes because he or she can't be bothered to get the details right is taking the easy way out, and people notice. Don't let that person be you. 

Turning to a little blatant self-promotion, I've put up on my website two of my favorite stories that I had published this year. The first story is "A Tale of Two Sisters," published in the anthology Murder on the Beach. If you like my funny stories, I hope you'll check it out. It's long for a short story, about thirty pages, so set aside a little reading time. The other story is "A Family Matter," published in the January/February 2021 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. You can read "A Tale of Two Sisters" by clicking here and "A Family Matter" by clicking here. Happy reading and happy new year!

27 December 2021


"He was not for an age," Ben Jonson wrote of his colleague, rival, and friend, Shakespeare, "but for all time."  Statements in eulogies, especially poetic ones, run to hyperbole, but in this case, Jonson was right on. The Bard of Avon has joined Homer and the great Greek playwrights as one of the few Western writers to achieve something like literary permanence.

It helped that his work entered the academic canon, just as the Greeks were helped by the primacy of their language for the educated man. But like Aeschylus and Company, Shakespeare was helped by his own mastery of words, his magpie eye for good plots, and his genius for creating great characters that still ring true.

I began thinking about the rarity of such literary longevity after reading two mysteries back to back, Attica Locke's Heaven, My Home, follow up to her Edgar-winning Bluebird, Bluebird, and Ngaio Marsh's 1967 Death at the Dolphin, which involves a glove purportedly belonging to Hamnet Shakespeare. They provide interesting contrasts.

Just over 20 years post war, Death at the Dolphin has all the characteristics of the golden age of UK detective fiction, including a leisurely beginning (it doesn't live up to its title much before p.100); a fine cast of eccentrics, theater people set to inaugurate a revived theater with a new play; literate dialogue and a detective superintendent of fine breeding and a top notch education.

Heaven, My Home begins as all good modern mysteries begin, with chills and danger, and adds a bevy of possibly dangerous and mostly bigoted characters in a literal East Texas backwater. Darren Matthews, Locke's Black Texas Ranger, shares a good, if quite different, education with Superintendent Alleyn, but where Alleyn is all upper-class self control and detachment, the younger law enforcement officer is all too prone to let either anger or sympathy complicate his professional duties – and personal life.

How times change. Post war, post Blitz, post austerity, there seems to have been a huge taste for order, neatness of plot, and a certain decorum even in violent death. Death at the Dolphin seems a strictly period piece, despite the clever plotting and the charming Dolphin theater. Did anyone ever speak in such carefully literate paragraphs? Was there ever so much emphasis on correct diction, and was much

of the purpose of the action really to show that the upper classes were still all right? 

Reading it, I couldn't hope wondering if fifty years on, what we today read for pleasure will not raise an eyebrow. I can imagine questions along the lines of,  Did people really use so much profanity? Was most fiction politicized? And what on earth was the significance of that MAGA hat the sheriff kept on his desk? 

Unlike Ben Jonson, I have no idea if any of the fictional heroes of the moment are destined to live even "for an age", never mind "for all time." But detective fiction, being a relatively new genre, hasn't done too badly in the longevity department. At least three characters have lasted a century or close to it: Sherlock Holmes, successful across the media landscape, has been taken up by later novelists who have married him off, sent him to Freud, tampered with his cocaine habit, and even brought him back to modern London. To the sleuth of Baker Street, we can add two from the redoubtable Agatha Christie: Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. 

Copyright issues have perhaps kept other writers from enlarging their adventures, but they have both had extensive careers in films and TV. Significantly, both have been successful with a wide variety of performers. Margaret Rutherford played Miss Marple for laughs, and Jane Hickson's Marple was a reserved intellectual, while actors as different as Peter Ustinov and David Suchet have essayed Poirot. Characters for all times? Maybe not, but at the moment they are aging very nicely and for one of the reasons that Shakespeare's creations are still on the boards: great, instantly recognizable, and eccentric characters. 

Add good plots, good luck, good publicity, and a fictional detective can go quite a long way just like that fun couple, the Macbeths, Viola, Falstaff, or the whole sick crew at Elsinor. A certain amount of excess seems to be required, more than plausibility or any but psychological realism.

For that reason, if I had to tip some popular characters who may entertain quite far into the future, I would, reluctantly, mention not any print crime fighter, but those two escapees from the comic books: Superman and Batman, with perhaps Wonder Woman making a third. All three have shown the size, the flexibility and and adaptability required.

My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.

My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.

26 December 2021

The Advantage of Networking

I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but this topic is important enough that I believe it bears mentioning again. You just never know when networking will bring you an unexpected gift or boost at just the right time.

In a previous blog, I told about Brian Thornton (a fellow SleuthSayer) and me taking an MWA Board Member to the Russian Vodka Room in Manhattan for Baltika #3 beers and finding out later that particular member was an editor. This little outing subsequently led to me getting talked into a non-fiction book contract written under an alias. And yes, that was good beer.

Okay, so several years later, I'm on a short story panel at a Bouchercon in Dallas where Barb Goffman is the panel moderator. While waiting for the panel to begin, we start chatting and she happens to mention that she likes my short story "Black Friday" (the 10th story in  my Holiday Burglar series) which was published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine Nov/Dec 2017 issue.

Then, a couple of months ago, Barb looks me up in an e-mail asking if she can reprint "Black Frida" in Black Cat Weekly of which she does the Barb Goffman Presents section and is an Associate Editor of the magazine. (And no, no beer was involved.) But yes, not only does this e-mail come at a good time, Barn also wishes to pay me in good, solid U.S. American Dollars. So, you see this networking thing does pay off in the end.

NOTE: Black Cat Weekly #13 is an e-format, 479 page publication of good reading put out by Wildside Press LLC. Maybe you should buy a copy of this publication and see if it is a good market for you and your work. At least you'll enjoy the reading, if nothing else.

And While you're at it, you too should try some of this networking stuff at critique groups, writers' conferences, chapter meetings, readings, library gatherings, getting involved in writing organizations and/or whatever works for you. Get you and your stories and your name out there by being there.

And, don't be shy. Let us know how it all comes out.

24 December 2021

Movies at a Theater

Eve Fisher's SleuthSayers posting on December 16th – My Brain on Old Movies – triggered my mind to remember the first movies I saw at a theater. As a kid, my first love was movies over books and stories and I remember so many.

The first movie I remember seeing in a theater was 1959's Journey to the Center of the Earth with James Mason, Arlene Dahl and Pat Boone. Saw it at the Saenger Theater on Canal Street, New Orleans. My Aunt Lucy and her boyfriend, later to be my Uncle Milton, took me on the streetcar where they deposited me at the Saenger while they went across the street to the Orpheum to watch Ben Hur, which they thought an eight year old like me would find boring. Journey was shorter than Ben Hur so I watched the movie twice. Loved it. Still do.

The next movie I remember seeing at a theater was 1960's The Lost World with Claude Rains, David Hedison, Jill St. John, Michael Rennie and Fernando Lamas. Followed by the re-release of 1953's The War of the Worlds with Gene Barry and Ann Robinson.

Somewhere along in there, I saw some Disney movies at the theater – Sleeping Beauty, Dumbo, Song of the South (Lord help me).

I also mentioned in a previous post how as an army brat, I lived in Italy (my father was stationed in Verona) and saw most of the movies released between 1961 and 1963 at the post theater.

Later, in high school my taste changed and I went to theaters to see Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-UpDr. Zhivago, The Graduate. As a young adult, I moved on to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Romeo and Juliet (1968 Franco Zeffirelli version with Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting).

When I became a writer, those early movies inspired me to write science-fiction stories and I wrote terrible SF stories until I learned how to write. Have to point to Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Lost World as inspirations for many of my SF adventure stories set on a fictional planet inhabited by dinosaur-like creatures. Some of those stories ended up in Asimov's, Tomorrow Science Fiction Magazine, Gorezone, Infinity Plus,  Oceans of the Mind, the premier issue of Plasma Frequency, Cricket children's magazine, and anthologies like Adventure and Star Noir. Many of stories are available in my collection Backwash of the Milky Way.

Other movies spurred me to write mysteries, western stories, historical fiction, children's fiction, mainstream fiction, suspense, fantasy, horror, romance, erotica, humor, and even a religious story. Always proud of my story which appeared in Messenger of the Sacred Heart as well as my stories which appeared in Cavalier, Juggs, Hustler's Busty Beauties, Playgirl and about a dozen Mammoth Books of New Erotica.

A Walk on the Wild Side with Capucine, Laurence Harvey and a 25-year old Jane Fonda and the scandalous Brititte Bardot movie And God Created Woman as well as other Bardot movies inspired my erotica.

from And God Created Woman (1956)
directed by Roger Vadim
starring Brigitte Bardot

Don't know about y'all but today's movies are so bad, it's hard to be inspired by any of them, except for the occasional movie without explosions, karate, guns, excessive violence, gore, insipid dialogue, cliched characters, excessive CGI and more explosions.

That's all for now.


23 December 2021

It's Better to Travel (Or IS It?)

With apologies to Swing Out Sister...
 It is better to travel well than to arrive.

       – Siddhartha Guatama (The Buddha)

This story has a happy ending. Going to say this up front, because it will be important to remember while you read the following.

Funny story: this past Summer no less than TEN people I know took vacations in Hawaii. My wife, son and I had taken a vacation there three years ago, pre-COVID, during one of the hottest Julys on record.

So rather than join the Summer Vacation exodus, we decided to delay gratification, and book something for Winter Break. We got a smokin' deal on a hotel on Wailea Bay, booked it, and began dreaming of a week-long respite from a dreary Puget Sound December.

And then August rolled around, and my day-gig started up again. Full return to school, no remote learning options in my district.

A colleague who sat next to me during the first day of staff meetings upon our return tested positive later that SAME DAY for COVID. She wound up having to isolate and quarantine for the next two weeks. She had just returned from a week at her time-share.

In Maui.

We tried not to consider this a bad omen.

Somewhere around this time the State of Hawaii clamped back down hard on COVID travel restrictions. We heard from a variety of sources (including the owner of my wife's favorite coffee stand) that the paperwork involved in just getting to Hawaii had become many-layered, complex, and confusing.

On top of that, we had TSA-Pre memberships that were about to expire, and we needed to either renew them or upgrade to an even more exclusive pre-screening service, CLEAR. We opted for the latter. 

Around this time COVID boosters became available for people in our age group, so my wife and I signed up for the booster. While we were waiting for our appointments for that, the under-12 vaccine became available for children, and we signed our son up for that, as well.

With all of the above combined with the level of documentation in quintuplicate required by the State of Hawaii, it turned out to be something of a logistical nightmare.

It started with CLEAR.

We provided all of the documentation required for our application, paid all of our fees, with a single final step remaining: a trip to the airport, where we would have our retinas and fingerprints scanned at one of the CLEAR kiosks. Required time, approximately ten minutes apiece.

If. Only.

We went to the airport. We found a CLEAR kiosk. We attempted to finalize the process ourselves. No dice.

Just as we began to look around for help, a young lady wearing a CLEAR badge hustled up to us, appearing seemingly out of nowhere, and breathlessly asked whether we needed help. Relieved, we said we did, and laid out for her what we needed to accomplish.

"Oh!" she exclaimed, "I can help with that! Please wait right here! I will be right back!" And with that she high-tailed it through a rail gate with the CLEAR logo prominently displayed on it.

We did as we were told and waited. Right there. On that spot.

And waited.

And waited.


After at least twenty minutes of this type of waiting, we came to the conclusion that this enthusiastic young CLEAR employee and had somehow gotten side-tracked. Maybe she was new? Maybe she got lost?

So we chanced passing through the rail gate with the CLEAR logo so prominently displayed, and after a fairly lengthy trek down easily a quarter of the terminal, we came upon another CLEAR employee, this one with an impressive man-bun which threatened to eclipse the CLEAR ID tag he wore.

"Oh, I'm sorry," he said in a tone that bore not the slightest whiff of apology, "we can't process your applications here. You have to go," he pointed vaguely back in the direction whence we had come, "down to the next kiosk and Gate Whatever..." and  then without another word he went back to being completely unhelpful.

After retracing our steps and traversing half of the terminal, we came to the aforementioned kiosk and found a very helpful employee, who quickly set about helping us get our CLEAR memberships finalized.


Total time spent running around the airport on this "ten minutes, tops" errand? An hour-and-a-half.

With the above accomplished, we got our boosters, got our son vaccinated as soon as was remotely possible, and settled in to upload all of our vaccination documentation to CLEAR. That proved a breeze. All that was left was to go through the  State of Hawaii's online travel tracking service ("Hawaii Safe Travels") and provide exactly the same documentation we had provided to CLEAR. Over and over and over again. And that doesn't include the number of times the site crashed and we were required to start over from scratch.

It took about six hours of submitting, swearing, sweating and more submitting followed by ever more swearing, to get all of our documentation uploaded.


Fast-forward to the day of our flight (middle of last week) - we arrived at the baggage check for our airline (name redacted to protect the guilty). After a fairly substantial wait in line to check our baggage, we finally got to the front of the line, and were waited on by the single most unhelpful gentleman I have ever encountered in the hospitality industry, anywhere. 

We checked our bags, provided all of our documentation, including vaccination credentials, booster credentials, the whole nine yards. The entire time this "gentleman" spoke to us in a soft, warm, sunny, "ALOHA" voice, asking for this, and then this, and then that, and then this, and then that, never flagging, never sounding the least bit officious or tendentious in his tone.

But the wringer he put us through insisting we provide everything short of a pint of blood or our first-born (he was there with us, but no way were we giving him up!)? Breath-taking. All the while he continued to sound delighted in a way so consistent it would have been the envy of any game show host anywhere, ever.

And then we hit "The Snag."

"You don't have your son's vaccination information uploaded to the Hawaii Safe Travels site," the "gentleman" exclaimed gleefully.

"We didn't think we were required to," my wife said. "The website was unclear on that. Plus, we have CLEAR, and CLEAR says it's not required for travelers under age 18."

"Safe Travels Hawaii requires it," said Mr. Gleeful. 

My wife presented our son's vaccination information. Mr. Happy shook his head, his smile wide. "No-no-no-so-sorry. It must be uploaded to the site." And with that he dismissed us out of line because, and I quote: "That takes a while."

So there we stood in the middle of the terminal, struggling to get our son's vaccination documentation uploaded using my wife's phone. A good fifteen minutes later we got it uploaded, received confirmation, and my wife went back to Mr. Sunshine, where he confirmed we had uploaded our son's information, and then said, "Ohhhhh you have CLEAR!" His smile widened as though he had just won the lottery. "You're all good. Just go to the CLEAR kiosk in front of your gate and you are ready to go. Mahalo!" 

We left him in our wake convinced he would have delivered the news, "You've been poisoned and have thirty minutes to live!" in exactly that same tone.

Once we'd traversed half the terminal to get to the same CLEAR kiosk where we'd waited so long for help a few weeks, previous, a CLEAR employee greeted us, checked our names on her list, and informed us that with the level of CLEAR we had, we could go through TSA Pre, which was a whole other level of CLEAR, and way easier to get through.

She sent us back the way we'd come. "It's just around the corner to your right," she said.


It turned out to be about a hundred feet past where Mr. Happy-Happy-Joy-Joy was still loudly plaguing would-be passengers in that gleeful tone of his. 

He hadn't bothered to tell us.

He just let us waste time heading in exactly the opposite direction.

TSA-Pre was, as always, great. Quick, professional, no-nonsense. Worth every nickel. The CLEAR employee who greeted us and squired us through TSA-Pre was like the employee who helped us finalize our memberships: just great. Knowledgeable, professional, courteous and helpful.

And then we got to the gate.

No sooner had we seated ourselves to await boarding, than I got called to the gate. 


Turned out I was all set. But the airline officials needed to confirm my wife's ID. And then they looked at our son's vaccination information, and sent us to a second desk, where yet another airline official who informed us that because our son's second vaccination had come less than two weeks prior to our flight, and we had not gotten him a COVID test within the previous 72 hours, it was possible that he might need to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in the Aloha State.

My wife and I looked at each other. Then she turned and said slowly and clearly to this airline official the exact same words she had used repeatedly with Mr. Cheer-and-Sunshine: "We have CLEAR. On the CLEAR website it states that we didn't need to register the information of any children under 18. And it said nothing about testing."

This time it worked the first time. The response: "Oh, you have CLEAR? Let me talk to my supervisor." Three minutes later: "You are all good to go."

Just in time to board.

Is it any wonder THIS happened:

Less than one minute later....

Hey! Don't judge me!

I said to my wife as we settled in for take-off, "I feel like Hawaii really made us earn a trip there this year!" 

She agreed.

But like I said, this story does have a happy ending! See below. Best vacation we've had as a family. 

Worth all the considerable trouble!

Just remember: if you're planning a trip to Hawaii, get started early on all that paperwork!

Happy Holidays, and see you in two weeks!

22 December 2021

The Iron Lung


Elvis got his polio shot on a Sunday night in October, 1956, backstage at CBS Studio 50, right before he went on the Ed Sullivan show.  On the right is NYC Public Health Commissioner Leona Baumgartner, and the guy with the needle is Assistant Commissioner Harold Fuerst.  The enormously influential Daily Mirror columnist Walter Winchell had suggested the Salk vaccine might be as deadly as the disease itself, but in the six months after Elvis was seen getting the shot, U.S. vaccination levels shot up to 80 per cent.

In the early 1950’s, there was a spike in U.S. polio cases, and a surge of quiet hysteria.  It was a little like the fear of nuclear war, and as a kid, I remember confusing the two in my mind.  My mom warned me not to grab the brass door handles at the Woolworth’s in Harvard Square, and we didn’t get to go to Brigham’s afterwards for ice cream.  Polio was an invisible adversary, cold to the touch, and it was everywhere. 

The approval of the vaccine in ‘55 put Jonas Salk on the cover of TIME.  He was a national hero.  The oral vaccine developed by Albert Sabin came along a couple of years later, and the Americas have been polio-free for almost thirty years.  There have been outbreaks in Southwest Asia, but nowhere is it epidemic anymore. 

There was, mind, a dedicated growth industry in anxiety back when.  The aforementioned atomic holocaust, along with fringe nuttiness - fluoridation of the public water supply being a Commie plot, for example – but polio inspired an actual sub-genre.  Stories featuring the iron lung became a staple, all with roughly similar conventions.

An explanation.  One in five paralytic polio cases develop respiratory symptoms.  The virus affects the upper cervical vertebrae, and paralyzes the diaphragm.  You can’t breathe on your own; you’re kept alive on a ventilator.  In the 1950’s, they used a negative-pressure ventilator called an iron lung.  It was a coffin-sized metal tube, and your entire body went into it.  Only your head stuck out.  The vacuum created by negative pressure inside sucks your chest up, and your lungs draw in air. 

On an episode of Alfred Hitchcock, Brian Keith is in an iron lung, and his wife plans to pull the plug.  The question is how he can possibly outwit her when he’s flat on his back and immobilized, and there’s no way he can call for help.  There’s a delicious twist I didn’t see coming.

The iron lung is an obvious metaphor, but it’s also physical, the helplessness cruelly literal.  It’s interesting to me that certain tropes are so much a product of their particular time.  In this instance, representing the Cold War: we’re in the grip of overwhelming, mechanical forces, and struggle like ants.

There are clear echoes, or reflections, in the present day.

  One difference, however, is that we don’t have individual influencers as unifying as Elvis.  We’ve lost consensus.  We apparently can’t agree on a shared reality.  One thing you can say for polio.  It scared the shit out of enough of us to tip the scales.

21 December 2021

Winter Tilt

     First, the science. 

    The winter solstice occurs when either of the Earth's poles reaches its maximum tilt away from the Sun. Both the North and South Poles have a winter solstice. For those of us living north of the equator, ours occurs today, December 21st. We experience the shortest period of daylight and the longest night of the year. The North Pole exists in twenty-four-hour darkness. Although the weather continues to get colder, the days grow incrementally longer from this point forward until we reach the summer solstice, and the cycle repeats. 

    The winter solstice is not the full day but rather a moment. Here in Fort Worth, that maximum tilt will occur at 11:59 CST. 

    Since prehistory, the day has been celebrated across the world with festivals and rituals to mark the death and rebirth of the sun. Across cultures, diverse peoples have recognized beginnings and endings on this date. 

    In keeping with that theme, I've made note of a few firsts and lasts.

    In 1620, the Pilgrims left the Mayflower and came ashore in Plymouth Bay on this date. None of the arriving settlers noted exactly where they first stepped onto the new world. In 1741, Thomas Faunce, a 94-year old man who claimed to have learned of the exact spot from his father, an early settler, established the site of the landing to be Plymouth Rock. The mythology began from there. 

    In 1891, on this date, the first game of basketball was played. James Naismith wrote the original rules to give his students exercise during the cold winter months. That initial contest had two teams of nine players. The equipment consisted of a soccer ball and two peach baskets. With a made shot, the janitor had to drag a ladder onto the court and empty the basket. Later innovators cut a hole in the bottom of the baskets. The final score, 1-0. No player received a shoe contract. 

    Crossword puzzles began on this date. The first "word cross" game was printed in the New York World in 1913. The civic minded editor, Arthur Wynne had to fill a level space in his newspaper. The original puzzle had 32 clues and was shaped like a diamond. Much like Plymouth Rock, there is a bit of fact and mythology there. Word puzzles have existed for as long as we have had language. (Can you find a sentence with two one-word palindromes in this paragraph?)

    Elvis Presley met President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office on this date in 1970. The meeting marked the beginning of Elvis' important work with the federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. 

    Admittedly, this one is a little forced in a blog about beginnings but the tale is too much fun not to include. 

    Vernon Presley, Elvis' father, apparently chastised Elvis for spending too much on Christmas presents (including 32 handguns and 10 Mercedes Benz automobiles.) Elvis left Memphis in a huff and ultimately flew to D.C. On the plane, he wrote a letter to President Nixon, offering his services to the president and the nation. All he wanted in exchange was the badge of a federal officer. (He already had a collection of local police badges.) Elvis' driver delivered him to the gates of the White House where the King deposited the letter. 

Ollie Atkins, chief White House photographer at the time. See ARC record.,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
    Egil "Bud" Krogh, H. R. Haldeman, and a host of others who later became infamous during the Watergate scandal received the letter and arranged the meeting. Presidential aides escorted Elvis, dressed in purple velvet and an oversized gold belt buckle into the Oval Office for his meeting. Nixon's infamous taping system had not been installed yet. As a result, history did not record the conversation between the two men, but Elvis got his badge. 

    Photos taken at the meeting are the most requested pictures in the history of the National Archives. 

    There are endings also. December 21st, 1872 marked the conclusion of Phileas Fogg's fictional around the world adventure. In Jules Verne's novel Around the World in 80 Days, the gentleman returned to London after circumnavigating the globe on this date. Fogg and his valet set off in response to a challenge lad dawn at Fogg's club. Spoiler alert: Fogg won the wager and collected ₤20,000

    Not on this date--In 1889, the American journalist, Nellie Bly, completed the feat described in the novel. She circled the globe in 72 days. 

    The biggest of all possible finishes, the end of the world was forecast for December 21st, 2012. Doomsday prophets based their predictions on an interpretation of the Mayan calendar. Mesoamerican scholars at the time reported that the interpretation failed to appreciate the nuances of the Grand Cycle of the Mayan's Long Count calendar, and possibly some problems converting the Mayan calendar into the correct Gregorian date. Oops. 

    December 21st is marked with beginnings and endings. My tenure with SleuthSayers began early in 2021. I've seen some of my stories come to print and had others accepted for future publication. Okay, a few stories had abrupt endings this year as well, but I like to focus on the positive. 

    I wish each of you the very best this holiday season and in the year to come. 

    Stay safe and healthy. 

    Until next time. 


20 December 2021

Looking Back

Between the lockdown and various health issues, I lost track of time for most of 2021 (although I have managed to finish my Christmas shopping. Wrapping? Um, no way), so let's try to put the clock back on the wall.

2020 was a blur. I had a mis-diagnosed stroke (I told them is was only a pinched nerve!) in January, then got my second cancer diagnosis in March, only days before the lockdown commenced. Between heavy meds, stress, and lockdown agoraphobia, I could no longer concentrate on complex projects like planning a novel anymore and turned exclusively to short stories. I wrote over a dozen in the last six months of 2020. Before then, I never produced more than four or five in one year. 

I published four stories, two of which I'd written years before and finally found submission calls that they matched.

Now 2021, very good and very bad, swinging like Poe's pendulum. The cancer, apparently vanquished through chemo and surgery the previous summer, staged an encore in March. Doctors, including one of my former students, inserted a stent in my kidney and started me on immunotherapy treatments every three weeks in April. They've worked, and I generally feel pretty good. No diet restrictions, I can drive  to the health club two or three times a week in a futile effort to restore my rippling six-pack abs, and I can still play guitar badly and piano even worse. Age, the family arthritis, and getting needles stuck in both arms every three weeks make music and typing harder, but I can still do them. The worst part of the year was saying good-bye to Ernie, our Maine Coon, who lost his four-year battle to kidney disease and left us in June. 

The sunny side:

This year, I wrote eleven new short stories and self-published Alma Murder, an early version of the book that eventually evolved into Blood on the Tracks about 70 rejections later. Five short stories appeared, and I sold seven others, a new career high.

Two will appear in Spring 2022, maybe within days of each other. The new MWA anthology Crime Hits Home, edited by SJ Rozan, will feature one of them. SleuthSayers' own Michael Bracken edited the other.

The rest will appear over the next year or so, but I don't have definite release dates. Fourteen submissions are still active, and I suspect that two or three have been accepted even though I don't have official word from the markets. 

I helped judge the Derringer Awards last year and will do it again this year. The best way to learn to write good stories is to read good stories, and I read a lot of them. I only judge flash fiction because I never write that short, but it's good training in what you can leave out of a story. It also means that if I stumble on a useful idea, I have to treat it very differently anyway.

The most positive change this year is that two different editors approached me about submitting work for an upcoming anthology. One was because of a Sleuthsayers blog I wrote earlier this year. Talk about an ego boost. I'm doing research on two other stories, too. If those stories don't sell to the anthologies, they're flexible enough that I can send them to other markets, too. Always a good thing. 

Am I getting rich (Cue uproarious laughter)? Of course not. But I'm getting somewhere, and that beats the alternative.

So, Merry Christmas, happy Channukah, Kwanzaa, and new year. Oh, and a belated happy birthday to Keith Richards.

19 December 2021

Elf's Lament

When folks think of a romantic Christmas, some think of Barenaked Ladies. And Sarah McLachlan.

Wait, we’re not talking bare, naked ladies, although I fondly recall a holiday season with Bubbles LaFerne… Well, never mind.

We’re discussing the Ontario retro pop rock band that isn’t bare, isn’t naked, and isn’t ladies. They’re also damn smart lyricists.

You probably know then from one or more hits such as ‘One Week’, which has a higher rapid-fire word count (600) than some short stories. Founders Ed Robertson and Steven Page also wrote ‘The History of Everything’, the theme song of The Big Bang Theory, and the Grinch theme.

Beyond clever, clever wordsmithing, the group likes to collaborate. In 2004, they released a Christmas album, Barenaked for the Holidays, which reminds me that Bubbles… Sorry, pay no attention. It’s been a long pandemic.

The collection includes Christmas and Chanukah songs, traditional and some newly written by BNL’s Page, Robertson, Kevin Hearn, and the Creeggan brothers. Here is a collaboration with Sarah McLachlan practicing ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ / ‘We Three Kings’.

Did I mention Barenaked Ladies wrote and performed ‘Green Christmas’, the 2000 soundtrack for How the Grinch Stole Christmas?

At the time, Michael BublĂ© was relatively unknown, but the crooner (pictured below) joined Barenaked to sing a Robertson/Page tune, ‘Elf’s Lament’.

Listen, class, for the third Christmas in a row, we’re living under threat of the COVID pandemic. As Eve Fisher and others have pointed out, people haven’t stopped dying, but we’ve grown weary… and careless.

Canadians have taken the coronavirus seriously, mourning a total of 30,000 deaths. In contrast, Florida with 5/9th the population of Canada, has more than doubled Canada’s total. America has surpassed 828 000 deaths out of 52-million known cases. Professionals believe the majority could have been saved with mandatory masks and vaccinations.

Like Thanksgiving and Christmas last year, it’s looking to be a forlorn Christmas, friends still in lockdown, no decorations… Wait… incoming text message… Bubbles LaFerne… Hey! Like Santa, she’s flying into town and she’s vaccinated! (Humming a brand new song, ‘Baby, it’s warm inside…’)

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

18 December 2021

Peeves and Preferences


Today's column is about the written word, but hang on: the first part is about pronunciation

One of my quirks is, I don't watch network TV except for the news. What I do watch are movies on DVD and Netflix and Amazon Prime. That's probably because of my age; I wish I could say it's because I'm too intelligent to get into these current reality shows and sitcoms, etc.--but that's not true, because you should see some of the movies I watch. My wife just rolls her eyes.

My point is, I do watch the nightly news and during those broadcasts I've found myself thinking about the way anchors and reporters pronounce certain words. My favorite is data. There are two different ways to say it: dayta and datta. As an IBM retiree, I pronounce it dayta--and while I realize either way is right, datta remains one of my pet peeves. Another funny word is short-lived. Almost every weatherman says short-livved, with a short i as in give. I prefer a long i, because it's describing something that has a short life. But I've given up on that one, since no one else in this solar system seems to agree with me. Other words that mean the same thing but can be pronounced two different ways: gala, vase, electoral, either, neither, caramel, etc. And while we're on this, how do you pronounce omicron? Oh or ah? I'm leaning toward oh.

Enough pronunciation. Something all of us can relate to is the way we spell certain words, in our writing. Most spelling is either correct or incorrect, period, but some words can have more than one acceptable spelling. I'm talking about variant spellings here, not regional spellings like neighbor/neighbour or archaic spellings like jail/gaol.

So . . . I've come up with some of those, as follows. Again, all of them can be spelled either way, usually without incurring an editor's wrath, but what I'd like you to do is consider which way you would choose to spell them in a story or novel. I've even included a few variant phrases, at the end.

NOTE 1: Some of these do involve regional spellings, usually American vs. British, but I've tried to avoid the truly obvious ones like center/centre, color/colour, etc. Also, not that it matters, for each one I've put my preference first.

Here goes:




mike/mic (as in microphone)




racket/racquet (as in tennis)









wrack/rack (as in your brain)










flier/flyer (as in pilot)






disc/disk -- At IBM, storage devices were disks; things frisbeelike or slipped were discs.






collectible/collectable -- I think of this as deserves to be collected vs. is able to be collected 






speak English/speak in English

can not/cannot

I couldn't care less/I could care less

for example/for instance

NOTE 2: I believe there's a rule about traveling/travelling, cancel/cancelling, controling/controlling, etc.: If the accent is on the second syllable, double the final consonant; if the accent is on the first syllable, don't double the final consonant. So traveling, canceling, and controlling would be correct. I think.

Some of these spellings are up in the air (fliers/flyers?), and I often change my mind about them. I can remember several times when I used duffel bags in one story and duffle bags in another. Same goes for adrenaline/adrenalin, barbecue/barbeque, queasy/queasey, theater/theatre, dialogue/dialog, installment/instalment, mustache/moustache, hurray/hooray, and a few others. I seem to go back and forth.

What's your opinion? Do you think some of these that I've called variant really aren't? What are your preferences--or peeves, if you feel strongly enough about them? Can you supply other variant words or phrases I've missed?

Now . . . I think I need a donut.