JUST A FEW MINUTES

Flash Talk - You’re about to enter a room full of strangers, where you will have exactly four minutes to tell a story that would convey who you really are. What’s your story?


computer and keyboard

“Good morning. You are,” glancing at my résumé on his desk, “Marilyn Armstrong. And you’re here about the … ” pausing to look at another piece of paper, “Technical writing position.”

“Technical writer,” I nod. “That’s me.”

“Tell me about yourself.”

The dreaded moment. What do they want to really know? Theoretically, all they need is whether I can do the work, which obviously I can. My credentials speak for themselves. They want to know if I’ll ‘fit in’ to their ‘corporate culture.’ Whether they or the other people in the department will like me.

Competency? They could give a rat’s ass. It’s all about being likable and I don’t feel convivial. I hate interviews. Even when I’m doing the interviewing.

Speaking of which, I have a heartbeat to turn this around. “I’d appreciate your telling me something about your company and the position before I proceed,” I respond. I’m smiling broadly. Very phony too. Because I already know this job is not for me. It’s too corporate, too stitched up and formal. I can tell by the clothing everyone is wearing. By the cubicles I passed that are so antiseptic, it doesn’t look like anyone works in them. No pictures on the walls. No toys on the desk. No happy murmur of people hanging out near the coffee machine. And as far as I can tell … no coffee machine to hang out by. High tech is fueled by coffee and take-out pizza. If there’s no coffee machine, that’s a very bad sign.

“Blah blah yada yada blah blah blah,” he says.

“Yada yada blah blah,” I respond.

“I can do this job,” I finally say, tired of the crap and getting a headache. “I know database design, object-linked and relational. I can write a manual from preface to index as long as I have periodic access to the design engineers and a playpen for testing.”

“You want to get hands on?” he says. Alarmed.

“I won’t write about a product I have never tested,” I say. “I write manuals, not fiction.”

“The engineers can tell you how it works.”

“The engineers will tell me how they think it is going to work. Between that and reality can lie a vast wasteland into which customers — your customers — can wander and never be seen again. Think of me as a double threat — writer and beta tester in one adorable package,” and I give him another smile.

He is perturbed. It turns out they don’t have a working prototype. No one is exactly sure what the user interface will look like because … they haven’t created it yet. And all the engineers are Russian, which is fine, except they are creating the GUI and they don’t write English so good, you know? Did you ever wonder about those inscrutable menu selections? This is how they got there.

And the completely irrational placement of critical functions? No user (not an engineer or developer) tested the product before release. Seemed okay to them, you know?

And so it goes, and so it went. And that’s why the manual that (maybe) came with your expensive device or software seems to bear no resemblance to how it really works. Because I didn’t write it.

THE UNAPPRECIATED EXORCIST – MIKE CAREY’S FELIX CASTOR SERIES

The Devil You Know | Mike CareyThere was rumor going around on Amazon a few months ago that Mike Carey was going to publish another Felix Castor book. I hoped it was true and maybe it will happen yet, but so far … there are five books and no more. I own all of them, but if there should ever be another, I’ll be first in line to buy a copy. I love this series.

I discovered Mike Carey because I reviewed a Jim Butcher book and someone suggested I’d like the Felix Castor series by Mike Carey. I’d never heard of Mike Carey, but I was out of new authors to read at the time and I was ready to try anything that sounded good. I got what I hoped for plus a whole lot more.

As a writer, Mike Carey is better than good. He is hyper-literate. He uses words like a rapier. His prose is beautifully crafted, often lyrical, yet never treacly or sappy. He is crisp, witty, intelligent. He does not repeat himself. He never uses the same descriptive passage twice, nor does he — as many popular authors do — copy and paste sections from one book to another to (I presume) save writing time. Mike Carey doesn’t use short cuts.

The result is a style that is richly descriptive, a delicious combination of gritty street slang banging head-on into literary English. Liverpool guttersnipe meets Jane Austen. It gives the narrative a rare and rich texture.

What’s it all about? Felix (Fix) Castor is an exorcist. He sees the dead and the undead. They see him. He is no wizard who magics his problems away with the wave of a hand or wand. He can send the dead away when they linger and cast out demons who possess humans.

Where do the dead go after he sends them away?  He’s not sure, an issue that looms successively larger as the series progresses. His weapon is music in the form of a tin whistle, a thin armament in the face of some of the perils he faces. He has a few allies — human, formerly human plus one demon in recovery.

The series consists of five books, each building on the previous one to form what is essentially a single story in five parts. Best to read the series in order. All the books are available as paperbacks, for Kindle, and from Audible.com.

In order, the books are The Devil You Know, Vicious Circle , Dead Men’s Boots, Thicker Than Water and The Naming of BeastsNone of his books are a lightweight romp, but the first three are much lighter in tone and funnier — Carey has a sharp, ironic sense of humor– than the last two, both of which are pretty intense.

Mike Carey (writer)

Mike Carey (author) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fix Castor works hard for short money, is rarely appreciated by the people he helps, has more than enough of his personal demons, not to mention some very real, otherworldly demons who are seriously out to get him.

It’s a unique series, unlike any other I’ve read. I wish there had been more of them, though I suspect the author is done with this series.

There are so many surprises in this series. The characters constantly surprised me by growing and changing, developing in unexpected ways and not doing the obvious.

Mike Carey can be very funny. His subtle and elegant humor contains no belly laughs, but irony pervades his prose. None of the books are traditionally funny nor are the situations humorous or light-hearted, but the author’s writing style is wonderfully cynical. The stories, pun intended, are dead serious. Darkness notwithstanding, you can count on Mike Carey’s plays on words and twists of phrase to keep the dread from becoming too heavy to handle.

The plots are gripping and creepy. Any or all of the books would make great horror movies. I’m surprised no one has grabbed them yet. Maybe they will. Sooner or later, someone is bound to notice, right?

TEN FAVORITE MOVIES* 2014 EDITION – GARRY ARMSTRONG

The title has an asterisk because this is an impossible post. I can’t begin to do justice to all the movies I love when limited to ten. However, a dear friend (and fellow movie maven) asked me to compile such a list for a project.

Inside the Loew's Valencia. Queens, New York.

Inside the Loew’s Valencia. Queens, New York.

I saw my first film at age four in 1946. I recall relatives saying I talked like a grown up, spouting familiar lines. Frequently they were lines from movies. That quirk would continue for the rest of my life right to the present.

I’ve had the good fortune to spend time with many of the legends from old Hollywood, which sometimes clouds my perspective. I become totally immersed with movies. I become part of the film, sharing the feelings of the characters. Love, hate, joy and sorrow. And now …

GARRY ARMSTRONG’S FAVORITE MOVIES –  SEPTEMBER 2014 VERSION

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES – 1946. The first movie I saw. I was 4-years old. Mom and Dad looked like a celebrity couple. Dad, just back from active duty in World War Two, seemed 10-feet tall in his uniform. The film’s theme, GI’s readjusting to civilian life, would become a personal issue in our family.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN – 1960.  If I love movies, I am passionate about westerns! I saw “The Magnificent Seven” 6 times during its first week in the theater. Steve McQueen was “the man”. All the stars were so very cool. Eli Wallach was a hoot as the Mexican bandit leader. His line, “Generosity, that was my first mistake” is my email tag.

INHERIT THE WIND – 1960. Every time it’s on, we watch it. Marilyn and I smile, anticipating the lines, waiting for the Spencer Tracy/Clarence Darrow monologues. The Tracy-Fredric March courtroom scenes are perfect. Two masters at work. Gene Kelly does his best dramatic work as the acerbic H.L. Mencken character.  The film’s an excellent classroom tool for anyone unfamiliar with the Scopes trial.

THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY – 1964. If you love great script and dialogues, this may be the all-time best movie. The real star is the script and its writer, Paddy Chayefsky. James Garner’s favorite movie and best film role. Garner was brilliant! Ably supported by Julie Andrews (her first dramatic role). Hard to watch a gung-ho action war flick after viewing this one.

TOMBSTONE – 1993. I came on board after the second or third viewing of this one because of Marilyn’s love of this version of the Earp saga. It’s fast-paced, well-acted, relatively authentic and beautifully photographed. The film gives us a jolt of vicarious pleasure as the good guys mow down the bad guys. We have coördinated Tombstone tee shirts.

GIGI – 1958. I remember seeing this first run. I was 16, head over heels in love with Leslie Caron. A couple of years earlier, I’d waited outside the tiny Trans-Lux Theatre in Manhattan where Caron’s “Lilli” had a record-breaking run. A wonderful musical. Music, sets, cast. Marilyn and I know the songs and sing along. It never gets old.

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN – 1952. Maybe best musical. Ever. So many wonderful “numbers” including Gene Kelly’s iconic (I know the word is overused) title tune sequence. Once upon a time, I used to dance to work in the rain, just singing and dancing — like Gene Kelly. I got more than a few stares.

SHANE – 1953. Marilyn and I both saw this first run at the Loews Valencia in Queens, New York, but not together. The Valencia was like Radio City Musical Hall. Fantastic and huge, with a starlit ceiling. Alan Ladd’s finest performance thanks to director George Stevens. I’ve seen Shane dozens of times and still marvel at its photography and editing. “Reb” funeral scene is classic, cinematic magic.

S.O.B. – 1981. Blake Edwards scathing take on Hollywood. It didn’t endear him to tinsel town’s movers and shakers and they tried to sabotage S.O.B.’s distribution. William Holden and Julie Andrews head a wonderful ensemble cast. Holden’s dialogue to a suicidal friend could well have been Holden’s own eulogy.

CASABLANCA – 1943.  Who doesn’t love this film? I met co-writer Julius Epstein in the 70’s. He shared lots of great stories about the making of Casablanca. He said every day was crazier than the previous one, with new dialogue arriving as scenes were set up. We saw a remastered Casablanca on the big screen last year, a celebration of its 70th anniversary. Bogie and the gang were in their prime.


Ask me to my ten favorites next month. Different answers! Hoo-Ray for Hollywood!

THE DAY THE MACHINES WENT DOWN

Thursday, September 11, 2014.

Dateline: Uxbridge, Massachusetts 

It was an ordinary day. Early September in southern New England. Cool. Almost crisp. Some leaves had already changed and they shone bright yellow, signalling the rapid approach of Autumn.

An average kind of day — except, as it turned out, we had run out of half-and-half.

In many — perhaps most —  homes, this would be no big deal. Certainly not an emergency requiring an immediate voyage into town. But. This is a household of addicted coffee aficionados. There was no way we could get through 24 hours without half-and-half for our coffee.

No. Regular milk is not the same. Someone — okay, Garry — would have to go to the store to buy half-and-half.

The nearest shop — the deli — sells only tiny containers and sometimes, doesn’t have any. So it was off to Hannaford’s.

75-MidtownGA-NK-27

Hannaford’s, the grocery store we patronize, is not the biggest or fanciest. Au contraire, it’s the smallest and least impressive of the local supermarkets, part of a small Maine-based chain. We like it because the prices are not bad, the produce is fresh and often locally grown. You don’t need a special card to get the discounts and they give a 5% discount to Senior Citizens every Tuesday. Most important, they are easy to get to and have ample parking.

I was in the middle of a book — I usually am — so I didn’t pay a lot of attention as Garry went out. Not a big deal. Just the aforementioned half-and-half and maybe pick up something for dinner, too. He came back a couple of hours later. Which was a bit longer than such errands usually take. Garry looked amused.

“There is shock and confusion in downtown Uxbridge, today,” he announced.

“Shock and confusion?”

“Yes,” Garry said. “I thought it might be delayed PTSD because of it being 9/11 and all. Everyone in Hannaford’s looked stunned.”

“Because?” I questioned.

“The credit card readers were down. You couldn’t pay with your bank or credit card. Everyone had to pay cash or use a check. They looked shell-shocked. Thousand-yard stares. Stumbling, vacant-eyed around the store.”

“Holy mackerel,” I said. “I can only imagine.”

“You could see them mumbling to themselves. They kept saying ‘cash!’ … but I could tell they were confused and were not sure what to do.”

“Wow,” I said. “Oh cruel fate! How awful! What did you do?” I asked. Garry seemed to have survived with his sense of humor intact and brought home the half-and-half.

“Oh, I paid with cash. I had enough on me.”

He went off to the kitchen chuckling to himself. I hoped everyone would be okay back in town. A shock like that can haunt people for a long time. Cash. Imagine that.

Everyone will be talking about this for weeks. The day the machines went down at Hannaford’s. That’s huge.


Weekly Writing Challenge: That’s Absurd

THE ALL-KNOWING DOME OF DOOM

As Under The Dome ended last week, the dome was shrinking. For no particular reason, at the start of this week’s episode, it stopped shrinking. But — the girl who came back from the dead started dying all over again and anyway, the dome stopped shrinking for almost the whole episode. Why did it start shrinking? Why did it stop? Why did it get so cold? Why did it warm up again?

Only The Dome Knows. Garry calls it the Holy Dome, All-Knowing Dome. “Praise The Dome,” said Garry. I nodded. The Dome is clearly God, all-knowing, all-powerful, entirely irrational. Bloodthirsty. The qualities every deity needs.

She's dying. No, wait, she's miraculously saved. Oops, dead again.

She’s dying. No, wait, she’s miraculously saved. Oops, dead again.

Anyway, the Chosen of The Dome join hands to save Melanie (the previously dead but resurrected girl) and — A MIRACLE! She comes back to life. Again! From the dead she rises one more time. Dang, but these Mainers are hard to kill.

“It’s so beautiful,” she says (I’m assuming she means the world is beautiful) … but before the words have entirely left her lovely lips, a whirlpool-like vortex appears. Poor dead-resurrected-dead-resurrected Melanie is sucked into it. Dead again. Swallowed by a vortex. Where are the alligators when you need them?

What? “What’s happening?” they cry. “We don’t understand!” Someone says something about quantum physics and Garry says “WHAT????”

I’m laughing too hard to answer and anyway, I have no idea what’s going on. Commercial break, news promo. Sometimes reality and fantasy are weirdly similar.

Back on the show, everyone is saying “What’s going on? The Dome is shrinking again, but faster this time.” If they don’t understand, you can bet no one watching the show does either. By now, I am yelling at the television. I want giant alligators to come and eat the cast, but instead, Big Jim is beating the crap out of someone. I must have missed something

Music up full. A folk singer is howling “Turn, Turn, Turn” and Garry looks at me, one eyebrow raised.

“What could possibly happen next?” Garry asks. He’s kidding of course. Anything could happen. I’m still voting for alligators but someone told me last week it would probably be a giant spider. I don’t like spiders. Anything but spiders.

There’s only one more show this season. The coming attractions suggest they are planning a third season. That seems outlandish, but this entire season was absurd, so why not another 13 ridiculous episodes? I don’t remember if The Dome was still shrinking when they ran the credits, but there weren’t any alligators. Pity.

NOTES ON A COWARDLY LION BY JOHN LAHR — GARRY ARMSTRONG

It’s been a while since I finished reading the Bert Lahr biography, “Notes on a Cowardly Lion“, written by his son, John. I am still emotionally involved.

Why does a book written more than 40 years ago about a show business figure who peaked more than 70 years ago still sit front and center in my mind? I’m a retired TV and radio news reporter with more than 40 years in “the business”. The “news biz” is journalism, but it’s also performance, even for those of us who strive for objectivity.

Part of the job is celebrity too. When you appear on television five or six days a week for more than four decades, you become a household face. People ask for your autograph. You receive special treatment in stores and restaurants. Twelve years into retirement, folks still recognize me, tell how they grew up watching me on TV and ask for autographs. Mine is a regional celebrity although I’ve encountered fans almost everywhere I’ve traveled in the United States and overseas. I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated my celebrity. Yes, I miss it a bit when I’m not recognized but I don’t get depressed if I go unnoticed. I needed to share a little of my life because it puts my feelings about the story of Bert Lahr’s life into perspective. I really understood in a very personal way where the man was coming from.

Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in Wizard of Oz...

I enjoyed the biographical side of the book. It speaks to history, the history of vaudeville and burlesque, show business venues that are frequently misrepresented. As a self-proclaimed trivia maven, I received a little education. Case in point: Clifton Webb, long perceived as a middle-aged effete, film actor actually was a well-received song and dance man in vaudeville. I learned the difference between vaudeville and burlesque. I came to appreciate the art form of what I used to perceive as Bert Lahr’s overly broad slapstick comedy. I understood how Lahr’s art form suffered at the hands of Hollywood film directors who tried to minimize his well honed craft and squeeze it into their movie concept of musical comedy.

Lahr’s comic genius never really had a chance  to shine in Hollywood. “The Wizard of Oz” was the exception. But that success also spelled disaster in Tinseltown because Lahr never again received a film role like the Cowardly Lion. Years later, he would find similar frustration with television which tried to restrict his comedic moves in variety shows. Lahr didn’t think much of TV comic legends like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. Ironically, both Berle and Caesar spoke highly of Lahr in lengthy interviews with me — even as they lamented the fading of their celebrity. But that’s another story. Back to Bert Lahr.  Born into poverty, Lahr was always very conscious about being financially secure.

BertLahrEven when he returned to Broadway where he found his greatest success over the years, Lahr never felt financially secure even though he was earning top star salaries. In later years, as a TV pitchman for Potato Chips, Lahr earned more money for a thirty-second commercial than he ever did for starring in a play, movie or TV special. He still didn’t feel financially secure.

Bert Lahr did find some unexpected late professional success with surprising turns in work like “Waiting For Godot” co-starring with the likes of E.G. Marshall. Lahr savored critical acclaim, but was never satisfied even when he received it. For all of his professional and financial success, he was an unhappy man. He was insecure as an aspiring comedian/actor seeking stardom. He was insecure as a star thinking others were always trying to undermine him. He was insecure as an aging, respected legend believing people had forgotten him even though he was recognized everywhere he went. Lahr was miserable as a husband and father — demanding but not giving. Lahr desperately needed the audience — the laughter, the applause — throughout his life. Sadly,  he never appreciated the love and admiration he got from his family.

As the curtain closed on his life — with his loved ones gathered around him — Lahr still longed for his audience and their laughter and applause. He couldn’t let it go and move on, nor appreciate the good things life offered him. Lahr’s loneliness haunted me. The deeper I got into the book, the more painful I found reading his biography. I know first-hand how intoxicating and addictive celebrity is, especially when you fail to appreciate real life. Bert Lahr was never able to see the joys and sorrows of family and friends as “the real thing” that makes it all worthwhile. It’s the celebrity that is unreal and ephemeral.

It’s the people who love you who will sustain you after the curtain closes and the audience departs the theatre. That Lahr was never able to recognize what he had and accept the love that was there for him was his personal tragedy.

It’s a fine biography, but not a joyful reading experience. It is in many ways a cautionary tale, a reminder of how important it is to keep ones perspective and ones feet on the ground.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Marilyn Armstrong:

Written by me, with input from Garry, published on HEAD IN A VICE. A movie review for you.

Originally posted on Head In A Vice:

movie blogathon poster

Today we have my favourite husband & wife blogging team offering us their thoughts on a movie for the ‘Recommended By‘ blogathon. Marilyn & Garry Armstrong have been visiting my site since pretty much its inception, and since they don’t like the horror genre, I always appreciate them visiting. Marilyn runs her blog Serendipity and Garry helps her out when he fancies it, and since he has worked with more famous people than the rest of us could ever dream of meeting, when they offer to join in my projects I am always delighted to have them. Without further ado, offering their thoughts on one of the most popular movies of recent times (and great to see them go against the general consensus!) are Marilyn & Garry from Serendipity.

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