Where The Hell You Been?

One of the questions people who comment here keep asking me is what I’ve been doing since I stopped writing about eighteen years ago.

To be honest, the first year after I pulled my fourth Matt Jacob manuscript from Random House was mostly spent on the couch, depressed, watching television (depressed enough to watch daytime tv as well).  I knew I didn’t want to return to my former work as a therapist, but had no inkling of what direction to take.  Not a real happy dance through the park.

Henry Miller once wrote (and I’m paraphrasing) that when you’re down to your last dime, you walk to the mailbox and, bingo, there’s a check.  (Were that to be true for most people.)

Well, I got lucky.  My friend Ron Simon, (and my blood brother) the lawyer who wrangled me ouf the the Random House contract, was the present in the mailbox.  He called and asked if I’d like to help with a trial he was doing for a man who died from liver failure due to workplace toxins at a uranium enrichment plant.  Even though I had no idea how I might be useful, I jumped on the offer and a plane and hightailed it to Piketon, Ohio, where the plant and trial were located.

It quickly became clear I had a fair amount to offer.  I helped write and rehearse the opening, taught  lay witnesses how to speak to jurors, even prepped some of our experts about the pitfalls of using “fancyspeak.”  But most importantly, I was allowed to sit in on jury selection, which was my first step toward becoming a competent profiler and jury consultant.

Although we lost the trial, we won the war.  Ron was able to work out a deal with the defendants that provided the widow with a substantial amount of money. (I have no idea how he pulled that off).  I still keep his widow’s thank-you letter tacked to my office wall.

Apparently I provided enough help for Ron to ask me to join his team as a “litigation consultant.”  I’m not sure whether the term even existed before, but it did now and I had enjoyed all the work and time in Piketon.

Thus began a great adventure that had me commuting from Boston to D.C. where Ron had his office.  At the same time I put in enormous time studying profiling and jury selection, areas i was most interested in and for which i could my lean on my background as a therapist.  I was excited by this new turn in life.

For my first few years as a “litigation consultant,” we worked on a number of local D.C. cases.  We won a wrongful death suit against the city–the deceased, an FBI agent shot by a man who wasn’t “wanded,” searched, or asked to walk through the metal detectors that were situated at the government building doorways where the female agent worked.  We also forced the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to repair a large number of poor people’s houses they had severely damaged while constructing three new subway stations in a low income neighborhood.  This situation had as much to do with community organizing (another part of my background from when I lived in Chicago) as it did with legal pressure and negotiations.

But the most poignant circumstance during those early years came when one of Ron’s closest friends’ son died in the passenger seat of a recklessly speeding car driven by his girlfriend who survived.  Initially the parents were intent on a wrongful death lawsuit, but Ron understood they were really looking for emotional closure rather than money.  We asked if they’d be willing to sit down with the other family and try to talk things out.  Eventually they agreed, but the presiding judge initially refused to let me handle the mediation since I had no standing with the court. Ron fought (furiously, as he usually does) pointing out my background as a therapist and someone who had mediated a fair number of divorces.  Finally the judge relented since, by then, both families wanted me to facilitate.

Which turned out to be a very long, sad, painful eight hours.  Hours where the anguish of losing a child, guilt about responsibility, rage, rationality, all had a turn at the podium.  I’m grateful to be able to say that when the day was finished, closure had begun to finally take place, and the lawsuit was dropped.  It was gratifying to watch family members holding hands on their way back to their cars.  To top it off, the judge apologized to me for his original stubbornness and said he wished he knew about me a few months earlier when his niece had died in a similar situation.  His family members were still going at it, long past the point mediation could even be suggested.

Somewhere around that time I realized I could put all my prior professional skills to work.  I’d had extensive training leading different type groups so I studied and began running focus groups for particular cases.  I also recognized that jurors anticipated participating in trials that were like what they saw on television.  Clear, everybody testifying in sequential order, the judge acting as a kindly father figure to whom they could turn for answers–most of which does not happen at a real civil trial.  But more importantly, jurors expected stories—and the classic story arc they have seen in movies and on television.

Well, I was a pretty good storyteller and began working not only with Ron’s firm, but other lawyers whose ethics I respected.  I began to teach how to structure cases in ways that not only told a story, but told it in a manner that allowed for normal trial disruptions and recesses.  Hell, I even had lawyers read books on how to write screenplays.

Frankly, it was a gas to fuse my previous careers and use them to further that which I believed in.  But even as I enjoyed the work, the good we were sometimes able to do, the relationships with both lawyers and clients, the unusual experiences (I spent six weeks investigating the Oklahoma City bombing one summer), I still missed the arts.  Which was why I began to learn to play the saxophone.  And now, at this juncture of my life, it’s close to time to move on again.

And this time the change is coming without the couch and the depression that came with it.

In today’s world I have the opportunity to control my books from the ground up and I intend to try.  I won’t completely leave my law work behind—I’ll always love running focus groups and helping prep people who are fighting the good fight–but my focus is turning toward writing.

But this time I’ll take my professional past along with me.  You can bet your ass that the coined concept, “litigation consultation” appears as a new expression, and that my work with Ron will somehow be woven into my new novels.

Genre As A Dirty Word

When I first began reading fiction as a kid I never knew the word.  I was just happy to read The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift and others of the same ilk.  (I read the second generation Swift books because the first were flat out racist and made me uncomfortable.)  In fact, I enjoyed these series so much I read and reread them and still have many ceremoniously sitting on the top of my mystery bookshelf.

Mystery bookshelf?  Why do I have one of those?  Or a science fiction bookshelf?  The same question is also relevant to my classics, modern, and non-fiction shelves.  Why aren’t they simply in alphabetical order by author?

For decades I read without even thinking of categories-let alone the word.  I was omnivorous.  I’d gobble The Foundation Series, chomp down on popular bestsellers like Hawaii or ExodusI’d finish Hawaii and move on to Christopher Isherwood, Hemmingway, and Ursula K. Le Guin.  Later I’d go from Bukowski to Harry Crews to Bernard Malamud to The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (which I still imagine a great book and movie, though I haven’t revisited either in decades) to one of my all-time favorites Neuromancer.  In this sci-fi bullet train, William Gibson (known as the “Godfather of Cyberpunk”) chose not to explicate the world he creates but demands that you to buckle up and go for his ride trusting that you’ll get it.

Within all these mixes were sprinkled classics (a few), jags of nonfiction where I read everything I could find about one subject or another.  And, of course, tons of detective fiction by famous authors like Hammett, Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and the not so famous like Bart Spicer, Max Byrd, Brad Solomon, and Stephen Greenleaf.  (In one of these posts, I’ll dig more deeply into detective fiction authors and their influences on my books.  Though it might take a while since, at the moment, I haven’t much of a clue.)

Until I began my own writing career I never really gave the word much thought.  Though, by that time I was in my 40’s, and finally realized that genre was somehow less than literature, despite a definition that is not particularly pejorative.  “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.”

Benign enough.  But definitions don’t always marry reality.  Is a symphony inferior to a quartet?  Most wouldn’t think so.  Is rock music inferior to classical?  Hmmm, now the critics start yammering.  And if you translate this to literary equivalents, you’d have the same arguments.  Or at least quietly smug, smirky looks.  Genre books are always considered a lower rung on the writing ladder.

So I began to wonder why I was choosing detective fiction which, though elastic, really fits the word’s definition.  Was I afraid to stare at a blank computer screen without any structure to serve as a safety net?  Did I consider myself less a writer than those who strive to write “literary” novels?

For a while there, the questions kicked up a real block.  But then I reread Red Harvest and realized that if I could tell a story halfway as well as Hammitt, I would be lucky.  I picked up The Long Goodbye and decided that if I could pen sentences as descriptive as Chandler, I didn’t give a shit what my books were called.

And then I took it further.  If I were going to be labeled a genre writer, I was going to do everything possible to stretch the boundaries.  Sure, I’d use a generalized detective fiction structure where plot was important, but the heart of what I was writing about had to do with relationships, characters and their interactions.  Themes.  Those were important to me and would be at the heart of every book I’d write.

It also didn’t escape my attention that relationships, characters and their interactions are the meat and potatoes of every novel.  Which brought me to the point where I am now.  A novel that contains these ingredients, that explores them intimately, that is written well, that reveals something to its reader, and makes the reader feel–that’s a good book.  And if the author does enough of it beautifully, it’s a great book.  No matter its classification.

But it’s a funny world we live in.  People feel a need to categorize damn near everything.  During my last literary go-round, I repeatedly heard I wrote “airplane books” or “beach reads,” that is, books to toss once you finished ’em.  It usually wasn’t meant to be mean; ironically it often came on the heels of people telling me how much they enjoyed one of them.  But truthfully, despite my stalwart belief mentioned above, it used to bother me, made me angry or sad.

I can’t say whether I succeeded with my goals in my previous Matt Jacob books, or whether I’ll succeed when I write him out of retirement.  And while Matt and I are much older now, with eyes that look upon the world with a different perspective, both of us still think our hearts are in the same place about the interpersonal issues I care about.  And we both agree those issues will always be the guts of my books.

But while writing the Matt Jacob books, I learned something I had never before realized.  No matter the genre, whether it’s a bad book, or one that wasn’t even published, I have huge respect for anyone who takes the time and effort to write a complete beginning, middle, and end.

It really is that hard.

“A bad book is as much a labour to write as a good one, it comes as
sincerely from the author’s soul.” Aldous Huxley

Who Won The Game?

I’ve been a sports junkie for most of my life.  In fact, the only period I can’t remember being glued to the sports pages and tube was during my years in Madison, when the 60s provided their own other world.  But even then I kept my eye on Bob Gibson, the great St. Louis pitcher.

Sports have been a significant topic between me and many of my friends.  Is Big Papi washed up?  Compare Charles Barkley’s lifetime stats to Larry Bird’s, then tell me who was the better player.  What do we think about millionaires playing for teams owned by billionaires?  The list stretches endlessly (at least according to my life-mate Sue).  It’s that guy thing—the substitute or perhaps testosterone version of intimacy.

But today’s post isn’t about professional sports or my obsession with it.

The subject’s up because this year I’m co-managing a community co-ed softball team, Jah Energy (named after the Jamaican god).  I’ve played for Jah nearly twenty-five years, much of which I was a pretty good first baseman (“if you’re gonna throw wild, throw it low. I’m too damn short and fat to leap high, but I can pick ’em out of the dirt”).

Now though, I’m too old to play much anymore (probably close to, if not the oldest person, in the league) so the shift to co-manager makes sense.  Still, it’s super cool to hit the field every once in a while as catcher, watch my son playing first or outfield, my nephew covering third, and the diamond stocked with representations of Jah’s different generations–including some first year newbies.  One of the benefits of catching is you see it all.

But managing a community co-ed softball team is more of a challenge than I ever had as a player.  There’s finding enough women who want to join, for example, and deciding the minimum number of games people must attend to be on the playoff roster.  Collecting dues.  But for me, the most difficult issue is finding a balance between my desire to win and trying to have everyone play—no matter their skill level.  A seriously schizo experience.

When I held down first base, the answer seemed simpler.  Everybody plays.  But truth be told, I was a starter and mostly played  full games.  It was the other positions where people were shuttled in and out.  Kinda made my largess an easy do.

Come a decade or two, (and I was no spring chicken when I first joined Jah) our manager at the time began subbing me out.  I knew my skills were eroding and that the woman who replaced me was the better athlete.  Not only in the field, but at bat.  (A banjo hitter, I never hit a home run during the course of my twenty-five years.)  So for me it was still “everyone plays” in part, because I now was one of those “everyones.”  But another part of the conflict went internal; should the shadow of my former self play at all, or just let others take my spot?  And how much of the “let others” take my “spot” was really for the good of the team, or was I simply embarrassed by my declining ability?

Well, for the past few seasons, whatever the reason, I mostly chose the latter, satisfied to coach third base and enter a game in the late innings every once in a while as a defensive replacement at first or catcher.  This arrangement continued to shield me from the winning/playing time conflict.

Ain’t shielded no more.  Now most of you know I’ve had a pretty turbulent spring, so, much of the weight has fallen on Sara, my co-manager.  She also has difficulty balancing playing time and winning.  We talk about X, we talk about Y, but eventually we end up with a back-and-forth about playing a terrific outfielder the whole game or replacing him halfway through when each fly ball then becomes an adventure?

One might think it’s an easy call. Stay the course, play everyone, and that be it.  But losing regularly, even in a community league, grinds the grit from your spirit.  Not just mine, but the whole team’s–even those who spend a lot of bench time.  Slowly my take on “everybody plays” began to change.  I too was tired of losing and grew closer and closer to playing our best players as much as possible.

Only as manager, I’m forced to see and accept both sides of the issue.  Despite my desire to win another championship (we’ve won two), a season that runs April through August requires a significant time commitment.  From where I now sit, it’s just not fair or okay to keep people with less skill off the field game after game.  To say nothing of the legitimate complaints that would hit the fan if we actually worked it that way.

So Sara and I middle it, which probably pleases no one.  We work hard to find times when substitutions might not affect the outcome—a situation that doesn’t occur during too many games.  We also try to play our best players much of the time, but wewill take ’em out if the need to get someone else into the game is greater.  Much to the chagrin of those who come out and those who really want to win.

And this is just the regular season.  What’s gonna happen during playoffs?

To be honest, this managing gig is a gut buster and man, I miss the days when playing time decisions weren’t mine to make.  But time doesn’t reverse itself (except in Superman comics) and since this team means so much to me that I plan to have my ashes spread over our home field, I expect to be struggling with this shit for years to come.

Part 2: Television Giveth, Television Taketh Away

Given the nature of my personality I’m starting with the “takes.”

Like it or not, we live in a capitalistic society where viewership rules commercial television. (That is, stations whose programs are interrupted by commercials as opposed to those that are not.)  Hell, you can’t sell four-hour erections if no one is watching.  I also understand, maybe better than most, that sometimes the best thing to do is to let a program die.  Writers or actors can “burn out.”  Or, their shows can–as character arcs or plots are plumbed past the point of authenticity.  It’s not for nothing that our standard phrase for artistic burnout, “jumping the shark,” was named and defined by a specific episode of a long running show.  (Curious? http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=jump%20the%20shark.)

The above factors also play into corporate decisions made by “non-commercial” television as well–a prime example, The Sopranos on HBO, which didn’t depend upon specific sponsors.  Truth is, I was fine with the way they ended the show—it was time and rather than milk their cash cow, they gave viewers plenty of warning and resolved many of the ongoing subplots.   Although I wasn’t particularly jacked by the last shows, I felt the station handled the conclusion in a timely and fair manner.

Not so with a couple other HBO programs, which I believe also had significant artistic merit.

About two weeks ago HBO announced that In Treatment was going to be cancelled.  No explanation, no viewership numbers, no warning, no tying up of loose ends, no nothing.  In a statement, the network said: “It’s true that we have no plans to continue with ‘In Treatment’ as previously formatted. However, we are in continued conversations with the executive producers to find another way to continue telling these rich stories.”  I hope they do, but given their bullshit about Deadwood, I frankly don’t believe them.

For those unfamiliar with the show, In Treatment was based on an Israeli series about a psychiatrist and his work with clients,Bi Tipul, which copped every possible drama series award at the Israeli Academy Awards.  The American version didn’t do too shabby either, scoring an Emmy, Golden Globe and Writer’s Guild during its three year run.  The show starred Gabriel Byrne as a psychologist who worked with four different clients (one a night the first season then his own therapist, Diane Wiest, on the fifth.)  Later HBO changed tinkered with the nightly set-up, but the format (four clients then his shrink, Amy Ryan, who took over when he moved to Brooklyn) remained the same.  As a former therapist, I was impressed with the interactions Byrnes had with his clients and especially those with his own therapist in season three when his life was dissembling.  His ability to both succeed—especially with adolescents–and fail despite his best efforts, reflected a reality with which every counselor must deal.  The show also presented the difficulty of keeping ‘clinical distance’ from people with whom a therapist has an intimate relationship—one sided as it may be.  The presentation of Byrnes’s interactions with his own shrink was often brilliantly written with undercurrents of his clients’ issues permeating his own.

Then In Treatment was gone–as if you were in the middle of a fine book, movie, or play that was simply snatched away.  This is not only lousy television business, but a psychologically damaging situation that any decent therapist would find extraordinarily painful.  It is as if the cancellation spit upon the very nature of the show itself.

The other series HBO taketh away much too soon was Deadwood, a sprawling western that, season by season, tracked the establishment of the Dakota Territories—from wilderness to outposts, to towns, then states–along with the beginning of western capitalism.  Not for the faint-hearted, Deadwood had no qualms mixing Shakespearian language and drama with over-the-top profanity and violence that actually occurred in the settling of the West.  Through the three twelve episode seasons, Deadwood, with the use of historical characters like Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and George Hearst told the story of an evolving country and economic system.  This was no “shoot ’em up,” but the depiction of actual American history delivered in a unique and incredibly interesting manner.  Not for nothing was it awarded eight Emmys and a Golden Globe.  But no matter, the show was simply shut down mid story.

This time though, HBO promised a consolation prize—finishing  the series with two full length movies.  Seduced and abandoned, I’ve been waiting since 2008.  My popcorn is stale.  Time to stop holding my breath.

Bottom line: Viewers deserve better from both network and cable television.  There needs to be room in this medium to carry critically acclaimed shows whether they attract enough subscribers and dog food buyers or not.  And why stop at television?  Artistic merit needs to be a commitment that every publisher, producer, and studio adhere to.  It simply cannot just be “show me the money.”  Yes, commerce is all—we live in America—we get it.  But perhaps our entertainment media should tithe—devoting a percentage of their budget to artistic books or programming that deserve to be out there just because they’re worthwhile or make their audience richer, better people.  And if they can’t do it “for art’s sake,” producers and publishers can think of them in commercial terms—loss leaders.

And now for the “Giveth.”

Two shows immediately spring to mind.  Since I just slammed HBO it’s only fair I give it its due for carrying Tremé, a program named after a New Orleans neighborhood.  The action begins three months after Katrina’s devastation of the Black community.  We follow musicians, chefs, Mardi Gras Indians and regular New Orleans citizens as they try to rebuild their lives.

Again, the interpersonal relationships seem spot on and the horror of the storm’s damage and our government’s indifference is immensely moving.  Although there are multiple plot lines carried by Melissa Leo, (Academy Award winner for Best Actress from the movie The Fighter), Wendell Pierce (from The Wire), Khandi Alexander (CSI Miami), and more, for me, and many people I know, the show is really about the redemptive quality of music in the face of tragedy.  An intangible phenomena but one that wails loud and clear from Tremé’s constant foreground and background musical notes.  Even the opening credits’ song and dance brings a smile despite the depiction of the ravages of people’s lives.  From where I sit (which is often in front of my TV), the show wraps its arms around the healing quality of music, food, and people’s refusal to give up.  As an aside, the show uses actual New Orleans residents and professional musicians to create this healing process.

The Killing, shown on American Movie Classics, (AMC), concerns a Seattle-based murder investigation of a young girl with each episode lasting one complete day.  The lead detective is Mirelle Enos (a Tony nominee [Honey] for the Broadway playWhose Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the twin sisters, Kathy and Jodeen Marquart, in Big Love.).  The New Yorker has trouble with her low key acting, but my take has her playing off the surrounding characters except during her personal life scenes when Mirelle’s inner intensity and conflict are clearly apparent.  Her partner is a strange young man who seems more criminal than cop—someone who Enos has a great deal of trouble trusting.  Nonetheless, they manage to work together well enough to move the investigation forward, if not always in the correct direction.

The other aspect of the show worth noting is what Ms. May from The New Yorker calls “atmospherics.”  That is, the constant, unending drizzle Ms. May decries as rain making machines.  I beg to differ. We celebrate “atmospherics” (lighting) in film noir. In The Killing, like in Blade Runner, the rain becomes another character that underscores the loss and pain of losing a child and control of one’s life.  Tears.

For me, the primary draw is the dead girl’s parents.  The Killing follows their slowly devolving emotional spiral rather than presenting one note grief, anger or an accelerated 5-stage Kubler Ross demo.  The show takes its time and pulls no punches when it comes to their pain, rage, impotence, and demands to the police.  There are suspects, but as the days pass, the plot twists and turns in some pretty complicated and surprising ways.

The Killing is an adaptation of a Danish series called Forbrydelsen, (The Crime) but the AMC producers, directors. writers, and actors have managed to create an original, unique procedural detective show.  Bravo, AMC.

My concern, however, is whether the station will actually allow the show to continue since it’s not your garden variety Law & Order or CSI.

A fear for all that I find special on television.

“When you re-read a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before.” Clifton Fadiman