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

11 September 2021

Remembering 9/11, Twenty Years Later


9-11, Twin Towers, NYC
Twin Towers, WTC, NYC © Wikimedia

Twenty years ago today, on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at a professional education seminar. About twenty of us were in the class, including by coincidence my wife. These sessions aren't thrills a minute, mostly folks getting needed hours in toward keeping a license, so everyone settled in subdued and broke open their laptops. The speaker got going, and we were in our meeting room bubble as the terrorist attacks began.

2001 is forever ago in technology terms. If people had a snazzy device, it was those tiny Nokia phones with basic text functions and the amber screen. A few people got buzzed on a phone or pager, and others saw the breaking headlines on their computers, but it was really the facility staff that got urgent word to us. There'd been an explosion in New York City. A bomb. No, a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I'd assumed it must've been a commuter plane off-course, a drunk or deranged pilot. Big planes coming in or out of LaGuardia or Newark wouldn't get that close. 

Wisely, the instructor had us break even though we'd barely started. It was clustered around the snack area television that we began to grasp the scale of what'd happened. We didn't know it was an attack yet, but the World Trade Center seemed no coincidence. It'd been a target before. We just watched it happen. If anyone spoke, it was a brief whispered question. A haze of trying to process events had descended, and it would stay over me long afterward. The world changed that morning. We know that now and still grapple with its consequences. In the moment, stunned, we actually tried to restart the class, one eye on the news. 

The second plane hit the South Tower.

In retrospect, it helped that my wife and I took this in together. We could see that each other was fine. Rattled, but fine. Back then, this went unspoken, an instinctive flash in a mounting confusion. And we had jobs to do.

I was a regional finance officer then, and our territory included the Eastern Seaboard from Metro DC northward. We had operations to adjust and potentially our patients to secure. We could've had people aboard any of those planes. By the time I made the building, the Pentagon attack had occurred. A co-worker asked what I thought was going on. I said, "I think we're at war."

The rest of that day was spent confirming staff whereabouts and dealing with any local needs. I had several calls with a friend and executive based in the Newark area. She was too busy for outward shock, a pro's pro nurse, but in a quiet moment she told me, "I can see the smoke."

Unlike so many other families that day, our group had no one killed. Stress and coping, but these were some of the toughest people I will ever know. We did have people stranded in various airports, with air travel grounded nationwide. We approved whatever expenses it took to get rental cars, overnight hotels, etc. and get folks home. In the evening, I went home. I sat locked on CNN, on every new report or development. I was quiet. I was angry. I wanted to fight back. We had dogs then. They probably didn't know what to make of me.

I don't remember when precisely my need-to-process fog lifted. The mind can let you hold something horrible at a distance a while, especially when you'd been lucky like me. I hadn't lost anyone. I could digest 9/11 in pieces.

Not long after afterward, I was on my own flight into Newark. It was past dark, and by chance our landing path circled us close enough over the Hudson to see the spotlights and the crews sorting through what remained of the rubble. I visit the Memorial every time I'm in Manhattan now.

I'm a flighty right-brain/left-brain mash-up, try as I might to stay organized. My thoughts run where they want, on top of each other or in mid-sentence. I don't remember this last Wednesday, let alone much from two decades ago. But I remember September 11, 2001. I remember the layout of the classroom, the looks on people's faces, the sounds of voices, everywhere I went and when. 

I should remember. We all should, to honor the good people lost that day.

14 August 2021

I've Watched The Long Goodbye 3 Times Now


It's a middle distance squint, and I get like that during every watch. Here's how it happened this round.

Recently, Killer Nashville asked me to review Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye (1953). The second-to-last Marlowe outing is Chandler's best, for my money. The detective story, truly elevated. No mean feat, given the high standards of his earlier novels. Doing the essay lured me to re-confront Robert Altman's 1973 film version starring Elliott Gould. I'd seen it twice before. I'd been left in that squint both times.

Wikipedia
Full disclosure: I'm no cinema expert. I do, however, understand a few things about the genre and this novel in particular. So, freshly inspired, I ventured again into Altman's film. 

Same squint. 

Advance critics in 1973 seemed to have a similar reaction. They were confused whether they'd just watched a detective movie or not. The hardboiled posters didn't match the semi-noir, semi-satire delivered. The Long Goodbye got pulled ahead of mixed reviews. In came the studio marketing folks, and several months later it was re-packaged more honestly, as a subversive take on Hollywood tropes. These reviews praised a nose-tweaking of the genre. Fifty years later, the film is now well-studied and the critical consensus ever-more favorable. 

Altman's take has much going for it. Casting faded star Sterling Haywood as alcoholic novelist Roger Wade is spot on. In the novel, Wade is Chandler himself stuffed into a part Michener, part Hemingway persona, but the film wisely cranks up the Papa factor. Nina Van Pallandt plays wife Eileen Wade with deftly-concealed femme fatality. The soundtrack is evocative and playful, mostly rearrangements of the same Johnny Mercer song to fit each scene. The cinematography is gorgeous. Altman's L.A. is up all hours but not doing much, a glossy pit of decay and casual violence. Malibu is just higher-end decadence with beach access. It's Chandler's noir SoCal– left twenty years to rot. Altman drops Marlowe smack into the cesspool. Above it, more precisely, observing L.A. from an improbably affordable top-floor apartment at Hollywood Heights' iconic High Tower enclave. 

Your essayist just down the beach, 2016
Which may be the initial squint-maker. 

Altman wants to make a point how L.A. vibe and P.I. stories were outdated. He does this by– beautifully– repainting the '50s Marlowe scene as a neo-noir, only-in-the-'70s moment. The style of it, like Chandler's, helps the work age pretty well (there is a violent moment that either wouldn't happen in a modern film or else would be answered on-screen later). Still, rebinding one tired era with what would surely become another? That message and its disconnect, though, comes off as part of the satire. But a story lost in time doesn't necessarily make for a timeless story.

Or maybe I get stuck on a half-reimagined Marlowe, one foot in both worlds. The task fell to Elliott Gould, attached to the project before Altman and the screenwriters came onboard. Gould is terrific, his characters never quite sure what the hell is going on but muddling through anyway. He does schlubs to perfection and plays Marlowe that way. There is a certain genius to this. Chandler's Marlowe is tough but not the toughest. He's forever outmuscled and often outsmarted. Gould takes this to another level. He's lost in a beyond rumpled state. He loses or avoids every fight. As for women, Gould's Marlowe is oblivious even to Eileen's flirtations. Early in the film, he's trapped in a disassociative mumble about L.A. passing him by. We get it. But Elliott Gould is funny. He can't help it, the schlub. His best Marlowe is when Gould eventually drops the sleepwalk and just does Gould. 

From your
essayist's collection
Next, there's that Edgar-winning masterpiece novel. Altman seizes on aspects of Chandler's world– the backdrop, Marlowe's sense of morality, the outsized characters against the smallness of their crimes– but abandons much of the actual story. Some of this is necessity.

Chandler's The Long Goodbye is intricate, often contemplative, and hefty– almost 400 pages. The inciting murder happens forty pages in, give or take your edition. A hyper-faithful film version is a marathon with too many moving parts. In trimming things, the screenwriters left Chandler's premise– Marlowe wants justice for a friend in a jam--but glossed over the motivations driving that premise. Marlowe doesn't make friends. Allies and lovers, yes. Never true friends.

So when in The Long Goodbye Marlowe and ruined socialite Terry Lennox strike up an odd friendship via drinks and loyalty tests, Marlowe is as surprised as anyone. Resolving this inner confusion is as much what Marlowe is after than justice for Lennox's suspicious death. Lennox never fit right, in any sense.

The film almost immediately finds Marlowe and Lennox chumming it up playing liar's poker. Sure, we've already seen Marlowe living alone but for a finnicky cat. His quick chumminess with Lennox suggests Marlowe has a wider circle of chums. Add in that the film's Lennox is stripped of complications. He's a common crook who married well, and it's pretty clear he committed what inevitably surfaces as the murder. In Chandler's world of rough justice, one murder must lead to a next. Altman doesn't need the same body count. Murders are cut or cleansed as suicides, clues are sparse, the solution a bit easy. The crime elements are, like Marlowe, scaffolding to Altman's larger statement. 

© Wikipedia
Look, no big-name director agrees to get lashed to a novel they can't re-envision. The screenwriter in Chandler would've gotten that better than anyone. Altman made the movie he wanted to make, and he made a sleek one. 

Altman reportedly said that Chandler fans would hate this take. I don't hate-watch a movie three times. There's plenty to admire in this film.

Altman reportedly also never read the novel cover-to-cover. If true, I wish he had. He might've found Chandler's novel had risen above the noir tropes in these crosshairs. With more study of his source material, Altman might've made one hell of a noir update or the best kind of crime comedy. He might've made a great movie, not just a weird one.

And at least I could stop squinting.

10 July 2021

Have a Neat Summer


I don't know how it's done these days, but when I was a kid, we had that ritual where before school let out in June, the yearbooks got passed around so we could write to each other, no matter what we really thought, best wishes. Often, and also no matter the real truth, we added some level of excitement to see them come Labor Day. Or you played it casual. "Have a neat summer" is what Winnie famously wrote Kevin in The Wonder Years

"See you in the fall," like this wasn't Catholic school and we all didn't live a mile from each other, like we wouldn't see each other at youth group stuff or birthday parties or whatnot. This was Louisville, perhaps America's largest small town. Every family knew every other family in the neighborhood and also every family from all the old neighborhoods. Everyone knew how neat the summers got.

Well, a June ritual must've rubbed off. In January, I write the year's goals and priorities, and I post them where I can't avoid them. Mid-year is the pause and rethink. Is my butt in the chair? How's my process and production? Did I produce anything worthwhile? What's my best next projects? These questions have more weight mid-year than in heady January. By June, I've either done things or haven't. Energizing adjustments get made. The goal might've been too optimistic, or maybe it's not important now. Maybe the problem is me chasing shiny objects again instead of staying on track.

This isn't entirely OCD. It's not overthink, either. Like many of us, my writing time is limited. I can't afford bad process leading to avoidable duds. And no way can I be left to my whimsical devices.

A June re-think has special power in 2021. We're coming off an 18-month grinder. We're de-scrambling, or I am. And if I'm more honest than certain yearbook messages, I'll admit to a productivity drop even before the pandemic. Okay, some of that was an intentional focus on rewrites, and that focus paid off in acceptances. Great. Also, unsustainable. I can't edit what I don't draft. My 2020 goals sought to address this--and did to a minor extent--but 2020 had its own plan.

This year's Goal One: Keep it simple. Then make it simpler. Me in that chair and being intentional about it. Forget markets and pushing out submissions. Just write, kid. And have fun, damn it. When it's fun, it shows in the work (hot tip: editing may be required). As of June 30, I've tied 2018's 5 stories (3 romps, 2 serious). Raw drafts, as is my usual, but some with potential. As to weighted production, the cumulative mid-year word count tops most of my annual marks. With a neat enough summer, I'll outpace 2017's production, which became my most successful acceptance vintage (editing was required).

The mid-year check? Progress!

I mentioned not worrying about markets. This has yearbook note gloss to it. I've baked a certain submission rhythm into my goals and process. Often I'm crafting a story with specific tastes in mind. I'll know, for example, if a given piece might work for AHMM or is written to that very spec. Maintaining this was 2021 Goal Two. I'm a tad behind, but that was an audible to write that new stuff. I called it, so I might as well own it. Did I also chase a few shiny objects? Yes. Yes, I did. But not many, because I keep walking past those posted goals.

Score Goal Two as needing focus.

My last 2021 goal worth mentioning is the Gotta Dos. TCB, to quote a renowned Memphis jumpsuit collector. I'm a chapter officer for both SinC and SEMWA, and I factor in those happy obligations. And this summer, I'm doing short story workshops for the Clarksville Writers Conference and for Killer Nashville. The kind with actual people there. I owe them the same rigor that I bring when my butt is in my own seat. Helpfully, one session is on--wait for it--intentionality.

So. June/July. I'll have a cold drink, a long walk, and a hard stare at my posted goals and progress. Done neatly, the writing gets needed course corrections and an energy boost. I'll have that fun if it kills me, damn it, and I'll chalk up stories to share come fall. 

Or before then, even. I mean, we're here all summer. 

10 April 2021

How It Happened In Tennessee: The 19th Amendment


This one has it all: feuds, sudden victories, shock defeats, smoke-filled rooms, betrayal, transcriptionists. And we open to 1920 and a young Jewish woman scouring the East Tennessee mountains.

Anita Pollitzer was a Charleston-born photographer and force of nature with a drawl. In her twenty-five years, Pollitzer had already turned the New York art world onto her pal Georgia O’Keefe. Pollitzer's second famous act was unfolding over a country tour rounding up legislator assurance for women's suffrage. She'd had leapt through the National Woman’s Party ranks as a crack organizer, and winning the vote anytime soon had come down to the Tennessee Legislature. Yes, Tennessee. The Woman’s Party, forever cash-strapped, sent Pollitzer to secure the eastern delegation. All of them.

Niota, Tennessee sits in the ridgelines between Knoxville and Chattanooga. In 1920, Niota was the home of Representative Harry Burn, a rising Republican star and relationship banker. Try as she might, Pollitzer couldn't be everywhere. A stop in remote Niota ate through precious time and scarce funds. Fair enough. Pollitzer cornered Burn on the telephone, and when Pollitzer had someone cornered, they knew it. Burn pledged his vote for the Suffs. Pollitzer moved to corner the next guy.

Cut to Nashville and one Edward Bushrod Stahlman, an ex-L&N Railroad exec turned newspaper publisher. Stahlman had forged the afternoon Nashville Banner into a regional conservative powerhouse. In non-unrelated business, he remained the railroads’ go-to lobbyist around these parts. As prickly personalities and successful businessmen will do, he’d made enemies.

Such as Luke Lea, publisher of the rival Tennessean. In 1913, Lea had gone from U.S. Senator to ex-U.S. Senator thanks to Stahlman backing an ouster. Lea had gotten it in his head to investigate the railroads' political influence and possible local corruption. Lea seemed to loathe Stahlman so much that many a morning The Tennessean portrayed Stahlman as a disloyal German, Lea being just back from distinguished service in WWI. Lea held such a grudge against things German that he’d tried– actually tried– and failed a caper to kidnap the exiled Kaiser. Lea ran The Tennessean as a progressive voice that strongly backed– wait for it--popular election of U.S. senators. Also Prohibition and now women’s suffrage. Pretty much whatever Lea was for, Stahlman and The Banner were inclined to be against.

Edward Stahlman
(Nashville Library Special Collection)

Mind you, Stahlman had backed Tennessee's 1919 partial suffrage bill passed while Lea was off chasing the Kaiser. And Stahlman professed support even for making suffrage universal--until he was against it. A states rights guy, what bothered Stahlman wasn’t women voting per se but Washington mandating that women could vote. It was the principle of thing, see?

Also, there was money to be made. Big Railroad wanted their, ahem, investment in the Legislature protected. Big Liquor feared pro-temperance Suffs who’d already slapped Prohibition on everyone. Big Manufacturing thought women voters would push through dangerous and radical ideas like child labor laws. Well-funded lobbyists organized a fierce--and whiskey-soaked--persuasion campaign, with The Banner as their afternoon voice.

Though not always the loudest voice. The Anti's logic went that, if you’re going to convince women not to push for voting rights, you have to make it appear like most women don’t want voting rights. Enter Josephine Pearson of Monteagle, an Anti writer of scathing editorials and a former college dean installed as President of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Well-regarded and accomplished, she was the sort of successful career woman her speeches warned America about.

Here came the broadsides. The rough-and-tumble of politics would corrupt womanly virtue. Politics would overtax the female brain and thus shrink the womb. Thus, suffrage doomed motherhood itself and by implication America, hot dogs, apple pie.

The Hermitage Hotel, 100 years on
Both sides threw everything they had into the War of the Roses. Suffs pinned yellow roses to pledge lapels. The Anti pinned (paper) red ones on their supporters. The swank Hermitage Hotel, a mere plaza away from the Capitol, became ground zero for charm offensives, pay-offs, sex traps, fist fights, death threats, fake telegrams about dying children, and Big Liquor's 24/7 Jack Daniels speakeasy on the eighth floor. It became impossible to find a legislator sober enough to lobby.

The Anti strategy was working, despite a quick loss in the Senate. The doomed womb and states rights arguments provided cover for House members worried that women voting also included black women. Bribes didn’t hurt, either. Suff support collapsed in the House, and Rep. Burn of Niota was among the defectors.

They thought they had it won, Pearson and old Stahlman. By a narrow margin, sure, but they didn't need a blowout. Stahlman himself delivered a seal-the-deal address on the House floor condemning undue influences meddling in Tennessee's business. The Antis had underestimated a few things, though.

One was Anita Pollitzer.

Pollitzer took no for an answer poorly, especially after she’d been promised a yes. Pollitzer and the Anti leaders stalked Capitol Hill and the Hermitage Hotel and anywhere a legislator might try to hide. Lost pledges were blistered with appeals to better natures and epic guilt trips. Rep. Burn got a full dose of Pollitzer's drawled fire and was left stammering in her wake.

Febb Burn
Here, famously, motherhood actually did step in. A conflicted Burn was on the House floor during the make-or-break session when he received the most mom-like letter ever written from his mother Febb back in Niota. Febb, a diehard Suff, softened her boy up for a few paragraphs and then sank the maternal dagger over his Anti pledge. In dramatic style, Burn re-switched sides on the spot. Boom, Suffs cheered from the gallery, Antis shouted for blood or at least recounts.

Well, Burn had to beat it quick out a Capitol window. Later that night, the Antis tracked Burn down at the Hermitage Hotel. Top Anti strategists had mapped out a double-secret plan to torpedo the Amendment by legislative maneuvering. There would be the usual rallies and propaganda and intimidation, but the showpiece of the brainstorm went like this: Blackmail the snot out of Burn. Once he re-re-switched his vote, the Antis would yet win the day.

And the Antis had proof. Proof!

Witness affidavits claimed that shortly before the dastardly vote switch, Burn had been hauled off into a cloakroom and given ten grand to go Suff. Recant, the Antis warned Burn, or tomorrow afternoon Stahlman and The Banner run this nugget and end that promising career. Never mind that Burn hadn't been hauled anywhere. He’d been in full view agonizing over Febb's letter. That wasn't the Anti's biggest problem.

No, they'd picked the wrong affidavit stenographer.

Pollitzer and Burn shaking hands,
1920 (top center)

The stenographer knew dirty pool when she heard it. She recorded not only their statements but also how operatives coached the sort-of-witnesses into framing Burn. And the stenographer turned the whole thing over to Luke Lea at The Tennessean. Stahlman would’ve been prepping for his crushing afternoon edition when someone drew the short straw and slid over The Tennessean’s morning scoop blowing up the blackmail scheme.

That, friends, was how Tennessee came around to seal the Nineteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Like I said, this one had it all, including– in the end– a win for justice.

13 March 2021

Don't Make Me Turn This Car Around


I’ve convinced myself–against all experience–that Asheville is four hours from my driveway. Every trip, I’m cranking the music and thinking about the Blue Ridge fading off like haze, line after line in their peek at eternity. Yep, just four hours away. As a scientific fact, the trip from south Nashville is five hours minimum–with luck and a heavy foot. You get the Lookie Lous gawking around Pigeon Forge, then flatbeds loaded with timber crawl up the steep grades. Next, a malingering road construction project where I-40 tunnels into North Carolina. I've become certain it isn’t a construction project at all. There’s never actual construction. No, it’s a social experiment to document how drivers come unglued when jammed together into one lane for zero reason. Another time chunk gone. I pull into Asheville ruing whatever the hell happened to that quick escape east.

My writing works the same way. I set out after a shiny idea, but the problems start soon enough. The tone is off. The POV isn’t working. The plot takes a bad turn. All that can be fixed, but also like those Carolina trips, it’ll take longer than I think.

My first published crime story was in MWA’s 2014 anthology Ice Cold. I had a shiny idea indeed, plus a Shakespearian body count and key death at the end. I edited it mercilessly. And quickly, as I recall it today, except I count seventeen manuscript versions on my hard drive. My story in next month's AHMM clocks in at a svelte thirteen versions. My max on a published story? 75 versions on my hard drive.

Some process lessons from along my journeys:

Begin with the End in Mind

Yes, this old saw. Bear with me. I’m not talking killer twists but personal intentionality. What does a writer want out of writing a story? Creative bliss? Cool. My hard drive also has those stories. The pure joy of that is an amazing gift. Or is a piece meant for an audience? How competitive or specific an audience? Once a potential editor and their readers get involved, they become your boss. They deserve edits with their quality standards and enjoyment in mind, edits that may wilt creative bliss into drudgery. 

Drudgery also describes minutes lost to Knoxville traffic if you hit it at the wrong time. Maybe I have hard feelings about that.

This Is the Best Thing I’ve Ever Written

I considered it a healthy sign as writing growth when I stone cold understood that an early draft wasn’t anywhere near as groovy as my creative high believed. I might’ve had a great concept, say like to get to Asheville in four hours, but reality and hard work comes around as it must.

Take that story in Ice Cold. I believed that key death made for a Frankly Amazing Ending until an editor demonstrated--mere days before the deadline--that it was a Terrible Ending and also Physically Impossible. Cue more versions, the fast kind. 

Unobjectively loving a piece is my signal that the draft objectively stinks. It means I’m still thinking about me, not a reader. It means I haven’t pushed an idea enough to risk hating it.

Be Constructive with Your Readback

At some point, I find myself tweaking a manuscript here and there, but the creative momentum is kaput. Either it needs more critique or else a deeper think. Surgical procedure deep, and if so, I’ll print the thing and read it aloud. Many times. As an earth-friendly step, I’ll let Word’s readback feature sub in for an occasional cycle. Typos and clunky sequences ring plain. Missing layers and connections emerge. That’s the story finding its core. Oh, darling passages will remind me that of course I can’t cut them, and in a joy-crushing grind, out they go. I’ll keep iterating until I do hate the piece and might pitch the computer out the window rather than read one more word.

This Is the Worst Thing I’ve Ever Written

It’s not.

Despair and loathing are signs the piece is nearly ready. I step away for a bit until I’m all planed out emotionally.

The The

Recently, a critique partner highlighted where I’d used the verb “amble” three times over a few hundred words. Nobody ambles that often, not even cowpokes. I’ll search for crutch repetition like that.

One crucial word gets a special check: “The.” Such a weak word, the. Any cluster of it correlates to undercooked prose. I comb through anything with those three letters in that order, like “Then,” “they,” “other,” and so forth. Those buggers aren’t power words, either (Note: “Either” is a “the” word). Once my excess “the” and crutch stuff is out, no kidding, the piece has another level of energy. It’s found its style.

Lock Down

And I’m not done yet. Sure, I’m done with it mentally and spiritually, but it’s spit and polish time. I’ll let Word read a last cycle while I check along on my master document. I’m looking to confirm those final changes sound and work how I want. Darlings and typos can sneak back in. When I’m satisfied (exhausted) with a page, I mark it as locked down. When all pages reach lockdown, I scream or weep or drink wine, whatever gives me permission to get off the hamster wheel.

Such are my steps to submit something that makes me proud. Someday, maybe I’ll get more efficient. Until then, it’s like with the Asheville drive. I may get there in a bad mood, but I get there. Soon enough, I’m happily lost in those Blue Ridge lines like haze. The mistake isn’t underestimating the travel time but not completing the trip.

13 February 2021

How It's Done These Days


napping red panda

It’s 8:00am Saturday, writing day, and I’m so not ready to write. I’d been up late watching That Space Action Buddy Movie That Is Always On. TSABMTIAO sucks me right in. That’s what I do now on weekend nights, stare at a screen and not think much because I’ve been staring at smaller screens all damn week and thinking my brain into mush. I’m Zoomed out. A year now—a year—since home became not just the retreat and writing space but also the day job desk and social distancing fort. I’m still seeking balance.

Anyway, I can’t just dive into “That Flash Idea Thing,” no matter what the schedule pressure and creative guilt says. Have to get my blood pumping first. A pre-writing walk has launched the process since forever. Core to the ritual. Writing itself is an endurance feat, right? Hard to push through mentally if the body isn't primed.

Step 1: Walk and think; Step 2: Buy cold Diet Coke at the convenience store. Step 3: Go home and write. Works every time– except when it doesn’t. But I can’t skip the warm-up, that’s for sure. Off I go, and hey, what if I walk another block to the grocery? They sell Diet Coke at the grocery. Variety of route, the spice of life.

munchies

I walk to the grocery. Buy that Diet Coke. Hang on. You know what would make for top snacking later? A bag of Munchies. You know the mix, with like everything Lays swept off the packaging floor jumbled together feed bag-style. I buy the Munchies and of course sliced mangos. Writers need vitamins. Now I’m walking back home, and I should be mulling over outline problems with “Flash Thing,” but iTunes keeps playing the Stones and seriously, here is a car with legit U.S. Virgin Island license plates. Anyone alive would wonder what other fantastic license plates are in this parking lot of curiosities.

I get home with a decent U.S. state count and the Diet Coke gone. I’m totally getting my steps in, y’all. I secure the Munchies and check the phone for the usual grim news and English football scores. Start the laundry. It doesn’t start itself, does it? Done, done, and done, and folks, it is time to write. No, wait. Pollen season. Important to shower off the sinus fiends. That also done, the writing session has arrived, except how did it get to be 11am already? I can’t get going on “Flash Thing” with lunch time looming around the corner. I’ll feel distracted, disjointed. I’ll make hangry choices sure to summon rejections and the eternal silence of the hard drive. What I’ll do, I’ll outline a few goals for the day’s session as an intentionality exercise.

And bam! A key decision appears on my scratch pad. The POV will be the son. Bam! No, the mother. Bam! No, a surrogate mother figure. I decide that the piece will be about 700 words. 800 sounds longish. So, 700 hundred words and a mom-like person. I’ve earned my tuna salad, thank you very much.

writing desk

I have the tuna salad. No Munchies yet. Those are for special snack occasions like big game watching or nine o’clock. I check the news. Switch the laundry. Here we go. I’m at the computer, and I write a working title. Add the by-line. Seven words already. I try a first sentence. It stinks, but I move it around and then I move that around, and after the moving stops, there is a paragraph. There may not be another one, though. I’m stumped, and no amount of staring at my shelf inspiration deals seems to help. I’m downstairs again fetching more Diet Coke, and my path takes me past the TV. They play football in England like all Saturday long. Also, I haven’t doom-scrolled the news since the tuna salad. I have a few mango slices because the struggle is real.

It used to be, back when, I wrote in morning flurries. By afternoon, I faded into this same grind, except with victories already notched. I could recharge and hit it again later. Now, I have the grind. But hey, my word count is showing 220 words, and “Flash Thing” is tracking the general idea on the general pace. The story is leading me more, and I blow past my old 2pm hard stop and then past 3pm, and at some point, and with a spin on the treadmill, it’s dark out and I blow past my old evening stop time. Then there is a full draft right here on this monitor screen. As if the writing gods have spoken, the word count is 702.

I break open the Munchies. Turn on the TV.

There was an old process, and I’m managing through a rebalanced one, mainly to bear down and make it work. Plus, I get major laundry done.

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.

                                                                                  #

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

                                                                                #

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.”

                                                                             #

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.

                                                                             #

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.