Friday, August 26, 2016

Be there in one hour

Twice in the first 20 minutes of Jason Bourne characters call for meetings "in one hour." Later in the movie, Bourne himself calls another man and tells him to be at "Paddington Plaza in 15 minutes." I didn't notice anyone looking at watches, computers, phones or clocks on the wall to see what time it was now so they would know what time the meeting would be. Yet everyone was on time for each of those meetings.

It's only a movie, as Alfred Hitchcock liked to say, yet even in real life one sometimes encounters strange ambiguity with regard to time. Have you ever seen a sign on the door of a small shop that says something like "Back in 30 minutes"? Of course, you just got there and have no idea if the sign was posted one minute ago or 29 minutes ago.  Should you wait, leave and come back later or just leave and forget about it? Small businesses need every customer they can get, so you might think those minding the shop would want to be more specific about when they will return.

And as for those espionage types in Jason Bourne, you would think, with lives on the lines, they would want to be very specific about the times of their meetings, 2 p.m., say, or 1400 hours. A meeting "in one hour" suggests to me a meeting that will start whenever everyone gets there. No rush. Yet the movie is a constant rush.

An old friend is coming to my house today "around 3 o'clock." He may arrive a few minutes earlier or an hour later. No big deal either way. But it's a social call, not business and certainly not the CIA.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Someday soon

He had wanted to tell her lies beginning with the word someday.
Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary

The phrase "someday when we're rich" is something of a running joke in my family. That cottage by the lake, that new Lexus, that trip around the world will all be ours "someday when we're rich." We don't play the lottery, so our chances of winning a jackpot are slightly less than that of those who do. There will be no more inheritances. Now that we are retired and living on a fixed income with an ever-shrinking nest egg, that joke is becoming less funny. Or more so. I'm not sure which.

During our week in a Tennessee log cabin, my wife and I watched four Ma and Pa Kettle movies. Whenever Ma asks Pa to dig a well or fix the front door, his response is always some variation on, "I plan to get around to that someday." Then he goes back to his nap, goes fishing or whatever.

We all use the word someday a lot, such as when bumping into an old friend on the street or in the supermarket. "I'll call you someday and we'll get together," someone will say. Sometimes that happens. Usually it doesn't.

Snow White sings, "Someday my prince will come."

Judy Collins sings, "Someday soon, going with him, someday soon."

Dr. Martin Luther King said, "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live up to its creed."

Christians say Jesus will return someday.

Words like someday and one day challenge us to make a choice. Are we hearing a joke or a promise? Is it an ideal, a dream or a statement of faith? Or is it just a pretty lie?

Monday, August 22, 2016

The story is ourselves

"If Sarah Canary is just what she seems, harmless, vague ..." Chin thought Sarah Canary had never seemed harmless or vague to him. Mysterious, rather. Possibly powerful. Certainly purposeful.
Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary

When you make assumptions about people, assume you are wrong. That is one conclusion to be drawn from Karen Joy Fowler's mysterious, powerful and certainly purposeful 1991 novel Sarah Canary.

Sarah Canary, a name just bestowed on her because nobody knows her real name, is mute. She is a "strange and ugly white woman" who shows up in the Pacific Northwest in the 1870s. Everyone has a different idea of who or what she might be. To Chin, who has come all the way from China to work on the railroad, she seems like a ghost, and he feels somehow obligated to watch over her. Soon she is assumed to be mentally ill and, along with Chin, is locked away in an asylum. She soon escapes with Chin and B.J., another of the inmates.

Later Sarah is thought to be a wild woman raised by wolves and is made a part of a traveling show, even though audiences find her disappointingly tame. Adelaide, a suffragette, mistakes her for a woman on the run for killing her husband. Others think her a man in disguise. There is even a suggestion she could be an alien from outer space. Readers never discover who Sarah Canary really is. True to the spirit of her novel, Fowler lets us make our own assumptions and draw our own conclusions.

Yet Fowler's novel is more than a satire on people's misconceptions about other people. It could be viewed as a philosophical treatise on reality itself. Consider the following lines near her conclusion:

"What we say occupies a very thin surface, like the skin over a body of water. Beneath this, through the water itself, is what we see, sometimes clearly if the water is calm, sometimes vague if the water is troubled, and we imagine this vision to be the truth, clear or vague. But beneath this is yet another level. This is the level of what is and this level has nothing to do with what we say or what we see."

And a few pages later:

"We listen to stories and forget that the listening also tells the story. The story we hear is ourselves. We are the only ones who can hear it."

Thus, what I see and hear is not what you see and hear, even if we are in the same place at the same time. It helps explain political differences, religious differences and, in fact, the differences that create every division, every argument, every war. It also explains the power of literature itself. What I read in a story, including this story, is not at all what you will read.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Newsroom lingo

For a press veteran like me, one of the pleasures of reading John Darnton's newspaper-based murder mystery Black & White and Dead All Over is the frequent use of newspaper lingo. As with most enterprises, newspapers have their own terminology, words that mean something to those who work there that they don't mean to most other people. Here are a few of those terms I found in Darnton's novel:

spike - When I started in newspapers back in the Sixties, sharp spikes could be found point up on editors' desks in any newsroom. They are rare, if they exist at all, now that stories are written and edited on computers, not paper. Spike, the noun, became spike, the verb, in newspaper parlance. It refers to when an editor decides not to run a story. One of these spikes is found in the body of the first victim in the novel. An editor is literally spiked himself.

desk - Most people who work in a newsroom have a desk, but the desk commonly refers to the copy desk, or the area where the copy editors do their work.

reefer - This has nothing to do with drugs when used in a newsroom. Rather it is the term for a teaser on a cover page that refers to an inside story.

lede - This is the term for the first paragraph of a story. So why isn't it spelled lead? Well, lead means something else in the newspaper business. It refers to the space between lines. Decades ago, type was made out of lead, and pressmen would put thin strips of lead to stretch out a story to fit the space available. That was called leading.

deadline - Well. everybody knows what a deadline is. We all have them from an early age. But deadlines are taken very seriously in the newspaper business. There are deadlines for reporters to get their stories to editors, deadlines for editors to the production department, deadlines for the presses to start and deadlines to get the newspapers into the hands of carriers. Advertising departments have their own deadlines. Missed deadlines cost money, so the pressure to meet those deadlines can be intense.


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Murder in the newsroom

One need not have ever worked for a newspaper to appreciate John Darnton's 2008 mystery Black & White and Dead All Over, but it helps. Darnton, who had a long career as a reporter and editor for The New York Times, makes the murder of an editor for the fictional New York Globe the core of his story. And it appears to have been an inside job. There is no shortage of suspects, for not too many staff members liked Theodore Ratnoff. One who did, a woman who was having an affair with him, is soon found dead as well.

Darnton seems as interested in satirizing the newspaper industry as he is in crafting an entertaining murder mystery. He jabs at the trend, already well underway in 2008, for newspaper executives to seriously downsize both staff and news coverage, then wonder why they continue to lose readers. And after the first newsroom murder, the Globe editors bury the story, page-one news for their competitors, on page 32. Newspapers famously hide their own bad news.

The author's handling of newsroom politics and operations often seems better than his handling of the  mystery itself. The latter is interesting enough, but as bodies pile up and the serial killer keeps finding more outlandish ways of getting rid of enemies on the staff, the mystery itself falls into satire.

So it's not the best mystery you are likely to find, but you will find it entertaining, especially if, like me, you have worked for a newspaper.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Finding ourselves in the story

It's a strange sensation to read a novel about a place you know well. It had never occurred to me, growing up in that neighborhood, that it contained the stuff a great book can be made of. The great books, as they were force-fed to us in the schools, were about other countries, other cultures, other centuries. And the duller they were, the greater they were.
Mike Royko, May 13, 1981, reprinted in One More Time

Nelson Algren
I have read hundreds, probably thousands of novels and short stories in my life. I don't recall any set in my own time and place or that really nailed me as a character. Even those Dick and Jane readers in early elementary didn't seem to be about me. I didn't know any kids who got that excited about just seeing a dog run. Yet I could almost always find something of myself in these stories, whether they were Dick and Jane, Pride and Prejudice, Crime and Punishment or The Old Man and the Sea. Good stories, or even bad stories, are about people, and people everywhere have some things in common.

Mike Royko wrote his column shortly after the death of novelist Nelson Algren, who often wrote about the same Chicago neighborhood where Royko grew up. He said he first read The Man With the Golden Arm while a soldier in Korea, and he was shocked to discover the story took place in an area he knew very well. "He had the people, the sounds, the alleys, the streets, the feel of the place," Royko wrote.

One can understand why that would be thrilling. Just finding a scene in a novel that takes place somewhere where one has visited, such as the Eiffel Tower or the Grand Canyon, can bring a sense of connection. Yet a story really doesn't have to be about us to be about us. When we experience fear when a character is in danger, compassion when a character suffers or celebratory when a character prevails in the end, then no matter who the characters are or where or when the story takes place, it is really about us.

Friday, August 12, 2016

When bad, Rumpole's very good

Rumpole Misbehaves (2007), the last of John Mortimer's novels about veteran British barrister Horace Rumpole, gives us more of what we expect (and desire) from these stories, as well as something new. What's new? Well, Hilda, She Who Must Be Obeyed in Rumpole parlance, decides to study law herself. Why should her husband have all the fun? Meanwhile, Rumpole, who for years has ridiculed the initial QC after the names of higher-ranking lawyers as meaning "Queer Customer," decides to try to become an elite Queen's Counsel himself. And thanks to Hilda's intervention, Judge Bullingham, Rumpole's longtime adversary in the courtroom, someone who can always be counted on to take the prosecution side, intervenes on his behalf.

Meanwhile, Rumpole gets the chance to defend, "alone and without a leader," a man accused of murdering a prostitute. He has other cases, too, all of which seem to conveniently aid him in defending the man being tried for murder.

As for the misbehavior mentioned in the title, Rumpole ignores a workplace directive prohibiting food, drink and smoking in chambers. The barrister manages to defend himself as ably as he defends his clients.

This is hardly one of the late John Mortimer's best Rumpole stories, yet it is great fun and not to be missed by fans of the series.