WASTED CRISIS

by Daniel Chawner

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Megs tried not to throw up on her keyboard, zero-early o’clock on Labor Day weekend, the morning after Margarita Madness. She swallowed hard and tried to focus. Her logins weren’t working, not the regular account, not the super-all-powerful admin account, nor the test accounts. She couldn’t get into the company’s main app.

Bobby, from over her shoulder, said, “See? See? We’re totally screwed. How did this happen?” He pounded the desk, sending Megs keyboard flying.

“Bobby, calm down. Now that I’m here, walk me through it again. You weren’t making sense on the phone.” Bobby had sounded hysterical, said she needed to come to work right now, and it didn’t matter she was at her friend’s lake house, two hours away. Hung over.

“It’s like I told you, I got this weird email. Then I tried to get onto our app and couldn’t.”

“Show me the mail.”

“I’ll send it to you.”

“No,” said Megs. “Let’s assume your emails are toxic.” More toxic than usual. “Show it to me, on your phone.”

Bobby thrust his oversized iPhone in Meg’s face. She pushed it away until the text came into focus and read it twice to comprehend the broken English.

“Robert Ugnaught, You have been pwned. App at Ugnaught Construction and Engineering are mine. Follow instruction below to buy and transfer $100,000 Bitcoin. You get 48 hours. Or delete everything.” Below the text were step-by-step instructions for buying Bitcoin.

“How did they do this? How did they get into UFA? I thought you and Ravi had locked everything up.”

“We secured what we could, but you wouldn’t let us lock down our system, remember? I wanted to buy those tools and restrict access to non-work-related sites?” Bobby loved to spend his afternoons on SnapChat, Among Us and other non-work sites.

“So is there something we can buy now?”

“No.” Megs rubbed her temples. Explaining technology to Bobby, the youngest brother of the family business, was hard under normal conditions. Talking to him through a pounding headache and dry mouth seemed impossible. “It’s too late. We should contact the FBI, or a firm that specializes in emergencies like this.”

Bobby stopped pacing and leaned on Meg’s desk. “We can’t let this get out. I mean, if we talk to the FBI or whoever, it will be public. And it will take too long to hire someone else, right? We basically have two days; we need everything perfect for Tuesday morning.”

“Or you could, you know, pay them and hope this all goes away.”

“I’m not paying ransom to a bunch of Russian kids. No way. And besides,” he said in a lower voice, “I don’t have that kind of money.”

Outside the window of their suburban office, Bobby’s Model S blocked the fire lane. In his reserved spot was his other car, a fully loaded Cadillac SUV. Bobby’s house, which Megs was forced to visit every Fourth of July for the big company party, was at least 5,000 square feet and had two pools.

“You hide it very well,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“Bobby, they aren’t looking for you to pay, right? It’s the company that got hacked, not you personally.” As long as we ignore you’re in charge of technology and security, and fired the CIO for disagreeing with you last year and never replaced him. “We should call Brad.”

“Listen,” Bobby said, “I think this is best if we just keep this between us. Don’t involve my brother. So, what do we do now?”

“Coffee. Why don’t you get me some? In the meantime, I’ll call Ravi and see if he has any ideas.”

“You think you can get him?”

“I don’t think they celebrate Labor Day in Bangalore. So, yea. Make it large with a splash of cream.”

Bobby raised his eyebrow. This may be the first time anyone asked him to run an errand.

“By the time you get back, I’ll have some ideas. Go, there’s a Starbucks a few minutes away.”

“Yeah, I could use some coffee. Be right back,” he said and pushed through the heavy door separating IT from the rest of the office.

The caffeine would help but getting Bobby out of her hair would help more. Ugnaught Construction and Engineering had moved their most critical app, Ugnaught Field App (UFA) to the cloud, servers that someone else owned and maintained. It let them lower costs and move faster. It also meant if their accounts didn’t work, they couldn’t use their cloud-based app and data. The entire firm, field engineers, back office, and the CEO, needed UFA to do their jobs. Megs tried her logins again, just to do something. Same result.

Megs felt helpless; she usually solved problems and kept the app running. Now some hacker from thousands of miles away was threatening their company and potentially their livelihood. Did they target Ugnaught, or cast a wide net? Did the hacker need money to pay bills and feed a family? Was it worth ruining our weekend, our career, our lives over this? When she was with Microsoft entire teams stood ready to handle this type of crisis. Here, we didn’t even have a CIO or proper network engineer. These hackers had Ugnaught’s fate in their hands. Megs clenched her fists, then called Ravi.

“Hey Ravi, do you have a few minutes?”

“Hi Megs, thought you guys were off this weekend.”

“We were supposed to be.” Megs filled him in on the details.

“I just tried my credentials as well. No luck. Do we know how this happened?” said Ravi, polite and helpful as always.

“Could be phishing, or we left something open on a server and they found it during a scan, or one of the software—”

“It’s almost always phishing, someone clicking on a malicious link, right? I can run a scan on emails from the last week or so and see if there are any likely sources. Luckily for us, we still have our network and email local, not in the cloud.”

“Will a scan help?”

“At least we’ll know how the hackers got in,” said Ravi.

“Alright, let me know.”

Megs stood, stretched, and shuffled over to a blank whiteboard. If they couldn’t get into their system and Bobby wouldn’t pay, they needed to rebuild. From scratch.

She wrote “Source Control”, “Data”, and “Backups” across the top of the whiteboard. The best choice is the backups, copies of their entire server made on regular intervals. Megs hurriedly re-dialed Ravi.

“Ravi, my mind is mush this morning. We didn’t talk about the backups.”

Silence.

“Ravi, did you hear me?”

“Yes, I heard you. Do you remember where we put the backups?”

Oh shit. “We back them up to the same servers, don’t we?”

“Yeah. We can’t get to the backups either. We intended to fix it over the summer, but…”

But there were issues over the summer. Instead of working on the backlog of work projects, like backups, cleaning up directories, auditing accounts and killing old, legacy jobs, she spent most of July and August with Mom and Dad. Megs had moved back to New Jersey from Seattle five years ago and gave up a nice career at Microsoft; she was on a Managing Partner track. But the weekly phone calls with Mom became more strained, and Rodger, her brother, cracked under the stress. So, she left the fast-paced world of high-tech and became a jack-of-all trades, part sysadmin, part programmer for a mid-sized, family-run firm.

In July, Rodger announced he couldn’t handle the daily visits to Mom and Dad anymore and was broke. Two days later, he and his family moved to Philadelphia, leaving Megs to buy supplies, drive to doctors, pick up medicine and arrange nurse visits. After two weeks of continual care, Megs found a local nursing home. Which solved one problem and created another: a $15,000 per month bill, payable in advance. In cash.

“Oh crap. But we have the off-site tape backups, where we write all the database information to a tape and mail it somewhere secure.”

“Let me check,” said Ravi, followed by the sound of typing on his keyboard. “Yes, but we only do full backups to tape once a month. On the fifteenth.”

“So, we didn’t lose everything, then. How soon can we get the tape sent here?”

More typing. “Thursday. Assuming they pull the tapes and mail them Tuesday morning.”

That’s better than nothing; that’s most of the data. “But the source code, that’s in a separate place. In GitHub, a different cloud system.”

“Yes,” Ravi said, “that’s true. But we do our builds, where we assemble and deploy the source code, on the main server.”

“So? That doesn’t change the… oh. We store our logins to GitHub there, don’t we?”

“Yup. In—”

“In clear text. Not encrypted, which was another thing on the summer list. If these hackers looked in there…”

“They could get to the source code and lock us out. Or wipe it. Or both,” said Ravi.

Megs jumped back in her seat and opened GitHub, furiously entered her login and password and held her breath while the icon spun. Then she exhaled; their source code was still there, filed neatly in branches. “I’m in Ravi, it’s all here.”

“Change your password, now. And disable the account that does the build.”

“Yep. You should login and do the same,” said Megs, smiling for the first time this morning.

“I may have found the phishing email,” said Ravi. “I’ll let you know when I’m sure.”

Megs leaned back in her chair. Like the tapes, something else tickled the back of her brain. Maybe closing her eyes would help.

The bang from the IT door jolted Megs out of her nap. Luckily, she fell asleep upright up in her chair, not face down on her keyboard.

“Here you go. Any luck?” said Bobby. He placed a large white paper coffee cup on her desk, light brown liquid escaping from the cap and rolling down the side.

“Ravi and I are working on it. Good news is we still have access to the source code.”

Bobby smiled. “We’re good, then? I meant to tell you, our app on my phone is fine.”

“They can’t lock that down. But, if you tried to connect to the server, you wouldn’t be able to. Remember how we have that set up?”

“Yeah, to let the engineers work offline. So, they have their own little databases on their devices.”

“That’s right. And, if they didn’t update anything, they could work for a day or two.”

“We could have some more time to repair this?”

“Kinda, it only solves the engineer part. The rest of the company, the execs, accounting, they all login to the portal which is on the cloud.”

“If I told Brad we were doing maintenance, and it went long, but the techs could still work… and we got it fixed by like Wednesday… then maybe they wouldn’t have to know.”

“Only if you hid the truth from them.” Megs shouldn’t have been so blunt. The best way to deal with this man-child was to nudge him in her chosen direction. She hastily added, “We can build the software, err, apps again. And set them up on a new server. But they won’t have any data. For that, we’d need to instruct all the engineers to upload their field data to the server and set up some rules for putting that stuff back in the database. If we get lucky, maybe we could restore half of the data. At least the most recent stuff. And then get the tape back by Thursday.”

“So that doesn’t help us at all. Shit.”

“It helps a little, it—”

“When the company comes into work Tuesday, when the engineers fire up their apps, when Brad sits his ass down at his desk and tries to pull up the monthly numbers, will any of that work?”

“The apps would be there, but no data.”

“So, they won’t work. Useless. I thought we had something in place to get backups. I see them on our monthly bills.”

“They got them, too.” No need to explain why they got them, at least not yet.

“Dammit,” said Bobby, flopping into a chair around the small conference table in the center of the room. “What else?”

“Ravi thinks he knows how they got in. He’ll let me know soon.”

Bobby pulled out his phone, slurped his mocha-colored iced drink through a straw, and turned away from Megs. Great, he’s going to stay.

“Are you sure we can’t call Brad and talk to him? Maybe he can negotiate with these guys?”

Bobby flinched at the mention of his older brother’s name. “No.”

“But we may not —”.

“No, we can’t let Brad or anyone else know. In fact, send out an email letting people know you took the system down for maintenance and they can’t access it today. In case some eager beaver logs in on their day off. Like Brad.”

An instant message from Ravi flashed on Megs screen.

Found out how they got it. Bobby clicked a fake FedEx link, and they got his admin credentials. Keyboard logger.

Megs opened her mouth to tell Bobby, then stopped. He was quiet. Better to keep him that way.

Great. Any other ideas?

No, will keep looking

Let me know, thanks.

What were the remaining options? Pay and get everything back. Maybe. Don’t pay and rebuild the system from scratch on the sly. Or come out with the truth and restore the apps with the company’s help.

Coming clean and telling Brad, CEO of the firm, made sense. He was an engineer; he’d see this for what it was, a puzzle.

“Bobby, this is where we are: we can rebuild the code. Probably take most of the day, but we could get the app stood up pretty quickly. We need to tell the users to connect to a different server… which isn’t hard.”

Bobby stared at Megs, expressionless. His hair looked matted, his eyes bloodshot and face puffy. Puffier than usual.

“And then we need to tell them to go into the settings of the app and do a one-way, err, push all the data they have to the new, empty database. Ravi and I could write some rules for what data to keep, what is most recent, that kinda stuff. But it won’t be 100%, and it may take us a few days to get the data straight. By then, we should have the tape backup. As long as it’s okay, we can piece together most of the data, probably with a few gaps from last month.”

“How long?”

“For which part?”

“Until everything is back to normal.”

“If everything goes like it should, and all the engineers followed the instructions… Friday, or early the following week?”

Bobby hung his head. “Not good enough. If I have to tell Brad about this… he’ll ask a lot of questions. And we’ll be screwed.”

“He might just choose to—”

“No chance. He’d rather shut down the company then pay a hacker. You know what he did the last time something like this happened? When a few computers and printers went missing a few years ago?”

“Faintly.”

“He ran a full investigation that cost more than the missing equipment. Questioned people for hours, put together a report, hired someone to help him. And got deep into everyone’s business. It was awful. Cost me a bonus that year also, ‘cus I run the office team as well as IT”

Megs stomach lurched again. Brad was intimidating; if he questioned how this happened, they’d have to tell him about the shitty backup plan.

“What else have you got?” asked Bobby.

“Right now, nothing,” said Megs.

He slammed his open palm on the table, rocking his latte. “Useless, you are useless. There has to be another way to fix this.”

“I’ll keep looking,” muttered Megs. She focused her attention on her monitor and randomly moused through her open windows. And tried not to shake.

This was Bobby’s fault. He clicked on the link and forced them to keep the system open. She could make Brad understand. But not having backups available was on her. Could she hide it? Brad, while analytical and fair, wouldn’t hesitate to fire someone over this. And he couldn’t fire his brother. Working at UCE wasn’t perfect, but the pay was alright and the hours, for IT, pretty manageable. And there weren’t a lot of other places she could work and still be near her parents. Megs now felt doubly trapped, by Ugnaught and these hackers.

Megs clicked on the window with the source code. Nothing new there. Clicked on the window with UFA. Her password still didn’t work. The only other system she had access to was email. Megs clicked on her inbox, her deleted mail, then on the separate folders she had in her inbox for something to do. Or at least to look like she was doing something. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Bobby drop his head into his hands.

One of Megs’ folders had 700 unread mails, named LegacyJobs. Great, another reminder of the work we didn’t do this summer. She clicked in the folder and gasped. There it was: “FullDBJob09032020-Complete”, the answer to her hung-over prayers, the thing tickling at the back of her skull. One of the legacy items, a job she set up when they first moved their data to the cloud, took a full backup of their database, compressed it, and sent it to their old server. The old server, the thing running in the almost-empty closet next to her desk. Here, all morning. The company’s data backed up as of two days ago sitting on a piece of hardware she meant to turn off weeks ago.

They could stand up a server in a few hours, quickly restore the database, and have a busy Tuesday morning tackling minor items. No one at the firm had to know. Bobby would get off scot-free again.

Megs sat up straighter in her chair. The buzzing headache receded and she felt whole, strong. They were going to get out of this mess. Or, at least, she was. Now Megs held the fate of the app, Bobby’s career and the health of the company in her hands. No one else knew about this legacy backup, not even Ravi.

If the hackers were going to extract a pound of flesh, why not Megs? The nursing home bills would ruin her finances for years, maybe for the rest of her life. But not if someone else picked up the tab. An extra $15k a month would change her life, for the better.

“Hey Bobby, we know how the hackers got in.”

Bobby raised his head out of his hands and looked over at Megs.

“You clicked on a bogus FedEx link, and they stole your password. You handed them the keys.”

Bobby, who was pale already, looked deathly as blood rushed out of his face. “I, uh, how…shit.”

“And they really got us. Too bad we didn’t have a CIO anymore to pin in on, eh?”

Bobby squinted at Megs.

“Maybe someone like that could get us out of this jam. And would have forced us to buy the right tools, earlier, and get serious about blocking phishing links. Probably pretty pricey, though.”

“What good does that do us? Oh my God, I’m so screwed. We’re all screwed.”

“Yea,” said Megs. She paused to pick her words carefully. Days later, while she admired her new office and nameplate, she’d wonder if the conviction of her next line came from deep inside or that fourth margarita.

More New Writing

New Grange Etching

I wrote “A Wasted Crisis” nearly two years ago, based on a prompt (characters try to repair something) from On The Premises. while upstate NY in the height of Covid. I loved writing the story and thought it came out okay.

Sadly, I didn’t follow the contest rules and included my name on the submission (different contests and journals have different rules for names, page numbers, spacing… it’s like a big game), so it wasn’t considered. For a small fee I had the piece critiqued. The editors implied it would have been a finalist had I followed the rules. This pushed me to work on the edits they suggested and resubmit elsewhere.

There is a moral question raised in the story, so I submitted to After Dinner Conversation. And it received an honorable mention… but wasn’t published. I submitted the piece to at least ten different pubs over the next year, but couldn’t find any traction.

Like the Wendig piece, it’s not edited… again, apologies for my writing ticks. I think it’s a fun read. Maybe it should contain a trigger warning for IT professionals?

Addendum: This piece got reads from the editors at On The Premises and 3 random readers from Scribophile (when I still posted work there). The editor and one reader were involved in IT security… and their comments were interesting. I tried to paint the picture of a family-run business, with a bare-bones, 2-person IT team… but they couldn’t get past the lack of big-corporate security teams and approaches. Is this a weakness in the story or an interesting example of readers’ experiences and biases? I wanted to debate them, as I felt their crits regarding the mechanics of small-shop IT were wrong… but they are the readers. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. An interesting lesson.

I hope you enjoy!

Chuck Wendig Writing Contest

Steps in Donegal Stone Fort

I’m happiest jumping between writing assignments. Currently, I try to write new stories for After the Second Wave three to four times a week, a blog post one day, and something else two to three times a week. Sometimes it’s a prompt from Writing Down the Bones. Preferably, I’ll write for a contest.

In the past month, I’ve written for two contests. I sent a unique story to On The Premises for their short-story contest … I had the idea while re-reading Hills Like White Elephants. It’s mostly dialogue and set on a train from Edison, NJ to New York City. I don’t think it’s a winner, but I enjoyed writing the piece.

This week, I tried an online prompt from Chuck Wendig. His writing and style differ from mine, but I like the prompts. We only get a week… there (hopefully) is an expectation this isn’t a polished piece.

I wrote about a creepy-looking red door, the top part covered in white paint. Why would someone paint it white, and why stop? These questions led to Ralph Whitewashes His Nightmare. It was a fun exercise, although I couldn’t help but think how Neil Gaiman or someone else could turn a hastily written 1000 word prompt into a masterpiece.

Because of the short timeframe (even shorter since I didn’t decide to try until Monday, leaving me only four days to submit), I didn’t have time to let anyone read the piece. I’m apprehensive posting un-edited work here, although, to date, everything else in the Writing category is also un-edited. So apologies for tense changes and the long list of other sins in my raw writing. But I hope it is worth a quick read.

And it forces me to put more writing up on this site. For an author’s blog, it has very little fiction writing. Next week, I’ll post a story I wrote for another contest that could never find an online home. And this should kick off a series of actual posts with writing. Enjoy!

Ralph Whitewashes His Nightmare

Red Door

The door from Ralph’s nightmares pulsated blood-red. But in the fading light of a fall evening, it was just a door at the far end of an empty cellar that reeked of mold and fuel oil.

The door called to Ralph the last time he stayed in this house an eight-year-old. Urged him out of bed, down the cellar stairs and through piles of boxes and old furniture. A voice like an old woman speaking underwater asked him to open the door.

Ralph shook his head. His therapist, Dr. Kincaid, thought this recurring nightmare was his young mind trying to process trauma. Real trauma, not a monster with tentacles that wrap themselves around little boys and keep them on the brink of suffocation, while probing their brain with a leathery proboscis.

But Dr. Kincaid never explained why his nightmares were so vivid, so consistent. Replaying the worst night of his life, over and over again.

And now he stood ten feet away from the red door. As an adult, he searched for the property online every week for unusual occurrences. Last month it showed up as a rental. Ralph booked the listing at once, took a few days off from work and flew to London. Imagined or not, he needed to come back to this cellar and face his worst fear.

And the door was here. Part of his memory was true. But the door wasn’t speaking.

“Nothing to say now, eh? Maybe you only speak to defenseless little boys,” said Ralph. Hopefully he sounded confident; his stomach wanted to empty over the dirt floor.

This was ridiculous. This stupid door had haunted him for twenty years. And it needed to end. Destroying it would end the nightmares. The years of lifting weights in his parents’ garage and practicing Brazilian Ju Jitsu gave him everything he needed to punch through the wood door and rip it apart. He wasn’t a scared little kid anymore.

But the thought of touching the door with his bare hands made Ralph shiver. Maybe he could use something, like a bat or crowbar. The cellar was empty except for a small metal cabinet next to the stairs. Inside was a set of small paint cans and a crusted brush. One can read Bright White. Perfect. Ralph popped the top, swirled the paint and positioned himself in front of the door. The paint was chunky, but this wasn’t for the aesthetics. Just cover the door, show his dominance over whatever had happened to him, and maybe he could sleep soundly for the first time in twenty years.

With a glob of paint, Ralph held out his arm in front of the door, closed his eyes, and swiped the brush. He cracked one eye; a white swath over the faded red. A white streak dripped down the door. But no voices. Ralph exhaled… this was going to work. Paint this thing and move on with life.

The last bit of day faded from the small cellar window. The flashlight on his phone would provide more light… but his eyes must have adjusted as the red brightened in the dark. Ralph confidently applied more paint to the top part of the door. Was the wood damp? The paint wasn’t taking well.

Ralph leaned in to look closer at the grain and rested his hand on the small metal handle, attached at the perfect height for an eight-year-old. The taste of leather and paint filled Ralph’s open mouth as the frigid tentacle dragged him back into the nightmare that had waited so patiently.

Where are all the Happy Endings?

Magdalene Tower, Drogheda, Ireland.

Ending stories is hard. When I started writing short stories, I had a character and a problem… but no clear ending. Not every story needs to end with a bow, but something satisfying or dramatic or shocking should occur. The first story I wrote had no ending… the main character left one place and arrived in another. My second story, “Unfair Advantage”, had a situation and a mood before an ending. Now, when I write, I don’t start (unless I’m just experimenting) until I know where the story will end. And this got me thinking about the best sad and happy endings.

The most remarkable sad ending is from a book I listened to on tape while commuting over twenty years ago. And I don’t recommend the book. It’s thoughtful and well-written… but the sad/tragic/horrifying conclusion caught me by surprise. Haunted me for days. Even now, as I think back to the ending, I can hear the narrator’s flat voice and remember getting upset. Anyway, the story is “The Weight of Water”. It became a movie, but I couldn’t watch. Even dredging up the memory here leaves my stomach grinding on itself.

Finding a great happy ending is a challenge. The authors I’ve read the most aren’t known for their upbeat books. Murakami, while amazing, is sad. Howey’s stories have hopeful endings (Beacon 23 has a legit happy ending). Hemingway can be cruel.

I come back to David Mitchell’s books. He doesn’t write linearly; they are separate stories, related (Ghostwritten, The Bone Clocks) or a tighter version (Cloud Atlas). They don’t have happy endings, for sure. But they resolve in very satisfying ways… the disconnected threads and characters conclude successfully. These endings are interesting and clever… but not happy.

I can’t think of a great happy ending and the most impactful sad ending…I never want to think about again? There are countless examples of happy endings on-screen, for sure, especially in movies. But, in the age of prestige television, many of the endings on series aren’t happy; most are ambiguous or cliffhangers. The only place I see happy endings are cheap, reality real-estate shows where the couple looking for a house finds the perfect one and lives happily ever after.

Favorite Book Series as a Young Reader

Encyclopedia Brown

I’ve always been a reader. It’s in the genes; my mother is a tremendous reader, and I grew up around piles of books (from the EB Library, of course). Reading was always fun; only in high school and college did reading temporarily feel like a burden.

I had collections of books from elementary school I re-read repeatedly (a habit I got out of as an adult). The earliest series I remember was Encyclopedia Brown. I wanted to be a detective (based on my love of Sherlock Holmes stories) and followed the boy detective from Idaville. The concept was brilliant; each book had five chapters, and each chapter was a mystery. And they presented the solution on the last pages. Even though I fancied myself a detective in the making, I don’t remember solving any of the cases in real time. In my defense, most of the “evidence” that Leroy Brown (Encyclopedia’s real name) used was incredibly circumstantial… but I loved reading them, anyway. Also, it started a theme of reading stories set in small towns decades earlier… life in small-time Idaville seemed strange, sitting in Central New Jersey in the early eighties…

McGurk Mysteries

Another mystery series was the McGurk Mysteries. The McGurk Detective Agency were kids from a small town with specialities. Like a heist movie, where all the thieves have their speciality… but instead of a safe-cracker or a driver, McGurk’s agency had a tree expert, a smell expert and a kid who was “brainy”. While looking up information about the series online, a few pundits point out the series was pretty much one big trope. But, as a young reader, these devices seemed fresh. I liked the idea of an agency that met in the basement of McGurk’s parents’ house, and that a bunch of kids could solve mysteries adults couldn’t. And just enough action to keep things interesting.

The Original Great Brain

The other series was The Great Brain. I read them a lot… and I must have owned a few, because I remember reading a few of the books multiple times. But, unlike E.B. and McGurk, I enjoyed them less with each reading. Everything was foreign, even though the series was set in Utah in the late 1800s. Set in small town Adenville, life seemed very different. Not just the lack of technology or flush toilets or radio and television, but the customs. Children were whipped by their parents and paddled by teachers, although JD’s (John Dennis was the narrator and younger brother to the Great Brain) family used the Silent Treatment as punishment. Families visited in the evenings in parlors. But it was the principles important to kids that never landed.

Each story involved TD, aka The Great Brain, basically manipulating and swindling. One of his primary tools/weapons was the concept of not going back on someone’s word. While this is a good principle and something to strive for, it had a commandment-level hold over the kids in the town. It was frustrating to read; I’d ask myself, why wouldn’t the swindled kid just call TD out, or tell an adult, or just not honor the agreement? Another similar device was when JD caught The Great Brain scamming. As the younger brother, he should have just told his parents what The Great Brain was up to… but TD inevitably launches into a soliloquy about breaking their parent’s heart if JD told them their son was swindling. JD agreed and wouldn’t tell the parents and have to deal with his brother’s swindle. This never seemed plausible to me as a young reader and less so now.

I read other series like Choose Your Own Adventures, but none of them resonated like the aforementioned series. I re-read these often enough they left an indelible mark.

Does Place Inspire?

Spriral Stairway in Long Hall

Last week I wrote about libraries, prompted by a family visit to Ireland. One of the first places we visited, right off of the plane, was Trinity College and The Long Room library.

The Long Room is most known for housing the Book of Kells, a illuminated manuscript of the Gospels by Columban monks. It’s on the old-school list of things one must see in Ireland, along with The Cliffs of Moher, the Aran Islands and Newgrange. While the history and significance of the Book of Kells is impressive, the actual book (only open to one page and protected beneath inches of glass) pales compared to the Long Room hall.

Long Hall and Tourists

It’s something out of a movie, at least to my American eyes. They built the Long Room in 1592. The high ceilings, long rows of books, busts of famous Irish philosophers and authors, the smell of old leather and pages is the genuine attraction.

As I dodged Euro tourists trying their best not to smoke for fifteen minutes, I wondered what it would be like to write here. Not in the current set-up for tourists… replace the prime floor space with long study tables and period lamps.

Busts

Would every story be a Harry Potter rip-off? Trinity is a university with Hogwarts vibes. Stories about floating candles or the busts coming alive and commenting on the news of the day. Old books opening to mysterious pages. Secrets, ignored for hundreds of years, falling out of the dustiest book.

Or do thoughts rise with the ceiling? Pondering man, the nature of life. Reflecting on the works of ancient and modern philosophers. Really heady stuff. Does the space elevate the work?

It’s hard to imagine writing a schlocky pulp novel or trashy romance story. At a minimum, the characters should be in the library and find the last clue or piece of the puzzle in the stacks. Which begs the question, ultimately… how much does place affect the work?

Hard to answer. I’ve written in a handful of places. Trying to write at the same desk I use for work doesn’t work . My normal spot in the sunroom is the default, quiet and regular enough that I don’t think about the space anymore. Other places, like hotel rooms and house rentals… are hard to judge. I know that the first place we traveled to after quarantine was a breath of fresh air…. writing outside in a quiet forest. But when I travel, I usually have a full agenda and time constraints in the morning and writing is a secondary activity. Not sure I can judge the effect it has on the words. I’d need to go somewhere and have a leisurely morning with hours to write to test this theory.

Libraries, Then and Now

Kilkenny Castle

When I think of libraries, I focus on the one in my old hometown. East Brunswick Public Library was a large, very seventies space. My memories of the EB Library stop in the mid-nineties, so PC’s and the internet hadn’t changed everything yet.

We’d visit the library every two weeks as kids, per the loan schedule. We had free rein and it was common to walk out with five or six books… usually of different types. Sports biographies, adventure stories, etc. I was very into mysteries as an elementary school student, especially classics like The McGurk Series. I’d never start or finish all the books, but loved the call of the unread stack.

As I got older, the library became more of a place to do research and studying. Research comprised hitting the card catalog or roaming the non-fiction shelves organized by topic. If it was a school research project, going to the reference section and the micro-fiche archives… I can still feel the headache caused by zooming past months and years’ worth of newspaper and journals.

The EB library also had other memories. A famous security-guard who always wore a yellow hat. The distinctive smell of damp books. And movie… before we had a VCR, my family used to rent a VCR tape, put on big headphones and watch movies in the middle of the library (Rocky!). We also rented Atari and Commodore 64 video games… although those rentals cost money ($1?) and lasted only a week. I studied in the library, although not as much as some other students. It wasn’t until later in college I could study in busy places.

Bantry Bay in evening

My other strong library memory was the Douglass/Cook library at Rutgers. I discovered early in my college career I couldn’t study in my dorm/apartment. I’d spend a few hours in the library daily, usually at a lower level. They had larger tables meant for 4 students to spread out, or these personal little cubbyhole rooms. I spent dozens of hours a month in the library.

As an adult, my relationship to libraries has changed. Obviously, the development of the web as a research tool and Amazon deliveries had the biggest impact. In the places I’ve lived as an adult, I’ve only visited the public libraries a handful of times. I decided, sometime around the rise of Amazon in the early 2000s, to buy any book I wanted.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, I really felt the need for a quiet space, away from the constant noise and distractions of home. Of course, libraries and bookshops were closed or had limited hours and hard restrictions on access. I finally got to my local library to edit and couldn’t believe the changes… not the emphasis on technology as the attitude toward noise and food. Libraries were always quiet and places where food and liquid were strictly verboten. I remember smuggling in cups of coffee to my college library study spots. Here, they sold water and other drinks along with candy bars from behind the desk! But the noise was the most shocking…. everyone spoke loudly. Librarians shouted across the room to one another. It made me feel ancient. There was one section cordoned off as the quiet study space… in my view of a library, the entire place should be a quiet study space. Get off my lawn!

I’d like to be more strategic using the local library. At minimum, I should be part of their kindle program, where I could borrow digital books. This might be a good way to hedge against books I’m not sure I’d enjoy. I have a strong bias toward physical books… something about digital books doesn’t sit as well with me. I struggle to remember what I read or take it as seriously. But if I could use it as a sample… a way to try new topics and authors with low risk.

I’d like to incorporate my local library as a weekly stop for editing and maybe some bonus writing. Regardless of how noisy and active it may be, isn’t home. Two or three hours there, consistently, could make a huge difference in attacking my backlog of editing. And soak up the good mojo.

Seeing the Matrix

Spring Snow in the Catskills

Watching movies and reading is more interesting now that I’ve learned about the mechanics of storytelling. Certain devices, like The Call-to-Adventure jumps off the page or screen.

I watched The Lincoln Lawyer (liked the first three episodes… after that, the show seems formulaic and stereotypical). In the first episode Mickey Haller, who we learn is a down-on-his-luck lawyer in LA with past trauma, inherits a law practice complete with a high-profile case.. the Call to Adventure. This jumps off the screen, especially as someone who didn’t study or learn any of these elements until recently. Before, I had a vague notion of a story needing a “hook”, although I rarely noticed them.

Other choices are more apparent, like how a piece handles background and exposition. Too much exposition is considered sloppy and should be avoided (unless you’re Joyce and load each story with exposition… paragraphs of it starting each short story in Dubliners). This included voice-overs in movies and TV shows as well. I knew it was lazy writing but didn’t understand why. After struggling to build characters and worlds, I understand the need to relay information quickly to the reader. In The Lincoln Lawyer , the writers use different ways to tell us more about the main character. Some is “natural” conversation with his ex-wives and daughter about his past and his struggles. But they also use a hokey exposition device where Haller is explaining to his driver about how he practices law as they drive through the desert in a seemingly unrelated scene.

When I was in college, one of the most popular courses was Dendrology, the study of trees. I love the forest and made a conscious decision not to take this course, to leave the mystery and magic of the forest and not get bogged down in tree identification. I wonder if viewing and reading will hit differently now that I can identify the structures beneath them.

A Second Look: Dubliners

Bridge over Liffey

I’ve read Dubliners by James Joyce three times. An upcoming trip to Ireland inspired my most recent read. I’ve viewed Dubliners as an easier way to read a classic; short, immersive stories. Also, a nice way to come out of the Hemingway jag.

I used to start my morning writing sessions by either copying lines of classic texts (The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, Wool) to learn about sentence structure or read Dubliners to hear the lyricism. If I read quickly, I often miss the poetry of the words, reading to find out what happens next. The wordplay is more noticeable on slower, closer reads, as is the tone and speech of the characters. I wonder how much of what they say and infer is lost to time, though… every story has references to specifics that are very Irish or locked in the early 1900s.

Joyce wrote this short story collection while away from Ireland and Dublin. He spent most of his adult life abroad. Which is striking, since Dublin itself is one of the main characters in the book. Each story contains specific references to streets and bridges, specific pubs, etc. Not to mention the overall tone and mood of the city. It’s crazy to think an author wrote so intently about a place yet choosing to live somewhere else. In my many author-ly fantasies, I picture myself living somewhere exotic for a few months under the guise of research.

A few things struck me on this third read. There are a few thematic constants in the stories. One is the overall tone… it’s a depressing read. Almost every character is poor and struggling for money while living in the city’s underclass. Poverty hangs over each story… the characters fight and scrape for punts and shillings. Characters like Lenehan in Two Gallants scam young women, old men expose themselves to young boys in An Encounter, and Mr Duffy in A Painful Case condemns a beau to a life of despair. Gray is used to describe the characters and the city itself.

Another constant is alcohol consumption. Not in a merry, where’s-the-craic sort of way, but how much trouble it causes. Each story has at least one character whose life is significantly worse because of drinking.

Finally, it seems none of Joyce’s characters can escape Dublin. Joyce set all of the stories in actual places in the city. One character, Evelin in, well, Eveline, is set to leave what seems like an awful home life, but finds she can’t board the ship to leave. The young, middle-aged and near-dead can’t get out of the city.

Dubliners was an easier read this time. The older conventions, styles and attitudes didn’t jump off the page at me. Maybe this is because of reading so much of others from that same time period? Or just an expectation grounded in experience.