Rejected Story Ideas

I like to write fiction, and have a huge stockpile – binders full! – of really bad stories.

A lot of you guys are writers. You know how it goes. You work on something and then it runs itself into the ground and it never sees the light of day. This is a tragic situation. Only 1% of writing ever makes it into a final draft. And what happens to the rest? It gets thrown away. A lot of good stuff that doesn’t quite fit into the final form has to be cut. Or a premise is developed and it never goes anywhere.

So this is the first – and perhaps last – installment of Rejected Story Ideas. Stuff from my binders that I’ve never been able to get off the ground.

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The Professor Trilogy

1

Some scientific entrepreneur—let’s say Elon Musk—finds way of reviving body of FDR within days of 2020 Presidential Race in which Donald Trump is running for re-election. Zombie FDR wins in landslide.

2

Sociologist/professor develops algorithm & test for determining citizens’ fitness to vote. Rules out dumb voters vs. smart voters. Part IQ test, implicit bias test, sensitivity test, etc. Professor is world-renowned researcher. Gives TedTalks, writes best-selling books, is public intellectual of highest order; very witty and likable and good-looking. Work reviewed by many in media as ‘that which will save our civilization,’ etc. Research into political upheavals and human motivation ‘will add to 21st century era of technical and political crises a note of humanity and tenderness.’

In latter stages of development, professor excitedly makes a much covered & talked about presentation to his local government authorities about new findings and voter test. Unexpectedly government eagerly adopts findings & test, and immediately writes as mandate into local voting laws. Now all citizens must take test to vote. Mayor praises professor as guardian of humanist values & unimpeachable genius. Ensuing media coverage reaches boiling point. Begins national conversation re voting rights and government sovereignty. Is freedom dead in America? is one headline. New voting test now weeds out bottom feeders another reads. Professor receives many letters of commendation from well-known figureheads such as celebrities & business people & heads of State, as well as a few crazed death threats on Twitter from people with fewer than 50 followers.

In response to the viral articles & national media attention, professor & newly hired public relations manager concoct event to ease polarized tensions and news coverage. Also, PR guy adds, this will be a way for the professor to show himself as an upstanding and generally nice guy and not in any way above his own critiques of society & public life. The event is a press conference to be held at town city hall in which professor will be the first local citizen re-registering to vote using own test. Cameras are rolling as the professor fills out test on iPad and questions are projected onto a jumbo-screen & Facebook Livestream; questions like: If an elderly lady is clearly seen to be unknowingly wandering into oncoming traffic, how likely are to lend a helping hand and guide her to safety? Check: Very Likely, Likely, Neutral, Unlikely, Very Unlikely. Now if the lady is a member of a minority group? The press conference is relatively quiet and even respectful as those in attendance are marking this as a kind of historic & symbolic event, not to mention highly publicized. The professor answers the last question and rises to his feet smiling. Cameras are popping and there is a general bustling as the jumbo-screen is to reveal the professor’s voting score 1-100 (100 being the highest possible score & anything below 50 being a failing grade). The lab assistant is clicking through a few preliminary screens with infographics displaying specific voting traits, Conservative vs. Liberal, Authoritarian vs. Libertarian, Intelligence profile, & Compassion vs. Self-Interest Index. The lab assistant is sweating profusely with shaky hands probably because she is young and on national TV.

But then she clicks through to display the final score and immediately there is uneasiness and slight laughter. The professor’s score is 48 therefore disqualifying him from registering to vote. The professor laughs and the journalists laugh. Very funny, Samantha, the professor says. Now put the real score up. Samantha has a look on her face that is a mixture of panic and wincing fear. That is the real score, she says. Haha, okay. Sam we get the joke really this isn’t the time. Samantha looks at the professor and hands him her iPad. The professor looks at the score, scrolling through pages, & refreshes it a few times, and thinks, Sure enough, and looks up at the crowd which by now are going absolutely bananas, on the phone with their editors & producers, already breaking the story. The guy standing at the voting registry counter with the big pair of scissors lowers them from the red ribbon with a confused look on his face. Microphones are shoved to the professor’s face. How does it feel, Doctor, to be ruled out by our own test? And so the professor becomes the first citizen ruled out… by his own algorithm.

3

The newly elected Zombie FDR adopts the professor’s test at the National level via Federal mandate—one of the most unprecedented uses of Presidential power in United States history—sparking widespread protest. Now the now infamous test is required to vote in any of the states.

The once-lauded professor, now a shamed public figure, has resigned from his teaching & research position at UC Berkeley and is living in exile at an undisclosed location. One foggy evening at a bar in this undisclosed location, as the professor drunkenly hangs his head over a 7th glass of beer, he is approached by a shadowy figure who hands him a slip of paper inviting him to join a shadow organization that is attempting a coup against the U.S. government. They want to stage a cyber attack on the professor’s now ubiquitous voting software which they believe Zombie FDR is manipulating in his favor in the 2024 Presidential primaries. Let me be, the professor slurs. I’m afraid I can’t do that, the shadowy figure says, sticking a syringe in the professor’s leg. The professor faints. The shadowy figure catches him in his arms, and says casually to the bartender, Looks like my friend here’s passed out.

When the professor wakes up he is in a shadowy room with a dripping pipe somewhere echoing while he sits on a fold-up chair under a single hot light with his hands tied behind his back. The shadowy figure sits across from him with one leg folded over the other, puffing on a cigar. The figure pulls down his hood so that his face is now visible to the drowsy & drugged professor who is slowly regaining consciousness. The professor cannot believe what he is seeing. Zombie Abraham Lincoln. Just as stately and magnanimous as you would imagine, but with flayed and rotting flesh much worse than Zombie FDR. And there is still a gaping hole in his head.

We need your help, Zombie Lincoln says.

I can’t, the professor says.

Now is the time to right your wrongs, Zombie Lincoln says.

But what were my wrongs, exactly? How could I fail my own test? the professor says.

You didn’t fail your own test, Zombie Lincoln says.

What? the professor says.

We had one lad working on that one for a while, a real techie. Hacked the software and manipulated your score, Zombie Lincoln says.

Fuck, the professor says.

Took a lot of work to get that one exactly right, Zombie Lincoln says.

But—but—

Now is the time to right your wrongs.

 

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The Fork in the Road at the End of Looking Down Your Nose

Many cite The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 as the symbolic birth of popular music.

In the decades since the 1950s & 1960s popular music has become almost too big and varied to write about. How to sum up the careers of The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Justin Bieber? Impossible. Each artist uniquely emerged in stylistic and market contexts defined by forces which greatly supersede mere personal talent. There are many talented musicians in the world, but only a few who can also embody a culture and reach a mass audience.

This makes the history of popular music remarkable to study. Just a little over half a century and we have gone from The Beatles to Kendrick Lamar with many decades of amazing music in between.

It was with this sort of doe-eyed plucky optimism that I approached my teenage brother-in-law one day and asked what sort of music the kids were listening to these days because, as a twenty-something old fart, I had been out of the loop for a while, listening to a lot of my old favorites, and was curious what new terrain there was to explore.

This is what he played for me:

 

Congratulations. You’ve been introduced to ‘mumble rap.’

Now, I consider myself to be a broad-minded person but… this was horrible music. Never before had I been repelled by something so mainstream and popular.

This moment was what I now call the fork in the road at the end of looking down my nose.

I hated this music, so I had two options:

1) accept that the pop music industry had left me behind and be ok with that 2) or try and argue that the pop music industry was now irreversibly dumb and this music was proof of the death of a once beautiful and vibrant creative industry.

In the moment with my brother-in-law I picked something like a compromise between these two options, trying to hide my absolute disgust while casually offering up other rappers I thought he could relate to that I considered better i.e. Kendrick Lamar.

That was the end of that conversation.

Reflecting back on this moment was slightly horrific because deep down I had to admit: I was becoming that old person who always annoyed me when I was a kid, picking at the younger kids’ music and recommending they listen to the ‘real’ stuff/the classics that really had the magic, etc. Ew. How did this happen?

Were these old farts right all along? Was the music I listened to as a kid really this bad to their ears? Maybe.

This is of course only a crisis if you’re a big music fan, and I had to admit to myself that, yes, music was this important to me. I believe in the transformative power of music. There have been many nights where an album lifted me out of a depression, accompanied me during a rough breakup, or made the drive to school more uplifting. For all the flack pop culture catches from high-brow critics, I had to admit that pop music has been a constant companion to me, and I wanted to understand it moving forward, but I also didn’t want to give up on what has really touched me in the past.

Still not resolved.

But one way I’ve tried to move forward is to proactively search for common ground and find those spaces in popular music where there is overlap with music that is or has been moving to me in the past. The old stuff will always be there. But younger kids are having experiences I never had and are reacting to art that resonates with those experiences. Who am I to say that my experiences should supersede theirs? Or that the music I heard was any truer to my experience than their music is to theirs?

And I had to think maybe the music I liked as a kid wasn’t better by some objective standard. Maybe I had just been there as a young and impressionable kid to appreciate it. Perfect fodder for grand-scheme marketing campaigns. Maybe there was nothing special and sacred about those artists per se, and they were just one small piece of a larger tapestry that is beyond any one person’s ability to comprehend it, which twists and turns down unexpected paths.

Who knows.

I think can live with that interpretation.

So with that I leave you with what my little brother-in-law and I could agree on:

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The Boring Sameness of Celebrity Cover Stories

One of the most bizarre and popular forms of journalism is the magazine cover story/ celebrity profile. To get a clear idea of what I mean, examples can be found here, here, and here. These are Esquire on Shia LaBeouf, GQ on Brad Pitt, and Vanity Fair on Chris Pratt, respectively.

What I find so hilarious about these pieces is the current in-vogue approach used by the these journalists to couch their supposedly laid back narrative. Each one begins their piece, in the very first sentence, as if they are telling a unique first-person story:

Shia LaBeouf is nervous about this story—“I have so much fear about this thing,” he confesses to me when we first meet…

Brad Pitt is making matcha green tea on a cool morning in his old Craftsman in the Hollywood Hills, where he’s lived since 1994.

Chris Pratt wanted to cook me lunch—you can tell a lot about a person by the way they cook.

I don’t know what it is about these sentences that absolutely kills me. Maybe the forced casualness. In our age of entertainment, whatever this age is, we want our stars to be down-to-earth, person-next-door types, when in reality, to understand even the most basic components of their life, one must account for these processes & formulas that are able to harnesses billion-dollar-generating star power. These are secular gods. There is no way around the rituals.

When I arrive, I see LaBeouf through the window. He is alone at a four-top, his eyes trained forward, unmoving. As I approach him, he stands to greet me. His outfit is Valley Dad: well-fitted if unassuming khakis and a sweatshirt.

Pitt wears a flannel shirt and skinny jeans that hang loose on his frame. Invisible to the eye is that sculpted bulk we’ve seen on film for a quarter-century. He looks like an L.A. dad on a juice cleanse, gearing up to do house projects.

He [Pratt] was wearing a flannel shirt and jeans and had let his beard grow to stubble. No shoes, just socks. He’s a big guy, six feet three in boots, 220 pounds, in shape, and has the knock-around ease of a regular guy drinking campfire tequila on the set of a John Ford movie.

These are three different journalists, although you would never know that by simply reading these articles. Of course they probably didn’t have final say editorially, but still. It’s all the same sort of thing: here is a big star and yet, wow, look at how damaged and complex they are. And here is Shia LaBeouf doing artsy poses in a $4,000 bomber jacket:

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Oh, and here’s Brad Pitt wearing a $485 shirt doing, uh, well, I don’t exactly know what:

brapi.png

 

Now, let’s catch up with Chris Pratt about his hobbies as he casually steps out of a race car:

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What interests me most is that, despite the obvious amount of money spent on these cover shoots, creatively, they seem remarkably half-assed. They all evoke the same images and boring scenarios.

I keep imagining an ancient corollary in which Virgil describes a casual interview with Caesar Augustus. Like a washed-up wanna-be Gonzo journalist.

He invited me into his palace. Greeting me at the gate, he wore a surprisingly casual brand of toga and sandals. C’mon in, he said, waving me in and, as we passed through the palace gates, he haphazardly spanked one or two concubines on our way. I just want the people to know that I am a normal guy, you know, he said. We just like to have a little fun around here.

In Memory of my Grandpa, Marvin C. Raether

Christmas Eve 1997

Ever year just before Christmas we piled into a tan conversion van and drove from Cincinnati to Wuakesha, Wisconsin. Apparently it hadn’t gone too badly because we had all survived and were now just a few minutes from our destination. We drove slowly so that the tires crunched on the snowy roads and then we turned into a trailer park tucked between pine trees. Grandma and grandpa’s street wasn’t a cul-de-sac. It was a dead end. The street just stopped and at the end of the street was a pile of recently plowed snow reaching almost to where the branches of the pine trees above it began, covered yet again with a fresh coat so that the pile was a hilly smooth continuation of the snow around it, twinkling in the light of street lamps. To this day when I hear the lyrics walkin’ in a winter wonderland the picture that comes to mind is of my grandparents’ trailer park.

Meanwhile at the last trailer on the right, grandma and grandpa were surely waiting for us. We hurried out of the car, skillfully ignoring dad’s calls to help carry bags inside, and we rushed to the door where, sure enough, they stood. Immediately grandma hugged us. She smelled like flowers. We hugged grandpa too. But his hug was more like an elbow grab. His hands were very strong and his hair was a smooth backwards-dancing white swoosh. His face, my mother told me, was just like an older version of my face. He had deep set eyes. He was lanky and his walk was just like mine, meandering and wide-legged. But the most important similarity was that his head was too big for his body. He was always leaning it slightly forward as if to hear you say something in confidence or to say something himself, although he wasn’t a man of many words. He could be in the room with you but not always in the room. He would sometimes seem to be somewhere else and then come back just in time to answer a question you’d asked.

Whether in the trailer or out on a frozen lake or at the bottom of a sledding hill, grandpa’s way of relating to us was very tactile. This was in keeping with his personality. He always kept a small notepad in his front shirt pocket with pens lining it on either side and a red Swiss Army pocket knife. These were important items. The pad and pens were for writing down little ideas for us, maybe about how to crack a walnut. The knife was inherently interesting because we weren’t allowed to play with knives unless it was grandpa’s. He would proudly show us the extensions inside—the little scissors, wood-saw, and can opener. We were slightly abstract little children raised with video games and TV, but Grandpa wasn’t an abstract man. He once showed us what baked Coca-Cola looked like. Out of the oven, all that was left in the pan was a sludgy disgusting looking paste. This is what you’re really drinking when you’re drinking Coke, he said. Every emotional bridge to him was via some real physical object or scientific predicament. To grandpa a knife was important because it was a tool; but to us kids that same knife was important because it was an excuse to get him talking. He of course knew this and would extend his explanations of how to crack a walnut beyond what was necessary and if we were lucky he would slip up and show his wry sense of humor or make a more general comment about something else. When I think about him now that he’s gone, the memories that come to mind are these little vignettes.

As Christmases came and went, grandma and grandpa moved from Wisconsin to Cincinnati, close to us, and the nature of our relationship changed.

For one thing, the more I saw grandpa the more I came to realize that when he leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs and put his hands behind his head and squinted at the ceiling, he was often slyly still listening to the room. Sometimes it only looked like he was gone on some vacation in his head, and really he was there, and would pipe up with some surprising comment or a joke when you least expected it. This happened more and more and I began to realize how little I actually knew about him. As his grandson after all, I could only bear witness to the twilight years of his life and only ever from a certain angle.

In the later years I was able to see that grandpa’s apparent distance wasn’t really distance, or, if it was, it was a complicated distance. I don’t think he was ever for a single second indifferent about anything my siblings and I said or did. He would look you in the eyes and say, how’s it going?, and he would physically hold on to you until you told him. He didn’t like small talk. He didn’t want a line. He really wanted to know. And when you told him, if you weren’t giving him a line, or could muster something half-genuine, he’d smile and let you go. I don’t know whether this change was only apparent because I’d grown old enough to see it, or if grandpa had actually changed, or both. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now, but what I do know is that this change caused me to think differently about him. No longer was he a far away mythic grandpa; he was my personal grandpa, my mom’s dad, right around the corner, there every Sunday at church, there for every birthday and holiday, there for my wedding, there to see me become a father, and there to know my wife and son.

These changes came quickly and with them came a realization. I had my direct experiences with him, sure—very precious memories to me. But every grandchild must realize at some point that their grandparent isn’t simply a background character in their life, and if they seem like the background that’s only because the grandchild fails to notice the very terrain they’re walking on. Indeed, now that I have a child, I see grandparents have a double influence. Once through direct experience, and then again millions of indirect times through the influence on their children, who happen to be your parents. In my own case this is my mother. Every interaction I have had with her is in some way a response to the cumulative experience of her life, of which my grandpa played no small part. These millions of conversations, gestures, and events, both conscious and not, form an invisible imprint passed down from grandpa, to my mother, to me, and to my own children, and so on.

This is why to me grandpa isn’t really gone. The effects of his life, this imprint, were there even before I knew about them and will continue to be felt even when I’m not thinking about them. This is perhaps what has always been meant by the word ‘ghost’, a clumsy metaphor for how scary it is that we are all basically making it up as we go along, and no matter how hard we try not to effect our children, in the end we will. Good or bad, our presence will be felt and responded to and the outcome of this transaction will live on whether we want it to or not.

For me the most valuable imprint came at the very end of grandpa’s life. The family was there with him when he was dying. Standing at the foot of his bed, I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was all very unreal. Grandma leaned over gently and explained the situation to him. His life support was delaying the inevitable. There was no way around it. And you know what? The man didn’t bat an eye. He matter-of-factly faced down his own death. I saw a truly peaceful look on his face. He was brave and never uttered a single sentimentality, even at the very end. This and the birth of my son were the two realest things I’ve ever seen. When all pretense was stripped away grandpa allowed me to see what was necessary to do a thing like that. Call it German reticence or introversion if you like. But to me it was grace.

At week’s end, after those early Wuakesha Christmas visits, and after grandpa’s many subtle designs to catch our interest, we all piled in the van again. We pulled away and grandma and grandpa waved to us as they stood in the doorway. The plowed mound of snow at the end of the street–a once shimmering pile of possibilities–had inevitably, over the course of our stay, been mutilated by our footsteps and converted into a snow fort. Eventually grandma and grandpa receded out of sight and then the mound was out of sight and we were officially on the trip home. We turned out of the trailer park and onto the main road. Now, I sat down and relaxed in my seat. This trip would be much shorter, smooth sailing, really, because we hadn’t yet learned the art of anticipation. Home was nothing. The seven hours in the van would seem like nothing. And when we got home we would have all year to wait to take the long trip again, and every Christmas thereafter.

Whispering into the Megaphone

In 2007 the writer George Saunders published a collection of essays entitled The Braindead Megaphone. The subject of the title essay is the description of a metaphor for how media consumption has evolved overtime to the present moment:

Imagine a party. The guests, from all walks of life, are not negligible. They’ve been around: they’ve lived, suffered, owned businesses, have real areas of expertise. They’re talking about things that interest them, giving and taking subtle correction. Certain submerged concerns are coming to the surface and—surprise, pleasant surprise—being confirmed and seconded and assuaged by other people who’ve been feeling the same way.

Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest person at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate.

But he’s got that megaphone.

Say he starts talking about how much he loves early mornings in spring. What happens? Well, people turn to listen. It would be hard not to. It’s only polite. And soon, in their small groups, the guests may find themselves talking about early spring mornings. Or, more correctly, about the validity of Megaphone Guy’s ideas about early spring mornings. Some are agreeing with him, some disagreeing—but because he’s so loud, their conversations will begin to react to what he’s saying. As he changes topics, so do they. If he continually uses the phrase, “at the end of the day,” they start using it too. If he weaves into his arguments the assumption that the west side of the room is preferable to the east, a slow westward drift will begin.

I love a good metaphor.

This was written in 2007. Can you imagine? Twitter was just a year old. The first generation iPhone was released three months prior. George W. Bush was the president! Saunders was concerned primarily with cable news on TV. How quaint is that in 2017? The party has turned into something else. But Saunders was on to something that we certainly haven’t reckoned with ten years later, and continues to grow worse.

We’ve become used to Megaphone Guy and are even starting to like him, and getting cozy with his methods because, well, everybody’s doing it, man. Now, as party favors, there are little megaphones for everyone. Sure, some are larger than others. All the more reason to let your voice be heard!

But the real effect is this: what looks like everyone’s voice being heard is really the original Megaphone Guy’s voice being amplified not once but twice. Once through the original message, and then again through the echoing blasts of his supporters or detractors downstream who claim to proffer something new and different, but—whatever they may claim—they are still having to respond to an agenda set by the biggest megaphone in the room. And while it’s true that technology has made the distribution of megaphones more widespread and democratic, the quality of information has remained the same. Or gotten worse. The laws governing attention are no more based on who is “the smartest, most experienced, or most articulate” person at the party:

Imagine that the Megaphone has two dials: One controls the Intelligence of its rhetoric and the other its Volume. Ideally, the Intelligence would be set on High, and the Volume on Low—making it possible for multiple, contradictory voices to be broadcast and heard. But to the extent that the Intelligence is set on Stupid, and the Volume on Drown Out All Others, this is verging on propaganda, and we have a problem, one that works directly against the health of our democracy.

If that’s not prophecy–

I would love to be able to claim to be part of the solution to this, but I can’t. Perhaps like some of you, when I’m supposed to be doing work, I have a secret hunger for the noise and refresh my news webpages more than I need to, and I find myself doing it regardless of whether I really want to or not, like an impulse, and sometimes, like right now, when I am writing, I have to turn off the WiFi altogether or I will continually go back to the same pages to look for new developments in a day that I allow to be defined by the Megaphone guy.

But maybe we can get out of these habits if we try.

My dream for this blog would be to carve out a little section of the party for people who want to turn the Megaphone Intelligence up and the Volume down. Maybe we can even find a side room or something, throw the Megaphones out the window, and talk again. And who knows, maybe other people will come and join. Maybe the loudest only seem to win and in the end they really don’t. Maybe if we ignore Megaphone guy he will get tired and go home. There is only one way to find out. We have to start trying something different:

We have met the enemy and he is us, yes, yes, but the fact that we have recognized ourselves as the enemy indicates we still have the ability to rise up and whip our own ass, so to speak: keep reminding ourselves that representations of the world are never the world itself. Turn that Megaphone down, and insist that what’s said through it be as precise, intelligent, and humane as possible.

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State of the Blog

Recently some of you may have been wondering, Where have the blog posts gone? It seems as though a previously steady stream has slowed to but a trickle. Did the will-power tank peter out of gas? Is this another one of those countless blogs to be buried in the mass blog graveyard of forgotten dreams?

Well, hopefully, no.

Over the past few months I have been working hard on the beginnings of a novel. When I started I didn’t realize that writing a novel is a vortex of creative energy. More is required the further you get along until a kind of single-minded mania sets in. And like everybody else on the planet I have a full-time day job so in order to write I have to set aside a specific time or it doesn’t get done. Always this time has been divided between 1) fiction and 2) non-fiction (blog), but slowly, as this novel thing has ballooned into an uncontrollable mass with some actual but crude momentum, more time has been going towards trying to figure out exactly where it’s going.

This is not an epitaph but rather a new beginning! The blog posts I have been writing for the past year have largely been focused on thinking hard about what great artists and writers do and how they do it. As I learned I also became eager to put that learning into practice. So by looking at a few masters I was trying to write myself into being a better writer, and I’m glad to say I think it worked! At least I have become more patient re my own limitations. And hopefully you readers feel you benefited from a few of these reflections as well.

When I originally created this blog I wanted to keep it’s focus broad because my mind is always going down new rabbit trails and I’m not very good at boiling down my reflections into a marketable or niche-worthy form, (i.e. one of my many limitations). In the presence of a preset model, even a good model, my creativity withers and dies. If you tell me to write a story about a boy who slays a dragon, I will somehow end up with one about dragon befriending a boy, and it took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t doing this just to spite convention. Even when I tried to impose a convention onto myself as a way to auto-produce an effect I admired, I couldn’t do it.

I don’t know exactly where this new chapter in blogging is going. All I know is I have thoughts to put down and I’d like to put them down here more regularly. You readers have been very supportive and kind in your comments and feedback. I couldn’t think of a better place to continue to explore new territory as a writer.

Stay tuned.

 

At a Small Smoky Jazz Bar in a Forgotten Corner of Heaven

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