Getting Cozy?

Getting Cozy?

In what is almost certainly a vain attempt to kick myself into gear, I set myself the challenge of writing in the mode of the most published genres, figuring that if I could catch the right tenor, the right vibe, I might be able to settle into my remaining years as a celebrated author of Romance, or Mystery, or Science Fiction, or even Young Adult Romance Science Fiction. Turns out that the strata are even more differentiated genre-by-genre than I had assumed. A few seconds into researching Romance, for example, and I knew I would have to start with something less daunting, something more familiar, and by familiar, I mean almost overwhelmingly complex.

Crime. Seems simple enough. Bad person does bad thing and is discovered or not and punished or not.

Uh huh.

Here’s a short list of types of crime fiction: The whodunnit, the historical whodunnit, detective fiction, the cozy, the locked room mystery, the psychological thriller, the legal thriller, the police procedural, the caper story, the spy thriller, the forensic crime, the hardboiled (Noir) crime, roman a clef crime,and parodies of each of those subsets.

Tossing aside the more subtly gradated types of crime fiction, I took comfort in knowing that there is considerable distance between the grimly evidential detail of the police procedural, dragging readers as they do into the morgue and across the autopsy table, and the benignly murderous, humorously affectionate world of mysteries known as cozies.

I prefer reading procedurals but am probably most at home writing a cozy. The rules of writing cozily, such as there are, are broadly these: Eccentric or amusing characters are more important than mystery. Crimes are solved by clever and intuitive amateurs, many of whom have an uncommon ability to see the true nature of the characters she (usually) meets. Gentle humor abounds, often at the expense of the amateur sleuth. Rough language is generally avoided. “Hellish” and “Damnation” are about as gritty as dialogue gets; an unbidden “Oh, Dear!” or “Mercy!” is more common. Finally, murders are rarely thrust in the reader’s face or presented in gruesome detail. Body parts, heads in jars, severed limbs rarely have a place in a cozy mystery.

The hardest part for me then is in finding a sleuthing name appropriate to the almost accidental untangling of crime in a cozy setting. The setting is easy – the country inn, the village bakery, the college campus. But the name! I read almost all of the John Dickson Carr “Locked Room” mysteries because the cerebral, almost entirely incapacitated by bulk, Dr. Gideon Fell had such an impressive name. Rex Stout’s detective, Nero Wolfe, a man of mystery, born in Montenegro and even less capable of movement than Gideon Fell, was literally an armchair detective. These novels were not cozies; humor was secondary to clever detection. But the names!

Here are my first attempts at naming a cozy female sleuth:

Helga Von Swiggart (psychic and healer, cat named Hecate), Trixie Sunshine (perky private investigator on retainer with MGM, puggles named Debby and Reynolds), Miss Amanda Tennyson (British dowager permanently on cruise around the world, collects exotic weapons), Tammy Nelson (recently divorced pastry chef newly settled in Bozeman, Montana, goofy mutt named Bourdain), Carla Montez (veterinarian, practice birds and fish, cocatille named Laura Esquivel), Calliope Turner (yoga instructor, cats named Huey, Dewey, and Louie), Madame Olga Rostapovich (Parisian, claims to be last of the Romanovs, speaks twelve languages).

Now, to plot, remembering that narrative drive is the least of my capacities:

Let’s set this in Bozeman, a small city of about 45,000, home to Montana State University, the Siebel Dinosaur complex with the largest collection of Tyrannosaurus Rex skeletons, and to superb hiking and fly fishing. Once something of a cowboy town, Bozeman is thoroughly boutiqued with an emphasis on expensive outdoor recreation. A pastry shop would do well there, especially one that features healthy, outdoorsy pastries, such as Tammy’s Sesame Trout Bagel.

A successful fly fishing enterprise, Rainbow Wranglers, has been plagued by a series of unfortunate mishaps on the MacKenzie River. Two guests and a guide have gone missing. The Wrangler’s owner is in Bozeman on business, stops at Tammy’s cafe, and shares the story with her. Having fished that stretch when married to her husband, a former river guide for Rainbow Wranglers, Tammy turns the pastry shop over to her former mother-in-law, her best friend, Kitty Hyde. Shoving Bordian into the back of her Subaru, Tammy sets out for Whitefish to begin nosing around.

My thought is that Tammy has to meet some eccentrics, maybe a Native guide who senses dark forces on the river, a crusty female homesteader, the feckless son of the tech billionaire angling to open up public lands for vacation estates, rough and ready environmentalist/eco terrorist ready to serve the techie as a main course, the slick agent of the huge corporation looking for rights to bottle spring water, and, of course, the ex-husband, still smarting from Tammy’s depiction of him as a caveman with fish on the brain.

All of that now neatly in place, a little research on the area, fly fishing, water rights, Native lore, geopolitical commercial investment, and pastry, and I’m ready to tear off the first in a series on Montana based thrilling (but cozy) adventures which allow Tammy (and Bourdain) the opportunity to solve crime, punish the guilty, and find love in all the right places.

The Title? Something Fishy in Bozeman? A Fly in the Bagel? A River Runs Through Him? Face Down In the MacKenzie? Pick one.

But … then, I can’t imagine spending ten minutes more in this scenario. I just have to walk away, readying myself for immersion in the next genre.

Next in the lineup of challenges is a Children’s book, the most frequently published genre. About 30% of all books published are kids books, but apparently as a group, they generate the lowest financial return, so are of no interest to agents, who are looking for Young Adult Romance Science Fiction. I can’t do Young Adult yet; I’ll need a personality transplant. But let’s see what I have in the tank after I finish Bobby Wants A Girlfriend and a Flamebot.

Coulda Been An Ad Man?

Coulda Been An Ad Man?

My ambitions have always been relatively modest.  Would I like to be lionized and taken seriously by writers who know something about writing?  Sure, but I’m ok diverting myself with the odd flight of fancy and the occasional undirected foray into whimsy.  As a younger biped, I had some thoughts about writing professionally, but, as I seem unable to create or sustain a narrative over three or four pages, I figured my chances of hitting pay dirt were slim.

I did think about going into advertising, not writing copy, but turning out the sorts of catchy jingles that had adhered in the midbrain over several decades.  I knew it wouldn’t be easy to capture the sort of cortex scathing impact of the truly great jingles, but I thought I could probably come up with a few worth humming.  After all, “Winston tastes good like a (bum bum) cigarette should” was not beyond the reach of the moderately creative.

Not so the Hall of Fame jingles:  

It’s Ajax, the foaming cleanser, foams the dirt right down the drain (bass run of bubbling down the drain)

Call Roto Rooter, that’s the name, and (another bass run) away go troubles down the drain.  Roto Rooter.

Brusha, brusha, brusha, with the new Ipana, with the brand new flavor, it’s dandy for your teeth.

Plop, plop, fizz, fizz.  Oh, what a relief it is.

These four share a common and inescapable narrative thread; these are basically declarative sentences.  Ajax foams the dirt, troubles go down the drain. Pretty easy to sort out the message.

Some were more daring, wandered into the fabulous, danced in the realm of imagination:

I wish I was an Oscar Meyer Weiner

That is what I truly wish to be

‘Cause if I were an Oscar Meyer weiner,

Everyone would be in love with me.

Everyone?  Really? No matter.  I bought it hook, line, and sinker.  The way to love? Become cylindrical bologna.  .

Some were more than simply instructive; they were demanding.

Gimme a break

Gimme a break

Break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar.

Not much room for misunderstanding there.  You want trouble? Go ahead. Don’t break off a piece of that Kit Kat bar.  See what happens.

I’ll give a nod to Folgers as well, who also skipped the highfalutin description of slowly roasted beans hand picked on the greenest mountainsides in Colombia and simply told it as it was.

The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup.

Simple.  Declarative.  No nonsense. No room for argument.  Clarity counts as in this declaration attributed to Winston Churchill – “I like pigs.  Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” Not all that melodic, but the reasoning is hard to escape.

There was a more lyrical and culturally specific coffee jingle when I was but a lad.

Chock full o’ Nuts is that heavenly coffee

Heavenly Coffee, heavenly coffee

Chock full o’ Nuts is that heavenly coffee

Better coffee Rockefeller’s money can’t buy.

Nelson Rockefeller sued to have the family’s name removed from the ad, a gesture I thought simply twerpy until I found that the issue had to do with Rockefeller investments in other coffee enterprises rather than with the protection of the family’s name.  Great fun, though, to have great fortune pitted against a homely cup of coffee.

Today, however, the jingle has gone the way of Howard Johnson restaurants, transistor radios, rabbit ear antennas, and Kodak cameras.  Some would say that the jingle persists, and as a fan of very local radio, I can attest to the number of Mom and Pop roofing companies that still trot out jingles with real staying power.  But national ad campaigns? Pathetic.

The two most egregiously vapid both belong to the insurance industry.

Farmers’ has added a catch phrase – “Seen it.  Covered it” – but their jingle, while declarative, is so primitive that even in the rendering of it, I am disheartened. The Farmers site presents this official rendering of the “lyrics”:  We Are Farmers!  Bum da-dum bum bum bum.

Seriously?  Why even bother?  I assume the massed choir is meant to be a band of earnest farmers, the grange glee club, farmers so moved by their profession of profession that they burst into song.  How this translates to trust in the agency covering your car, boat, or home, I cannot tell, but this I know and know full well, this threadbare jingle does not move me to shift my account their way.

Liberty Mutual, perhaps?  This is the company that cunningly poses actors in front of the Statue of Liberty, a ploy so far from subliminal that the clip serves only to suggest that Liberty Mutual seeks the dimmest of customers.  In an attempt to further dumb down the campaign, they’ve hired a trained Emu “named” LiMu (LiMu the Emu, get it?) to team up with a mustached crime fighter (Doug) in a buddy cop pastiche in which the duo fight against the “crime” of paying too much for insurance.

Is Liberty Mutual saved by the edgy brilliance of their jingle?  You be the judge.

Liberty!  Liberty! Liberty!  The last “Liberty” is divided, the emphasis on LIB … then ER…TY.

That’s it; not even a bum bum bum.

It may appear that the devolution of the jingle has reached its rock bottom with these two, but another insurance company reminds us that a good jingle can pack an entire narrative into a single statement.

Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.

Both obscure and particular, evoking the entirely mythical but eminently comforting presence of a neighborly friend or friendly neighbor while maintaining an open-ended horizon.  Where there? There at the point of impact? There in offices answering telephones? There in a consoling, hand-holding visit as the last leaping flames turn to embers?

Good neighbors, of course,  would be “there” with casseroles, I guess, and all those sundries that live in the back of the cupboard – tinned sardines, canned artichoke hearts, packets of onion soup.  Comforting, I suppose, but ah, the check? Neighborly kindness goes a long way at point of impact, but speedy settlement of claims depends on an entirely different sort of relationship.

Like Rockefeller, State Farm is there?  Ooops, forgot.

Could I do better?  We’ll see.

Recognizing that the printed word cannot carry a tune, I am forced to grab a recognizable tune in order to show the full range of my jingling.  I’ve my client from the list below and a tune generally regarded as among the most familiar.

Ads appearing most frequently on television in 2018:  Liberty Mutual (#1! Baby!), Lifelock Identity Theft Service, Gold Bond Skin Protection, Zantac 150, Maximum strength heartburn medication, Allegra D Allergy and Congestion, Coffee Mate Season Flavor – Pumpkin

Most recognizable tunes (other than Happy Birthday/Yankee Doodle):  Spice Girls Wannabe, Elvis Presley Devil in Disguise, Survivor Eye of the Tiger, Roy Orbison Pretty Woman, Britney Spears Baby One More Time.

I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want

So tell me what you want, what you really really want …

Pumpkin flavored Coffee Mate?  Too easy.

Let’s get messy with a truly challenging product and tune.

TheGold Bond family of skin products is extensive, actually divided into two branches of products.  The basic Gold Bond items, from the Cracked Skin and Fill and Protect to the Medicated Original Strength Body Powder are in one constellation while the Ultimate Collection containing specialized and more refined cosmetics, including Pedismooth, Radiance Renewal, and Neck and Chest Firming Complex, are in another.    

So, mix and match, here goes:

Risin up, cracks on my feet

Need some fill, need medication

Smell the difference, now my world is complete

Pedi Smooth made me sure to survive

I got the thigh of a tiger, got the cream for this fight

Risin’ up to the spots that are darkening

And the neck and the chest grow more firm every night

With Gold Bond, there’s no scabs on this tiger.

Maybe some dreams are never meant to come true, some avenues better not walked.  There are days when I just wish … I was an Oscar Meyer weiner.

Gravity 2, Ego 0

Gravity 2, Ego 0

Facing disturbing reality has never been nearly as pleasant as wallowing in oblivion, but, in an era in which partisan and magical thinking appears to have gathered hurricane force, and, as I am far enough down the broad highway of life to take responsibility for my part in allowing nonsense to take the place of reason, the time to face reality’s cold glare has apparently arrived.  Truth planted both proverbial feet in my midsection yesterday, in what was a safe visit to the doctor’s office. I had barely scanned the latest edition of Communicative Disease Quarterly in the waiting room when a person attached to the office called me to account.

“Let’s get you weighed and measured,” she suggested, an invitation I seem powerless to resist.  Ordinarily, no problem. I have a set of scales at home and have a reasonably well informed estimation of my weight. No surprise there. I do not measure my height, however,  haven’t had any occasion to, haven’t had any interest in my stature.

I’ve been five feet and eight-and-a-half inches since my last years in school.  A lifetime, as it were. One of the few fixed elements in a universe of constant change.  My weight has elevatored up and down. My hair has thinned, gone grey, thinned more resolutely.  My feet are flatter and wider. My nose and ears require some barbering.

I’ve made adjustments, accommodations.  I’ve faced aging without complaint. Pretty resilient, yes , no?

And then …

“How tall do you think you are?”  

Let’s begin by wondering why this question as I am about to stand on the device which answers that question.  Am I the control group in this exercise? Does my answer in any way change the recording of whatever appears as the flange is pulled down?  Just checking? Checking what? My awareness of the world about me? My veracity? My general state of mental acuity?

No, it’s clear as I call out my answer – five eight – recognizing that gravity has probably had its way with me over the decades, finally willing to let that significant half inch go, but before I’ve even stepped into the frame, this angel of mercy responds, “You think so?”

“You think so?”

That is not a question; this is taunting.   “What a sap! Living in a world of make believe.  How sad, really. How pathetic. ‘Five eight’? It is to laugh.  Why do they persist in such painfully obvious attempts at deception?  Who’s being fooled? Certainly not I, the health professional. Not I, the mistress of the actual, I, handmaiden to science.  No,once again, I do the job that only I can do. For only I can instruct this grotesquely self-delusive sod before he attempts to mislead another person of worth in his meaningless round of pointless errands at the tail end of his pointless life.”

Or something along those lines.  

It turns out that I am  now five foot six inches tall, if tall is a term that can be applied to five feet and six inches of male human in the 21st Century.  It was Robert Burns who in his “To A Louse” put the issue of self awareness before us in words that ring through the ages, at least to those who like a nice Scottish rhapsody.

O wad some Power the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

It wad frae mony a blunder free us,

An foolish notion;

Wat airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,

An ev’n devotion.

The crux of the address (to a louse, I’m just saying) is that it might be devastating to see ourselves as others see us.  Probably. We are mysteries to ourselves, so what else have we really got to do but wonder about the billions of individual life stories playing out in heads other than ours.  Not to get all Matrix, but since we can’t actually know the essence of what is outside of ourselves (wax is wax, Descartes argued, until it is touched by flame – a not-very-helpful analog to the figure/ground, observer/event paradox), so what the heck?  Let’s keep as far as possible from a probably mistaken view of ourselves.

That digression aside, this moment of clarity reduces itself (as it were) to one final truth.

I’m shrinking.

I can’t remember if those actual words are spoken by the central character in the 1957 film, The Incredible Shrinking Man, a somewhat hokey Sci Fi thriller written by Richard Matheson, a pretty fair twister of tales and a regular contributor to The Twilight Zone.  He’s the author of “Nightmare at 20,000 feet”, generally considered one of the top five episodes and plenty creepy. The basic plot of The Incredible Shrinking Man is that there’s this man, see, and he shrinks, an inch a week, which causes all sorts of problems.  I was too young to understand the terrible burden intense shrinking would bring to a marriage; let’s just say that the central character’s wife does not handle his predicament very well. She finally moves out, although by this time her hubby has become so small that they could cohabitate without much scuffling for space.  There are all sorts of thrilling challenges in the Stuart Little, man vs. cat mode, but the lines that pack some punch come at the end of the film.

Don’t mistake me.  This is a hokey movie without much in the way of true terror until …

There are really only two ways this film could have ended; either the effects of the mysterious shrinking cloud wear off or are reversed, or the guy shrinks until …

Yeah, and that was the part that drove me batty.  The actor prattles on about the comfort he finds in being reduced to subatomic oneness with the universe, but I was in no way comforted by his acceptance of his fate.

“I was continuing to shrink, to become… what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close — the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet — like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!”

The answer to the riddle of the infinite.  I was eleven years old. I had no place to put the riddle of the infinite, and from that point onwards, childhood ended, intimations of mortality overwhelmed me, and every day became existential boot camp.

All of which is to say, physicians beware!  You can weigh me, take my blood pressure, staple the little gizmo to my finger, but this shrinking man is hanging on to his sixty six inches with every fiber of his shrinking being.  

Ninja Warrior Production Meeting

Ninja Warrior Production Meeting

Scene:  Production offices NBC

Present:  Production team of American Ninja Warriors

Season Eleven!  We’re on now, what? Six? Eight? Channels. Plus On Demand? We need content, people I’m thinking three new productions a week. Same format . Expand the number of cities.

Huh? Iowa’s not a city. Let’s sharpen up here.

Yeah, Omaha is not in Iowa. Don’t worry about venues. We’ll figure that out. Content. Think Content.

No, what we don’t need are ninjas. Every gym has a nut jobs climbing walls and hanging from rafters. We got more ninjas than we can use. And they keep coming back for more. We need new. New content.

No, we’re not going to do Junior Ninjas. Sorry. I know there are no bad ideas in a creative meeting, but… that’s …. Thanks for your contribution, Bill.

Why? Because torturing kids is bad tv. Torturing adults? Gold.

Think. Not the same old courses. Something more … intense.

Animals? Bill, what does that even mean? Animals running the course?

Oh, part of the course. That’s not bad. What do you have in mind?

Badgers? Like the honey badger?

Yeah, I’d call them intense. Let’s pull the whole eviscerating fast moving cranky family of fanged predators from consideration for now. Wolverines, weasels …

What? Snakes? That’s insane … well …I guess constrictors could work. Focus!  The course, team. We need to pump up the challenge on the courses. The usual courses are fine for the prelims, but once these ninjas get good, most of them get through.

No, we don’t want them to get through. Or many of them. One or two.

Right. Because painful, shameful failure is great tv, and fat guys in Barcaloungers want to see these crazed chiselled ninjas hit the water.

OK, the snake filled water.

So what elements have we not considered? We did the enormous rolling log. That was good. No place to grip and the certainty of being crushed. Crushed then pitched into the water. More like that would be great.

Flaming darts?  Really? Great visual, but we can’t kill people.  We need obstacles, people.

Steve?  Some kind of grasping thing with tentacles?  

OK, and  suction cups.  Still not clear on the …

Not alive. Good.  A machine. Programmed to do what?

Hold them under water?  Isn’t that another way to kill people?  This is Ninja Warrior not Guantanamo.

Oh, just until they start to black out, then what?

Shoot them out of a water cannon?  Where?

The pinball level.  What’s the pinball level?

And the giant flippers do what?

We’re back to the flaming darts, people.  Test of stamina is one thing; death by giant flipper?  Not a good visual.

I’m sorry.  Did you say “reading challenge”?  Moving right along.

“Wall of pain”.  Sounds good, Liz.  How’s it work?

Who operates the nail gun while they try to climb the wall?  

The computer just shoots randomly?  Maybe hits; maybe misses? That could work.

Look.  The rolling log has been fabulous.  What else could we use as a rolling obstacle?

Bill, we’re not going to use a rolling animal.  Not going to cross that line. What is it with you and animals?  No, actually I don’t want to know.

“Balls of Doom”?  Don’t even …

An ice wall?  A wall made of ice?  Not bad. Not cheap, but not bad.  

Think hanging.  We knock off about three quarters of the ninjas when they have to hang.

Hooks?  I don’t think so.  Ninja Meat Locker. Not good.

We already have poles.  Nobody has any problem with poles.

What kind of adhesive?

We’re not going to wrap the ninjas in teflon.  Viewers like seeing nearly naked ninjas. That’s how Survivor gets thirty eight seasons, Folks.

Whirling blades?  Won’t that eliminate competitors a bit more forcefully than a splashdown?

Oh, like a jet engine fan, blowing them sideways.  Sure, sure. That could work.

Yes, Bill?

Pretty sure we’re not going with mascots, but if we do, you are first in line.