December 28, 2008

A Keyboard and a Knife: Editing for Blood

Since I was a child I’ve been learning to write. With some formal education and a lot of reading and research, I’ve stumbled across lessons and maxims which have helped me shape my voice and influenced my style. Some of these items which have come my way are adages, wisdom which I can no longer attribute to a particular source. Most useful to me in my endeavors is this line: “A good novel is not what you put into it, but what you take out of it.”

My first novel was written before I heard that quotation. Back in early 1991, I had the gall to think I could write a book. Like my previous short stories, I had characters in mind, a plot, and grand ideas about how to proceed. But, a novel? That is a lot of work, I thought. As I proceeded, I typed away with reckless abandon. The result was a ninety six thousand word manuscript which received dozens of rejections from literary agents and publishers alike. The common complaint was that the “pacing” was slow. Translation: It was too long.

In retrospect, I realize that I did not edit enough. Yes, I pored over the piece for typos, grammar mistakes, and punctuation usage. Yet, I declined to remove all of the excess verbiage and unneeded paragraphs. Like a cluttered room in a tiny house, much could be eliminated. There are passages describing streets, the weather, characters that appear in brief scenes and flowery prose which do nothing to advance the story. Before sitting down to write this article, I took the bulky manuscript out of its box and felt the weight of it in my hands. Examining the enormous size of this work, I surmised that I’d need an axe to chop away the excess.

It’s too late to fix that work of fiction now. I am on to bigger and better things. A lesson I took away from that experience is that I now do much of the editing as I move along. I’ll type out a page or two on my computer and hurry back to examine the length of the section which I am creating. After a break, I read each paragraph, slowly, and then hack away with the delete key. Perhaps I act hastily at times, but I write with my gut. This has become my process of authoring and maybe one day I’ll be rewarded with the so-called success of brick and mortar publishing. Until then, I am a hacker, a steamroller of an author with a sharp scalpel in my back pocket.

Yesterday I began my fourth novel. It is a story which combines many elements of my personal life; and, I am expanding those themes into a tale of a man who reaches the pinnacle of his life while at his lowest point. Having advanced a mere two pages into this outline, blood has already begun to spill. Nouns, verbs, and whole sentences are falling to their early deaths long before anyone other than the eager author, me, has had the chance to read them and make them live. It is nasty work; heartless, cruel, and very necessary. A good novel is not just what you manage to type. It is the result of some cold blooded editing.

-Michael J. Kannengieser

June 23, 2008

Threads of Yesterday

Early into Kindergarten I was taken to the doctor and given an emergency examination. My parents had an urgency which, at the age of five, I had never sensed before. Our family physician wrote a prescription and sent us home. I remember thinking nothing of it until I was spoon fed this foul mixture and I gagged before swallowing it. Also, my folks woke me in the middle of the night to give me this same elixir once more.

Youth and the fog of memory cloud one’s perspective and make the image in the rear view mirror of the mind a bit fuzzy. I needed the medicine, yet I wasn’t sick. Back in 1968, things were a lot different than they are today. I didn’t even have pediatrician. But, the fact remains that something happened to give my parents and the doctor a scare.

A young girl in my class died of viral meningitis.

She passed away at the age of five, and it troubles me that I do not remember her name or even her face. Perhaps as I write this, there's mother and a father who pause each day to recall her laugh, gaze at her photo, and shed a tear forty years later. By now they are elderly, perhaps they are grandparents; yet, how could they forget her?

My life and that of the little girl crossed at one point. Though the thread was thin which connected us, there was indeed a portion of the fabric of space-time where we shared a common patch of Earth and we were steered along a congruent path toward maturation.

To a greater degree, her parents towed the same line, and they stood at the edge of that plane of existence which I shared with their daughter. Is a tiny ripple of one youthful life so great as to cause a wave of emotion vibrant enough to continue to intrigue a grown man?

Four decades have passed and I still think about my classmate. She has the effect of keeping me focused as my life is supposed to have significance. I will explain.

My cynicism has caused to me to question my life’s purpose. I’ve derailed the concepts of destiny and fate having any sort of influence over me. Yet, I am able to connect the dots from many events throughout my past which, when held up to the light, spin a story of divine guidance which can not be ignored.

The players who’ve accompanied me on my journey thus far, including, family, friends, teachers, co-workers, and some victims I’ve encountered during my years in law enforcement, have all contributed bits and snippets of truth and awareness which only occurs to me when I cast off the cloak of skepticism and become open to the charms of serendipity.

I want to recollect this fated young girl back in elementary school. I can still see where she sat in class and the back of her head. With her brown hair clasped together to form pig tails, she sat upright in those first days of school and listened Mrs. Sisti teach us the ABCs. Is it fair that I made it this far in life and not she? What does it mean when a young person dies? How do I validate my additional forty years of breathing in exchange for being lucky enough to not get sick?

My conscience is not equipped to deal with transience, the algebra of survival, and cosmic disproportion. For this reason, I am compelled to assess my endurance, to make good on an unearthed vow evoked by my introspection and unadulterated scrutiny of what I deem to be providence. Why do I live? How am I so fortunate; and what is the toll for continuing along this thoroughfare, this life?

For the sake of so many before me, and including this girl of whom I write, I will endeavor to be a good person. My goal shall be to contribute something to the rest of us. Each day, I give a bit more, I think, as I follow a new string I've discovered with my eyes wide open and my mind cleared of wretched disbelief.

My children have passed the young girl in age; and, hopefully I will never mourn, God forbid, in the same manner as her parents do to this day. This girl, this fleeting life, still teaches; though her responsibility was never to die; but to grow.

There is a photograph buried in an archive of snapshots and Polaroids at my dad’s house. Captured on paper in one of these collections is an image of me in Kindergarten. I remember when this class portrait was taken; and, the young girl was not there that day. Her mom and dad no longer took her to school by then; and, she never hanged her finger paintings in the hallway with the rest of us for Open School Night.

I intend to dig that picture out of the drawer my father keeps his memories in. The will is there, but not the effort. Perhaps I will find it one day when I sit back and consider my life and how I got here. Sometimes, whenever I recall everyone I knew over the years, a little girl nudges me and reminds me that she was alive and that she mattered in this world. Her parents should know that a new filament has been cast across the dimensions between life and death, and their child continues to weave herself into the cloth of someone else’s being. I shall secure this lifeline offered me by my classmate and keep myself grounded with the concept that I will justify my existence and fulfill my obligations.

Many years ago, a mom and dad lost their daughter. This man, a boy in her Kindergarten class, will never forget her.

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June 13, 2008

Hold Your Nose: Here's An Old Short Story

Dear Readers,
Sometimes I am proud of my writing. Other times I cringe when I post something, unsure of how it will be received. This time out, however, I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that all of you will be appalled at what I offer here. This is a short story I wrote circa 1985, back in my very early twenties. This is the point in most writers’ lives when they are so confident that they believe that anything they produce in the form of the written word is simply wonderful and cannot be criticized. I remember working on this piece and thinking I was clever.

Two days ago, I found this story in an old notebook, read it again, and had the same reaction one has when they find a dead rat in their garbage can. With all of that said, I feel I have enough equity built up with my audience that even if I toss a stink bomb at them every once in a while some of them might actually return after the smoke clears and I hang out a few air fresheners in the form of decent posts. So now, without any further ado, here’s the dead rat I created back when I was a mere lad of just past legal drinking age.

-Mr. Grudge

The Concrete That Binds
Or: Tip-Toe through the Rip-Tide
(Copyright 1985 M.J. Kannengieser)

Alger’s murder was, of course, inevitable, and yet sickening to the many who knew him. There are some who did celebrate; but, most accepted the idea that it wasn’t his fault. Oh, Alger presented himself as a pillar of the community having finished a mail order course to become a fully certified Notary Public (though the authority vested in him made him drunk with power).

Never the less, nobody questioned why a sixteen year old high-schooler would have met with such a gruesome end.

Some would have guessed that he was shot. Former parents of his (Alger was passed from foster family to foster family, until he was ultimately taken into the care of a family of ferrets), were hell bent on seeking vengeance on him and would storm into Alger’s room at night and riddle the place with gun fire.

All of this started when Alger was small, perhaps two years old, and as a result he never learned to walk as he was constantly pressing his body against the floor and scurrying about to dodge the bullets (hence, how he met the ferrets).

Alger’s many parents were not overreacting, though they completely misunderstood poor Alger. You see, he was never given proper religious instruction; and, he merely saw murder and extortion as a means of getting close to those he loved, and not as mortal sin. Quite frankly, he thought they should simply drop the matter and get over it already.

Fortunately, Alger was never charged with any homicide, thanks to his high school principal (a closet pedophile), who graciously took the rap for him in exchange for Alger’s Polaroid’s (Oh, how Alger loved to spy!).

They way Alger died was officially a mystery until the medical examiner was able to chisel his way through to his body.

Alger had been scampering along the sidewalk one day (about ankle high) along with the ferrets when he plunged into a plot of wet cement. This particular concrete was the quick drying variety and he was became stuck right away. Certainly, the ferrets were unable to drag him out, so the plopped a straw into his mouth (the only visible part of his body) and continued to feed him Cool Whip and pistachio nuts (Alger’s favorite).

Eventually, Alger’s tremendous weight gain required a larger cement block. A local, shady contractor obliged the ferret’s appeal for help; but the ferrets, being nasty little rodents, had no money. When the contractor, eyeing Mrs. Ferret, suggested that there were “other ways” they could “pay” him, they flew into a rage, attacked the contractor, and gnawed his heels out. Fearing for his life, the contractor fled, tippy-toed, back to his office. There he enlisted the aid of his very large sons to exact his revenge on the ferrets by hurling Alger into the ocean.

Later that evening when the tide went out, the ferrets ran to the shore and found Alger in the shallow water blowing S.O.S. bubbles through his straw. As the ferrets struggled futilely to drag Alger out of the surf, Alger gave up, and he offered his last breath by whistling “Shave and a Haircut”.

The ferrets called the police who immediately tossed them into a sack and took them to the dog pound. There, they were placed into a cage with a large, German Shepard and eaten.

Eventually, Alger’s body was discovered again after several bathers at the beach dived into the surf and then floated lifelessly to the surface. This caused a spectacular news event and a police investigation.

A local contractor won the bid to haul out the concrete block which was killing off beach goers. In front of scores of news cameras, he hobbled directly to the spot near underwater slab of cement. A reporter became suspicious.

But how did you know to look there?” he asked. All the contractor could do was stammer aloud and teeter-totter back and forth on his tip-toes.

At the police station, the contractor admitted to dumping the cement there after cops threatened to prosecute him under the a sub-section of federal RICO statutes, which, in a nutshell states “Anyone in the construction industry has be guilty of something” The contractor turned state’s evidence against his sons and then entered the Federal Witness Protection Program, where he was fitted with artificial heels so he wouldn’t stick out in a crowd when he walked.

The Medical Examiner was allowed to chisel into the cement block after paying $100 to Local 306 Jack Hammer Operators Union, for a temporary union card that gave him permission to do so without fear of having his knee caps broken.

They found Alger at the center of the slab, clutching what at first glimpse, they thought was a suicide note. A specialist (actually a janitor at the morgue, the Medical Examiner forgot his glasses) determined it was in fact a Polaroid of the contractor and Mrs. Ferret in bed together the night before his heels were chewed off. Go figure.

For Alger, an epitaph:

For Ferrets of Love
And contractors of doom
To whom insoles mean embarrassing gloom
For him, Alger never did walk
Entombed in sidewalk, the world did gawk
At the bottom of the sea,
Among raw sewage and waste
With a few final bubbles, the end did haste

The End

Okay Readers, I won't blame you if you run away and don't come back. But, please, please don't go! I'll make it up to you. I promise!

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June 3, 2008

City Boy, Country Man

So, how was your trip?

I’ve been hearing that a lot since I returned from my business trip to Nashville, Tennessee. I’d like to think that my co-workers missed my company and were glad to see me back; but, judging from the amount of work on my desk, and from the deluge of telephone calls for administrative support I’ve answered, it appears that I was missed for other reasons. My trip went well, but it was no vacation, and it is great to be home.

Of course, no business trip would be complete without some sight seeing. The hotel and convention center where we stayed is less than one half mile from The Grand Ole Opry. The original site for the Opry was Ryman Auditorium, also located in Nashville. Sometime in the 1970’s the Opry moved to its current location and the show is as popular as ever. My point here is not to talk about the history of the radio program, or the many legendary performers who graced the stages of both the present day Opry House or the Ryman Auditorium. I’d like to make it clear that for one night, for a few blessed hours, I felt truly American.

Country music is alien to many New Yorker’s ears; and, attempts to bring country music to the Big Apple and to Long Island have either failed or been poorly received. There were "fad" cowboy bars in the 1980’s with folks riding mechanical bulls and wearing cowboy hats; but, those venues have fallen by the wayside. My place of birth, my home town, was never a bastion for die-hard country music fans.

Allow me to clarify by saying that you’ll find few people in my neck of the woods to besmirch country music. And, you’d be surprised to discover that Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings are respected names in many northern households. Yet, most country music stars are not part of the culture, and are not easily recognized by typical Long Islanders.

The Grand Ole Opry show I attended included a performance by a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. I’m ashamed to admit that I never heard of Little Jimmy Dickens, and I vaguely remember the TV show “Hee Haw” from the 1970’s which he appeared on several times. Another singer, Jean Shepard, sang and told jokes and was well received; yet I couldn’t pick her out of a line-up. Jean Shepard has been singing since the 1950’s and is one of country music’s legendary stars.

How is it that I’ve missed so much in my own country’s culture? As a kid growing up on the south shore of Long Island, much of what I listened to was British music. My generation was weaned on Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, and the list goes on. These bands are so ingrained in the culture of white, suburban kids from my youth and geographical area, that the fact that they are English musicians has long since been erased from the collective zeitgeist of my peers. These rock bands provided music to get drunk by, pick up girls, race cars, and skip school. Jimmy Page inspired generations of kids to become guitar heroes, just like him. Albums produced by our English "cousins" across the pond marked periods of my life when I first discovered girls, got my driver’s license, graduated high school, and fell in love.

The rest of my fellow citizens had different experiences while absorbing native music and sharing an indigenous musical genre. The songs they listened to reflected growing up on this continent, telling a native story, and they nurtured home grown legends. My visit to the Opry proved that to me; and, I felt as though I’d found the key to a vault filled with treasure, and that the key was in my hip pocket all along.

I have no regrets about my love of British rock; and, I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anything. However, I have the time now to listen with an open mind and a new appreciation for my fellow Americans as they sing about life, love, happiness, tragedy, and about America herself. To the Grand Ole Opry, thanks for bringing me home.

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May 15, 2008

Much Later, My Love

I heard a song the other day which reminded me of when I was a teenager. It’s important to know the title of this tune and the band that played it; and, what’s also interesting is that it made me recall a series of incidents which I find mystifying to this day.

As I sat in the driveway of my home listening to that song the car radio, I flashed back to my days as a sixteen year old working in the town library after school.

One of the librarians I worked with was a friendly woman with two children whom she talked about often. She lived in nearby town; but, not close enough where I’d know anyone from her neighborhood. I did meet her daughter, though, a pretty girl about my age, who often visited her mom at the library accompanied by her friends. I never said more than “hello” to the girl, and only once or twice I was in the same room with her as she would often enter the library and go directly to her mom’s office.

I left the job after I graduated high school and lost contact with the librarian and her daughter.

Years later, I met my wife and we began to date. While becoming acquainted, we talked about growing up and school and about our friends. It wasn’t long before we discovered that the woman I worked with at the library lived next door to her; and, that her daughter was my “new girlfriend’s” best friend. I also learned that their families were extremely close and often vacationed together. My wife considered her friend’s parents to be surrogate relatives, calling them “Aunt Millie” and “Uncle Joe.” When I was reintroduced to her friend, Diana, she remembered me from the library and our reunion was pleasant, if not amusing.

The one benefit of this coincidence was that my future mother in law was relieved to learn that her daughter’s new boyfriend, me, was considered to be a “nice young man” by her librarian friend, Mrs. Martens. My background investigation was completed with a stamp of approval coming from my former boss who just so happened to live next door to my girlfriend.

After four years of dating and engagement, we had a big, Italian wedding, and in due course, two wonderful children followed. During that span of time, I joined the police department and since retired, my wife advanced in her career, and we both reached middle age. Our family is doing well and I’d like to think that there is a lot more history to be made between my wife and me.

Every so often, we have some quiet time to chat as the day to day tasks of working and taking care of the kids means that we have few occasions to be alone and just talk. Sunday mornings, we rise early, at around six o’clock, and head downstairs while the kids are still sleeping to have coffee and read the Sunday paper. This is our opportunity to enjoy each other's company and to share a hushed laugh. Occasionally, we surprise ourselves.

On one particular weekend morning not too long ago, we talked about various jobs we had in high school. Of course, we reminisced about how I worked with Mrs. Martens all those years and eventually ended up marrying the woman whom she regarded her “niece.” I described how I remembered seeing Diana coming and going to the library with her friends all the time and my wife raised an eyebrow.

What do you mean she used to go to the library with all of her friends?” she asked.

I picked my head up from the sports section and looked at her. “Huh? That’s exactly what I mean. Diana always had a friend with her as she came to visit her mom.”

She never took anyone to the library but me. I went there with her all the time.”

My mouth opened and I paused a moment. Finally I spoke.

You mean to tell me that was you who I saw with Diana way back when I was sixteen years old?

We both stared at each other. It was a moment when we both understood how eerie the circumstances actually were. More than just the coincidence of working with Mrs. Martens in the library, and then meeting her again nearly ten years later while dating her daughter’s best friend, was the fact that I used to regularly bump into the woman I would someday ask on a date, fall in love with, become engaged to, marry, and father two children with. All of this happened long before I would meet her one evening in a loud, smoky, night club and asked her to dance at one thirty in the morning.

I have the chills.” I remember my wife saying.

Wow. That was you the whole time? I can’t believe it. And we wouldn’t meet again for almost ten years as total strangers in a bar.” I pondered.

It took a few more seconds for that insight to sink in for both of us; yet, it required twenty years for us to finally discover this concurrence. We still chuckle about it. And, once in a while, something will make me ponder the mystery surrounding the memories I have of a young, teenaged girl following her friend around the library as I watched from between the book shelves.

Her image remains blank, as if shaded to obscure her identity. In my recollections of her at the library, she exists as an anthology of fleeting glimpses and passing glances. I’m unable to conjure a distinct likeness of her. The discovery of our previous encounters is like unearthing a treasure chest and finding nothing inside. It hurts because I can’t envision her walking next to Diana; and, I wish I was able to remember what she looked like when we came within precious inches of each other not knowing that one day we'd meet again and fulfill a new destiny.

Yesterday I sat in my car in the driveway of my home, and listened to a song I first heard as a sixteen year old teenager back in 1980 while driving to my job at the library. Inside that building was a woman who would remain an obscure outline in my mind for many years until the day I found her again and she became my wife.

That song made its own significance clear by its title: “Don’t Stand so Close to me,” by The Police. For me, it reminds me of a young man edged by providence away from the woman whom he was supposed to fall in love with later on in life, and not before. Perhaps if I stood closer to her, if our eyes met and we chatted like two awkward teenagers, things would have turned out differently. Who knows? What I do know for sure is that I am happy. We are happy, together.

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May 6, 2008

That's for Life

On December 20, 2006, I woke up at around five o’clock in the morning, one hour before I typically arise, and did something I never do that early in the day. I checked my e-mail. My inbox contained a message from a woman whom I only knew casually through my best friend and former partner in the police department. Her name is Denise, and my friend Stephen hired her to work in the shop he owned. I helped out at his store fixing his computers and doing some counter work with the customers. Denise and I often talked and joked when we were there together, but our relationship was strictly professional as we were both married and had families. Besides, she was Stephen’s friend from childhood.

I was curious to see a message from Denise, but not shocked. I did give her the address, not one that I use for personal e-mails, but a Yahoo! e-mail address I give to people I am “iffy” about. The subject line caught my attention, though.

Urgent! Please read!

It wasn’t spam, and I didn’t think she would hit me up with some sort of business scheme; but, for the life of me I couldn’t think of a single issue where I’d need to speak to her in a hurry.

Stephen closed his shop up a few months earlier. Business in the shipping and receiving world was bad, especially since he had to compete with FedEx and UPS. Cutting his losses, he decided to sell collectibles on EBay and enjoy his well deserved pension from the NYPD. Denise started a new business with her husband and by then I got a job with my current employer at the college. With that said, I had no real reason to have any contact with Denise unless Stephen was involved.

I opened the e-mail.

Mike, call me the moment you read this. It is important. Even if it is two o’clock in the morning, please call. I need to speak to you!

She included her home phone, her cell phone, and the number to the business her and her husband owned together. At five a.m. I wasn’t going to call anybody, especially a woman I was only casually acquainted with; and, not with my wife in the shower getting ready for work a few yards away in our master bathroom. I didn’t want to have to withstand the district attorney style grilling she'd give me if I was caught calling a thirty-something woman from the secretive confines of our computer room at the crack of dawn.

I waited until I got to work. My job keeps me in front of a computer all day and I can check my e-mail messages at will. I opened My Yahoo!, navigated to my inbox, found her cell phone number, and then I called her up.

Mike, oh my God Mike. It’s about Stephen.” She was bawling, weeping uncontrollably.

What Denise, what happened?” My stomach tightened.

He died. He died last night. He had a heart attack.” She said something else but I didn’t understand it.

I was reminded of that old joke where the guy was bluntly informed “The cat died;” but, it wasn’t the humor in that gag which struck me, it was the lack of preparation for the sad news he was given which was the punch line.

There was no "wind up" to her delivery. She blurted "he died," just like that.

The relationship you have with somebody and how you are given bad news about them says an awful lot about how people think of your association with that person. Stephen was my friend since 1989. We worked together in a squad car for almost six years, backed each other up each other on the streets, and knew things about each other which our families were not aware of. Still, I found it odd that the only person to reach out to me during that initial period of shock and mourning was a woman I was affiliated with through my part-time employment.

Once, only a few years ago, Stephen helped me out by giving me a job, insisting on paying me to set up his computer network. Times were a bit tough for me and my family as I was recently retired from the police department. I had brand new computer certifications, but no experience. One evening, when we were locking up his store, I thanked him, told him how much he was helping me, and I added that I did not think I could pay him back. With a raised hand, he cut me off and said “Hey, we rode in a sector car together. That’s for life.

He died?” That was all I could muster in response.

She gave me the details stating that he picked up his son Jimmy, his only child, from the airport. Jimmy had come home from college to be with his parents for the holidays. Stephen was divorced, but he bought a home around the block from his ex-wife to be close to his son and to help raise him. To his credit, he maintained an amicable relationship with her for their son's benefit. I only met his former spouse, Terry, once as they had been separated for many years. That night, he took his son home to meet his new girlfriend, a woman whom he had been seeing for about two months. The three of them had plans to go out for dinner. When he was preparing for a shower, he fell to the floor and was unable to be revived.

I hung up with Denise and ran outside my building. It was a crisp, clear day, and I ignored the cold. The folks in my office couldn’t help but overhearing what I said to Denise, but they politely refrained from asking what was going on until I eventually told them about my friend's passing.

For about two hours I was in shock and denial. In order to make some sense of what happened, I called the county coroner’s office. A polite woman who answered the phone knew whom I was referring to off the top of her head.

Yes, sir, he was brought in last night. His ex-wife is coming to claim his body.

He was no longer a person, but a body.

After muttering a few polite words of thanks, I hung up. The Dean offered me the rest of the day off and I refused. The best way to deal with his passing, as unexpected as it was for a forty eight year old man to drop dead, was to simply put my head down and work.

After hanging up with the corner's office and conferring with my supervisor, I called my wife to tell her about Stephen.

What do you mean he died?” She asked with the same incredulity which I had when I spoke with Denise. “Isn’t he supposed to come over tomorrow?

She was right. He was due to come by the next day for an informal visit just before Christmas and I was looking forward to seeing him. Instead, I was going to attend his wake.

The next evening I arrived at the funeral home and was curiously pleased to see marked, New York City police cars among the clogged streets and parking lots nearby. Hundreds showed up to pay their respects. If you knew Stephen you loved him. He was smart, funny, gregarious, and had a bit of a mischievous side to him. But, he was loyal to a fault. As I wended my way through the dozens of officers congregating on the front steps of the funeral home, some I knew well, others only vaguely, it struck me that as good of a friend as I was to him, I was only one of many hundreds whose lives he touched; and, I am ashamed to admit that I was a tad jealous.

Denise arrived with her husband and sought me out. She explained that she did not know my telephone number and found my e-mail address on a scrap of paper at the bottom of her pocketbook. It was a minor miracle considering that I gave it to her a year before. Stephen’s son Jimmy was remarkably poised for a young man who watched his dad die only two nights earlier. And then I saw Terry.

A receiving line formed in front of her as she took up a spot near his casket. Terry arranged the funeral, the wake, and his burial. She even dug through his closets and found all of the items for his dress uniform, including his name plate, shield, tie, collar brass, and other insignia. She’d done well, and I was touched, as she and her son were the only family Stephen had in the world.

Hi Terry, you don’t remember me, but I’m Michael, Stephen’s friend.” I offered my hand and she took it and looked me in the eye.

You’re Michael?” At first, I thought she didn’t hear me. Then she repeated herself.

You’re Michael? Oh my goodness. You’re all Stephen ever spoke about.
She stepped back and looked me up and down. Then, she smiled, but not in a happy way; but as if to confirm a suspicion.

All these years,” she continued “all I ever heard was ‘Mike and I did this, and ‘Mike and I did that.He spoke about you all the time, more than anyone in this room.” Of course, she didn’t include their son in that comparison.

It didn’t occur to me that I was crying until she offered me a tissue. We talked a bit more and then I paid my respects to my buddy resting in a coffin.

Outside, I mingled with the cops, some in uniform and others in dark colored suits, on the front steps. Most of them wore grim expressions while they talked shop and reminisced about the good old days when Stephen was alive. I couldn’t wait to get the hell away from them. I was reminded of how much my life had changed since leaving "The Job" as I was now used to the more comfortable and safe environment the college has to offer. It was also obvious that one of the last connections to my former life in law enforcement, my friend and partner, was erased forever.

In the months following Stephen’s death, I was unable to get a hold of his son in spite of his acknowledgement that we should stay in touch. In addition, Denise has remained aloof. I do not want to interfere with her life; and in fact, we had no relationship at all except for when we worked at our mutual friend’s business. Every once in a while when I hear a joke that he would have laughed at, or when I see a gadget he would have enjoyed, or when I stumble on a difficult memory from my days on patrol, I think of him.

Early in my early career as a rookie, a veteran cop who was about to retire offered me this adage:

On this job, you’ll have secrets which you won’t tell your wife, your parents, your priest, or anyone that you know, except your partner. Those things die with you.

Man, was he right about that. As of today, I have nothing but a few photos to remind me of the time I had with my friend. In many ways, it is as if he never existed. There is no one else who I can turn to and talk about all of the things I did with him, and no one who will understand except other cops; and, still there are things that even they should not be privy to. All of that died with my partner.

A long time ago, we rode in a sector car together. That’s for life.

Author’s note: The original story about Stephen’s death Goodbye to a True Friendcan be read here. It was written the morning after he passed away.

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April 24, 2008

But for the Grace of an Old, Army Jeep

A few Sundays ago I had the opportunity to take our new car out for a spin. As I accelerated down one of the main highways just outside of town, I felt good, happy actually, and I hadn’t felt that way in a while. With a cup of steamy 7-11 Coffee in my hand and some jazz playing on the car stereo, I hastened past a crude, cardboard sign which simply read “Car Show.” An arrow drawn in magic marker led the way.

I thought to myself that this would be a good place to take the kids later on in the morning. My wife wasn’t feeling well and I felt that the little ones shouldn't hang around the house and waste the day. Then, I caught a peek at some of the cars pulling in the lot where the event was to take place.

Funky notes from the tune “Sponge” by Randy Brecker got my foot tapping and I sped on past the ancient, re-born vehicles filing into the car show’s venue which was a church parking lot. My new Malibu ran smoothly, quiet, and I savored my artificial world crafted by General Motors and my imagination. Everything beyond the windshield was a movie. Pedestrians and automobiles alike were mere extras to be seen and not interacted with. I pressed the accelerator and trusted that the police were not on the alert for speeders so early in the morning.

An older jalopy which caught my eye in the queue of car show vehicles stayed with me in my mind. More of a horse carriage with a motor than a family car, I mused that the scenery surrounding such a machine in the year it was likely manufactured was starkly different than in today’s world. My dad was an eighteen year old kid fighting in Italy when this thing originally cruised around the highways. Detroit in early 1940’s had shut down auto production to produce tanks, jeeps, and other vehicles for the war effort. My guess at the actual age of the car was based on instinct and a wish that I could peek backward in time to that era; maybe visiting my father before I was "born".

To see my dad in person wearing his uniform as he was about to be shipped off to North Africa in August of 1943 would have been spectacular, to say the least. There’s a photo of my youthful father clad in his army trousers and button down shirt, as he posed on the rooftop of his Brooklyn home before being shipped overseas. His face hinted at an innocent enthusiasm as he was only vaguely aware of the horror and death he’d witness in the fighting due east. I often wondered what it would have been like if I encountered him before his departure. These fantasies occurred to me often over the years as I gazed into his confident eyes portrayed in that image. Would I be able to interact with him? Would he understand that he’d survive this conflict and marry a beautiful woman have six children and stay married for fifty two years? Would it be necessary to warn him to keep his head down and to ignore the agony of multiple bullet wounds?

My daydream almost got the best of me and I slowed down to keep pace with traffic. I ejected the CD and tuned in to the local talk radio station. “Religion on the Line,” a local radio program, has been on the air for ages and I listened in out of a sense of nostalgia for the days when going to church was a big event in my family. I am more spiritual now than religious. My mind harkens to God and then my cynicism foils the attempts organized religion makes to subdue me. Though I am a sinner, I lead a moral existence and teach my children to be good people. The show’s hosts, a rabbi and a deacon, both spoke of the Pope’s visit to New York City. It’s hard to fend off my Catholic guilt and not sit up straight and think pure thoughts when the pope is mentioned.

Again, my mind turned to that antique car and my dad. Indoctrinated by Dominican nuns in Catholic school, my father’s loyalty to the Franciscans was fostered when a young priest from that order administered Last Rites to him on the battlefield after he was severely wounded. Coincidently, the priest was once assigned to a church my father attended in Manhattan when he was a boy.

After a fierce battle in the Italian town of Velletri, this priest came to my dad’s side shortly following a pair of POWs from the German Wehrmacht who almost tossed my unconscious father into a mass, temporary grave. They thought he was dead; and, when these two soldiers (older men who were conscripts from Poland) lifted him on a stretcher they fashioned from a door, my dad awoke, frightening them, and they dropped the door and left him where they found him. He’d have been buried moments later by the bulldozer covering the trench with mountains of soil had they actually dumped his body into the pit.

It was fluke, perhaps divine intervention, that two men from the same town, a soldier and a priest, met during wartime thousands of miles away in Europe. Yet the young cleric’s compassion inspired my dad, made him hold on, and ultimately led him home.

Later in the day, I took my son to that car show. My wife was still ailing and my daughter felt a bit under the weather too. Inside, there were some vintage military vehicles; some Willys Jeeps and an old Army truck from World War II.

Did Grandpa ride in one of these when he was in the army?” my son asked.

Yeah, he did, actually.” I answered.

In fact, the only time he time did get a lift in a jeep was when he was heading home. After two months in an army field hospital in Rome, he was ordered back to the states for discharge from the service. His wounds were extensive and he couldn’t handle a rifle. The young soldier argued that he wanted to stay and fight along side his buddies; but, he was no longer fit for duty. All of his friends were eventually killed in action among the hedge rows in France; and, my dad weeps for them to this day.

He is more than sixty years older than when he fought in battle and the pain of war persists. His hearing is deteriorating due to a German bullet which spliced his left ear canal, a fragment of that round remains in the base of his skull today, his arm and hand became arthritic from a another bullet wound, and horrific memories haunt his dreams and waking moments.

Using my camera phone, I snapped a photo of my nine year old son who wore the slight grin of a child who was proud of a secret; that his grandpa rode in an army Jeep just like the one he was posing in front of. For a kid, that's awesome.

In the back of the lot were the older autos, including the one I noticed earlier which caused me to fall into this semi-Somnambulistic state. Dark in color, very long with side running boards, this model was actually built in the 1930s. Still, I was accurate in guessing its age. Nevertheless, I was grateful that the mere sight of this restored motor vehicle got me reminiscing. There but for the grace of God, and a kindly parish priest turned Army chaplain, that I was able to enjoy this event with my son. My father could have been buried alive and this fine day with me strolling in the sunlight with my boy at my side never would have happened.

My entire life was owed to a gentle priest who reached down for a soldier’s weakened, bloodied hand and coaxed him to find God and survive.

After an afternoon of reflection, I no longer felt the urge to sneak back in time to caution my soldier-father about the impending danger of battle anymore. Things turned out well in spite of the war and his close brush with death. That young Franciscan priest became his lifelong inspiration, influencing many decisions which brought him to this point in his life where he frequently calls and asks "When am I going to see my grandchildren?"

On that glorious Sunday I stepped closer to God in the parking lot of a Roman Catholic Church, with my young boy holding my hand, thinking about my dad’s first ride in the back of a jeep, and about how gently the Lord guides our lives.

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April 16, 2008

Service With a Sneer

Maybe I love where I live too much to move; but, I am tired of the crassness, the rudeness, of the people in the area where I reside. Much of my travels have brought me up and down the eastern seaboard, as far north as New Hampshire, and as far south as Florida. The furthest east I’ve pushed has been to Pennsylvania into the Poconos. Outside the New York, metropolitan area, a strange transformation takes place: people become polite.

On Tuesday, I had a long day planned. Several errands needed to be attended to at the bank, the supermarket, the orthodontist (my daughter had her braces taken off) and then my wife and I took our kids to pick up the new car we bought. In the past two and a half years, I have not taken two days off in a row; so I used a vacation day to handle these matters. In my early day fogginess, I put my kids on their respective school buses and then set about my day.

My plan was to pick up my daughter from school at about ten thirty a.m. and bring her to her appointment. My first stop after that was to go to the bank where it was obvious that something devastating happened the night before. Crime scene tape was spread across the front, pieces the front-end of someone’s car were strewn across the parking lot along with sparkling, jagged shards of a windshield. Inside, I was told that the night before some drunken teenagers plowed their car head first through the front of the building at speeds upwards of ninety milers per hour. Thankfully, they were not severely hurt as the car’s airbags deployed; but, it was shocking to see such wreckage and think of what could have happened if they weren’t so lucky.

Then, I picked up my daughter from school and off to the dentist we went. After a much anticipated and exciting moment when the braces were finally removed, I decided to take her to a nearby pizza parlor for a mini-celebration. This restaurant makes some of the best pizza around, and I hate going there. Why? Because the staff there is so damned rude, that’s why. Yogi Berra is credited with a great line. When remarking about a particular nightspot he quipped “No wonder no one ever goes there anymore; it’s always so crowded.” The same can be said of this place, except that it’s busy because they sell tasty pizza; and, with that in mind, the owners do not feel it is necessary to be nice to the customers anymore. They have a product which is in great demand, and if anyone hates the service, tough. There are plenty more suckers in line, myself included. It’s a perfect Long Island tragedy and self fulfilling cultural phenomenon. No one likes impolite service, but we reward it with our patronage.

We ordered slices from a guy with a terse attitude and a waitress stepped behind the counter to ring up the sale. She blinked at me and merely said “Eleven ninety-five.” Then she held out her hand for me to fork over the cash. She did not say please, thank you, or anything else remotely gracious. The waitress merely announced the total and that was it. End of transaction. I’m used to this sort of behavior. On certain days, I am just as happy not to converse with the guy or gal behind the counter because this type of casual rudeness has been bred into me as well. But, the capper to my day happened when we left the pizza joint and went to a specialty supermarket to make a specific purchase.

My daughter is learning Italian in school; and, the Italian club is sponsoring a small event where they experience the culture of Italy; i.e. music, foods, art, etc. Each student is assigned to bring in one item for the event, and my daughter was to bring in Panettone. Served around Christmas time in Italian families, Panettone is a round, dome shaped cake which resembles pound cake in consistency; but, it can have chocolate chips, fruit, or creams added for flavor. My wife is 100% Italian (that makes my kids half Italian, and half of the rest of the world) and I am used to enjoying this cake along with holiday cookies and hot cocoa. The store we went to is a large supermarket catering to Italian culture. Knowing that we were way out of season, we took a chance, my daughter and I, and went straight to the bakery.

We'd been there before and the staff was pleasant and helpful on the few occasions we'd asked for assistance. Tuesday would erase some of that benevolence between me and this establishment.

Did you ever look at somebody and immediately think to yourself “Hey, this guy is a jerk?” Well, I had one of those moments when I saw the guy behind the counter whom fate guided me to in order for him to get me annoyed for the rest of the afternoon. At first, I chided myself for being judgmental as I had not even spoken to the man up to that point. Yet, my assessment of him turned out to be correct.

The employee in question was busy goofing off with a much older man while they brushed some yellowish fluid on what appeared to be unbaked bread. Right away, the guy saw me, and yelled to a young woman in the back room to come out and help me. He was too busy giggling with his buddy to assist some idiot customer.

The girl was nice enough, and I asked with the same confidence as if I inquired about purchasing a hamburger at McDonalds if they had any Panettone.

Pound Cake? Sure, we have some.” She said, and then she started to walk away.

No, no I need Panettone. Not pound cake.” I said. That stopped her in her tracks. By then I realized that she had no idea what I was talking about. She looked over her shoulder and deferred my request to the Jerk who already sized me up and eyed me as if I asked for something as out of place as communion wafers.

Panna-what?” He said with an “I can’t believe this moron” expression on his face. He squinted and raised an eyebrow and seemed almost amused by what he thought was my stupidity.

Panettone.” I repeated showing my impatience through clenched teeth.

There’s no such thing.” The guy stood defiant, with his balled up fists on his hips, glaring at me.

It should be noted that I do not suffer fools lightly. If I was in an ordinary supermarket and I asked for a specifically ethnic food and the guy behind the counter was unaware of it, jerk or not, I could live with that. But, this was an Italian store, with an Italian name, catering to Italians, and this man, a baker no less, not only never heard of Panettone, but he declared that it did not exist. The ensuing argument, which consisted of me marveling at the obvious, that he damned well better know what Panettone is because it is the same thing as walking into a Mexican restaurant and the waiters not knowing what a taco is. The conversation was futile.

Another employee came up to me from behind, on my side of the counter and said “Oh, you want Panettone? I have some over here.” This gentleman politely guided me five feet to my left and showed me two or three packaged loaves which had seen an awful lot of daylight since this past Christmas. We opted for the Italian cookies instead, and I made sure to say goodbye to the dumbfounded baker before we took our cookies to the register in order to purchase them.

The whole way home I fumed. I could see if the baker never heard of the cake, like I said, but he was arrogant, poorly trained, and resentful of the very people whom he needs to make a living, and they are customers. Like just about everyone I know, he and others like him feel they are owed a lot more in life. That no matter what they are doing for a living, it is not their dream job and they deserve to be rich and have an easy life of luxury and expensive travel. This thing that they are currently doing; serving pizza, baking at the supermarket, is only a means to an end, or, worse yet, what they are stuck doing until they win the lottery and get out of “this shit-hole.” Customers are to be dealt with, tolerated, and occasionally mocked.

Maybe I care too much about what I currently do and what I did in my former profession, and I am projecting my professionalism on others. But, I have a trip to Nashville coming up soon, my employer is sending me to a conference, and I know that I will be hard pressed to find someone as bad-mannered and nasty as some of the desultory malcontents I am forced to deal with here in my town.

Here's a quote which is appropriate for this article: “You know you’re a Long Islander when you don’t realize you love the place until you leave it.” Yes, that is true; but, there are plenty of strong reasons for wanting to leave in the first place. A longing for nice folks to interact with is at the top of that list.

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April 4, 2008

Sheltered Harbor

My home town of is located on the south shore of Long Island, New York. The Merrick Indians named the area "Copiague" which literally means “sheltered harbor." Early settlers adopted the name for their village and today Copiague is a hamlet within the town of Babylon. South of Merrick Road, which severs Deauville Estates (where I was raised) from the rest of the town, is the Great South Bay. The homes down there sit along canals which lead to this majestic body of water, which afforded a living to generations of hardy baymen who harvested it’s depths for clams, crabs, eels, and other sea life. The dwindling bounty culled from the bay still feeds Long Island and New York City; but, that lifestyle is dying. So too are folks like me who’s life is inexorably tied to the waters around Long Island

There is a saying: “You know you’re from Long Island when you’ve gone clamming at least once in your life.” That is certainly true for me. Many of my friends owned clam boats. These are long, flat vessels with a mini-cabin and ample space for a person to squeeze into and operate the steering wheel. Long clam rakes are tethered to the deck, and the bay becomes your home for a day. There’s something supernatural about breathing in sea air, sipping a can of Coca-Cola fished from the bottom of an ice-filled, Styrofoam cooler, and enjoying the view of the looming Robert Moses Causeway Bridge. A powerful spell cast by the briny bay water draws one back to its shores during the course of one’s life to relive those quiet memories.

From my childhood home, one can hear the braying of motorboats racing along the coastline during the summer. The salty bay breeze wafts gently into the neighborhood and teases the olfactory nerves of bored school children yearning for the beach. The beaches of Long Island, stretches of sandy Heaven along the south shore, remain burned, like sun on skin, with affection, in my memory. In my formative years, I was accustomed to this existence of carefree days swimming in the surf. My skin was tan, my hair bleach blond, and my muscles tone from swimming for day long stretches amongst the seaweed and horseshoe crabs.

My home now is on the opposite end of the Island’s spectrum. My children are being raised in a rocky, hilly, terrain alien from my oceanic origins on the south side. The Long Island Sound's whisper is too gentle to compel many more than a handful of seafarers to its banks in comparison to the mighty Atlantic; and, its beauty demands a harsher aesthetic adapted to stony ridges and sloping seaboards.

Long Island is, by geological definition, a terminal moraine; leftover scraps from a glacier in the shape of a fish. Topmost is the heavier portion, boulders and sloughed off bits of mountains. What’s left at the bottom is pulverized, softer earth and sand, pushed ahead as if swept by a broom. There is much more to the differences between the north and south shores of Long Island. There’s a class difference unique to the separate and unequal suburban towns on different sides of the Long Island Expressway.

The north is wealthier; the towns rich from higher taxes and a falsely perceived elite class of citizens. My original home on the south shore is composed of mostly blue collar working families; the school systems straining under the weight of too many students and not enough revenue. So many families, with the mother and father both working, have to rent rooms in their homes or create apartments within their dwellings to take on renters to help pay the mortgage and taxes. My roots are there. The return visits I make to my father’s home rile my senses and cause my skin to prickle with the residual anticipation of a return to the shoreline.

My wife grew up as I did. Summers at the seaside with her family provided her with parallel memories to mine. We often share stories driving around the omnipotent water towers both at Robert Moses State Park and Jones Beach, our respective awe at riding over the extended Robert Moses bridge, and the joy of body surfing in the foamy waves with sand in our bathing suits. Our own children are denied such a life. We bring them to the beach and their enjoyment is not the same. It’s as if we took them to an amusement park; its rides being the waves, the games being the sand and sea shells, and they lose luster and allure to abandoned video games and computers back at home.

There is no kinship between my children and the water. The Great South Bay and the sparkling Atlantic have no secrets to tell these outsiders. One has to reside along the edges, the sinewy strips of sand and shells, and listen from birth; there is a promise, a covenant between those who are enchanted and the ocean. It is a code, a lifestyle, and its bond exists forever.

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March 18, 2008

Writing Exercise: Creating Now for Later

There is a method I use to help inspire me when I have writer’s block. It’s simple to do and it is undisciplined: I simply write anything. An example of this is a piece I jotted down recently using the theme of unoriginality. My idea is that just about everything written has been said before and even expressed in the same manner by others. My only fault in writing this was that my subject was not narrow enough for the brevity of the paper.

To tighten the focal point of my exposition would have worked better. A precise argument is always the most effective; yet, my goal was not to create something publishable, but to cobble together an article which I might cannibalize later. To get my artistic juices flowing, I took an idea, rough on the surface, and ran with it. I am not proud of this composition; and, I am not anxious to publish it here. But, I think the purpose it serves is to demonstrate the decree I have been living by as a writer for most of my life; and, that is that a writer writes…always.

Many of my blog posts are rejuvenated works that I wrote years, even decades earlier. Much of my newer material is still evolving; maturing like bottled wine in the cellar until such time I find it necessary to take them out to breathe, and to be posted here. One of my recent blog posts was born of an extended poem I used as part of my training regimen back in the 1980s. The surest way I know that a story, poem, article, or essay I wrote is not finished is when I cannot come up with a suitable title for it. That is the case with the paper I will show you here. The idea is sturdy, but not fine enough. The last paragraph does not finish as strong as I would like it too, the imagery is almost non-existent, and I can’t find a proper name for this work. However, I like much of what I came up with and I intend to store it away in my notebooks and produce it again at such time when I believe I can tackle my treatise with the skill and voracity it deserves.

For today, this piece serves me well as a catalyst which propels me forward and keeps my literary voice honed. The working title of this workout is “In-distinction.” Perhaps other writers employ similar methods to keep themselves sharp, and I imagine all of us have volumes of unpalatable material saved on legal pads, loose leaf paper, and their computers. At great risk, I offer you mine here.


It’s difficult to grasp that there are almost six billion souls in the world today. Staggering still is the notion that there were billions more who lived before them. I am one; one man who feels the echoes of them all. My writing, as sparse and understated as any deficient poet, can merely express my own thoughts and meanderings let alone take on the accounting of civilization.

What I sense at my core is a ripple; several of them perhaps, and they spread from my heart to the tips of the hairs on my neck causing me to shudder. There is a spark to my stuttering; realizing that I speak for myself, yet others articulate the same things. Without ever meeting these copycat spirits both alive and dead who suggest my own ideas and relate my own calamities as they all experienced the same; I see now, I am not distinctive.

My mind is not my own as it was hewn from vast cosmic material as indestructible as God Almighty. Scraps of flesh from the departed are snug among the particles which make up my identity. We share humility, shame, agony, joy, selflessness, curiosity, delight, jealousy, and shades and shades of tempered sensations which repeat themselves across the eons on this worldly theater.

I can tell you about Jesus! Believe, believe, believe and then enlighten everyone. Write about my devotion, my conservatism, and my faith in spirituality over organized religion, and then pen my views. Won’t that make a compelling book? You wrote it already, didn’t you?

My thoughts are not yours. These words, they’re copyrighted, original, unstained by another’s pen. Whose work came first? Feel pain? I do. Want love? I am in love. Are you grieving? Here I am, let me tell you a story. My story, is it authentic? Do I remember it or does my great-grandfather? Ask my grandchildren as they will evoke this when they are born.

Food, sex, television, sports, beer, cars, music; I can write about those things. My novels appear significant; tales of men and women committed and their families slain. What about adoration and casualty? Did I say all of that with seventy six thousand words? How novel.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll discover a secret vault with all of the passions and clever schemes no other human ever experienced before. Have you seen it? My Forefathers did. I remember.

Maybe it isn’t that bad after all? Pay careful attention, because there is at least one line in there which is headed for a blog post coming up in the near future. I can hear the complaints already: “What do you mean, more re-runs?” No, not re-runs; just the same old thing, but better.

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March 13, 2008

"Six Word Memoir" Meme

I’ve been tagged with the dreaded “Six Word Meme” by a Rotus, the author of two really terrific blogs: “Rotus” and “I’ll Never Forget the Day I Read a Book!” How it works is the person tagged writes a six word memoir about themselves and post it to you blog. Then, link to the person who tagged you, and tag five more people. However, in keeping with my own theme of intrigue, I’ll hold off on tagging others as is my traditional method of responding to memes so I can use the tag on an occasion where I see the meme fitting. Those who have been tagged by me in the past know what I am talking about. Here’s my six word memoir:

“I have become a marvelous writer.” (This statement is strictly tongue-in-cheek!)

Pretty bold, huh?

March 5, 2008

Writing Home: Using One's Home Town for Setting

Creating fiction requires many essentials. One needs characters, a plot, setting, time period, and other factors which narrow the concept down to a point where the author may begin to write. Setting is key; and, as it often is with literature, characters are based on the writer’s persona, and very often, the characters live in where the writer does. How many authors can you name whose works place their protagonist in the very town where they grew up or where they currently live? I’ll give you one: Nelson DeMille has written books set on Long Island where he currently resides, and in New York City where he was born. This is a practice which I have only recently embraced.

My first novel, “The Tin Age,” is set in suburbia, and the main character, Martin Spratt, is a county police officer. I imagined the county based on the one where I reside and added many of the qualities which made this setting attractive to me: Hamlets full of quiet, tree lined streets, wooded areas on the outskirts of towns, and a government structure which allows for a full service, county-wide police department were the factors I needed to make the story work. In retrospect, instead of concocting a name, I should have simply utilized the actual region where I live as it would have been familiar to any potential local audience.

That is an attractive aspect to applying this technique as the residents of the municipality depicted in your story would be more likely to read your work and create buzz for you and your novel. This is a factor not lost on literary agents and publishers; in addition, this type of ingredient in a story works when employed the moment the task of writing the manuscript is begun. In my case with my fictional county, it would take a little effort to change village and street names to match existing locations; but, none of these roads and communities is described accurately in this story and a major re-write would then be in order to achieve authenticity. It is best to plot your location as well as your storyline at the outset as the two are intertwined.

With fiction, writing about genuine locations is useful if one wishes to add color, depth, and breadth to the story. Each locale has a unique and rich history. Customs are inbuilt, and reasonable expectations can be placed on climate, local customs, geography, and the speech of its inhabitants. Using one’s own native state, town, or actual place of birth allows a writer to draw upon their own individual experiences and include them in the narrative, albeit an imagined one.

For example, a writer may draft a scene where two brothers are walking to school. In an imaginary town, more elements may have to be explained to the audience by the author because the reader may not have a clue as the where these school boys are. The reader sees a blank, nondescript boulevard the boys are traveling on, and illustrative gaps need to be filled in by an author with different ideas than his or her audience. Experiences of the reading audience dictate how they perceive your imagined community. The more closely the reader connects with your characters' surroundings, then the more the reader gets from reading your book. If you write about a genuine place, then existing structures and sites can enrich your writing.

You can save yourself some time and set the story in San Francisco, for example, and mostly everyone knows that the roads there are all hilly, and the reader envisions streetcars as well. Write about real cities and towns and you draw the reader in. Use the environs of a region where you reside, and you’re an authority. The knowledge you have of the locale and the facts you provide enhance what you put down on paper.

With my latest novel, “The Daddy Rock,” I used my native Long Island as the backdrop. This allowed me to celebrate the beauty and diversity of the landscape as my protagonist, Roger Price, migrated from the low lying, seaside marinas along south shore to the rocky and elevated north shore. My childhood was spent growing up in a small hamlet by the Great South Bay. My south shore sensibilities are apparent in Roger as he is transplanted to the more affluent north shore hugging the Long Island Sound where I’ve settled and decided to raise my family. Familiarity with my place of birth allows me to effectively guide my characters and blend them seamlessly into a world with a readily available supply of buildings, landmarks, customs, and people where they can interact and play out the drama. Also, it is always easier to write about a place you are passionate about. Frequent readers of this blog are aware of my deep affection for my home, Long Island. That made writing my latest novel more natural.

In summary, when writing fiction, a valuable shortcut to creating a story’s setting may be to place your characters in the very town where you live in order to draw upon your own knowledge of the area, take advantage of a local audience, and to rely on local history, customs, geography, and landmarks to help you tell your tale. On a side note, I am writing a novel about a young man who joins the Russian Army and I may have to relocate to Moscow for a few years. Do they have the internet in Russia?

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March 3, 2008

Writing Against Type: Challenge Your Writing Style

Actors often fear being typecast in certain roles. For example, no one will ever watch a movie featuring James Gandolfini again and not picture him as Tony Soprano. This can help or hurt him, and more times than not, actors dread the results of being typecast, which means they cannot “grow” as an actor.

Consider the same consequences for your writing. A comment made to me recently concerned a very talented writer and his notion that he had been “hiding behind his blog” and ignoring his larger projects, meaning his novels. Speaking for myself, I am guilty of this behavior as well. My recent attempts to revitalize my writing have worked, and I am taking steps not to “typecast” myself into a role of sharing nothing but personal anecdotes about my life on my blog. This should be the challenge which you as a writer put to yourself: to produce a poem, short story, biography, or even a play which you never attempted before.

The end result of that written venture does not have to be the remarkable; it should be an instrument to discover new talents hidden within. How you ever had a workout and exercised “muscles you never knew you had before?” The concept here is to give your literary voice a day at the gym.

For example, if you’re the type of writer who consistently produces high quality, yet gloomy works of fiction, try writing a happy story. You may hate yourself as you do this, but the challenge is that you’re demonstrating an ability within yourself to construct worlds, characters, and lives out of whole cloth in a manner which you are not accustomed to. Writing against type makes a writer think, and often our routines and habits leave us bored and in a rut. A new style, and different genre attempted, can give one the jolt needed to craft something out of the ordinary when previous projects have yielded less than desirable results.

With that said, I’ve found that I read many blogs with beautiful and many times stark poetry offered by gifted artists. In my experience, I’ve authored some rhymes which I feel are immature and not up to the standards which these other lyricists uphold. Many of my poems were written over a decade ago. For the sake of this article, I’ll present one here to demonstrate my lyrical deficiencies.

Short of Buying Forever
May 14, 1985

The horizon struggles
To embrace the embers
Of discarded daydreams

And then…
A tip-toeing of trees

The hushing of branches
And dew drop serenity
Replenish leaky souls with hope

Settled in the twilight
Immorality hawks its wares
To a pauper with big, empty pockets

Maybe my ability has improved over the years even though I concentrate primarily on writing fiction. Recently, I've challenged myself to attempt poetry again, and I am able to illustrate that I can make keen observations about my own style by crafting symbolic verses. This is a rough draft of a poem I wrote about a week ago. The basic premise of this one is that I’ve witnessed too many people pass away; and at some point, the dying seem to accept their fate. In one or two cases, they appeared happy. Remember that this is a first draft, and I have unearthed emotions and a style which I may utilize again.

March, 2008

Eyes touched by imaginings
Silent people
The corners, from there
They beckon
Unfiltered by dust, accompanying angst
Ailing, infringed upon, a right mind

Captured by malignancy,
Invaded from within
One word, with such dread
Presented potions to purify
To wait, and to become

Diffused urge, sidelined fantasy
Embarking on Saturn for
Want of the Moon

Tomorrow’s rays,
Beyond the cradle
Unearth aged man
Inherited wisdom
For absent youthful humor
And then, approval

Bring here demise
Raised hands, encourage
Focus, exclaim
Repel denial
Return in grief,
In reverie

This is not poetry as I would want to enjoy it; but the idea is clear. Trust your writer’s instincts and research another form. Write a fantasy novel, a play, a short story. Take yourself around the block a few times, and you may meet some neighbors with interesting lives. Bring your laptop to a different vantage point and you might create a work of art. Challenge yourself, and you cannot fail. Stay safe, and you’ll lose your edge. Write, and write well, and you can live forever. Well, your words will anyway.

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