Monday, February 27, 2023

"Do Not Open the Door."

On the morning of her fifth day at the cabin on Devil's Lake the sky was blood red. An ominous sensation gave Emma a chill so that she actually shivered. For some reason, throughout the rest of the morning she was unable to shake the feeling of foreboding it gave her.

As noon approached she decided to run into town to pick up a few groceries. On the way she'd stop at Lena's Diner to catch a little gossip over a light lunch.

"Hey, how's that book coming along," Lena said as she walked up to the counter at Lena's. 

Emma wondered how forthright to be "You know how it is with writers. Sometimes the words just flow and other times..." Her words tapered off. Hank Bigelow, seated at the far table, was looking at her in a way that made her uncomfortable. 

Lena glanced over at Hank, then spoke to Emma in a low voice. "Never mind him. He's just an old lumberjack who's lived too long up in the woods here." 

"Tuesday someone told me he killed a man once. Any truth in that?"

"Oh I don't know," Lena said, scrunching her nose. "You know what they say. Don't believe everything you hear."

"Is he still staring at me?"

Lena looked up, tugged at a strand of her hair and curled it around her finger, then grabbed a pitcher of icewater and walked around to two or three tables filling glasses before coming back to Hank. "Here ya go, buddy. Can I bring your tab?" 

Hank muttered something incoherent, placed a ten dollar bill on the table, shoved his chair back and stood. "Lena, that was pretty good. I don't know how ya do it," he said.

"That's my secret. You know how to keep secrets? I do, too."

Hank turned, headed for the door without looking back. 

"How many years have you been coming up here, Emma?"

"Must've been about seven or eight. I wrote my first novel here." 

"Was that Destiny?"

"No, Destiny was my second. Drowning. That was my first. All my novels start with the letter D. My English teacher gave me a D on my senior project and said I'd never amount to anything. My poetry sucked, and my stories were silly sentimental nothings," she said. 

"What's the title of this one going to be?"

"The working title is Daggers."

"So you're doing another murder mystery?"

"It's about a relationship gone bad. The title comes from the way she looked at him in the end."

"Does she get away with it?" Lena's smile was infectious and the cloud over Emma's day began to lift.

"I can't tell you that. The characters will decide how this plays out."

* * * * 

That evening the promised shift in the weather rolled in. As the wind began picking up, the trees around the lake began to sway. Emma went to the front door and watched as the sky turned a deep shade of grey and a sense of unease began to permeate the air. A rumble of distant thunder could be heard and the sky itself seemed to growl as it roiled, the clouds swirling, their edges tinged with an ominous shade of green.

As the storm drew near, with its flashes of lightning, the air became charged with static electricity.

While growing up Emma actually enjoyed storms like this, impressed with their power. Tonight that sense of foreboding that chilled her that morning had returned.

The rain, initially pelting sporadically on the roof and windows, was soon pouring down in sheets. The thunder grew louder and more frequent till it was a deafening roar shaking the entire cabin.

Each bolt of lightning illuminated the sky in a blinding flash, casting a stark and eerie light upon the landscape. The wind whipped the trees as if trying to tear them from the earth.

The outside air was filled with the acrid smell of ozone which seeped into the cabin. The sharp tang stung Emma's nostrils and made her feel as if the very fabric of reality was being ripped apart. The rain yielded to hail, pelting the roof, siding and windows with icy bullets.

In the midst of all this cacophony, Emma felt small and powerless, like a mortal caught in the wrath of the gods themselves. Then, as suddenly as it began, the storm began to recede, the thunder and lightning retreating into the distance as the rain faded to a gentle patter. 

Emma poured herself a second glass of wine, grabbed her laptop off the counter and nestled into a recliner. She wanted to capture in words what she had just experienced and felt. After no more than a minute or two she heard a knock at the door. She looked at the clock – it was very late. Who could be knocking at her door at this hour?

As she stood to go look through the peephole, she knocked the wineglass off the

end table, shattering on the hardwood floor, the wine spreading like a blood stain.

When the knocking started up again, it made her jump. Emma's heart raced as she considered whether to open the door.

But then she remembered the warnings she had heard from neighbors – strange things had been happening in the out here. People were disappearing. Some were found dead, with no explanation as to how they died. 

"Don't open the door for anyone," they had said. "No matter how much they plead or beg. Don't let them in."

Emma's fear grew as the knocking grew more insistent. She bent over a picked up a shard of glass, her heart racing.

Then, suddenly, the knocking stopped. There was silence. Emma held her breath, waiting to see if it was really over.

But then she heard a voice, a chilling whisper from just outside the door.

"Please, let me in," it said. "I need your help. Don't be afraid."

Emma knew she shouldn't, but her curiosity got the better of her. She slowly approached the door, her hand shaking as she reached for the doorknob. Then she heard it – a low growl, followed by a scratching sound. Something was clawing at the door, trying to get in. 

* * * 

Disclaimer: The idea for this story occurred while I was at Walgreens. While looking at the book rack I saw that one of the books had the title Do Not Open the Door. I wrote the title down, wondering what I'd write. I asked ChatGPT for a story outline which I fleshed out and ended up with this. The illustrations were created by using an AI app to modify a couple of my original paintings.

Related Link

The Unfinished Stories of Richard Allen Garston.


Sunday, February 26, 2023

Sunday Reflections: What's Going On (The Fentanyl Scourge)

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I've not been posting much lately. It is not because I have lost interest in writing. I'm simply busy with a number of other writing projects that have deadlines. In addition, I've been diverted somewhat by other responsibilities, including the funeral of my nephew. 

Cause of death: Fentanyl

This is what prompted me to write my blog post of February 14, More People Die from Drug Overdoses Each Year Than Were Killed In the Entire Vietnam War.

As Marvin Gaye once sang, "What's goin' on?" 

Hardly a day goes by when I don't hear of yet another death from this drug, though it's not new. It was reported that Prince died with Fentanyl is his system in 2016. When Heath Ledger died in 2008 it was reported that a number of other famous Hollywood stars checked in to addiction clinics to deal with the combinations of drugs and alcohol they were ingesting.

Today I learned that there were new drug related deaths amongst Duluth's homeless. Fentanyl and other opioids have become a scourge.

"What's going on?"

Have things gotten worse because of the open borders? Or have they gotten worse because of the hopelessness people feel? Hope is a requirement for living. As Helen Keller once noted, "Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope."

Is this epidemic of death by Fentanyl a symptom of a greater problem in our culture, the loss of hope? The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah wrote, "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope."

But who reads the Bible any more? We've been swept up in this strange notion that things old-fashioned are irrelevant. We "live in the moment" now, caught up in the latest (irrelevant) news, the most stimulating (new) fads and fashions. 

The reason I failed to achieve a Bachelor of Arts Degree was because I bought into this silly notion that Art History was old fashioned and irrelevant to what was happening now in our contemporary art scene. Idiocy. 

History is a lengthy dialogue with the great minds, in philosophy, art, science, ethics. By abandoning history we abandon the opportunity to glean from the great minds of all time. No wonder our kids end up so shallow. History today is nothing more than a collection of facts--the Civil War was from 1861-1865--instead of a collision of concepts and beliefs regarding how we should live.

What a shame when our knowledge of history is used only to ace tests in school or be adapted for a commercial advertising campaign.

There are some who believe hope is foolishness. For these the adage applies, "Let us eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die."

To those of you who have found a foundation for hope, I commend you. Hold on to that and remain strong. The acid of cynicism is eating away the foundations our society was built upon. Know this: we were made for better things.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Planet Sandtrap: Distractions and the Challenge of Living Purposefully

Photo by Justin Aikin on Unsplash
In the 90s Susie and I befriended a homeless man who became a friend for about ten years. It happened like this. Susie was doing pottery at the Duluth Depot at the time. The kiln for firing and the workspace designated for potters was located on the first floor. Just outside is where the train museum is located. 

There was a man named Robert who loved trains and did volunteer work there once a week. He was a big man, tall and somewhat overweight, unkempt but gentle. Often he would come into the pottery studio and sit there, sometimes engaging in conversation. Susie suggested that I take him to dinner sometime, that he was an especially insightful person and I might enjoy getting to know him. I went along with the idea, made a plan and we followed through. I had no idea this would develop into a ten year friendship with our family or that we would be at his side when he was unplugged on his deathbed at the hospital.

Robert lived in the Seaway Hotel at the time. Located in Duluth's West End it had a seedy reputation, but was affordable for down-and-outers. In that first hour together over dinner I discovered what an unusual and interesting man he was. 

We later began calling him Train Man because of the similarities between himself and the savant Dustin Hoffman played in Rain Man. We soon learned about his obsession with trains, that he had watched every single movie in the library and rated them on the accuracy and qality of their train scenes.

One of the observations he made in that first encounter, though, was how the Seaway was a microcosm of the culture at large. He called it Planet Sandtrap.

He proceeded to name the various traps there: drugs, booze, hookers, porn and gambling were preeminent. 

Do you have life goals that are being thwarted by your own sand traps? In golf, there are other hazards as well. Lakes and ponds, forests and trees can all interfere with your golf score. While golfing in Florida once I not only had my ball end up in a small pond, there was an alligator in there as well, two hazards in one.

Those who aspire to be the best they can be in any field of endeavor reach that height by avoiding sand traps and making other sacrifices as well. 

Even when you play your cards right, however, things don't always work out. As stated in Ecclesiastes 9:11, "I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all."

Nevertheless, if you have something to aspire to, you'll generally get much closer to your goal by avoiding the sand traps. You'll have higher self regard and fewer regrets as well.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Real Intelligence

I have a very good friend whom I visit on a regular basis. He has repeatedly made statements that I later wish I'd recorded. His insights are from that zone outside the norm. This past Friday evening he made the following statement while we were discussing intelligence.

"Real intelligence is not IQ, but knowing what's important."

We're all familiar with the expression "Educated fools." I believe that is the point of this statement. Intelligence, if not accompanied by wisdom, can hardly be deemed intelligence at all. 

What do you think?

Illustration created with Dream by Wombo 
based on an original painting by my grandmother.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

More People Die from Drug Overdoses Each Year Than Were Killed In the Entire Vietnam War

I heard a stat yesterday that shocked me, even though it should not have. The stat was actually wrong, because things are far worse than what I heard on the radio.

In 2021, 290 people per day died died from a drug overdose. The person on the radio said "This is more than died every day in the Vietnam War. "

Actually, on the bloodiest day of the Vietnam War, 31 January 1968, only 249 U.S. soldiers were killed. The reality is that 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam during the entire war. So if we begin with the escalation under President Johnson and use 1965 as a start and end in 1975 when Saigon fell, that would mean an average of 5,800 died per year in Vietnam. More than 106,000 died from drug-involved overdoses in 2021, and even more than that died in 2022. 


To quote Marvin Gaye, "What's going on?"

Many blame the crisis on our porous borders. Others blame the pharmaceutical companies. 

Here's the thing that concerns many of us, though. When we do have surgeries and are suffering physically, we need something to alleviate that pain. Two Tylenol ain't gonna cut it.

Here's an important article in Reason magazine that warms about the danger of going too far when it comes to restricting pain killers.

"Laws that arbitrarily set duration or quantity restrictions for opioid treatment regimens are premised on the belief that increased access to prescription opioids has led to an increase in addiction and, ultimately, overdose deaths.

"However, while opioid deaths continue to soar, opioid prescribing rates have decreased every year since 2012."

One of the reasons the notion of physician assisted suicide took hold as an idea is directly related to this problem. When I wrote about ethical issues in terminal health care back in the 90s, this very problem was a major issue. Should people who are already dying be forced to accept intolerable pain for fear that they might get addicted to pain medicine? 

Make time to read the article if you are able: The Fight to Criminalize Opioid Prescribing

Something to think about.

Monday, February 13, 2023

My Two Favorite Super Bowl Ads Last Night

William Sydney Porter
120 years ago, William Sydney Porter made his mark as a writer by creating stories with a surprise twist at the end. We know him today as O Henry. My two favorite commercials last night had the same "Aha!" effect that O Henry was famous. 

The first, if you watched the commercials, followed a motif that a friend of mine shared with me several years back. Claude is from Switzerland, and I don't know if this ad made American airwaves or not, but it was memorable even if I never saw it

He was at a movie theater where they run commercials while the theater seats get filled. On the screen it looked like a Marlboro commercial was beginning. The angle of the camera was down low as the famous emblem for Marlboro cigarets came riding toward the audience on a horse.

Suddenly the camera switches to the river and we see a man in a rowboat, the mascot for Camel cigarets, Joe camel rowing toward the shore. The natural reaction would be, "Is this a Marlboro commercial or a Camel commercial?" As the camera follows the rowboat toward the shore we see both company mascots. What's going on here? 

Finally, they're near enough to talk and one says to the other, "By the way, what tooth whitener do you use?" The other replies, holds out a tube and they both affirm it's the best.  

Well, that tooth whitener commercial came to mind after I watched the Miller Lite and Coors bar fight. Is it a Coors commercial or a Miller commercial. Naturally, this are the big kahunas in the major U.S. brands beer brawl. It really had me going. I almost wondered if they were getting ready to announce that Anheuser-Busch and Coors had merged. 

The spot begins with two guys seated at a bar. One turns to the camera and says, "For the first time in 30 years, Coors Light has an ad in the Super Bowl." The second guy swings around on his barstool and says, "Actually, this is a Miller Lite commercial." The first guy then slugs him in the face and a brawl ensues, with dramatic music. 

Coors commercial? Miller commercial? "Actually...." Watch it here:

The other commercial is titled Jack's New Angle. You don't have to know who Jack is, but in this story he takes up the triangle as a musical instrument. It's a 90-second spot and hilarious, with shades of Being John Malkovich. Like the previous commercial cited here, it uses story-telling and humor to keep viewers' eyeballs engaged till the dramatic reveal at the end, another surprise ending with an "Aha!" Watch it here:

Now how fun was that? 

There was a lot of action in the Super Bowl ads last night. While some commercials worked better than others, it was fun seeing companies pulling out all the stops. 

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Laugh a little and it will lighten your load. 

* * * * 

Did you watch the game? What were your favorite commercials?

Sunday, February 12, 2023

It's Super Bowl Sunday: Is the NFL Rigged?

"Ready to Launch"
As most of us are aware, money is a big part of what this event is all about. In basic economic terms, it's a matter of supply and demand. There is only one Super Bowl per year and the stadiums have a finite number of seats. As a result, tickets come at premium prices and for this year's game the average ticket costs $6,800. If you think that's a lot, last year the average ticket cost $10,000. No kidding. It was in Los Angeles, and the home team was there on the field for that one.

Then there's all the gambling revenue generated. Over-unders and all kinds of other bets can be placed. Since much of this is black market activity, it's hard to say exactly how much money is riding on the various outcomes, but one estimate is that a half billion dollars is on the line tonight.

Then you have the money pouring in from companies that spend millions on advertising at this once-a-year event. The cost for a 30 second spot seems to rise with every passing season, now in the range of five or six million dollar. Advertisers who play this game do so because there's a massive captive audience.

Advertisers do more than just advertise during the game. Most have integrated campaigns that incorporate other forms of advertising and marketing including digital and social media, product placements and branded content. The big guys can easily spend tens of millions around this singular event.

Which leads some people to believe that the NFL has a vested interest in delivering a close game that keeps viewers watching all the way to the end so that advertisers get their money's worth and return again next year.

Sometimes it seems like a lot of games hinge on a penalty call by the refs, or the lack of one. Defenders of NFL integrity correctly point out that it's only one play, so it shouldn't really matter all that much. On the other hand, a single play can shift the game's momentum in a big way. How many times have we seen a fumble, interception or missed field goal spook the crowd and turn the momentum in favor of the opposing team? Those controversial calls by the refs can produce a sea change in a tight game. 

Conspiracy theorists are quick to jump all over those bad calls, and with the megaphone of social media the doubt gets carried off like dandelion seeds whistling in the wind. Controversial calls make many people skeptical about the integrity of the league. There's also the perception that the NFL favors certain teams or players.

None of this has been proven, and the NFL bends over backward to preserve the perception that everything's above board. The problem is, when it looks like you're trying extra hard to look clean, cynics jump on this as proof that you have something to hide. 

Alas. People will believe what they want to believe, no matter what anyone says.

* * * * 

As for this evening's game, it's only the 13th time the two number one seeds have come through the playoffs unscathed. Which of these will step up and dismantle the other?  Let's wait and see.

Photo: Creative Commons. Attribution: Andy Morffew 

Friday, February 10, 2023

When You're Down, Laughter Is Good Medicine

I have frequently written about the power of music to comfort and heal. Well, laughter is pretty good medicine, too. It even says so in the Bible. (Proverbs 17:22) 

For those of you who have been stressing out lately, here are some jokes from ChatGPT, the hottest AI writing app at this moment in time.

First, I asked, "Can you tell me a joke?"
ChatGPT replied:

Why don't scientists trust atoms? Because they make up everything!

Then I asked for a joke about school, and ChatGPT replied:

Why did the teacher wear sunglasses to school? Because her students were so bright!

Then I asked for a joke about Americans. And ChatGPT replied:

I'm sorry, but making fun of a particular group of people based on their nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, or any other personal characteristic is not appropriate and goes against the OpenAI community guidelines. Jokes that target individuals or groups can be hurtful and offensive and can lead to a negative impact on people.

Instead, let's try a joke that's more lighthearted and inoffensive:

Why did the tomato turn red? Because it saw the salad dressing!

I thought that one was pretty cute. Next I asked "Can you tell me a joke about sidewalks?"

Sure! Here's one: Why did the sidewalk cross the road? To get to the other side-walk!

How about a joke about popcorn?

Here's one for you: Why was the popcorn kernel so popular at the party? Because it was a little kernel with a lot of pop!

Next I asked, "Can you tell me a funny story?"

Of course! Here's a classic joke: Two guys stole a calendar. They got six months each.

* * * * *

On that note, I hope your spirits were lifted a bit. G'nite.

Photo courtesy Gary Firstenberg.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

My Life as a Writer: The Writing Cooperative Puts My Writing Career Under the Microscope

The Bobcat who ate the canary.*
This past fall I had the honor of being interviewed by Justin Cox. It was published this week and, for those who may be interested, can be found on Medium at The Writing Cooperative.

Justin's approach is interesting. He's been interviewing writers and authors for a while, asking the same questions of each so as to see the variety of ways different people answer.

The questions he asks are: Who are you? What do you write? Where do you write? When do you write?          This is an interesting question.       Some write after dark, others after dawn. Why do you write?     Another important question, for all. How do you overcome writer's block What do you enjoy doing when not writing?

If ya wanna know, keep reading.

* * * *

Write Now With Ed Newman

Today’s Write Now interview features Ed Newman, lifelong writer, columnist, and author of multiple books.

If you're a writer, check out some of the other writers he's interviewed and the lessons, stories and tips they have to share.

Related Links
My 2019 Interview with Cirina Catania, co-founder of the Sundance Film Fetsival
*EdNote: The official mascot for Ohio University (my alma mater) is the Bobcat. Bobcat is also a code word for Bob Dylan fans... who are also Bobcats.

Popular Posts