We had just a lovely day about a week ago.
In the morning, we went to see Eight Days a Week, the Ron Howard Beatles touring history at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village. I know it’s available online but if you see it in theaters, they show the entirety of the Beatles’ Shea Stadium Concert right after (the set was less than an hour).
Maybe more importantly, the speakers in the theater are better than the (very good) little tiny ones I have hooked up to my computer. Quick, go out and tell a bunch of your friends to buy copies of my books so I can buy better speakers! (Why didn’t I think of that before?)
Anyway, how could there possibly be anything we don’t already know about the Beatles? The hell with that–how could it be possible that they were BETTER than we thought they were? That’s pretty scary but seems really possible after seeing this.
It’s astonishing to listen to live shows by really popular and influential bands from several years after these recordings after hearing this. Jefferson Airplane, CSNY, Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead yeesh–they’re all out of tune, off-key, meandering and sloppy. Rock bands really didn’t get good until the stage monitors got good, until silent tuners became ubiquitous…
Oh, no, actually not true. The Beatles were incredible live. Military precision and loose all at once. The remastered footage here (amazingly sharp) and sound (amazingly clear) make that obvious.
The other thing about seeing them perform together is it blasts apart all the petty score-settling their hangers-on and even they themselves indulged in later. They were all essential to the band’s performance and they knew it. They were a unit and a brilliant one. One of the best scenes is Paul misting up talking about the first time they heard Ringo behind them. It could be sentimental but it feels very real.
And that night, after the movie, we went with friends to a Mets game. I’ve been a fan through some amazing ups and downs but nothing like this year. This team is held together by Terry Collins, gaffer’s tape and chicken wire. Maybe it’s all a mirage because they’re playing uniformly bad opposition right now but they’re on a hell of a roll anyway. Every favorite of mine from last year is either injured for the year or playing ineffectively off the bench. I’ve never been prouder as a fan.
Anyway, I said to Claire as we headed home, it was like the best birthday I ever had, not on my birthday.
This is the strangest election I can ever remember (and I’ve seen some doozies).
There is a silence that’s unnatural, like everyone I know is holding their breath – or in hiding.
Elections tend to bring out the best and the worst in us citizen-spectators. The issues are, after all, about our lives – aren’t they? So while the candidates debate on TV, my opinionated friends usually carry on a debate of their own, offering sometimes-crackpot solutions and spending a lot of energy translating the national conversation into a ground-level discussion of how it really affects our lives.
I’m hearing very little of that this time around. There’s certainly plenty of ‘The other candidate is a threat to civilization’ or ‘the biggest crook in history’ but very little about the issues. Remember issues? That’s the part of the election that’s supposed to translate down to our lives. You’d expect us to be full of opinions there. But no…
In my head, I keep hearing the old line from Penny Lane: ‘and though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway.’
It feels – to me, anyway – like the only people who are genuinely excited about these candidates are people I don’t necessarily want to know too well. Like the rest of us have decided we’ll do our duty and vote but that we really don’t have any real belief anything meaningful in our lives will change.
The whole thing feels like a kabuki show, a ritual that drones on according to it’s own rules long after they’ve lost their meaning, actors costumed according to traditions that have long since died, singing songs of whose meaning we retain only the vaguest of memories.
Jason Bourne matters to me.
I didn’t realize how much until viewing Jason Bourne, the new film which debuted this past weekend. It went off the rails pretty decisively and made me realize how disturbed and surprised (in a bad way) I am by what his creators have done with him.
I’m talking about the films here, just to be clear. I read the first page and a half of The Bourne Identity in a Barnes and Noble once and put it back on the shelf. Unreadable to me–your mileage may vary, as they say.
The reason he matters is that Jason Bourne, from the very beginning, had a soul that immediately and permanently set him apart from all the other spy-assassin characters out there.
Bond has never had a soul. Sean Connery deflected feeling with a sense of humor that only grew more cheesy with Roger Moore. The best Bonds recently (Casino Royale, Skyfall) got significant mileage out of what Bond lost by being that famously blunt instrument–the ‘happy’ ending of SPECTRE, where he drives off in the Aston Martin with his lover, just didn’t ring true because Bond can’t be happy. That’s just not a possibility for him.
It was for Bourne. In The Bourne Identity film, we meet a really intriguing character–a man who not only doesn’t know who he is but who doesn’t like who he is when he finds out. He’s a shy, confused, very vulnerable human being who reaches out to Marie Kreutz (another complex character, played by Franka Potente) in ways we could never imagine of Bond. When Bourne fights in that film, it’s for a reason, to find out who he is, to find out why he has developed abilities so at odds with the spirit he displays in his interactions with Marie. He’s someone who cares, who feels.
The first film, by the way, was directed by Doug Liman and I think he deserves a lot more credit than he usually gets for making something truly different. Unfortunately, the film took a few weeks to gather steam. It was a hit eventually but eventually is not how Hollywood works so the series changed hands thereafter, Paul Greengrass taking over direction. Tony Gilroy wrote the first three with various co-writers and, being the writer, naturally he got nowhere near as much credit as he deserved either.
In The Bourne Supremacy, the second film of the series, the filmmakers killed off Marie in a way that was really affecting and managed to pass the torch to another definitely non-token female, Pam Landy (played by Joan Allen, who really supports the two next films). Marie’s death is not like similar deaths in Bond films or almost any other male-oriented action series. This death hurts both us and Bourne. His fury after feels very real. His determination to find the persons responsible is not contrived. He’s not up against some villain twirling his mustache and planning to conquer the world. It’s personal in a very real sense. And Landy is a person with integrity who grows to recognize that Bourne is not after the Agency, not after personal revenge but searching for something else, something personal. Both characters grow and stretch in ways the audience can directly relate to. Because of that, the action has meaning as well as excitement.
The Bourne Ultimatum extended that same story back to New York and Bourne’s remembering how he got involved in the Treadstone project to begin with. His relationship with Julia Stiles’ Nicky Parsons develops and gives us another reminder that this man still has a soul, still has the ability to care. He’s not a killing machine, not a blunt instrument, no matter how he handles a fight. When he swims off into the darkness at the end of the film, there’s an earned sense that the man with a soul has hopefully begun to work out his demons, that life might just work out for him after all.
In Jason Bourne, that hope is wiped away in the first shot of Bourne’s face, which makes clear this is an angry, deadened man. There’s no light inside. He’s escaped from all those demons and all that sadness–for what? To do barehand fighting on the Turkish-Albanian border? That’s the best we can imagine for him? The character in these opening scenes is a fighting machine. If he ever had a soul, it’s long gone now.
Bourne gets drawn back into the world of international intrigue by Nicky Parsons and there’s a personal secret tossed to us by the writers (notably, not Gilroy this time) but it all feels obligatory, an excuse for car chases and fights that go on too long. There’s another much-younger woman who decides Bourne should be given the chance to come in, just like Joan Allen did–but in this case, there’s no plausible reason for her decision and certainly no reason for her superiors (notably Tommy Lee Jones) to back her in it.
The worst of it is, these gyrations aren’t really necessary. The “secret” Bourne learns in the new film certainly could have made an intriguing story, one that illuminated how unsuited he was for this work from the start–and why he ended up doing it anyway.
But that would have been a story about a man with a soul. Someone made a choice not to go that way this time. The character of Bourne lives on but he’s not somebody I care about anymore. Speaking as a fan and someone who cares about stories, this feels like a real loss.
WORKING IN THE FRONT LINES
This has always been one of my favorite parts of Thrillerfest, having the chance to learn from members of the investigative services. In the past, we’ve had the chance to question CIA and FBI agents. Today, it was 2 FBI, 2 Secret Service and one Royal Canadian Mountie (retired, with a thriller of his own on sale at the book store). My paraphrases of their information:
FBI 2: The bad guys have always used technology to get ahead, starting with vehicles. Now they’re moving into identity theft and fraud. They’re not just hacking, they’re moving into identity theft and fraud.
There was a shared concern across the panel about two topics in particular:
First, Cyber actors working on the industrial grid (Electrical, Telephony, Water, Health Systems, Industrial Control Systems). Anything that’s on the Internet can be hacked and it’s a bigger concern as we grow the Internet of Things onto an already wobbly infrastructure. They pointed to Denial of Service Attacks on financial institutions here a few months ago and an incident at the Logan Dam in upstate NY a few years ago, where Iranian hackers were able to hack the dams controls. No harm was done only because the computer control in that case never worked properly, but the incident is seen as an example of what is possible.
Second: Ransomware is a fast-rising problem and one they are now dealing with regularly. Costs a lot of money. They officially recommend not paying but understand that often, businesses in particular can’t afford to lose the information or the trust of their customers so they choose to pay.
Secret Service 1: Kids at home now have the tools to create counterfeit money. This is new–it used to take specialized hardware to do that job; no longer. However, he said we shouldn’t overblow the situation. Counterfeit money now amounts for 3 or 4% of the money in circulation. When the Secret Service was founded, at the end of the Civil War, counterfeit currency amounted to over 80% of the bills out in the world. That was an astonishing number to me, as was their success rate.
The former Canadian Mountie was asked whether gun control measures in Canada had any effect on law enforcement and he said they definitely did. Canada has a database of all gun owners (who have to pass a background check to get them). He said that, while he agreed that criminals would always find a way to get guns, it was definitely helpful to know before responding to a domestic abuse situation whether or not there were firearms at the location. They would bring 2 to 3 officers routinely but 5 or 6 if there were guns present.
FBI 2: Reminded the audience that more people will die of beestings than terrorism this year. Cybercrime, however, threatened about 320 million people this year, between business disruptions, infrastructure threats, etc. The big point here is that good Internet hygiene–not opening questionable Internet or email links–is still the overwhelming way the bad guys get us to trigger these attacks. Once you’ve clicked, you can’t pull the plug fast enough to stop the infection.
Secret Service 1: Talked about the interconnectedness of things and how it complicates his job. If he had to protect the room we were sitting in, for example, the lights, temperature and elevator are all remotely controllable–Step One for them is to make sure they have those things secured long before the arrival of anyone they protect.
It was fascinating to watch these guys interact, to see their seriousness and also their disdain for conventional wisdom or the demagoguery that passes for political wisdom. Toward the end, they were asked what we should be scared of. Two said Ransomware but another answered, ‘Nothing. There are lots of things to be concerned about but very little to be scared of. Instability is increasing, that might become an issue but for now, don’t be scared. Enjoy life.’
Next: David Morrell interviews Walter Mosley
Thrillerfest is a highlight of the year for me. The world’s biggest thriller writer convention and in my own backyard (The Grand Hyatt adjacent to Grand Central or, as Claire would say, just a short jaunt upstate).
Jon Land very generously comp’d me in several years ago and I’ve paid my own way (!) twice since. It’s a brilliant collection of topics and a lot of fun. So I’m going to share my notes on this year’s gathering.
I found a much more welcoming atmosphere this year toward self-published authors. It’s an established part of the landscape now and routinely covered in panels, one more part of the universe.
Caveats: There are NO quotes in this report. I don’t promise even to be accurately paraphrasing. This is what I took away from the conference but I’m not swearing it’s what anyone said.
PROMOTION, SALES OR REVIEWS?
Meg Gardner, Panel Master
Bruce De Silva
Netgalley–useful tool to get reviews. Offer advanced readers copies to reviewers.
De Silva: When he won an Edgar, his ranking on Amazon jumped from the thousands into the Top 100. Other awards he won made very little difference.
Reviews in the trade press help traditionally-published books because the people who buy books for the stores read those reviews. With trad publishers, you have to realize you’re not Lee Child or James Patterson–anyone could get them publicity. For those of us who are less well-known (that is, everyone else), it’s crucial to make them be specific about what they are going to do–and then follow up to make sure they actually do it. One author said he had wildly divergent results on different books with the same publisher. The person assigned to your publicity is often someone with little to no experience.
No one seemed to feel that book signings did much for them; book trailers also didn’t seem to have much effect, though someone mentioned one author who had some success just talking to the camera sitting in his office in a t-shirt. They said it was evidence of passion.
Con Lehane said he’s had mostly small groups at book signings but frequently had people named Lehane showing up. He says he’s read somewhere that Denis Lehane had also had these visitors on the road; Meg Gardner cracked They’re going to get what they want eventually.
James Hayman: uses Facebook ads. You can specifically choose the people you want to target–age, region, interests. Link the ad direct to Amazon sale page. He’s had 65-1000 shares which cost nothing and are wonderful advertising. If someone goes from a Facebook link to your Amazon book page and then back to Facebook without buying, Facebook will place an ad for your book in their sidebar. Research shows reader needs to see the book two or three times before they will buy, so this is great.
De Silva: Your job is to get reposted. He has a character who loves the blues. He started posting blues playlists online so people could play the music. Then he got a call from a music magazine wanting to interview his character about blues music. He did the interview (in his character’s voice) and then ended up landing an article in the Wall Street Journal about innovative book promotion.
Locke seemed to feel that online presence was a distraction from writing (it is) so he had someone create an online persona for him that he said isn’t a total lie. Others felt it was important to create a presence for yourself online, that that relationship is crucial to promotion.
Tata: former General, Deputy Cmdr of the 86th and 101st Airborne, head of counter-terrorism in Europe, etc. You won’t get on media (TV, radio) because of your book. You might get there because of some expertise you may have, during which they will show the cover. But that works fine.
WHEN THE IRS COMES KNOCKING
Panel: Anita Katzen, Susan Lee, Craig Manzino
This was a bad idea. If you’re going to have a panel to start off your conference–at 8 am–don’t make it tax professionals. That stuff is hard to make sense of at noon or 3 in the afternoon, it’s mindnumbing at 8 in the morning. None of this is the fault of the panelists, who spoke real English and seemed very helpful and friendly.
Highlights: Keep careful records. Don’t count on 1099’s–you won’t always get them and you’re responsible to pay your taxes whether the payer files a 1099 or not.
The IRS adjusts slowly to fast-changing reality. There is no official decision as to whether Kickstarter is income or not. Writers can deduct expenses in the same year they are incurred but publishers cannot and, if you are an independent (self-published) author, the IRS may decide you are a publisher, not a writer, for tax purposes. So let the tax-payer beware.
Good news: The IRS is getting easier on the home-office deduction as more people are working from home. Bad news: They still expect the space you’re deducting off your rent to be exclusive to work so NY City apartment dwellers multitasking the kitchen table will have a hard time.
Be ready for self-employment. When you finally start making some real money and quit the day job (oh glorious dream!), you suddenly are paying both halves of the Social Security tax (in your day job, the employer paid the other half), so between that and regular income tax, you’re suddenly paying 50% tax.
And if you have good creative use of deductions and get yourself down to where you’re making almost no income, understand that that will leave you short of Social Security money and with almost no income to show when you go for a loan–not to mention the scrutiny that brings from the IRS.
More to come…
In honor of Thrillerfest (the world’s largest thriller-writer convention) in NY this week (I’ll be attending tomorrow and Saturday), I’ve made Mindbenders 2: The Fiery Sky FREE on Amazon through the weekend! Get your copy now!
And Mindbenders the first is FREE on Smashwords as well, so you can have BOTH BOOKS FREE for a limited time.
Enjoy the mindbending while it lasts!
I walked into a Chase Manhattan Bank branch yesterday to make a deposit for the store in which I work. The smug young man in the fancy suit on the other side of the window asked me about the extra 59 cents I’d deposited.
I wanted change back.
They don’t do change anymore, he told me.
My company doesn’t give me a cash drawer, I explained. And they insist I make the deposit the next morning before 10 am. So sometimes I have to depend on you, the bank, to make change.
We don’t do change.
You’re a bank, I said. You’ve got money there, you can’t fool me.
He gave me a look and I lost it.
Excuse me, I said, if you want to be an investment bank only, then take the name ‘bank’ off the front of the building and just refuse to let anyone but millionaires inside. But while it says ‘bank’, your job includes making change.
That’s not our policy, he said.
That’s a stupid policy, I said. Nothing about you personally, I know you didn’t create the policy but it’s still a dumb policy and you’re going to have to keep explaining it and getting pushback from guys like me over it. Because you work for us.
Now I got a dirty look.
And there’s the problem, I told him. Your attitude is the problem. You’re the Chase Manhattan Bank so you don’t need us. Congratulations. Eventually, you’ll discover you do. Now give me my change.
He gave me my change.
You could say I shot myself in the foot here and you’d be right, because now I’ll have to look at his smug nasty little face every time I make a deposit in that stupid bank branch. But in a world that gives me no cash drawer and a bank that won’t make change, the momentary satisfaction of throwing a childish fit seemed about the only option open to me.
This morning, however, reading the headlines, I realized that it was just that kind of reaction that leads to a Brexit, Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, Trump as President and Mussolini as Il Duce. Get mad enough that you just don’t care about the consequences anymore.
You can’t have a democracy where the majority of people are getting screwed all the time. Working people are building up a universe of anger. Either someone starts pays attention to that very soon or we’ll all pay in some other (worse) way later.
FOLLOWUP 7/11/16: Just a little karmic note. I found out a few days ago that the bank branch where this incident took place had a fire last week and is no longer functioning. So apparently I won’t have to look at that guy’s face anymore, at least for a while. Mess with me, willya?
I swear I’m going to start writing about something other than Mindbenders and politics sometime soon.
However, in the meantime…
I worked in print and broadcast journalism for over twenty years. I think journalism is a calling or should be, but I’m an idealist and this is not a world made for idealists.
I’m frustrated by the devolution of media now. It all started with the rot of Fox News, which is simply propaganda that starts with a viewpoint set at the top (if there was liberal bias in the old media, it wasn’t top-down; it was the result of producers who’d traveled the world telling you how things looked from their point of view) but, because the others just aped Fox without yelling as loudly, they’re all consumed in rot now.
WV primary yesterday: Bernie 51%; Hillary 36%–seriously, if the margins were reversed, you don’t think the headlines would scream “Clinton Devastates Sanders”, with calls for him to get out of the race forthwith?
What do we have instead? The NY Times shoves a tiny item into the news capsule at the bottom of the front page saying ‘Sanders Wins in W Virginia’.
Journalism typically loves the underdog. Here’s the underdog of underdogs–the 74-year old Jewish socialist from a tiny state with no big money backers–beating the overwhelming favorite after she’s already pivoted to November and the media has already counted him out. Damn Bernie doesn’t know when he’s supposed to roll over and play dead…
If there’s something sadder than a once-great newspaper passing up a great story, it’s a once-great newspaper insisting on a pre-determined storyline despite the facts. Why don’t we just rename the NY Times ‘Pravda‘ and get it over with?
There’s a much bigger article on that front page about Hillary ‘suggesting she would like to give people the option to buy into Medicare.’ The Times goes on to say: ‘Mr. Sanders calls his single-payer health care plan “Medicare for All.” What Mrs. Clinton proposed was a sort of Medicare for more.’
And there’s the difference between the two Democrats–and it’s a world of difference. Hillary, after much prodding from Bernie, is willing to consider letting some people ’55 or 50 and up’ to voluntarily pay their way into Medicare.
I’m not an economist–I can barely make change most of the time–but I know this doesn’t add up. Remember that, in Obamacare (which was written by the insurance companies, folks), the catch was that everyone from age 26 on had to have insurance so they premiums from the healthy younguns would pay for the older folks with more diseases (because God forbid the insurers might actually have to pay out some money to the people who keep paying them).
So now, you’re saying you’re going to let a subset of middle-aged people, already seeing the mileage pile up, join the pool–what’s that going to do to costs? It’s certainly not going to make things markedly cheaper, is it? The pool of cheap insured, the ones who would help pay for the older folks, remain in Hillary’s plan in the clutches of private insurers, which brings up their profit margins (they’ll love this plan) while the Republicans moan how expensive Medicare is, we should just jettison it for some grant that won’t pay for anyone!
What are we protecting here? Private health insurance? I understand there are jobs involved but if there’s a more blood-sucking parasitic industry out there, I don’t know what it is.
On the other hand (you knew I’d get here, didn’t you?), Bernie’s plan is to put everybody on Medicare immediately. Tax all of us a bit more (and the rich a lot more, basically on par with what they paid under that notorious high-tax monster Ronald Reagan) and eliminate most private insurance, copays, referrals, surprise $10,000 bills from anesthesiologists who don’t take your insurance (and nobody bothered to tell you) and the idea that the elderly should have to liquidate everything they own before their insurance companies should have to pay back on the policies those elderly folks have been paying into their entire lives. Do we really consider the amount of hell we put ourselves through to preserve the profit margins of insurance companies? Did I use the phrase ‘blood-sucking parasitic industry’? Did I use it enough? I think not.
Let them die. Too soon isn’t soon enough.
Bernie’s plan is for everybody. Because everybody would be in it, the costs would be spread among the entire population, the costs of drugs would be negotiable with the federal government like they are with any other national health so they would go way down. More importantly, the principle would be that health care is not about profit. This mania that everything is about profit would be dealt a serious blow.
I want that. I want to see that happen. I don’t know if it can and I don’t know why I’m writing this since all the algorithms tell me conclusively no one will read anything this long.
I finally have a candidate (for the first time since 1976) that I don’t have to hold my nose to vote for. I’m going to continue to contribute and hope for California. I’m going to hope that something shakes the nest of the entrenched and powerful and makes them realize that the anger of the populace is not going away. I may end up voting for Hillary instead of Trump because I’ll have to. But I’m not there yet.
And the difference between Bernie and Hillary feels as real to me today as the difference between Hillary and Trump.
Beatrice: Are there class distinctions in torture?
Capt. Segura: Some people expect to be tortured. Others are outraged by it. One never tortures except by mutual agreement.
Beatrice: Who agrees?
Capt. Segura: Usually the poor. In your welfare state you have social security, therefore you have no poor. Consequently there you are untorturable.
-From ‘Our Man in Havana’ by Graham Greene
Does a person have to earn dignity? Or is dignity something we just have, something we’re entitled to as human beings?
It isn’t a theoretical question. I realized recently it’s been nagging at me almost every day through this already-endless election season.
I’ve spent most of my life holding my nose and voting for the lesser of two evils. This year, I’ve been following Bernie Sanders, though this blog isn’t really about him. It’s about a different sound I hearing behind his policies and programs, one that I hope will survive and grow regardless of the fate of his candidacy.
That is, that we’re all of us in this together and all of us entitled to be treated like creatures with dignity.
The other candidates, like almost every politician of the last thirty years, come from what I think of as a post-Reagan point of view – if you haven’t ‘succeeded,’ it’s your own fault, so why should we worry about you?
Trump’s boast that he could shoot someone in front of cameras and still get votes seemed fanciful once, remember? Now, it’s inarguable. On the other side of the coin, the un-powerful in this country (it helps if you’re black) can be shot in front of cameras without consequence.
This has nothing to do with government, by the way. Have you tried calling for business support lately?
Want to hear someone laugh? Just say ‘Your call is very important to us.’
Every aspect of the ‘support’ experience reinforces the impression that you are of absolutely no importance to the company that took your money.
The wealthy and powerful can create pharmaceuticals that kill, airbags that kill, powerplants that render their surroundings uninhabitable, investment instruments that wreck the economy of the Western World and walk away with a slap on the wrist.
Dennis Hastert, former Speaker of the House, was just convicted of sexual abuse against an unspecified number of teenage boys; he got 15 months in prison. If he was some inner-city gym teacher, preferably with white middle-class students testifying against him, want to bet what kind of sentence he’d have gotten?
As Graham Greene would have understood, we now have a torturable class. I’m sorry – we now are the torturable class.
And that’s where Bernie Sanders is truly different.
His programs don’t make distinctions – they help everyone. They’re based on the concept that every citizen is deserving of decent treatment, whether that means getting into college based on merit instead of financial ability, making healthcare decisions based on medical need rather than maximum profit for insurance and Big Pharma, imposing jailtime because ‘you did the crime’ instead of ‘you were born unfortunate (and are destined to remain that way).’
His ideas grow out of the idea that ordinary people’s lives matter, that they’re not just guinea pigs offered up to the highest bidder.
The Republicans and Hillary Clinton may differ wildly on policy and style – I do think there are real significant differences between them – but none of them challenge that ‘Us Against Them’ world that Reagan created. Sanders’ worldview does.
And in the end, that worldview is what’s going to matter. Whether or not Sanders takes the Democratic nomination this year, millions have heard this message and we’re not going back. We may vote for Hillary or Trump in November or we may stay away from the polls altogether but, longterm, we’ve been reminded that we are full citizens, entitled to have our grievances heard and our needs met, human beings with dignity, not animals consigned forever to fight over the scraps on the floor of the cage.