When Wee Monsters Lurk

 

I’m in the process of revising my recently edited manuscript, and I’m running into old, familiar writing patterns (problems). I’m also finding some new issues. I have commas where they don’t belong and words I can’t explain. I think the latter result from new wee monsters in my fingers. I’m a touch typist, and rely on my fingers knowing where the keys are. It’s annoying when they get it wrong, and frustrating when my too-smart computer comes up with a word it thinks I must have had in mind, but didn’t.

The older problems are just as troublesome, but intriguing as well. My editor made several comments about sections of the manuscript I had sensed as problematic all along. It’s as though I was waiting for someone to point the issues out and not let me get away with sloppy writing. Now, my question is, why didn’t I take care of the problems earlier? Procrastination? Not this time. Laziness? No way. The worse one’s writing is, the more work it is to rewrite and push toward a finish. No, this is the work of some wee monster. It like when our male cat misbehaves (not unusual) and continues misbehaving even when we tell him to stop. He usually ends up running off to the bedroom for a little time out, and then expresses anguish over his punishment. He knew, and we knew, how the scenario would play out, but it’s as though it must be played to the end regardless.

In a related manner, I’ve often found a word or written passage bothers me. I read it, try to change the culprit, only to later return and find it still doesn’t work. When my editor says it’s a problem, it’s like having someone point out the obvious. Oh. Yeah, I knew that was a problem. It didn’t seem right all along. The strange thing is, once it’s pointed out to me, I can easily take care of it. Wee monsters. Definitely.

With editorial help, the wee monsters become exhausted and the writing improves. I should mention, I have never been able to read one of my published manuscripts in its entirety. If I were to do so, I know some wee monster would tell me I should change the wording here or the plot flow there.

I’m republishing Murder on Route 66, the first book in the Bobby Navarro series, and just received the updated cover. (I ran out of the old books at a recent writers’ signing event.) Working with the people doing the cover design, etc. has made me eager to start the publication process for Murder in Key Largo, my-work-in-progress. First, I have to get through the edits. Hope I can keep those wee monsters at bay—sometimes they can be murder.

At a Recent Book Signing

A Moment in the Wild

This week I introduced Lesley to the Du Puis Management Area. The entrance is about a half hour drive from where we live in south Florida. When you pass through the gate, there is a signboard with a few notices and map of the area, and that’s about all. A narrow, crushed-shell road leads off into the brush for a seven-and-a-half-mile drive to a pond and picnic area. I think Lesley’s reaction was similar to my first visit. At first, there is an eager anticipation for what you might see—after all, it is a wildlife management area, there must be a lot of wildlife. Then, you are struck with all the brush and scrub pine surrounding you, and seemingly few areas that would appear suited to grazing cattle. We have a lot of cattle here, and everywhere you drive there are miles of flat, open grazing land, dotted with a few palms or a distant copse of oak trees. The open land reminds us both of Texas, except that it is greener. But, here in the Du Puis Management Area, you can only see a few yards in any direction—not miles. It starts to feel slightly foreboding. No sign of life anywhere, just a dusty path leading onward through the brush.

The road has become heavily washboarded since my earlier visits on my motorcycle. Luckily, we are in my pickup, although I can’t help but hope nothing falls apart from the constant vibration. On my motorcycle, I hoped I wouldn’t hit a soft spot in the road where dust had accumulated heavily in a deep rut. Motorcycles can easily dig out in that situation, and you can dump the bike before you realize what’s happening. If you do, it isn’t easy getting a bike weighing nearly a half ton back upright. And—you’re on your own.

Actually, there are other visitors. We encountered one or two other vehicles each way, but after a cautious passing with both vehicles pulling partway off the road to allow passage, the sound and sight of others is swallowed up by the grass and brush and quiet. You’re alone again. There are the droppings left by someone’s horse, bicycle tire tracks in the dust on the roadway, a spot where a hog has rooted in the dirt off to the side of the road, or a narrow trail leading off through the tall grass into the brush. It’s tempting to get out and check for tracks to determine whether the trail belongs to deer, hogs, or something else.

By the time we reached the picnic area we are already hungry for the lunch we brought with us, but first we have to walk around and explore. Several Tiki huts have been erected to shade picnic tables. We have our choice of any of them. No one else is around. A pier has been built out into the pond, and the sign at the entrance told us fishing is allowed. We walk out onto the pier, trying to see down through the murky water for any fish, but don’t see any. A couple of large alligators lie on opposite banks of the pond, watching us, or ignoring us, I’m not sure which. A green heron stands statuesque on the bank between the two gators. Some other bird makes an unfamiliar call in the distance. Time to pick a table and have lunch.

We brought sandwiches and a thermos of tea and a bag of chips. Everything seems especially delicious. The air is pleasant, the quiet relaxing. After a while, I notice a broken piece of chip has fallen on the ground, and ants from a nearby mound swarm over it. Then, unbelievably it starts to move. Two or three dozen tiny ants have combined to haul the prize off to their mound. Even when they reach intervening tufts and tangles of grass and dried leaves and twigs, they are undeterred. Moving an object which in comparison to our size would be like half a football field, they soldier on—and finally reach their mound. For a while, it seemed they might be stymied, but eventually they managed to chew a large chunk off and maneuver it into the hole leading down into their nest. A truly fascinating event in the wild,  and just a few feet from our Tiki hut and picnic table.

The drive out seems shorter, as is often the case. Still no sightings of deer or wild pigs, but that doesn’t matter. I’ve seen their sign, and know they are in the area. As I watched the road unfold through the pine woods and brush before us, I became aware that the earlier foreboding we felt had long since vanished. In its place, for me, there’s a sense of peace and contentment I find difficult to leave, except for the part about the rutted roadway. I consider the possibility the area might have reminded me of the hill country where I grew up in California. Both areas are hot and dry, covered in dried grasses and brittle scrub brush, and accented with gnarley pines. But it isn’t that. It’s the wildness. The comforting sense of solitude—being in a land filled with life and beauty, but not developed by man.

I have an explanation for that earlier foreboding as well. I’ve felt it before, when I’ve spent too long submerged in human affairs and man-made development. It’s as though civilization, with all the claptrap of everyday existence, is threatened by this venture into the wild and real. Once the transformation is complete, the experience becomes restorative, and one can feel rested and at-home in the land that so many of us so seldom get to see. The Du Puy Wildlife Management Area was once a working, south Florida cattle ranch. Its preservation allows a glimpse into the past and presents the land as early cowboys saw it, and the way it was before them. I look forward to another visit.

I’m sure this is why my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, craves an open road, experienced from the back of his motorcycle. You can see, and sense, and feel and smell the land as it stretches away into the distance. It is restorative. It is where he can feel most at home. And, I understand that.

 

 

A Taxing Time

They say nothing is certain except death and taxes. Of course, progress is being made on the mortality thing. This year I am using a tax accountant to do my taxes. That means I had to send in my materials, which I did yesterday, which is much earlier than usual. I believe in procrastination, after all. The good thing is, it’s done and in the mail. The bad thing is, I just discovered a number of additional deductions  I could have claimed, but missed. You see, if I had just waited…

Last night I tried to picture various fiction heroes facing tax time. I came up with Mickey Spillane pulling a forty-five and emptying a magazine into his scribbled-up tax forms. And, how about Jessy Stone? Trying to keep control over one’s drinking and tax time are two incompatible forces. From my own experience this past week, I know which force wins for me. And my own hero, Bobby Navarro? What better reason to take off on one’s Harley than a bunch of tax form instructions telling you to add this and subtract that from the who-knows-what-that-means reported figure from the previous year? Fortunately, I’m an ex-sailor, and have the appropriate vocabulary needed to curse my way through tax season.

Now, if I were just wealthy enough, I could have all my assets off-shore and not have to pay any taxes. Not that I would be figuring them myself if I did. I’d have my accountant handle all that.

“It’s tax time, sir.”
“Don’t bother me with that nonsense. Take care of it.”
Would that approach work for death as well taxes? I could designate an off-shore undertaker to handle everything.
“I have some bad news for you, sir, I’m afraid you’re dying.”
“Don’t bother me with stuff like that, take it up with my off-shore undertaker.”
No, I don’t think that would work.
As a sociology professor, I taught a wide range of students, including prison guards, prisoners, some former prisoners, police officers, probation officers, an internal affairs police officer, a private investigator, and an IRS auditor. Guess which one I thought was the most terrifying? I was so relieved when the IRS auditor earned a high grade. I never saw him smile. Not once. But, at least he didn’t leave my course with any threats of future contact to be expected in the mail.
I think I should write a new series. I’m not sure whether to call it a horror series, suspense, or mystery. My protagonist would be a tall, dark tax person, dressed in an impeccable black suit. He could be known as 00-1040.
Or, maybe she could be a female protagonist wearing leathers and carrying a whip. “Hello, I’m-Audrey-the-Auditor. Want to feel some pain?”
Well, fortunately, I’ve survived quite a few years of tax preparation, and hopefully will continue to do so. But, I do have to consider whether I should inflict the tax thing on my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro. After all, I make him confront death and violence in other forms, why not taxes? He does have his own business as a blaster. Hmm, would he use dynamite to get through those troublesome tax forms? I wonder.

When a Writer Needs Help

 

I’m a writer, and I need some support. No, this isn’t a plea for help, but rather an attempt to express appreciation for the supportive members of some of the writers’ organizations I’ve enjoyed being a part of. I can’t think of any other organizations I could contact 24-7 as a writer in desperation and expect them to offer help—not anything nice anyway. And those I can think of who would even try to sound polite would require me to first give them my insurance information and fill out a health history form. Guppies and Sisters in Crime have been different. When writers have needed help, they were there, and no forms to fill out. That’s not something we should take lightly. We writers all need support from time to time.

I’ve also been impressed at the positive and supportive attitudes of many of the well-known writers I’ve enjoyed meeting and listening to at conferences I’ve attended, such as SleuthFest. I’ve appreciated the supportive camaraderie of other writers I’ve encountered at conferences, who like myself, are not big names in the industry.

Where is this coming from? I suppose there are many reasons. For one, I’ve worked in situations that were competitive, petty, and nasty, at times making the whole world seem that way. I suspect many of us have. I like competition, the other stuff—not at all. Lately, I’ve been reading some of the experiences other writers have had regarding critiques and reviews that sometimes turned out to be unpleasant, contradictory, and confusing. I’ve had those experiences too. Not everyone who picks up a book is considerate, let alone kind, or necessarily helpful. I had to stick a manuscript on the back shelf due to an overload of well-meant commentary that nearly did me in. It’s still there. But, in addition to sharing the sad stories of real-life writing experiences, the writing groups on the positive side of my experience deserve appreciation for simply being there, and available and supportive. Those seem worthwhile values, in a very tumultuous time.

As writers, I suppose the most rewarding thing we can hear is when someone loves our writing. The thing most helpful when we stray from perfection, is good criticism enabling us to see where to go with our writing. But there is another thing of vital importance, and that is knowing we are not in isolation. There are others out there who share our love, our passion, and our dedication to an undertaking that is all too often kind of brutal when it comes to social recognition and reward—especially monetary reward. There are so few who reach the top of the ladder that it seems audacious to call oneself a writer, but I was told that was exactly what I needed to do when I attended my first writing conference. I found it’s much easier to do that when joined by others.

This weekend, Lesley and I are taking some time-off in one of our favorite southern locations, Key Largo. I’m anxious to go there, partly because my current Bobby Navarro novel is set there. I’ve been fighting to kick a flu bug this week, and look forward to a change of scene. I also want to double check some of the places Bobby goes to, even if the names have been changed in the story. The weather looks good, and I’m sure the food and music will be as well. The photos this week are not from Key Largo, but they are definitely Florida.

 

Time for a Little Criticism

I am now at a sought-after point in the writing process. I have both completed a rough draft of my latest manuscript in the Bobby Navarro mystery series, and I have edited it as well. Now, I would probably want to change something any time I read a story I’ve written, so I can never tell if it is the best it can be, or not. At some point, I need outside feedback—criticism. My reviewer may end up thinking the whole thing was a colossal failure, or fell apart completely at some point. It’s wait-and-see time. Believe me—not easy.

In everyday life, we talk about being willing to listen to criticism. In writing, we talk about having our work critiqued. In either case, no one is eager to hear their creative efforts are crummy, their brilliance banal, or their talent tenuous. I’m no exception, but I do feel that constructive criticism can be a highly valuable commodity. However, getting the most from a critique of our work requires more than just letting others have their say. Here are five components of making criticism constructive when you are on the receiving end.

 1.        The first requirement for making criticism constructive on the receiving end, is to listen to it, and resist temptation to defend what we did. It’s not an argument. The goal is not to decide who wins. Learning from the criticism is the sought-after goal here, and that is only accomplished when the emphasis is placed on hearing, and understanding, what the criticism is. Similarly, it’s important not to succumb to another temptation, explaining why the behavior, writing, whatever, was the way it was in the first place. Just listen, get it straight, and take it under advisement—with sincere appreciation.

2.       That last part—with sincere appreciation—is very important. It’s not easy to accept criticism, but it should be appreciated. That doesn’t mean surround yourself with nags and nasty enemies. It does mean that criticism can help you improve yourself or your work, and is a valuable means toward that end. There are a lot of things written on how to be a good this-or-that. There are usually no books written about what we, as individuals, are doing wrong. Good criticism is worth a lot, treat it accordingly.

3.       Do something with the criticism once it’s received. A wonderful thing about computers, is that it is so easy to save numerous versions of our work. We don’t have to throw out the original, to try something different. Too wordy? Try cutting down, and examining the results. Someone suggests getting rid of a passage of particularly beautiful prose? Cut it. One click can save the treasured bit of writing. Chances are, you will never use it, but it hurts less to cut something, when we know it is saved should we ever find a better place to use it. The important thing, is to try seeing how the effected portion of writing works when revised.

4.       Have more than one source of feedback. If you receive a difficult-to-take bit of criticism, it can be more convincing and easier to take if you hear it from more than one source. I once had a whole writing group tell me a piece I had written was terrible. I had thought it was great. Hearing it from the whole group was convincing, even though disappointing. On another occasion, one reader thought a story was the best I had written, another thought it was the worst. Who can say? Receiving criticism is a learning opportunity. Multiple sources offer a greater opportunity for you to learn, and that’s what it’s all about.

5.       You own the final product. Accepting criticism does not remove one’s own responsibility for the final product. Simply making suggested changes, without working to understand them and the reason for their suggestion is disrespectful to oneself and one’s own work. Sometimes the criticism is best rejected, although the rejection should be saved until after the criticism has been received, understood, analyzed, and tried-out. But, in the end, you own the results, and must accept that ownership in an informed and responsible manner. By the way, when you keep in mind that you have the final say, it makes it easier to pay attention to whatever criticism you are dealing with.

 So, with all this in mind, now I’ll have to wait and see what happens, and then get back to work on producing the finished manuscript so I can put Bobby Navarro back on the road. And, speaking of being on the road, I recently saw this beauty.  Any thoughts?

New Year, new Resolutions

It’s that time again. People are making, or already have made, personal resolutions to kick off the new year. As we all know, these New Year’s Resolutions seldom last. Some never get started. Nevertheless, I love it, and I refuse to believe you are too old to accomplish change. After all, aging is all about changing, and getting used to changes. You know, that arthritic pain is just a part of aging—get used to it. Doing your chores is just a part of life—get used to it. Ha, if you think eighth grade is tough, wait until you get to high school—get used to it. So, let’s be realistic, if we are supposed to get used to unpleasant stuff, why not get used to something becoming better? Why not get used to something we want?

With that said, the road to good intentions. . .etc. I remember quitting smoking. Not easy. Failed more than once. Finally hit on a plan that worked. . . so far, at least. (I put it that way in order not to get cocky. Getting cocky leads to failure. And, who knows? I may fail again. . .although it’s been around fifty years now.) When I was quitting, I didn’t tell others that’s what I was doing. Didn’t want to jinx the effort. When asked why I wasn’t lighting up, I’d just say I didn’t want one right then. I even carried a pack of cigarettes around with me so I wouldn’t be tempted if someone offered. I had my own; I just didn’t want one. Technically, it was true. I was dying for a cigarette, but in my head I didn’t want one. So, you don’t have to tell others what you resolve, just carry out the resolution one day at a time, and–get used to it. After a while, it becomes a habit.

Last year, I resolved to achieve more balance in my life. Nothing too specific, although finishing the novel I had underway was part of what I had in mind. I wanted a modest resolution. You see, I had resolved to achieve better balance before. Guess what?

One of the things that helped me with the balance thing this time, was my wife, Lesley, convincing me it was better to write for an hour, or even a half hour, than not to write. I had previously relied on waiting until I could find a bigger chunk of time down the road. That didn’t happen. Little bits worked. A little bit every day accumulates over time. So, it’s not just setting a modest goal, it’s doing modest bits of behavior in the right direction on a regular basis. Forget about big changes, it’s the little bits of change that add up to success.

f course, if this sounds like I now lead a well-balanced life—forget it. You can believe it or not, but I have a lot of improvement yet to achieve. No, really! But, it’s like when I stopped smoking—I did better this past year. . .for more time. And, as for those times when I did anything but better—we need to learn from our failures, it’s how we gain successes.

So, what’s in store for this year? I’m not saying. We had a great getaway for New Years, and I hope to continue moving ahead on my work in progress and have the next Bobby Navarro mystery out this spring, or summer. Beyond that, I’m just picking out one little thing I want to do differently, and trying to take regular steps in the right direction. How about you?

 

A Time to Cheer

I had hoped to finish the rough draft of my current novel by Christmas, but I told myself and others my goal was to finish by New Years, because you never know what might pop up to get in the way. Happily, I have finished the rough draft. It’s a great feeling. Of course, last time I finished the rough draft of a manuscript, I ended up completely rewriting the whole thing. I had lost my voice. I had been reading Robert Parker, one of my favorites, and started sounding like a cross between Parker and me. I don’t think that will be a problem this time, but it’s always nerve-wracking to await someone’s response to what you have written. Of course, until then, I have a lot of work to do editing and tuning the present manuscript. Nevertheless, I’m excited to be on track for getting this Bobby Navarro sequel out this coming spring/summer. And, for a few days, it’s time to celebrate.

Of course, when the draft was finished the other day, I enjoyed glass of scotch. That was the official celebration. One of the things I’m aware of when I come to the end of a manuscript is that I feel eager to finish it, but reluctant to let go of the characters and the story. Afterwards, there is a mixture of feeling relief, accomplishment, and loss. The nice thing about writing a series, is that I will be able to work with the main character again. Last night, I had ideas running through my head about another Bobby Navarro story when I was supposed to be getting to sleep, but that’s not what I meant about looking forward to working with my protagonist again.

I remember a Kathy Bates movie, Misery, when a writer celebrated the end of his manuscript with a single cigarette and a glass of wine. Of course, if you saw the movie, you know what came next. I wouldn’t want to have been in his shoes.

Now, I am taking a little time to let the manuscript cool off before beginning the editing process. In the meantime, I have the chance to ride my own motorcycle, play a round of golf, and maybe do some hiking. That’s the advantage of finishing a draft while in Florida. Yesterday, I took a ride down an unfamiliar road that turned out to have a wildlife management area, Du Puis Management Area along one side of the roadway. The area offers hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, and even camping. It’s not far away from where we are located, so I’m looking forward to visiting there again.

Over the past months, I have enjoyed hearing from some of you who have visited my blog, and I look forward to bringing more news of Bobby’s travels and adventures in the coming year. Thank you for your support.

 I wish you all happy holidays, and a great year ahead.

Glenn Nilson

A Writer’s Lament

A Writer's Lament
I cannot think of a thing to write,
And here it is, Saturday night.
Something for my blog is due
And I’ve not one idea that I can use.
My mind is empty
I’m drawing a blank
I couldn’t turn a phrase
With a platinum crank
All I’ve done
This week and last
Is to work on my novel
To get it done fast.
I’ve still fifteen thousand
Words yet to go
But, I’ve forgotten what happens
At the end, and so
I’m stuck.
 I had some ideas, at first,
And a plan
For a story exciting
In a setting so grand.
With characters you’ll never
Want to forget
And an ending that will blow
Your mind to bits.
That was then.
This is now.
If I can’t get moving
I’ll soon have a cow. 
And, I still have my holiday
Shopping to do.
My credit card is maxed-out
And the bills are due.
I know people say, ‘tis a time to be jolly,
Hang up a wreath,
Some bells and fake holly.
But, Lord, if I weren’t brain dead,
I could finish my blog,
Have a drink,
Go to bed.
So, before I conclude
This writer’s lament
Let me wish you great joy
And a holiday well-spent
From me and my protag
Bobby Navarro


At Home

Feeling at-home can apply in a lot of situations. I used to feel that way in airports a long time ago when I traveled on business. A familiar airport offered a feeling of sanctuary. I could relax until my flight was ready for boarding. I could read, or do some work on my laptop. There were no external demands or likely interruptions. I once enjoyed something of the same feeling when I commuted to and from downtown Los Angeles. Admittedly, that was prior to cellphones.

Where I grew up, people used the expression, “Please make yourself at-home”, meaning they wanted you to feel comfortable with them and in their house. As snowbirds, my wife Lesley and I look forward to seeing people we haven’t seen in months each time we perform our biannual trek north or south. As we were indulging in our morning walk recently here in rural Florida, some friends we encountered said, “Welcome home”. Our southern friends more often say, “Welcome back”, the assumption being that home is somewhere in the North. These friends live here year-around, so this has become home to them, and I took their comment as a warm gesture back into the fold, a recognition of our belonging.

We live on a canal, and treasure viewing the wildlife parading back and forth. Tall egrets stand on the shore, looking to spear a meal in the opaque waters reflecting palm trees standing tall in the background. A green heron wading in the shallows darts its head out to feed on insects along the water’s surface. Two limpkins strut nearby, loudly proclaiming ownership of the canal, and an anhinga flaps its outstretched wings to dry off in a patch of fading sunlight, ignoring the limpkins. In the distance, a flock of white birds explodes into the evening sky, swooping, and wheeling several times before settling into the branches of tall oaks for the coming nightfall. A train sounds its horn as it approaches the crossings it must pass on its northerly run. I inhale deeply, to drink it all in, and suddenly I’m at home again in our southern location. Happens every time. Things are friendly and pleasant, but I get the sense of being at home here when I’m outside, enjoying the wildlife.

My series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, feels at-home when the highway vibrates up through the fast-rolling tires of his Harley and exhaust pipes sound a familiar melody. He’ll also feel at-home when night falls and he locates an inviting motel, or sets-up in a campground, builds a fire and suddenly there’s the fragrant scent of cedar smoke or crackling birch wood in the evening air.

I think Bobby feels more at home when he’s on the road than when an adventure is over, and he’s back in his rental. I suspect he’s not alone in that regard. How about you, or your protagonist? What provides a sense of home, or home-away-from-home, for you or your favorite character?

 

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Limpkin at Dusk

 

A Mystery for the Times

We spent this past week making final preparations for, and then completing, our semi-annual trek south. The first day out was unusually warm and pleasant. Although we got on the road no earlier than in past years, we both felt it had been less stressful this time. Better organization. We enjoyed a beautiful fall drive through the hills of New York and Pennsylvania to reach our first night’s destination. Then had snacks, a drink, and a pleasant dinner. By that time, we were curious how the election was going, and spent the evening transfixed by the unexpected results. Well, not completely unexpected in that this election seemed beyond belief all along.

Since election night, I have found it impossible not to dwell on the whole, arduous affair. That’s why this blog is so behind my expected posting date. It took time to gather focus. Now, we’ve largely unpacked and settled into our place in rural Florida, and I’m thinking I need to get back to my current novel, another in the Bobby Navarro series. It’s a story with a victim, a killer, and an amateur detective, and you can be sure good will win out in the end. After all, it’s not a Greek tragedy—it’s a murder mystery.

I love a good mystery. I don’t consider them merely entertainment, escape or, as some do, a lesser form of literature. Of course, a good mystery is entertaining, and can take us away from the cares and stresses of the day. That’s a plus in my book. Good mysteries can also inspire us to think about things we might not have even known about before, or introduce us to a setting with which we are totally unfamiliar. Mysteries do include meaningful depictions of bad deeds and events, and often of bad people, but are not usually filled with gratuitous sex and violence intended merely as cheap thrills. They are neither simplistic, nor hopefully, duplistic, while presenting a cast of characters to be sorted out as to who’s guilty of the murder, and who is not. But, there’s always more to the story than simply whodunit. That’s what makes them worth reading.

A good mystery can make us think about social issues and the morals and values we believe this country has struggled to achieve. I’m glad I’m a writer—a mystery writer. Writing good mysteries is one way to oppose bigotry, hatred, violence and greed in a format in which good ultimately prevails. Something for the times.