The Compleat Kepler: Flight Of The Rat

cover-smallerFlight of the Rat

“Flight of the Rat” was a story I debated about doing. It was written shortly after the first draft of Northcoast Shakedown in late 2002. 9/11 was still raw in our memories, but Iraq was little more than saber rattling ahead of a midterm election, or so I thought. Like comedians in the month following 9/11, I approached this story under a cloud of “Too soon!” apprehension.

I remember asking Neil Smith about possibly doing a 9/11 story for Plots With Guns. At the time, he said most of what he’d seen was gimmicky, designed to be little more than a ripped-from-the-headlines angle designed for shock value. And he was right (assuming I remember this conversation correctly. It’s been over a decade.) Most of the early stories involving 9/11 were gimmicky crap.

But I had trouble dealing with the tragedy. I didn’t live in New York, and at the time had not even been to the city. Most of the writers I knew at the time lived there, though, and one of the planes went down in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, my extended family’s home until about World War I. We used to attend huge family reunions there when I was in junior high. Someone took down a plane on that day in my family’s backyard? Might as well have crashed it into the Scripps Howard Building in downtown Cincinnati. It was the same thing to me.

Enter Anthony Dauer, editor of the now-defunct Judas, which later became The 3rd Degree. Anthony was a military vet who now worked as an IT analyst for a contractor near the Pentagon. He saw the plane that hit the Pentagon and later learned a friend was on that plane. I mentioned I had an idea for a story. He wanted it. So I wrote.

The story has two components. First is Harry Z, who has an Algerian name. He calls himself Harry so he’s not hassled, and has affected an American accent to blend in. Harry is a large black man who does fugitive apprehensions, and much better than Stephanie Plum. But he’s also from the North Africa, a heavily Muslim part of the world. Nick frequently helps out Harry Z, who makes an appearance at the beginning of Second Hand Goods. He was an obvious choice to be affected by the hell that broke loose that awful day.

The other part was Margo, Nick’s news reporter girlfriend. At some point, I would need to explain why she wasn’t in Northcoast Shakedown. The real reason was that I was afraid she’d become the series’ Susan Silverman to Nick’s Spenser. I didn’t want to have her on one of the planes. That would just be too exploitative. Then I read a story, quite funny, actually, about Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. Seth was supposed to be on one of the flights that hit the Trade Center. Only he missed the plane. He was hungover after a night of partaking of Boston’s many fine adult entertainment establishments, and slept in.

What if Margo was supposed to be on one of the flights (sitting next to Seth no less? I left that part out.)? As a reporter, the station where she interviewed would probably put her on the air at Logan International as their person on the scene. But Nick wouldn’t know anything about that. He’s too busy chasing this whiny sonofabitch through Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland.

I don’t know how effective the story is on its own merits. It did flesh out Nick’s background quite a bit.

It was also very cathartic to write.

The Future of Winter

Let me ask you something as you all recover from Standard Time filching an hour on its way out the door. The third Kepler novel needs a couple of rewrites. So what would you prefer to see next out of me?

Choices are:

The Compleat Winter: All my non-Kepler short stories up through 2012 that are available for reprint.

Winter of Discontent: Sort of a best of the blog where you get to enjoy the real me in all my pompous, opinionated glory, including the favorite band posts.

Bad Religion: The third Kepler. If enough people pick this one, I’ll wait until it’s ready to issue another ebook, but so will you.

You make the call in the comments below.

Favorite Bands: Soundgarden

Soundgarden in concert

Photo: musicisentropy, used under Creative Commons

True story. I once drove a car off the Jake Sweeney lot for a test drive and bought it based on how Superunknown sounded on the speakers. There was a lot of good stuff on that album, and the musicianship was phenomenal. But what else could you say about Soundgarden? Of all the major grunge bands, they were the smoothest, their songs the most complex. Lyrically, they were a perfect fit with the angry Pearl Jam, the desperate Alice in Chains, and the darker-than-dark Nirvana. (We’ll leave the Foo Fighters and Garbage for later posts.) Early on, someone described them as “MC5-meets-Zeppelin/Sabbath” and that might refer to their club days.

But it’s Superunknown that caught my attention, and not just the popular songs like “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman.” The last song on the album, in particular, is pretty haunting and hypnotic. Called “Like Suicide,” it ultimately supplied the title to a short story I wrote later on.

If you listen to most of their songs, you can tell they’re born mostly of a jam session. But once the foundation is laid, they’re meticulously crafted layer upon layer. Like most grunge bands, they eschewed keyboards, going more for the classic sixties pre-power trio sound with two guitarists, neither one really lead or rhythm. If you had to press them, Kim Thayill is the lead guitarist. Fitting, since Chris Cornell is the lead vocalist, a role that usually doubles with bass or rhythm if the singer plays anything.

All this is backed by Matt Cameron’s drumming, which is rather complex in places. Cameron, along with Jimmy Chamberlin of Smashing Pumpkins, is probably one of the last jazz-influenced drummers in rock. (A case could be made for Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.) Most drummers today have their roots in heavy metal or punk whereas the drummers of the hard rock era, guys like Keith Moon, John Bonham, Deep Purple’s Ian Paice, and Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, cut their teeth listening to swing music from the 40’s. Cameron has that same sense of intricate timing.

And yet there’s a jam session somewhere in those songs. They might be worked-over and multitracked to radio-friendly perfection, but you can hear the jam in their construction. Helps that Soundgarden clearly recorded the room when they made an album, whether playing the take “live” or piecing it together. (Butch Vig, Garbage’s drummer and a long-time producer from the grunge era, does this a lot as well, even with studio trickery.)

But it’s Cornell’s voice that is the band’s primary instrument. Cornell can hit those Plant-like high notes that all but disappeared from mainstream rock around 1991, but his voice better compares to David Bowie. Like Bowie, Cornell can sing a couple octaves lower and sound like a completely different singer. Sometimes, he’s his own backup singer, using his high notes like Steve Perry behind Greg Rolie on those early Journey albums.

What most people remember about Soundgarden, though, is “Black Hole Sun” and that creepy video with the CGI smiles and apocalyptic imagery. It was also the occasion of one of the funniest Beavis & Butthead commentaries during the show’s original run, when the video opens on a meadow and Butthead says, “It is in these hills that Juan Valdez picks the richest coffee beans with his trusty donkey.” And then Beavis freaking out every time someone had got one of those almost demonic smiles on their faces.

But the song itself probably is what is seared into people’s minds. Too bad, because the album’s second single, “Fell on Black Days,” is a much better song lyrically and musically.

But hey, if you must be creeped out to memories of your ill-spent youth watching MTV when it still showed videos, here you go!

Thursday Reviews: Hangar 18 by Jennette Marie Powell; Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

Hangar 18 

Jennette Marie Powell

Full disclosure: I adopted the author as my Li’l Sis back during the Reagan administration.

Lisa Stark is a software engineer working on subliminal training for the Air Force. One of the officers overseeing the project is Adam Keller. Captain Keller has a problem. Aliens are in his head. Well, one of them. Normally, this would be a cue for someone to check into the nearest psych ward for rest and some sweet meds. There are two problems with that assessment. First off, Keller really is telepathic. It’s a classified secret, but Keller can, in fact, read minds. The other problem is that alien. His grandfather was one of the doctors who examined the crash survivors from Roswell. And they’re still alive, kept in cold storage in Wright-Patterson’s infamous Hangar 18.

Powell’s first two novels, Time’s Enemy and Time’s Fugitive, were paranormal romances. This one is as well, but unlike the previous novels, the science fiction elements are played down a bit here. The premise is established early on, and it serves primarily to complicate the attraction between Lisa and Adam. But she still manages to juggle a lot of balls: Government cover-ups, the very real specter of job loss as a contractor, and the local color around Wright-Patt. A couple of the characters, Tom Rand, come off a little flat. Rand was a bit annoying until about halfway through the book. A killer named Skinner, whom Adam has dealt with before, instead seemed like a missed opportunity. He’s a dark personality who could have provided another angle to Keller, who would have to deal with his animalistic mindset. However, I was surprised by Colonel Canfield, who promised to be a stock ice princess and turned out to be a rather sympathetic and complex character.

Lisa and Adam, however, sell this. Both have well-drawn backstories that Powell teases out over the course of the novel. Lisa was adopted by a soldier who rescued her from Vietnam as a small child while Adam requested a posting at Wright-Patt to take care of his dying grandfather and his ailing wife. His interaction with the alien drives him to the point of exhaustion, especially since he spends the first third of the book wondering who is in his head and making him freeze in 90-degree weather. What I particularly liked was Lisa’s reasoning for building a rather dangerous application. She is driven by the death of her brother in Afghanistan and believes something like she’s designed would have saved his life.

Sh*t My Dad Says
Justin Halpern

This is not the William Shatner comedy, but that show was based on this. Justin Halpern, a columnist for Maxim, found himself in his hometown of San Diego without a place to live and moved back in with his dad. Over time, he started noticing his father, a blunt, opinionated research doctor, would say the damnedest things and not really care what people thought. He soon turned this into a Twitter feed that unexpectedly went viral. This led to a book deal and, of course, a sitcom starring Shatner.

The show was primarily a vehicle for Shatner’s comedic talents. The real dad, Sam Halpern, is very different from Shatner’s almost unlikeable dad. Halpern rattles off several nuggets (no pun intended) of his dad’s wisdom and intersperses stories behind some of the comments, including when Halpern and his brothers realized that the Twitter feed went viral without their father knowing it existed. Turns out they needn’t have worried, as long as no damned reporters bothered him.

I listened this on audio while driving back from Cleveland one weekend. The reader did the father in a voice that sounds like a cross between Ralph Kramden and Howard Wolowitz’s mom. Yet Halpern reveals his father to be a much warmer, more loving dad. The infamous temper and tough guy persona shows this when a dad barges into his son’s advanced math class to loudly call out a pompous teacher who can’t be bothered to teach his students the basics. The book ends, however, with a scene that dad insisted be added to the book. It was about his first wife and how their relationship went and how her death affected him. It explains not only why he does some of the outrageous things he does, but why he does what he does for a living.

Steve Ballmer Must Go. Now.

steve-ballmer

Source: Microsoft

Remember in 1995 when Microsoft brought out Windows 95? They made the PC easy to use in comparison to its earlier DOS-based predecessor. That spooked Apple so badly (Well, let’s be honest. So did Apple’s bottom line.) that they brought back Steve Jobs from exile. Microsoft created Office, made Excel virtually the only spreadsheet anyone in corporate America uses. (Yes, I know. There are other spreadsheets. I probably even know most of the two dozen people who use them.) Chances are, your work email is on Outlook.

Well, all that happened in the 1990’s. Wanna know why it took until 2012 for them to come up with the Surface tablet? Oh, they had one years before the iPad was even on Steve Jobs’ radar. It ran Windows 2000 and needed a stylus. Um… Yeah.

So what else has Microsoft done lately? The Zune. Windows Vista. How about Windows 8, which has the most idiotic interface of any modern operating system. And what is the cloud-based system called this week? It used to be Azure. Maybe it’s Azure again. Or maybe…

The problem is Bill Gates retired. Yes, Bill Gates was a ruthless businessman who thought nothing of riding roughshod over competitors. All the while, Microsoft was considered hip, the company that upstaged stuffy old IBM at their own game. But when Bill retired, he put in charge his right-hand man. The Pope Benedict to his John Paul II. Steve Ballmer.

Love Microsoft. Hate them. You can’t deny that, since Gates’ departure, it has been a rudderless ship. Not only has Apple overtaken them as the most valuable company in the world, but Google has pwned them with not one but two operating systems. Yes, the Don’t Be Evil people are Apple’s biggest competitors, not Microsoft. No one uses a Zune. If you don’t own an iPod, you probably use your phone, which is either an iPhone or an Android, with Blackberry getting most of the scraps.

When Gates ran Microsoft, developers and engineers tripped over themselves trying to score some sweet office space in Redmond. Now they stay in the Bay Area, where the only pariah of late is Oracle (the database company who is the only outfit Microsoft seems to be handing its lunch.) And in Redmond? In an attempt to emulate Jack Welch at General Electric, Ballmer has implemented a cannibalistic means of internal competition that has stifled creativity and resulted in brand confusion. The result?

Have you seen Windows 8 lately?

Time for Steve to pick up on the Pope Benedict comparison and retire.

Failing that, how soon do you think HP and Dell can switch to a user-friendly version of Ubuntu?

Remission: And Now I Start Running For Real

Running cartoonIn January, I started a program to ramp up running. I started by power walking a 6-minute interval followed by one minute of running, repeating two more times. Gradually, the power walk was reduced to a minute while the running is up to nine minutes. I did have to stop halfway through the most recent one because my hips got too tight. It happens.

This week, I start running for real: Twenty minutes straight. Next week, 30 minutes. Then up to a nearby park and back, adding a lap around the park each week until the end of April. There will be a 90-day (or one-week, depending on how badly I hurt myself) break while I do P90X, but the goal here is to do a 3-5 mile run three times a week.

I haven’t run since 1984. Ronald Reagan was president. Gas was $1 a gallon. MTV still showed videos. The Internet was this super-secret computer thingie that Matthew Broderick hacked in War Games. I also turned 18 that year.

I turn 47 this year, and the body is not as resilient as it once was. For some reason, my threshold of pain is higher, probably life kicking someone around for an extra three decades, but there are more aches. I have the knees of my mother’s family, which tend to be stiff and get stiffer with age. I have a toe that may or may not have arthritis in it. I have a small toe on the other foot that I broke two years ago. It went completely numb after that.

But since starting this, I’ve plateaued at 14 pounds lighter than I was on New Year’s Day. Granted, diet has a lot to do with it, but the running has helped considerably. In the middle of this final phase of the ramp up, I’m also going to start biking the Little Miami Trail (more on that next week). What’s really helped, though, is that I now have decent running shoes. In high school, we was broke. My mom bought me the cheap shoes at K-Mart, and they had to be my walking around shoes and my running shoes and my gym shoes. No cleats or special New Balances for this boy. Oh, and they had to last until spring. Now? I can afford to go to Bob Ronker’s Running Spot and spend some decent money on a pair of shoes that can handle the punishment I dole out on my heels, support my weak arches, and generally let me forget about my feet while I’m out there sucking wind and wondering why I keep torturing my knees.

I do feel better since I started this. Hopefully by the end of the year, I can get a couple of 5K or 10K races in. My goal?

The Pig at 50!

Believe in it!

The Compleat Kepler: Full Moon Boogie

cover-smallerFull Moon Boogie

A couple of weeks back, I talked about what I called The Deep Purple Project, a means of generating ideas by taking a title from one song on each of that band’s studio albums to come up with a story. Since Deep Purple has eighteen (soon to be nineteen[?!]) albums, this should have had me good to go for a while.

Number three on that list was the band’s self-titled third album, which hit record stores in 1969 and, it must be said, stayed there. In fact, even the remastered version still sounds like someone held a mic plugged into a CD burner up to a cheap boom box with a dirty tape head.

The album had a song that was essentially drummer Ian Paice banging away, hoping maybe the late Jon Lord would add some keyboards and original vocalist Rod Evans (for all you Captain Beyond fans) might, yanno, add some lyrics. It was called “Chasing Shadows,” and actually, the lyrics were about Jon Lord’s recent bout of nightmares. Musicians frequently get pissed off if they don’t have nightmares. No one wants to write a song about that dream you have showing up for work naked or the falling dream. Everyone has those.

Anyway, I thought about what might cast shadows. A fire, like a camp fire or a bonfire, would do it. Okay, so why is Nick seeing shadows from a fire? I got the impression someone was dancing around the fire. Fine. Why? Male or female? I decided the person was female. I also decided that she was some sort of pagan. A bad thing?

I’ve known a few pagans in my life. One used to tell me how some rituals were conducted in the nude in the woods. OK, why’s Nick in the woods? This is a guy who did not do so well on his trip to Amish country.

In Ohio, there is a wilderness area in the southeast corner of the state called Hocking Hills. It is part of the Wayne National Forest that extends in patches into West Virginia and southwest Pennsylvania. The hills here are the closest things you’ll find to mountains in Ohio (a couple of them might be mountains under certain generous definitions of the term.) They have the same steep slopes and rocky terrain as most mountains in the Eastern United States. It’s actually part of the Appalachian Mountains, so its not surprising. In a former life, I used to vacation there annually. Road Rules was written there. Parts of Second Hand Goods and Bad Religion were as well. And it was in the actual mountains over in West Virginia that this story finally coalesced.

On a trip to Canaan Valley in WV, I took a train ride up one of the mountains. While riding up, I took out a notepad and scratched out the first draft. Kepler was contracted to find a best-selling author named Kelley Penfield. Penfield is mysterious. She does not interact directly with her agent or even her lawyer. She has another lawyer do it for her. All the agent knows is that Kelley came from a small town in the Hocking Hills region called Logan (not far from my favorite vacation spot in this area.) So Kepler goes down to Logan, checks into a cabin away from town to avoid arousing interest, and is immediately confronted by a nude woman prone to dancing and chanting around a fire. One night, she shows up in Nick’s cabin. Not to look for a little fun. She just wants to show him some Tarot cards.

The story took off from there. She called herself “Diana” after the Roman goddess of the moon. And it is a full moon. Hence, I coopted a Jeff Beck tune for the title. We find out who Kelley is, why she disappeared, and what’s really happening in Logan, Ohio.

This is probably my favorite of the stories in this collection, certainly one of my favorites that I’ve written.

Favorite Bands: Alice In Chains

Alice in Chains in 2007

Photo: Jenya Campbell, used under Creative Commons

Back in 1990, I remember metal heads getting excited about this new band from Seattle called Alice in Chains. The name was a reference to female bondage. They were an interesting change up in the usual metal fair of the day. Twin guitars, much like Metallica, but with harmonized lead vocals. Neither lead vocalist Layne Staley or guitarist Jerry Cantrell – sounded a thing like the dozens of Robert Plant wannabes (I’m looking at you, David Coverdale!) that had emerged since the mid-1980’s.

Alice’s songs were dark, almost heroin driven. No surprise. Staley once said he started using heroin because he believed it would fuel his creativity. Whether that’s true or not, it certainly impaired his abilities to perform. It did, however, provide him with ample creative gold to mine.

Releasing the EP We Die Young in 1990, which would later grow into their first full album, Facelift, they were a very different metal band, perhaps taking its cues from Guns N’ Roses. They didn’t scream their vocals or their guitar solos. The trended more toward grunge, but without the punk vibe that bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden wove into their music.

Their best album was Dirt, which showed Staley at his best. And his worst. By the time the album was released, Jerry Cantrell was writing most of the music. This was reflected in 1994’s Jar of Flies, which had more basic and acoustic tracks. They recorded one more album, Alice in Chains, in 1995, then added another guitarist, Scott Olson. Staley was unable to play. By 1996, Alice would go idle, never officially breaking up.

Staley died in 2002. That was likely the end. Jerry Cantrell pressed on as a solo artist, his music sounding much like Alice in Chains’ classic sound. You knew something was wrong when you listened to Alice’s biggest hit, “Would?”

Am I wrong
Have I run too far to get home
Am I wrong
Left you here alone…

Staley was openly musing whether he was doomed or not.

The band, however, would not stay down. They did a reunion set in 2005 for tsunami relief. In 2006, they recruited new lead singer William DuVall. DuVall seems to get the classic Alice in Chains sound but without the baggage that took Staley down. Will it work? Seven years later, they’re still together.