November 6, 2007

NaNoWriMo 2007, Day 6

Posted in Books, National Novel Writing Month, Writing at 6:58 pm by Calico Jack

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I got off of the elevator at the fourth floor and headed down the Davy’s gray-colored corridor to my office at the end of the hallway. I would have taken the stairs, but I didn’t want my client to see her potential future employee not using the elevator. Some people are insanely weird about trivial things like that. They view everything in terms of power, and my walking up the stairs could signify that I was a non-person, a grunt of no consequence who was fit only for carrying bags and parking cars. Like I said, it’s absolutely ridiculous, but I had learned my lesson over the past year or so. Those with the fame, power, or money to spare tend to view everything around them in terms of themselves. And if you’re not careful in presenting exactly the right kind of image, one false step could mean the end of your contract or even your career.

The woman standing in front of my doorway turned her head as I approached. I slowed my pace a half-step or so to give me a few extra seconds to analyze her-the more information you have when dealing with a potential client, the better you’ll be able to play to her strengths and weaknesses, such as using tonal adjustment to subtly alter your client’s emotions and get her to agree with you. Sometimes it means playing a foil to whatever kind of impressionistic persona they’re giving off, or even (depending on the circumstances) doing a ridiculously valiant attempt at sucking up. These are well-used forms of manipulation, and although I had a quiet distaste for underhanded persuasion, I wasn’t about to let my feelings get in the way of a good job.

It’s odd how much information you can gather just by viewing someone’s appearance. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but I was trained in the art (that sounds awfully pretentious, doesn’t it?) of collecting and analyzing personal details, and this woman was sending me quite a few. Not quite middle-aged, probably in her late-30s or so, with artfully dyed brunette hair piled up in a messy concoction and the kind of preternaturally smooth skin around her eyelines that suggested more than a few injections of Botox. Wealthy, then, although she made no effort to be flashy, with unassuming jeans and a lightweight viridian coat that was at most a year out of style. She had a wedding band on her finger, and an engagement ring with a diamond large enough to let me live quite comfortably for several months. Perhaps she married into money and never quite embraced it? A small designer purse was at her side, and her sunglasses were perched just above her forehead, even though there wasn’t a hint of sun outside. As I came closer she started rubbing her purse strap, most likely a nervous tic that had never been eliminated. Put all of that together, and I had a pretty good idea of what she was going to say.

I reached her and held out my hand, giving her a confident smile. “Hi, I’m Tyler McKinley. My apologies on your wait; shall we come inside?” One of the important things to avoid was any sort of excuse for waiting clients, even if they arrived twenty minutes before their appointment. Just apologize briefly and move on; if you need to do some fawning the time for that will come later.

She shook my hand, not timidly but not firmly either, and had to consciously force herself to meet my eyes. I slid my key card through the door lock (if I ever lose that I’m going to be in big trouble), and pushed open the heavy wooden door with my nameplate affixed to the front. Instead of the usual black letters on faux gold look that were ubiquitous in corporate America, I had spent a fair amount getting my name and title laser-etched into an acrylic block. It was quite impressive to look at, although most likely a bit too flashy for what I needed. Still, every time I opened the door and saw “Tyler McKinley, Private Investigator” I felt a little rush of pride.

She followed me inside and received her first look at my office: a mere two rooms (three if you include the half-bathroom). The one she entered was my main office, a relatively sparse room with a large glass desk facing away from the window. I usually tried to keep my desk clean and orderly, although I had lost that battle a long time ago and was now merely fighting a delaying action. I had several plush chairs for my clients to sit on to give them a sense of relaxation, and a five-door cabinet against the far wall. Most of my files are kept online, with data backups in several offsite locations, but for some reason clients expect private investigators to have a filing cabinet where they store all of their sensitive data. It’s another one of those quirks you have to deal with in this line of work. The back room wasn’t for clients to enter, and it was actually where I did most of my office work. There was a mini-fridge stocked with both soda and alcohol, and a microwave and Foreman grill where I could do a slapdash bit of cooking if I were staying late-o r early, depending on the assignment. I had a 42-inch plasma TV hanging from the wall opposite the fridge; it was a gift from a client after I found out which of his employees was embezzling over a hundred thousand dollars from the company. That job hadn’t been difficult; after eliminating most of the obvious suspects (including my client himself), all I was left with were a few employees who, with a little bit of skill and luck, could put themselves in a position to misappropriate funds. One person I tracked had recently gotten a new girlfriend; and as the old cliché says, “Follow the money.” She wasn’t wealthy, but she was sporting a rather expensive purse and had just leased a BMW 3-series, neither of which she could afford on her own. Put that together with a few other odd things, and I had my suspect. Actually, my client could most likely have pieced all of that together on his own, but those with enough cash to burn to hire my services usually prefer to have someone else do their legwork. So I received my usual fee for the job, and the plasma arrived at my door a week later. I’m not complaining.

My new client only sat down in one of the chairs after I had done the same behind my desk. Like all potential clients, I never ask for their names over the phone when they are making appointments. It is more of a convenience to them than anyone else; if they decide not to use my services, there is no possibility that I could go to the press with a story like “Famous actor X seen talking with private investigator; what possible secrets could he be hiding?” Of course, what I don’t mention is that even with email and phone anonymizers, it wouldn’t be too time-consuming to find out who is really on the other end of the line. But I don’t get paid for that, and there is usually another client waiting to take the first one’s place, so I almost never bother to do any digging.

The woman took a deep breath and, pasting a not-very-convincing smile on her face, asked “Tyler McKinley-are you by any chanced related to President McKinley?”

With a surname like that, I’d had long practice at giving people an answer of just the right length. It was time for me to simulate cheeriness, and pretend that I had never been asked that particular question before. “As a matter of fact, I am-but not directly. My great-great grandfather married his sister and took her name. McKinley himself had two daughters, but they both died in early childhood.”

She smiled and nodded, but her attention clearly wasn’t on my oft-rehearsed explanation. So I decided to press the issue a little bit. “Is there something I may help you with, Ms…?”

Ms…? looked a bit startled, then regained her composure and faced me directly. “Jackson, sorry. Emma Jackson .”

“You don’t happen to be related to our third president, do you?” I suggested with a smile. She mutely shook her head no, and lapsed back into her pseudo-funk.

I’d learned not to be irritated by clients’ unwillingness to divulge whatever it was they were in my office for. Sometimes you just had to be patient and let them reveal slowly. Other times, however, you could sense that they were just waiting to explode all over you, leaving a sticky verbal mess. Emma Jackson was the latter. So I slightly leaned forward in my chair to give her a sense of intimacy, like she could feel comfortable telling me whatever it was that was troubling her, and quietly suggested, “Ma’am, I can’t start to help you until I know what your situation is.”

That obviously did the trick, as the words started torrenting from her as if she felt she would never again get the chance to recount her story. “I’ve been married for seven years, and I think my husband is cheating on me. He works for Health Net as a clinical accounts executive in Woodland Hills, and he’s normally traveling all over the country for his job. But the past several months he’s been gone on more trips than normal. He kept making excuses, saying that work was keeping him busy and he was being considered for a promotion. But something about it doesn’t feel right, and I want to know what is going on.”

Bingo. Now I had to figure out exactly what Emma Jackson knew or didn’t know about her husband’s possible infidelities. “Have you already talked to your husband about this?”

“No, I can’t afford to. If he’s cheating on me, then I need to be sure before I file for divorce. Our pre-nup has a clause in it that a false accusation of cheating forfeits the accusing party’s rights to our assets, and knowing Mark, that’s exactly what he’ll do to me.”

“Okay; next question. Have you ever suspected him of infidelity before? Or has he ever given you any reason to question?”

Emma shook her head resolutely. “No, this is the first time something like this has come up. He’s just acting so different than normal. He’s grouchy when he’s home, and he isn’t even being nice to Madison. That isn’t like him at all.”

“Madison’s your daughter, I take it?” Emma nodded. “How old is she?”

“She’s four.”

Too young to know what might be going on, thankfully. If Mark was cheating on his wife, at least his daughter would be spared some of the pain of knowing exactly what he was doing. Now came the tough question: “How’s your sex life? Is there anything different about that than normal?”

Emma glared at me as if she would refuse to respond, but I pressed forward. “I’m sorry, but this is an important question to ask. I need to be able to see as much of the big picture as I can in order to help you best figure out what’s going on. I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t essential, trust me.”

She hesitated, then nodded acquiescence. “If by normal you mean once or twice a month, then yes.” Emma paused, her eyes unfocusing slightly as she internally debated what to say next, then plunged ahead. “Look, Mr. McKinley, I didn’t exactly marry Mark because I was passionately in love with him. He had money and a certain amount of charm, and for a twenty-eight-year-old girl from Milwaukee, that was enough. He’s always been a good father to Madison-before the last several months, at least. And I have enough money to work at a job I really love without worrying about how much I’m making. It’s been a good arrangement so far, but if he’s cheating on me then I deserve every single penny I can get from him.” She had a certain calculating look in her eyes that belied the sorrowful expression on her face. She was good, this one. It had taken a while, but we’d finally narrowed down the reason for her discomfiture: not because of passionate love or even simple jealousy, but because she was hoping to strip her husband of his likely-considerable assets. And I was going to help her do it.

November 4, 2007

NaNoWriMo 2007, Day 4

Posted in Books, National Novel Writing Month, Writing at 11:57 pm by Calico Jack

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            However pleasant my apartment might be, the one thing we do not have enough of in Santa Monica is parking. Unless you’re willing to pay outrageous monthly fees for a spot in a parking garage half a block away, all of the tenants in my apartment must fight over far too few spaces surrounding the building. Only two dozen or so are covered, and I’ve never seen an empty space last longer than a few minutes. In the early evenings it can feel like college all over again, endlessly circling the lot in the hope that someone, anyone will pull out at just the right time to open up a space before someone else gets there first. But about six months ago, I did a favor for the owner of the popular Thai restaurant next door. In exchange, he lets me use his parking lot for my car whenever I need a parking space. So I walked over behind the restaurant, waved at the manager who was chattering excitedly on his cell phone while trying to heave the enormous trash bags over the side of the dumpster, and got in my Cosmic Blue Mazdaspeed 3. That car was a gift to myself a year ago after successfully switching careers, and overall I’m fairly impressed with my taste in presents. Admittedly, it isn’t a car that will turn too many people’s heads, but that’s just the way I want it. I have a thing for hatchbacks, and with a 2.3 liter, 263 horsepower direct injection turbocharged engine, it’s as sporty a car as you’ll find under thirty grand. The Mazdaspeed is an absolute blast to drive, but like all good things it suffers from a serious drawback: the fuel economy sucks. The willfully naïve salesperson at the dealership gave me a figure of something like 18 mpg/city and 26 mpg/highway, but I’m lucky if I get two-thirds of that on any given tank of gas. And with the 263-horsepower engine requiring premium fuel, the car puts quite a large strain on my budget. Regardless, it’s fun, fast, and roomy; and I’d be more than willing to test it against anyone’s car on a twisty mountain road.

            The drive to my office was surprisingly quick for 9:15 on a Tuesday morning. I usually take Santa Monica Boulevard all the way into West Hollywood, since I rent space off of North Highland Street. Sometimes the seven or eight-mile drive can take upwards of an hour depending on traffic, but today I zipped through the row of green lights and arrived in front of grey, nondescript office building about 9:40. The four-story parking garage attached to the side of the edifice is reserved only for tenants and their “privileged” guests, and full-time security guards Andy and Sheldon take that responsibility very seriously. In Los Angeles it isn’t your wealth which determines status; it’s your parking space. This morning Andy was sitting in the security booth, and he smiled at me as I pulled up to the checkpoint at the garage’s entrance.

            “Hey, Tyler,” he greeted jovially. “Haven’t seen you in a few days. Take a weekend vacation or something?”

            I mock-glared at him. “You know my vacation schedule’s pretty much out of my control, Andy. But no, I finished up a job for a client last Thursday, and I didn’t have another appointment until this morning.” I passed him my key card; he inserted it into the scanner to log my arrival in the garage. The sole tenant of my office building’s third floor is a company that deals in private security (read: bodyguards) for wealthy clients and stars, so as an accommodation the owners stepped up the security both inside and outside the building. I’m not entirely comfortable with having all of my movements tracked, but I can see why some people would require extra security measures. As a result, I don’t make a fuss about it, and the security guys are most appreciative.

            Andy handed me back my card, double-checked the sticker tag on the front windshield of my car to ensure it was legitimate (their training is permanently ingrained, even when dealing with a long-time client. It’s what makes them good at their jobs), and pushed the button to raise the black-and-yellow bar that blocked my way inside. “Good luck with the client,” he grinned. “Hope it isn’t a looney.”

            “Yeah, me too,” I responded with a quick, tight smile. “Say hi to Monica for me.” Every year the building’s owners host a Christmas party for the tenants and all of the building’s employees—everyone from the janitorial staff to the security guards. I think it’s supposed to be a way for everyone to forget about class distinctions and enjoy socializing with each other, even if only for an evening. Last Christmas was the first time I went (the previous year I had just moved into the building), and I saw a lot of socializing…but the class snobbery was very much in effect. I quickly grew tired of the schmoozing that was going on amongst the other tenants, and instead joined the security guys and their wives/girlfriends in a riotous game of poker. I received no love from my fellow tenants, but I didn’t care; they weren’t my clients and as long as I paid for my own office space they were welcome to impotently look down on me as much as they liked. But the other side of that evening was that I became casual friends with most of the security department and their families. Now I’m pretty sure I’m one of the only clients on a first-name basis with them. We’re not drinking buddies, but they’ve done favors for me before, and I always make a point of asking about their significant others when I see them.

I pulled into the garage and started circling my way towards the top. As one of the tenants renting the smallest amount of space in the building, I wasn’t exactly privileged to a parking spot on the bottom three floors. But even the top floor wasn’t all that bad; it had a roof and a spot reserved just for me. However, one day I crunched the numbers and figured out that I was paying well over seventy-five dollars every single time I parked in that space. It rather quickly sucks any of the fun you have seeing your name on the sign in front of your spot. But the lease deal doesn’t have an opt-out clause for the parking garage; if you want to rent their space you’ll have to pay for parking as well. Sometimes it feels like I got the raw end of the deal, yet in my line of work it looks good to be able to tell a client “I’ll put your name on the approved list for parking; just tell the security guard when you arrive.”

After taking the parking garage’s elevator down to the main lobby, I walked up to the front desk and greeted the two receptionists working there. Why this building needs more than one I don’t really know; during my more cynical periods I’ll suggest that it is merely another way to charge extra on top of the already exorbitant fees we pay to rent space out of this building. Nevertheless, both Ryan and Kara are a lot of fun to talk to, and very competent at their jobs (although I suppose I would be as well if there were two people doing the work of one). And it’s plainly obvious to everyone that they have quite the crush on each other. They just haven’t figured it out themselves yet.

I swiped my key card on top of the lobby desk, waiting for the soft chime and the flashing green light to tell me that I was cleared for entry into the building. Behind the desk, Kara finished talking to someone on the phone and excitedly looked up at me. “Tyler, you just missed Tom like five minutes ago! He came in here for the White Shark guys, and they whisked him away really quickly! I should have had him sign the guest sheet, but I wasn’t thinking. I wonder if he’ll come back downstairs soon so I can introduce myself—wouldn’t that be so cool?!” The above was said with nary a pause between sentences, in the rapid-fire chatter of someone who had obviously been waiting to share her excitement and simply couldn’t hold it in any longer.

I spent half a second mentally decoding the words Kara had shot at me, then asked, “Which Tom are we talking about here? Tom Hanks? Tom Cruise? Tommy Lee Jones?” Next to Callie, Ryan rolled his eyes and stifled a laugh. He obviously knew what was going on, but there wasn’t any way he was going to spoil Callie’s excitement in retelling the story.

Kara gave me a look as if I were a big blockhead, then exasperatedly cried out, “No, you fat monkey!” At this I unconsciously moved my hand towards my stomach to make sure I had miraculously added twenty pounds since I left the apartment less than an hour ago. “MySpace Tom! You know, the first friend that everyone gets on MySpace? He’s upstairs on the third floor!”

Now I understood the reasons why Ryan had been trying to contain his mirth. I tried to give a Kara an enthusiastic response, but I found it rather difficult to get excited over someone who was directly responsible for unleashing forces that set the internet back ten years. I never had a MySpace account, and found it hard to understand why so many people flocked to its mediocrity. Ultimate personalization sounds like a great thing; but when 95 percent of the people on there have absolutely no sense of taste or decorum, or even know what a unified color scheme should look like, I’m going to stay away. And I would like to personally shoot the person who thought it was a good idea to both allow music on people’s profiles and—even worse—set it to play automatically.

Kara, of course, cared about none of that. She was busy chattering away to Ryan about a movie she’d seen last weekend, and I was about to head up the stairs, when she paused suddenly and pointed at me. “Wait, a woman came in about ten or fifteen minutes ago; she said that she was one of your clients. I asked her to take a seat here in the lobby, but she said she would rather wait for you upstairs.”

“Thanks, Kara.” Those people who come in early for an appointment and refuse to wait in the lobby are usually either very concerned about their privacy due to fame or have something to hide. I was about to find out which one.

Next chapter ->


November 2, 2007

NaNoWriMo 2007, Day 2

Posted in Books, National Novel Writing Month, Writing at 11:17 pm by Calico Jack

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I have way too much exposition compared to just about any other writer, don’t I? Of course, I don’t think anyone will be reading this until well after I’m gone, so in a sense it’s rather freeing to not have to worry about keeping things coherent and cogent for any possible readers. This is me rambling to myself, and for the poor unfortunate soul who managed to lay his hands on this manuscript…I’m sorry. This has to be extremely boring for you, reading inane details about perfectly ordinary lives. The impetus to keep reading through the end is somewhat underwhelming, I suspect; and yet I hold out hope that you’ll stick with my musings. Something like this requires far more patience than should be given, but all I can promise is that things will pick up eventually. As for the ending—well, you’ll just have to trust this author that there is a reason why I’m spending far too much of my time right now recounting events of the past several years. As much as it might seem otherwise, I’d like to think I’m not quite egotistical enough to believe that my life deserves its own autobiography. All should be made clear in time. Now back to bacon.

Once the olfactory cue started dispersing through my living room, I obediently rose up from the couch and padded through my front door. Chloe’s apartment and mine share a corner of the building, and our doors are at right angles to each other—perfect for random water soaker fights. It sounds slightly unbelievable and rather juvenile, and you’d be quite correct. In fact, it only happened once last year when the entire city suffered a power outage in the middle of an Indian summer; the entire complex’s air conditioning went on the fritz, and I didn’t feel like curling up in the refrigerator to cool off. Chloe had a pair of water cannons left over from some long-ago campus prank, and she suggested we have a battle to determine the super soaker champion of the second floor. There were only two problems with that idea: one, both of us had rather valuable items close to our doorway (I had to replace a lamp and Chloe spent the next several hours drying out a photo album); and two, both of us forgot that our landlady Ms. Paulsen has astoundingly good hearing for her advanced age of fifty-seven. I remain eternally grateful that the hallway’s carpet dried in record time.

Chloe opened the door on my quick staccato knock, and like every single time I see her, my heart skipped a beat or two. It didn’t help that she was already dressed for work; I think she looks gorgeous in sweats and a ponytail, but there’s something about a sharply tailored pantsuit that tends to give my knees tremors. It would have been nice to just appreciate this image for a few seconds, but the half-cheery, half-apologetic smile I received from her postponed any chances of a quiet reverie.

“Hey Tyler, I hate to do this to you but my boss just called not five minutes ago. We’re going to be running a story today on the governor’s visit, and his staff just messed around with the times for an on-cam interview. Taping’s in half an hour, and I’ve got to run. I left you some bacon if you’re hungry. Make-up on Saturday?”

“Yeah, no problem. Have fun at work, ’kay?”

Chloe just rolled her eyes at me, gave me a quick hug, and practically ran down the curved stairs leading to the first floor’s lobby. It’s times like these when I really appreciate not ever having to navigate a staircase while wearing heels, as running down steps with your body’s balance artificially pushed forward would cause me to wear a bike helmet most of the time. How girls do it without constantly grabbing the railing for support is beyond me.

With Chloe gone for the day, there wasn’t much for me to do before my first (and only) appointment of the day at ten o’clock. I speared the still-steaming strips of bacon off of her kitchen’s small griddle and headed back to my own apartment, locking her door as I left. One might think that neither of us were quite ready to exchange keys to our respective flats, if only because it might signify something in our relationship that wasn’t supposed to be there. But we were perfectly comfortable with letting each other hang out when we weren’t around; Chloe envied my DVD collection, and her refrigerator was always stocked with better food than mine was. I’m not sure if that’s a fair trade; after all, I do get to use my movies after she’s done watching them.

The bacon was delicious as usual, even if I felt fat cells in my body multiplying exponentially as I ate each strip. Throw a bagel in the toaster, munch on a banana and take a few swigs of orange juice (straight from the carton; it’s one of the privileges of living alone), and I was set for breakfast. Afterwards I spent some time writing an email to my parents back in Seattle, since our schedules are too different for us to call each other with any regularity. Most of that’s my fault, I guess, but I do the best I can with the restrictions placed on me by work. My parents weren’t thrilled when I walked away from my old job and took up my current occupation; they saw more of a future for me in the former than I did, and for a while it caused a fair amount of tension between us. But my thrice-weekly emails gradually assuaged some of their disappointment once they discovered I had no intentions of becoming a soulless corporate drone. Honestly, I don’t think I could have quite survived that kind of transplant; most likely I would have killed myself out of sheer boredom.

The problem with writing emails several times a week is that unless something drastically exciting or significant happens, you run out of things to say rather quickly. I couldn’t really go into details about my job due to confidentiality agreements; and as much as my parents would have liked to think otherwise, Chloe and I were a non-item (is it too hopeful to add “at the moment” to the end of that sentence?) So my emails were generally light and breezy, filled with inanities and random observations about life in greater Los Angeles. I don’t think I would have qualified for a “Son of the Year” award because of those emails, but my parents appreciated them anyway.

Unfortunately, when I finished writing I still had half an hour before I had to leave for work. I think half-hours are the worst possible amounts of time to have on one’s hands, as they are so worthless as to be little better than having no time at all. Thirty minutes are too short to watch a TV show or movie or even read a novel for fear of getting too engrossed in the story just as the time is up; and even doing something productive like cleaning a room takes far longer than a mere half-hour. But the one redeeming thing about this block of time is that it’s a perfect length for playing a few rounds of Halo 2 as a mental palette cleanser before the daily grind. Not that I fit into the traditional 9-5 repetitious job, but I’ll take anything that gives me an excuse to justify the amount of time I spend on leisure activities.

Two matches and thirty frags later, it was time to run. I slipped on a fitted button-down and grabbed a double-breasted blazer from the hall closet before heading out the front door. The weather was about average for L.A. this time of year, perhaps a bit nippy, but the blazer was slightly overkill for the temperatures. Regardless of the weather, though, I prefer to wear a double-breasted one if at all possible. Paired with a dress shirt, it is much more stylish than the casual “open blazer over rumpled band T-shirt” combination that seems to have swept the nation during the past few years. When every third guy on the street is aping that style, I think you leave an impression by bothering to put a little bit of effort into your attire. People notice, and I’d rather be known as a natty dresser than a slob. The one thing I don’t usually budge on, however, are ties. I have a few, and on rare occasions I’ll put one on, but I’ve never found the reasoning behind giving others a perfect opportunity to pull on a piece of clothing and throttle you. It’s the only piece of business clothing that has no practical purpose, and the sooner our culture moves away from using a tie as a staple of office wear the happier I’ll be.

I passed Ms. Paulsen on my way out of the building and greeted her with a quick smile and a wave. We don’t get along all that well personally, but she hasn’t raised my monthly rent in over two years, so I never pass on the opportunity to leave a good impression with her. I think I’ve almost erased her memory of that water fight last September, but I can’t afford to give her anything else to hold against me. There’s a rumor that has circulated in our building as long as I’ve lived there which suggests that Ms. Paulsen (if she has a first name I don’t know it) keeps a running tally of all of her tenants’ transgressions on a whiteboard in her back office. What she does if someone’s check marks become too high nobody knows, but I’m not interested in finding out. I’ve lived at this address for two and a half years, and I seriously doubt I could find anything better in Santa Monica for what I pay in rent. Three miles from the beach, a relatively crime-free neighborhood, and easy access to the 405: what more could anyone ask for? And I live next door to a girl who more than makes up for whatever small deficiencies there might be in my living arrangement—like having a slightly grouchy retired librarian for a landlady who thinks that all of her tenants should follow the same rules as library patrons: keep the noise levels quiet, no horseplay in the hallways, and pay your fines (rent) promptly. All in all, it could be a lot worse. And if that isn’t a prescient comment, I don’t know what is.

Next chapter ->

November 1, 2007

NaNoWriMo 2007, Day 1

Posted in Books, National Novel Writing Month, Writing at 11:05 pm by Calico Jack

Welcome to the first day of the National Novel Writing Month 2007! Because I didn’t think that writing 50,000 words in a month was pressure enough, I’ll be putting my (hopefully) daily output on this blog for the whole world to read and critique. Feel free to offer criticisms and suggestions, but remember that my focus the next thirty days is on output — quantity over quality. Also, please keep in mind that this is a only rough draft; there has been virtually no editing or polishing done before it gets posted here. In fact, it’s as close to a stream-of-consciousness work as I’ll ever write. The only help I’m getting is from a thesaurus and a baby name book…two essentials for this kind of off-the-cuff prose. Let me offer the usual disclaimer here, as well:

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and events depicted are imaginary, and any coincidence to persons living or dead is purely unintentional.

Having said that, I hope you enjoy reading! This should be quite an entertaining (and occasionally frustrating) experience, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out.


Los Angeles Times
August 23, 2005

“Santa Monica Woman Killed in Car Crash”

A 24-year-old Santa Monica resident was killed last night in what a witness described as “the most horrible accident I’ve ever seen.” John Periano was walking his dog on the corner of Whitfield Ave. and Chautauqua Blvd. around 8 p.m. when he saw a silver BMW speeding northbound on Chautauqua. The driver neglected to observe the stop sign and smashed through the guardrail ahead before colliding with a tree at the edge of Will Rogers State Historic Park. Periano states that the impact must have immediately killed her: “The front end of her car was completely shorn off; as soon as I reached her I knew there was nothing anybody could do. The inside of the car was just so disturbing…” Police have identified the victim as Elizabeth Hutchinson, a freelance media consultant from Seattle who moved to Santa Monica a year and a half ago. Friends say she was supposed to show up for a party in Marina Del Rey that evening, but they have no idea why she would instead be traveling towards Rivas Canyon Park. “She was one of the most dependable people I know,” says roommate Sarah Peltric. “She wasn’t a heavy drinker or anything and hated people who were bad drivers.” The Santa Monica Coroner’s Office will be performing an autopsy to ascertain whether or not alcohol or illegal substances played a part in the accident.

Los Angeles Times
August 26, 2005

“Canyon Crash Ruled an Accident”

            The Santa Monica Coroner’s Office has determined that no illegal substances contributed to the death of Elizabeth Hutchinson, a Santa Monica media consultant who drove her car off the side of Chautauqua Road on August 22. “Our examinations show no evidence of alcohol or drugs in her system,” stated head examiner Dr. Laurence Finnigan. Police have no knowledge as to why Hutchinson was speeding along the canyon road. A memorial service will be held for her at St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Santa Monica on September 2.


You know it’s going to be a long day when you wake up before the alarm goes off, almost as if your body can sense that those few extra minutes of blissful rest aren’t really all that important compared to what’s facing you the next eighteen hours or so. I’m accustomed to waging a daily battle with the alarm clock over who’s going to be the king of the bedroom for that morning; sometimes I will even add weapons like pillows and sleep buttons to the titanic struggle over an embarrassingly small amount of extra sleep. That morning, however, my body betrayed me, and I was awake—if not exactly coherent—well before my normal seven o’clock alarm. It was the middle of April and the sun wouldn’t be rising for at least another hour, but there was really no point in trying to grab some shuteye. If that happened, I knew I wouldn’t be waking up to anything save an apartment fire or the smell of my next-door neighbor cooking her usual breakfast of bacon and oatmeal. How Chloe manages to stay appealingly svelte while routinely ingesting greasy strips of fat (with a little meat on the sides) I’ll never know. She claims that it is due to her morning workouts and high-pressure job, but I have good information from our landlady that Chloe has a secret twin who does all of the eating for her. Either way it’s ridiculously frustrating, as I can feel inches being added to my girth after merely looking at an apple. A strict regimen of occasional workouts has kept me in reasonably decent shape, but I know that in a couple of years I’ll be giving into the call of the man-belly and start to lose whatever definition I have left.

From my cozy bed I couldn’t smell anything wafting into the bedroom, which meant Chloe was probably still in the middle of one of her exercise routines. Now was as good of a time as any to hop in the shower and shock myself into full alertness, hoping that the water heater hadn’t broken down again in the middle of the night. The previous week had been an absolute nightmare after something—not entirely sure what; I’m not mechanically inclined at all—inside broke, snapped, or otherwise destroyed whatever it is that gives me hot water when I turn on the showerhead. I had called a repairman, but I wasn’t at all satisfied that he had fixed the problem; he barely seemed to know more about it than I did. For the past several days I’d been crossing my fingers every time I turned on the water, hoping that I wouldn’t be blasted by water pumped directly from the Arctic Ocean.

Alas, this was the day that my luck ran out. Even steeling myself for the possibility of frigid water didn’t prepare me at all for the liquid frostbite that sprayed all over my formerly sleepy and currently hypothermic body. Today was going to be a short shower, then. Shampoo on the hair, soap on the body, water to rinse everything off, and get out. Quickly shave, spend a bit more time than that messing around with my hair, pull on a dark pair of jeans and a T-shirt, and watch the morning BBC news broadcast until I could smell the bacon.

The news was depressingly unoriginal: suicide bombings in Jerusalem, clashes between U.S. forces and insurgents in the Shiite area of Baghdad, flooding in the Balkans, and a fluff piece on the rise of citizen-journalist blogging in countries like Egypt and Argentina. I’m a rather voracious political junkie and news whore, but that morning there seemed to be very little on the television to hold my interest. I was flipping through the channels, trying to see if USA was playing a rerun of JAG, when I finally got what I was waiting for—the smell of bacon seeping through my kitchen’s walls and into the living room.

            It’s no secret among my friends that I am unfortunately afflicted by a rather large crush on the girl in Apartment 217B. Chloe and I have been good friends for about a year and a half, ever since she moved here after graduating from the University of San Diego with a master’s degree in communications. I think she had dreams of becoming a hotshot reporter and TV anchorwoman for one of L.A.’s major channels, but this city is absolutely unforgiving to most who harbor such goals. When she arrived, I had just left my previous job under rather stressful circumstances, and I was spending a week watching all of the sci-fi DVDs in my collection as a way to unwind. But when a 23-year-old blonde with a dazzling smile knocks on your door and asks for help moving her stuff up from downstairs…well, Gattaca and Dark City suddenly start to look much less appealing. On my way back up the staircase while precariously gripping an oversized recliner, I tripped over myself and ended up dropping the recliner over the edge of the railing. The chair was fine, I was not (twisted ankle and wounded pride), and Chloe thought the whole thing was absolutely hilarious. I found out that she has a wicked sense of humor when the next day she knocked on my door again and said she decided not to keep the recliner after all; would I kindly take it downstairs for her? I pointed to the ice pack strapped around my ankle; she smiled coquettishly and suggested that I hop.

   I’d like to say that it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and future relationship, but only the first half of that would be correct. We became fast friends and ended up spending a lot of time exploring the city together, but Chloe never reciprocated my sometimes unsubtle hints to go on an “official” date. She never discouraged me from asking, and we spent a lot of time flirting with each other, but I eventually realized she just didn’t want to be in a serious relationship. I figured as long as it wasn’t the right time instead of it not being the right person, I was willing to wait—although the flirting never stopped. You can’t really change who you are, after all. Last year I had helped her get a job as a producer for the noon, 2 and 4 p.m. news broadcasts on Channel 9; it wasn’t quite the same as being in front of the camera, yet Chloe really appreciated the job nonetheless. Unfortunately, it also meant that our schedules didn’t overlap much at all anymore; she’s normally at KCAL from mid-morning until well into early evening, and my job requires me to work a different combination of hours almost every day. I was rather frustrated at not being able to spend more time with her, but a couple of mornings a week we eat breakfast together—hence my waiting for the smell of bacon, which means that I can then head over next door and join her. You might wonder if I’m merely a 26-year-old human version of Pavlov’s dogs, but in response to that I point out that you haven’t met Chloe. She’s insufferably cute, whip-smart, and exemplifies a sparkling personality. Am I gushing? Probably. But it’s my story, and I’m the one with the feelings so noticeable my friends gave me the Blue Crush DVD, Jon Bon Jovi’s CD Crush, and a Sandra Brown novel of the same title for my birthday. Thanks, guys.

Next chapter ->

October 22, 2007

Here goes…NaNoWriMo 2007!

Posted in Books, National Novel Writing Month, Writing at 3:20 pm by Calico Jack

For several years, I’ve wanted to participate in the National Novel Writing Month, but have never really found the time or the willpower to do so. For the uninitiated, it’s a month-long exercise (from November 1 through November 30) where tens of thousands of people all over the world try their hand at writing a complete novel (50,000 words or longer) in a mere thirty days. Quality is at the bottom of the importance list; what matters is churning out enough prose to meet the goal before the end of the month. It’s truly an example of quantity over quality, but it gives all of us the chance to do something that we might otherwise put off for years or even decades.

I’ve talked to other NaNoWriMo participants before, and the key thing they always stress is how grueling this is — especially for those of us with demands on our time. I’m a full-time student with a part-time job, which is rather daunting. And November is when most of my term papers are due. But I’ve resolved to give up nearly all of my TV watching for the month to focus exclusively on this; all I can hope is that the TiVo doesn’t run out of hard drive space.

This really isn’t about creating a work of art, but rather accomplishing something impressive along with thousands of other writers manic enough to churn out this much product. I fully expect my work to be cliché-ridden and unimaginative, filled with pedestrian prose and sketchily-drawn characterizations.

My background really isn’t in creative writing, but in essays and non-fiction work. In fact, the last time I attempted something this daunting was when I was six. Having decided to write an installment of the Boxcar Children series, I wrote in my journal for a solid three weeks — and thirty pages later, I ran out of ideas.

I actually only decided to tackle the NaNoWriMo a week or so ago, so I’ve been scrambling to come up with a good story. Last night I had a flash of inspiration which I frantically scribbled down. The good news is that I think it’s quite good. The bad news is that it was the ending to a possible story, which means I have to come up with everything before that. It’s much harder to start with an ending and work backwards than the reverse…so we’ll see how it goes. My plan is to post my work on Ignorant Critics as I write, but that also opens me up to a huge amount of ridicule for publishing unedited crap. The hardest thing for me, however, is going to be resisting the urge to do extensive editing once I write a paragraph or page. I’ll have to just keep plugging away, no matter how tempted I am to revise a line or a chapter, because otherwise I’ll never finish. Once the deadline is past, I can go back and do some drastic rewriting if I think the story is decent enough to spend the extra time. But until then, I’m going to be slogging away every night.

Nonetheless, I’m pretty excited about this opportunity. I have no idea if I’ll be able to complete the 50,000 word goal before time runs out November 30, but I plan to give it my best shot. And in case I write myself into a corner, I have an ace up the sleeve (See? Clichéd writing already!) to give me an out. That won’t be revealed unless I hit the proverbial brick wall (Oh, I’m loving this…). Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an outline to work on.

January 1, 2007

2006 in Review: The Very Best of a Mediocre Blog

Posted in Writing at 4:51 am by Calico Jack

We here at Ignorant Critics have had an interesting first six months in the life of this blog. And always being ones to set the trends instead of following them, we came up with the novel idea of compiling a list of the top posts that we had this year — not in terms of page views or number of comments, but instead using a complicated mathematical formula that involves much random counting and blind picking. Here is a chronological look back at some — well, all — of our highlights:

1. On the Fine Art of Man-Bashing. Edward Teach ruminates on the role of men and fathers in today’s culture.

2. World Cup Madness. Calico Jack goes on a caffeine-fueled rant about the boring sport of soccer.

3. Being a Better Boyfriend, Part 1 and Part 2. Elizabeth Swann gives excellent advice to guys looking to improve their relationships with their girlfriends. This quickly became one of our most popular posts, and even today we’re on the front page of Google for relationship advice about boyfriends.

4. Art, Entertainment, and a Quest. With all of the dreck that is released by movie studios pandering to the lowest common denominator, it’s time to bring back movies that function as art as well as entertainment. Jessica Stover is trying to do just that.

5. If Only Money Didn’t Matter. Princess Sela takes a look at the toys of the extremely wealthy.

6. Whom Do You Call? We keep in contact with each other through so many different mediums, but are we losing our genuine connections?

7. Applebee’s, Atrocious Food, and Automatic Gratuities. This rather long rant against poor service and mandatory tipping sparked quite a heated discussion in the comments. I had to delete over a dozen comments for being full of insults and profanity, and the ones which remain still show how passionately people argue over food.

8. Quality Dates Quality. When a narcissistic, egotistical woman declares to the entire world that the vast majority of men are not worthy to even be in her presence, let alone ever consider dating her, Calico Jack diales up the Snark-‘O-Meter to full and lets loose.

9. Survivor: Race to the Finish. Captain Morgan discusses the thorny issue of race relations as viewed through the prism of reality TV.

10. Literacy Matters. After seeing a mother deny her child the opportunity to read, Calico Jack ponders the effect of parents who do not care enough to spend quality time with their children.

Even with the highlights listed, we encourage you to take a look at the archives and browse around. We have all kinds of interesting things there: addicting internet games, music videos, Japanese game shows, and even discussions about topics ranging from the “coffee shop look” to Australian beauty queens. Everything is conveniently sorted by topic on your right (or, if you’re using Internet Explorer’s broken way of viewing web pages, on the bottom of the page), so enjoy! And if you are so inclined, subscribe to our RSS feed for automatic updates. Happy New Year!

December 19, 2006

Advice for the Panicked Shopper

Posted in Writing at 5:18 pm by Calico Jack

I was fortunate enough to discover the writing genius of James Lileks over a year ago, and he instantly became one of my daily must-reads in my Bloglines list. Lileks is a daily humor columnist for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, as well as writing his own very popular blog, where he literally makes me laugh out loud almost every single day, such as this line from today’s entry:

[I’m] still jazzed from 24 season 5 (It’s President Twitchy McNixon vs the Terrorists From The Unnamed Homeland!)

His “Daily Quirk” Star-Tribune column is also a regular source of hearty laughs. Sunday’s Quirk provided advice to men searching for last-minute gifts for their wives and familes:

Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday this year, so you can forget about the delivery truck showing up to save the day. If you are a bad husband, you will run to the mall, NOW. First, some lingerie from the Victoria’s Secret Early 20th-Century Prostitute Collection (or the shapeless loungewear from the Not Tonight Collection, if you wish), then the department store for a faux-fur-handled electric windshield scraper. She’ll need an extension cord for that — hey, three gifts already!

And that’s only the first paragraph. Add Lileks to your RSS reader; he’s funnier than just about every other columnist writing today.

Update: Lileks does it again.

July 20, 2006

Art, Entertainment, and a Quest

Posted in Celebrities, Movies, Writing at 9:40 pm by Calico Jack


I think much of what passes as “art”–both visual and aural–in today’s culture is not art at all, but rather a measured attempt to manipulate the audience into appreciating something of both low quality and little intelligence. I especially hold little respect for the contemporary art scene; paintings such as this and this are but a candle compared to the magnificent inferno that describes a work of art such as Albert Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada, California. Yes, I know art is largely subjective; but without some objective measurements, our culture will lose any sense of what is good.

Christopher Tollefsen of Right Reason has an excellent article on the degredation of art in our society. He makes an important distinction between art and entertainment. Art can be entertaining, but it does not have to be. And popular entertainment should not always be regarded as art, though it may be of high quality. I really enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, but I would never dream of calling it art as some critics have done. Instead, I found it an entertaining, technically proficient studio film that gave me two-plus hours of fun, during which my brain could refrain from thinking about anything deep or introspective. Tollefsen articulates well the function of popular entertainment:

Trash is what good popular entertainment should be. Essentially a form of rhythmic play, whether in music, movies, fiction or the visual arts, trash does not seek to instruct, but simply to entertain. This does not mean it is unskilled: far from it. Good trash takes work, often considerable technical skills, and an awareness of what one is doing. Entertainment is, it seems to me, also what the beautiful enables, so we must see something of a continuum between the popular arts and the high arts (a different high low distinction than that between the low and the high emotions). As Pauline Kael writes in her essay “Trash, Art and the Movies,” to which the concept of trash here owes much, “Movie art is not the opposite of what we have always enjoyed in movies, it is not to be found in a return to that official high culture, it is what we have always found good in movies only more so.”

Cynical trash, by contrast, which is the fourth spot on my taxonomy, attempts to do the work of trash, while taking advantage of people’s manifest need and desire for entertainment, and their willingness to settle for what is poorly made, pandering and cheap. Hollywood’s sequel mentality is largely a consequence of a commitment of cynical trash rather than good trash. One familiar quasi-technical term to designate this branch of the taxonomy is “crap.”

Unfortunately, Hollywood produces far more crap than it does worthy trash. For every Serenity, we have a Fantastic Four (sorry, Captain Morgan.) Worse still are the pretentious films that aspire to greatness yet fall far, far short, like Sin City or X-Men: The Last Stand. Yet audiences eagerly gobble up what is fed to them by the studio conglomerates and their executives, who pander to those people that dislike thinking about what is put in front of them. Rather, they would prefer to be fed easy, quick, flashy answers to complicated questions. Why would anyone take the time to digest what they have just seen, when the next hyperkinetic blockbuster is merely a week away?

That was a rather lengthy introduction to the main part of my entry, but it is important to realize that however dire things may be now, all hope is not lost. Enter Jessica Stover, the lovely lady whose picture graces the top of this post. Jessica is a screenwriter and actress residing in the cesspool of cynicism, Los Angeles. (I’m allowed to say that, since I lived there for over fourteen years.) I have been reading Jessica’s blog for over a year now, and I’ve been consistently impressed by her commitment to bring back quality and art in Hollywood. It isn’t easy for a writer outside of the studio system, but Jessica has been persistent…and she has provided us with an candid look at her efforts along the way.

Jessica has written a big-budget, epic fantasy trilogy codenamed TSL. I have an idea of what the acronym stands for…but I’m most likely horribly wrong, so I won’t reveal my hunch here. Anyway, she has been pitching her idea to various executives, and the feedback has been quite good. But the studio system is unwilling to take a chance on an “unknown.” Those of us who know Jessica and read her work know that what she has is exceptional. I don’t use that word lightly.

Because TSL is a film that requires more than an indie budget, we need to go about making this movie in a non-traditional way. Thankfully, there is an excellent opportunity to show Hollywood that not all of us willingly buy into their idea of what is art. Eventful is a website that allows we, the movie-going public, to let the world know just what we want. And what we want is Jessica’s movie. All you have to do is go to this link and demand to have a showing of TSL in your hometown, or one nearby. It literally takes two minutes to sign up; you have no excuse for not doing this. By clicking the “Demand Me!” link, you’re saying that you are willing to take a step of faith and believe that we can do the impossible…and that makes us mighty.

To get the studios’ attention, we need 100,000 people to say “Yes, we believe.” It seems like a lot, but word of mouth can spread extremely quickly; and every demand is momentous. Jessica has a post about Eventful here, if you’d like more information. I’ve also added a link to the demand on the sidebar; just click on the picture to sign up.

This grassroots campaign can–and will–work. I was an active part of the community that didn’t give up on the cancelled television series Firefly until it became a big-budget movie. Believe it or not, the powers that be actually do listen to their audience if they complain loudly enough.

This is our quest. Here’s our chance to make a difference. Are you in?

July 18, 2006

My Name Escapes Me

Posted in Books, Celebrities, Writing at 12:48 am by Edward Teach


Always looking for a good read, I was intrigued by the title of book by the actor, Sir Alec Guinness. The book, My Name Escapes Me, is the diary of the late actor roughly between January 1995 and June 1996. At age 82 and retired, it might seem like the late Guinness would have little to write about of interest, but that really is not the case. Although most of the entries are simply about the quiet life that he and wife of many years led, his wit and charm make the book a very delightful read.

As the cover flap states, “What makes Guinness such a fine and versatile actor is precisely what also makes him a good diarist: an ironically observant eye.” In this day and age when wit and class are undervalued, I enjoy hearing the thoughts of those who are unprententious and articulate. Guinness reveals himself to be a informed and pithy commentator on everything from art and opera to politics. His travels and long career allow him a world wise eye at the events around him, but he manages to avoid the airs of a jaded memoir. Granted, this book probably is not for everyone. It is not a swashbuckling adventure, but rather the sort of book you would digest near a fire on a chilly, February afternoon.

Calico Jack adds: I had no idea Sir Alec had written any memoirs. This is definitely going on my list of books to check out at the library.

July 12, 2006

How to Start a Blog

Posted in Writing at 3:34 pm by Calico Jack

You didn’t actually think that we were going to give you the information ourselves, did you? We’re a very small fish in the blogging ocean right now, and any advice we could give to all of you up-and-coming bloggers would be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism–after all, this particular blog has only been around for a month or two. Each of us here at Ignorant Critics does have previous experience blogging, but this is our first foray into something other than an online journal.

Thankfully, Joe Carter of The Evangelical Outpost has assembled an outstanding collection of links to help you figure out this addiction we call blogging. His primer is an excellent introduction; reading it will help you to understand just what it takes to make it in the blogging world. Joe lists four attributes of a successful blog: consistency, quality, work ethic, and ambition. I especially like his words on quality:

When it comes to blogging, quality will not make you successful. You can write the perfect post and even if it is the talk of the Internet, it will soon be forgotten. If you want to be a successful blogger you need to combine quality with consistency. Write that on a post-it and attach it to your laptop. Make it your mantra. Whatever you do, remember it. Without quality posts, consistency is a waste of your reader’s time. Without consistent output, quality is a waste of your time.

I would also add that perseverance is a key factor. Don’t give up if you see little growth in the first few months. Don’t pay too much attention to the traffic numbers or worry about how many comments you’re getting (or in our case, not getting). And keep writing; eventually people will discover what you have to say.

I do disagree with one part of Joe’s advice. I don’t think it is necessary, especially at the beginning of your blog’s lifespan, to put up a hit counter. It can become a temptation to obsess over your stats. For some bloggers, watching that number tick up becomes a source of pride. For others, a low number might be too much of a discouragement; and that can be unhealthy for your blog. Don’t write solely to gain readers. Write about what interests you, and the readers will come. Once you’re established, a hit counter becomes less worrysome, as you already have a solid base of readers.

In any case, Joe’s guide has plenty of useful information for all of us. Check it out.

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