Showing posts with label Robert Mangeot. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Robert Mangeot. Show all posts

09 January 2021

Nashville Strong


Years from now, when the good movie versions and bad movie versions are made, when the true crime shows have examined witnesses and motives, we’ll have a fuller picture of Nashville’s Christmas Day bombing. As your man in Nashville, I’ll reflect on the incident now. I think I should.

credit: © Forbes.com

No apartment residents died, no cops or other first responders. The injured will heal. That’s a blessing. The bomber died, and I don’t cheer that. I don’t cheer what haunts anyone struggling with behavioral health issues. But I won’t be working up unconditional sympathy for bombers any time soon.

Full disclosure: I live in Franklin, twenty-ish minutes south with no traffic. I was nowhere near the explosion. You’ll hear people say they heard it a county away. They didn’t. I didn’t. Not one friend who lives downtown suffered more than a boom and a scare. No damage to me or mine. Nashville's damage, though, is real. It could’ve been horrific.

Early news reports called the bombing site “a residential block off downtown” or “on the fringe of the entertainment district.” The hell it is. Second Avenue--Market Street before 1904--has always been at Nashville’s core. That Cumberland riverport vibe still hangs in the air. The old warehouses and trader shops are today’s clubs and restaurants and tourist traps stores. At a peak time, hundreds of people would’ve jammed that block. If this stretch is “quiet,” as the national news said, it’s because just to the south begins Lower Broadway’s Nashvegas honky tonks lately of the boom years.

We’ve seen what truck bombs can do, as with Oklahoma City. That was what we locals talked and texted about in those first few days. Why pick a block largely shuttered for the pandemic? On a holiday at the least crowded time possible? Why blare that weird recording to force cop attention and an evacuation? If you really wanted to avoid casualties, why not go another block north? It’s mostly parking.

As I write this, we still have only a sketch what the bomber wanted. Politics, of its warped kind. In letters mailed shortly before his suicide, the bomber raved conspiracy theories and crackpot ideas about lizard people and aliens taking over Earth. He’d even been fingered as big trouble brewing by his then-girlfriend, though the FBI and local law enforcement missed the signals.

His possible target feels a little clearer. That block has a hidden something special. You wouldn’t even notice the telecom hub if you walked past. Its tasteful brick is well-designed camouflage against the nightspots across the street. Nashville tip, y’all: Honky tonks are loud, inside and out.

Wait, you say, Nashville has a major telecom hub smack in your commercial district?

Let’s rewind to those riverport days. Nashville’s importance was real– ask the Union Army and many a railroad baron– but as a regional transport crossroads and state capital. This place was no one’s metropolis. For proof: You don’t find many Nashvillians of a certain age who were actually born in Nashville. In 1950, the MSA notched 322,000 folks. Any day now, Nashville passes 2,000,000 souls. When you boom like that, a lot of things are stuck where they used to be, including infrastructure. Where could you move them when the center city is piling up with gentrified housing?

It was weird in that aftermath. Frustrating. Much cell service was out for days. People couldn’t get a hold of each other. They couldn’t call 911. Air traffic was grounded. Residents for blocks can't get into their homes, maybe ever. These old buildings could collapse. Friends mention bad dreams and psychological impact. That’s more than understandable. It’s natural. Second Avenue is a place many of us fight the bachelorette parties and conventioneers to take in riverfront concerts, or we embrace the throngs and relish some truly spectacular people-watching. We’ve eaten in those bombed-out restaurants. And where there’s one bomber, there could’ve been more bombs and the inevitable lame copycat.

credit: © WKRN.com

Nobody had a great 2020, and COVID-19 initially hit many regions much harder. Still, Nashville had us a year. In the bleak March days of the early shutdown, an EF-3 tornado ripped a swathe just north of downtown. The storm system leveled neighborhoods as it moved east. In May, a derecho made it double the wind damage and left an extended power outage. A few weeks later, those Nashvegas bars self-inflicted a wound by opening up too soon and with token enforcement of social distancing restrictions. A reckless house party of the super-entitled made national news. Then came the case spikes and hospitalizations, and those boot-scootin’ bars ended up with a black eye and deeper money hole. Folks who work or gig in those bars are getting crushed financially.

Then a downtown bomb on Christmas morning.

But Nashville is already stronger for it. That’s been true everywhere a bomb goes off. The fever-dreamed among us get so caught up in their own noise that they lose a simple fact: The world is full of good people. Resilient people. Years from now, that’s what the best movie versions will show: We won what they started. We pushed forward just fine.

12 December 2020

Inspiration Isn't Everywhere


It was July 2017, and I needed to write a story. Sure, we writers have our creative urge, but I mean I really needed to write a story right darn then. An anthology deadline loomed, and you can’t get in if you don’t submit. That’s how it works. I’m a low-volume writer, due in shifting parts to life demands, a snail’s pace process, and inspiration deficits. Result: I’m rarely sitting on a hard drive stockpile of stories. What I would do, I would wrangle a long weekend off, drive the short hop to Muscle Shoals, and lock myself away to produce something. Please, something.

I’d planned to leave Thursday after work. Get settled in, steal a march on drafting the first pages. To paraphrase the great Satchel Paige, get the juices jangling. The problem was, I didn’t have one story inspiration. Not even a terrible one. For clarity, I’m not meaning story ideas. Those are premises or plot strands. Those come and go like gossamer, and like gossamer, most are best left alone. I’m meaning processed idea plus motivation, that sweet challenge worth the chase.

But premises can be great starting points, as can oddball headlines, personal experiences, deep sayings, and so on. Leading up to Muscle Shoals, I’d journaled lists of possibilities. Nothing jangled or did jumping jacks and shouted “Me! Me!” Writing by any method is grueling. Layer in not having a starting point. With three days to pull it off. Time pressure is usually a writer’s friend, my great clarifier. But time plus quality pressures do me in, the waiting for that perfect golden ticket. Gossamer in reverse, or how it felt in 2017, a ticking creativity bomb keeping inspiration from blast range.

I don’t believe in muses. I do believe in process. That Thursday departure rolled around, and I determined to grit it out, come hell or high water. Or I guess not high water because, if you’ve been to Muscle Shoals, the TVA keeps the river level majorly locked down. All that impended ahead was the writing hell part.

The old saw goes that inspiration is everywhere. Well, if that was true, why was I leaving empty-handed?

Because the old saw is wrong. Inspiration is not everywhere. I’ve been lucky enough to spend several weeks across France. Those trips inspired me such that I have seven published stories that riff off those very places, especially the southern badlands. I’ve been equally lucky to spend similar time in the U.K and score life experiences while there. No stories even attempted based on those trips. I adore my pets but have never looked at them and felt a bolt of writing inspiration, only Facebook posts. I grew up in Louisville, but I rarely write about the town and never about basketball, which is pretty much what Kentuckiana talks about except the Derby or to ask where you went to high school.

I’m guessing you also draw inspiration from your own nature and nurture. If any of you are under constant inspirational avalanche, well done. Let’s hear your tricks. I operate more through slow build, the dreaded “having a project in view.” As an example, I have this story about Louisville and horse racing “in view.” It’s not forming together with any Secretariat-like speed.

When I’m stuck on micro specifics, I try the opposite direction: universal themes and human questions. Mortality and the fear thereof, order versus mayhem, why people choose to commit crimes, obsessions and compulsions, the supreme ridiculousness of life, all that. Which I also did in July 2017, and still I had zero grip on a story as I packed for Muscle Shoals. Zip. Zilch, Nada. The ridiculousness of life grinned my direction.

Stupid old saw.

Yet I am nothing if not punctual. I show up. So, late afternoon that July, I grabbed my gear and suitcase and headed for the car, that dread of missed opportunity setting in. I would drive that drive to Alabama, sit in that desk chair, and type writing exercises and room service menus until either I had juices jangling or heaved my laptop off the balcony. On my last stop out of town, bam, on the wall there was a half-painting, half-sculpture deal. Huge. Fine work, too, with clear talent that made a guy stop and study. Beneath it, a sign read:

ON LOAN FROM THE ARTIST

There went my mental gears. By the time I got back on the road, I had a premise about loans and artists. By the time my rear hit that Alabama chair, I had a rough story and an ending to shoot for. By the time I returned home three days later, I had a manuscript. By the deadline, an edited submission.

It didn’t make the anthology.

Such is this business.

But inspiration and my slow process abide, and when both hold, a reject gives me a chance at an even better story version. That re-edit of “Artist” is in the November/December 2020 AHMM. Four other sales to AHMM also were major re-edits of earlier misfires, same with almost half of my published stories overall.

Inspiration. It’s not easy and most definitely not everywhere. But if I keep showing up and plugging away, inspiration can be anywhere.

14 November 2020

It's Not Funny to Them


by Robert Mangeot

I should warn you I have a liberal arts education. Now warned, it might not surprise you that I think about classic story structure. Aristotle, for example. The Big A wrote about dramatics, and he didn’t mean my angst after a string of reject letters. He meant dramatic arcs, a series of interesting conflicts and emotions. Whether a dramatic arc plays out as uproarious or weepy or bare-knuckled is up to the author. Humor is style, not form.

Take Romeo and Juliet. Straight-up, star-cross’d tragedy, am I right? Reckless love, swords, poisons. Set aside that Shakespeare both envisioned and delivered this as a tale of woe. He said so in line six. Still, the play needs only minor plot work, like to lose the cousin murders and give Romeo a wacky sidekick, and now here’s next season’s blockbuster romcom. Much Ado About Nothing is essentially a banter vehicle, though Shakespeare had the good sense to work in scheming family, social ruin, and the real prospect of danger. There is even a daughter who fakes a death for true love. Getting to sound like Romeo and Juliet.

This goes to my golden rule for writing humor: It ain’t funny to the characters. The characters can’t be in on the joke. They have to experience a personal hell, if of the funny sort to us safely across the Fourth Wall.

Stephanie Plum is not having a good time--generally--in the Evanovich novels. Elmore Leonard characters spend their novels seeking or avoiding physical harm. Leonard famously said he didn’t write humor, and he didn’t. But he wove humor into crime novels like no one before him or since.
And then there’s Westlake. The Hot Rock was initially meant for his antihero Parker, except the first drafts didn’t click as a dark story. Too comic. Westlake could’ve changed the plot points and tone to noir, or he could’ve run with the lighter idea forming. Westlake embraced the inherent comedy, and we readers gladly met John Dortmunder. What Westlake didn’t do? Make the recurring caper at all easy on poor Dortmunder.

There just isn’t comic fiction without arc and dramatic conflict. We’re not writing stand-up routines. Take Anchorman. Love the movie or despise it, Anchorman scores its hits on well-timed ad libs sprung from Ron’s mounting desperation and lost stature (Loss? Descent into desperate measures? See how this could’ve been spun as a drama?). But Anchorman bogs down precisely when the script overindulges in hijinks that freeze Ron’s arc in place. 

Most of my published stories are comedies. “Handed, on a Gold Plate,” in the November 2020 Mystery Weekly Magazine, is about a CPA-in-training who convinces himself that an on-camera gig certifying pick four lotto drawings is a golden ticket to celebrity auditing. The story puts his prized dream in jeopardy.

I also write the occasional tragedy, like my “On Loan From the Artist” out in the November/December 2020 Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. That one follows Bench, a small town loan shop guy who borrows too much courage in protecting his turf.

I wrote both stories the same way. Same method, same four-part structure, same tossing the POVs into rising action and a harrowing loss. Same letting them miscalculate along the ride. I only changed the tone and tactics. “Gold Plate” throws our guy whackadoodle complications. It uses more voice and ends on a kind-of up note. “Artist” goes for psychological tension. Things get worse. It ends badly, as tragedies must.

All else equal, a humorous story is harder to pull off. “Gold Plate” must work first as a drama--that also happens to be funny. The struggle is real, folks. Humor is inescapably subjective. I thought Knives Out had wicked fun to it. Friends have said something like, “I guess so.” They liked it as a whodunnit. Melissa McCarthy was her usual genius in Spy, but I thought the movie collapsed under shock violence tried as humor. At some point, edgy becomes cruel. Pulp Fiction managed that balancing act (and via a fractured narrative!), though I don’t even think of it as comedy. A bunch of film critics disagree.

What would’ve Aristotle said? His volume explaining comedy’s secret sauce is lost to the ages, which is itself pretty funny. We do know he thought comedy was the lowest form of dramatics. Maybe he didn’t have a sense of humor. Maybe he tried, but his critique group didn’t quite get his whole shtick. Whatever the reason, I’ll forgive and forget. Such classic theory and its modern evolution help me wrangle the hard work of writing something funny. Otherwise, my daily drama is coping with reject letters. Nobody wants to see that.


10 October 2020

Kyle in Payables Has Been Binge-Watching, and Now You Need to Care About Zettabytes


Please welcome the newest inmate to our cozy little asylum.  Robert Mangeot  has been around the short mystery fiction scene for a few years now. His stuff is in a few anthologies and appears frequently in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (and has made my best-of-the-week selection four times.) He’ll have a piece in AHMM's November/December issue due out later this month. Bob is a healthcare industry long-timer when not writing, as his first piece makes clear.
— Robert Lopresti


KYLE IN PAYABLES HAS BEEN BINGE-WATCHING, AND NOW YOU NEED TO CARE ABOUT ZETTABYTES

by Robert Mangeot

Here’s Kyle again, five minutes late for the 8:00AM St. Healthcare Payables team Zoom huddle. He’s bleary-eyed--again--and slurping coffee (“Kyle, can you mute, please?”) after all-nighter binge watching the just-dropped Wicked Streaming Show That Has People Talking, season two. WSS.2, in Kyle-ese. He’ll gush baggy-eyed over each and every spoiler if anyone hangs on the Zoom too long. Usually, we can’t stay mad at him. Kyle is bedrock here in Payables, first with the virtual high fives and the loudest voice singing “Happy Birthday.” This morning, though, the coffee isn’t kicking in yet, and he’s digging this new email promising a GIFT CARD!!! if he clicks there and takes this important HR survey. Gift cards? Hello, WSS merch.

Don’t do it, Kyle. Don’t.

Kyle does it. Clickety clickety click. He’s heard about email scams and stolen files and that stuff. They do training in Payables, thank you very much. But this email seems legit. The logos and fonts are right for HR (they are), the linked website looks like HR (it kinda does, those smiling nurses), and the password log-in seems fine (it’s so not). Anyway, his melatonin is off this morning.

Let’s call the malware BigBummerExpress. Kyle’s computer doesn’t slow to a crawl processor-wise. It doesn’t flash the Blue Screen of Death. It doesn’t laugh a super-evil laugh like that cray hacker episode from WSS.1. BigBummerExpress is loaded and running, sure. And yeah, there’s patient information on his computer for the grabbing.  

Kyle isn’t who BigBummerExpress is after.

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Meet the United States healthcare system. We Americans spend $3.6 trillion annually on all things medical and surgical, much more per capita than most other industrialized nations. Three trillion isn’t the largest number involved in this caper, but it’s the motivating number.

However we got here and whatever your opinion about it, U.S. healthcare is a huge market. Most money is spent well enough or at least well-intendedly. As for the rest, there’s a reason that entire professions--including mine--have spun up to chase bad actors. And lately, there’s the bad actor golden ticket: ransomware. 

To be clear, I am not a technology expert. I’m not involved in cybersecurity. I’m a humble regulatory nerd who barely understands how my laptop crunches its ones and zeroes. But with cybersecurity being crucial to those regs, I try to stay hip on the trends.  

In September, Universal Health Services--a giant at 400 facilities--announced a major cyberattack had taken down clinical systems. Universal is not releasing details, but if it sounds like ransomware, it probably is. Patient appointments were rescheduled, test results were delayed, and patients inbound to their ERs were diverted elsewhere. 

Universal is hardly alone in the cyber battles. In 2019, hospitals and clinical practices reported nearly 1,000 successful ransomware attacks. What makes healthcare an outsized target over other sectors? Large health organizations can find the pay-off money somehow. Paying up may be a care imperative. Also, medical software products are often older and assembled as a patchwork. Lastly, a patient record contains a more comprehensive set of personal data than your average retail outlet. Such records are so valuable that the Dark Web apparently coined its own term: Fullz.

Health data has grown to mind-boggling size and mushrooms further each year. Experts predict that cumulative health data about you and me will reach 35 zettabytes this year. A zettabyte is tech-speak for one sextillion. That’s roughly one byte for all the grains of sand on all the Earth’s beaches--multiplied by 35. Or to see all the commas, we’re talking 35,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of health data out there.

And the problems usually start with phishing

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A month has passed since Kyle did that vendor survey thing. He’s forgotten about that gift card or reporting a concern because, bless him, rumors go WSS.3 will be the full throttle, slam-bang finale. In that month, BigBummerExpress has used his system credentials to cruise the company IT platforms and learn where that sweet data is, how it’s structured, what protects it. To the Security people, if they spot any oddness in Kyle’s activity, it looks like him accessing places he’s authorized to access. 

It’s encryption time. 

8:15AM, the Zoom huddle and Kyle slurping coffee. His boss is asking Kyle to mute when everyone’s Payables screens flicker off. Text messages start flying. His boss manages to say, “I gotta go.”

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It’s no wonder that crime fiction often involves a cyber angle. The technology and its human implications can be fascinating, and it brings plenty of cat-and-mouse games. If anyone is mulling a healthcare cyber tale, here’s a general lay of the land for 2020 realism. 

To read the industry studies, hospital ransoms used to be small, way cheaper than fighting the protracted fight. A volume business. Fast forward to 2020: Those studies put asking prices in the millions. Today’s ransomware isn’t just encrypting data natively but stealing it on threat of release, so that companies can’t plug in the back-ups and refuse to bargain. Big game hunting, in the lingo.

Healthcare providers have layers of serious defenses in place. Be assured the good guys are damn good—and have to be. Federal regs (anyone remember the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act?) require detailed IT security plans and regular self-assessments, at the pain of major fines and enforcement should personal health information be jeopardized. Europe’s laws are even tougher.

Cybercriminals are such an everyday threat that it’s an insurable risk. Of course, no underwriter goes on the hook for potential millions only to stay out of the response and prevention discussions. Like I said, serious defenses.

That can have a weak link.

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Kyle is messaging his buddy. He had another emergency Zoom interview, this time an IT consultant dude with an open collar shirt and razor stare. The consultant dude kept showing Kyle that HR email and asking about BigBummerExpress and even about his browser history. His affiliations. This FBI lady joined the call, too. She didn’t utter a word. Just made notes. 

It was awesome.

It’s been weird at St. Healthcare. HR sent an actual email with an actual performance warning. It took forever to get the Payables and medical record interface back running, and while it’s not been on the news, Kyle figures somebody must’ve coughed up for the hackers to go away. 

Hackers. Big money. Affiliations. What Kyle’s thinking, this would make full throttle WSS fan fiction.