All Posts By Michael Kahn

In Praise of the Lowly Weed

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If, like me, you have a lawn out your front door, then taking a Word Association Test using “dandelion” will likely trigger an array of negative terms, including perhaps Weed B Gon and other chemical warfare products offered by Scotts, Ortho, and Monsanto.

Thus imagine my surprise at the nearly childlike wonder I experienced earlier this week as I was walking past an untendedDandelions 1 lot that was teeming with dandelions. I was so struck by their beauty that I stopped, leaned in close for a better look, and took a few pics with my iPhone. (I’ve posted one of those photos to the left.) The joy and awe of that moment continue to reverberate as a reminder of the beauty of everyday objects of nature.

But dandelions? I asked myself. Really? After all, just that past weekend I’d dug up several that were scattered across my front lawn.Nevertheless . . .

And the aesthetics of those weeds are in no way diminished–indeed, may even be enhanced–when the flower heads transform into those spherical seed heads known as bl800px-Dandelion_seed_head_(Taraxacum_officinale)[1]owballs, several of which were on that untended lot. Next time you come across one, in your lawn or out on a stroll, take a moment to gaze at the perfect symmetry and alignment of those seed heads.

As James Russell Lowell wrote, “A weed is no more than a flower in disguise.” Even so, it’s easy to forget that, in the words of Walt Whitman, “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.”

Fortunately, it’s a lesson our children and grandchildren remind us of whenever we take them out for walk. We adults dutifully repeat the cliche about the need to “stop to smell the roses,” but it’s no cliche to a child. It’s their modus operandi.

Jake 1982Indeed, one of my favorite photos is of our son Jake, taken more than 30 years ago, back when he was just 18 months old. We were walking through our Chicago neighborhood and came upon a patch of wild flowers growing along the sidewalk. Without any prompting from me, Jake stopped to smell the flowers. Little Jake is now 6’4″ and the father of three children of his own, including little Charlie. (Shown in the photo below.) Like his father and two older sister, Charlie always stops to smell the roses.

The point of all this is to remind me–and perhaps you–of how easy it is to travel through life, head down as we text and email and Facebook and Google while walking past a canvas far more beautiful than anything ever created by man. For me, taking a stroll through the woods with my wife Margi (a/k/a the World’s Most Enthusiastic Nature Lover) is an aesthetic experience that surpasses a stroll through the finest art museums in the world. She reminds me–and I do need reminding–that even the lowliest leaf or twig is a thing of beauty to be treasured.

And so I end this meditation with some quotes on the topic from those who came before us:

Jake and Charlie
Jake and Charlie
  • “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” Frank Lloyd Wright
  • “My profession is to always find God in nature.” Henry David Thoreau
  • “Nature is the art of God.” Dante Alghieri
  • One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. William Shakespeare

Well, actually, I end this meditation with a somewhat embarrassing disclosure: at sometime over this coming weekend, you will probably find someone who looks remarkably like me prowling my front lawn, shovel in hand, scanning the area for the stray dandelion poking up from all the grass.


Dylan, Hemingway, and a Peek Behind the Curtain

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“Chimes of Freedom” lyrics (via the Bob Dylan Archive)
Bob Dylan made headlines this month when a group of Oklahoma institutions announced their acquisition of an extensive archive of Dylan’s private work. According to the Bob Dylan Archive website at the University of Tulsa,  the trove includes 6,000 items of “never-before-seen handwritten manuscripts, notebooks and correspondence; films, videos, photographs and artwork; memorabilia; personal documents; unrecorded song lyrics and chords.”

As the New York Times article on the announcement explains:

Classics from the 1960s appear in coffee-stained fragments, their author still working out lines that generations of fans would come to know by heart. (“You know something’s happening here but you,” reads a scribbled early copy of “Ballad of a Thin Man,” omitting “don’t know what it is” and the song’s famous punch line: “Do you, Mister Jones?”) The range of hotel stationery suggests an obsessive self-editor in constant motion.

That last sentence caught my attention, along with this other one: “There have long been rumors that Mr. Dylan had stashed away an extensive archive.”

8df50c_4bc27f9e706f45a9bcb7230eb8431e1f[1]It reminded me of another obsessive self-editor–Ernest Hemingway–and an equally tantalizing rumor. I refer to the mystery of the discarded drafts of the final page of A Farewell to Arms.

Near the end of his life, Hemingway sat down with George Plimpton for an interview published in The Paris Review in 1958. When Plimpton asked, “How much rewriting do you do?”, Hemingway famously answered: “It depends. I rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.”

39 times!

Over the next half a century, those 39 discarded endings became part of literary lore, the Holy Grail of 20th Century American literature. And then, in 2012, Scribner announced publication of a new edition of the novel with an appendix containing all of the discarded endings. Turns out there are actually 47, and all had been preserved for decades in the Ernest Hemingway Collection at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway

Well, I couldn’t resist. After reading that article on the Dylan archive, which reminded me of the Hemingway archive, I picked up a copy of that new Scribner edition of Farewell to Arms. I started by re-reading those sad final two pages of the novel: Frederic’s beloved Catherine goes into labor, suffers complications, undergoes an emergency Cesarean operation, the baby boy dies, and then, after multiple hemorrhages, Catherine dies. Frederic goes out in the hospital hall to talk with the doctor. When he returns to Catherine’s room, one of the two nurses tells him he can’t come in yet. “Yes, I can,” he says, and orders both nurses out of the room. They start to leave, and the book ends with this paragraph:

But after I got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

A cool and passionless conclusion–quintessential Hemingway. Except for the word “good,” a final paragraph with no adjectives, adverbs, or even commas.

And then I turned to the Scribner appendix, to those 49 discarded endings. They range in length and breadth from just a sentence to several paragraphs.

Perhaps the most haunting is the first, which he labeled “The Nada Ending.” It reads:

That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.

More intriguing is No. 7, which he labeled the “Live-Baby Ending”:

I could tell about the boy. He did not seem of any importance then except as trouble and God knows I was better about him. Anyway he does not belong in this story. He starts a new one. It is not fair to start a new story at the end of an old one but that is the way it happens. There is no end except death and birth is the only beginning.

Several endings reference a funeral for Catherine, such as No. 10:

When people die you have to bury them but you do not have to write about it. You meet undertakers but you do not have to write about them.

And then there is No. 34, which he labeled the “Fitzgerald ending,” suggested by his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, according to Hemingway’s grandson Sean:

You learn a few things as you go along and one of them is that the world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. Those it does not break it kills. It kills the very good and very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

When George Plimpton asked him in that Paris Review interview what had stumped him about the ending of A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway answered:, “Getting the words right.” After reading those 47 discarded endings, I’d say he got the words right.

Jellyfish and Herrings and Bombs, Oh My!

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I have a chronic condition that many of you share. What is it? A  nagging curiosity about the origins of certain words and expressions.

Jelly_cc10[1]The most recent flare-up occurred last week on a family vacation along the Riviera Maya south of Cancun, Mexico. As I walked with my grandson Oliver down to the beach, we passed a sign featuring an image of a jellyfish with a notice in English and Spanish. The English version read: “This is jellyfish season.” The Spanish version read: “Esta es la temporada de medusas.”

Medusa by Caravaggio (1597)
I stared at the Spanish word for jellyfish–simultaneously realizing the inaccuracy of the English word (a fish made out of jelly?) and the vivid metaphor of the Spanish word, evoking that monster of Greek mythology with the living venomous snakes in place of her hair. Clever! (Turns out the Spanish are not alone. The Portuguese word for jellyfish is also medusa, and the French version is méduse.)

A few days later, I was reading an article about a recent movie that had become, in the writer’s words, a “blockbuster.” Blockbuster? I had seen or used that word countless times to describe a popular movie or book without ever considering its origins. Indeed, I’d rented videos for more than a decade from Blockbuster Video without ever once wondering, Why ‘blockbuster”?

So I turned to the dictionary, where I learned that the term “blockbuster,” coined during World War II, referred to a multi-ton aerial bomb containing high explosives for use as a large-scale demolition device, i.e., a bomb whose explosive power could “bust” an entire city “block.” So how did it evolve from a powerfully destructive bomb to, according to the dictionary, “a motion picture or novel, especially one lavishly produced, that has or is expected to have wide popular appeal or financial success”?

Blockbuster_logo.svg[1]I will save you a trip down that etymological “rabbit hole” (thank you, Alice in Wonderland) and tell you that I found two explanations for the evolution of the term from destructive bomb to hit movie or book. One explanation, cited by several (including the Oxford English Dictionary) focuses on the fact that a blockbuster bomb makes an enormous hit on its target. Thus a movie or book that is a big hit is a blockbuster. The other explanation, which seems a little more strained, traces the origin to a popular movie or play that was so successful that competing theaters on the block are “busted” and driven out of business.

Jaws-movie-poster[1]Regardless of the correct pathway from destructive bomb to a super-grossing motion picture, the language gurus point to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie Jaws as the occasion when “usage of ‘blockbuster’ for films coalesced” and “became perceived as something new: a cultural phenomenon, a fast-paced exciting entertainment, almost a genre. Audiences interacted with such films, talked about them afterwards, and went back to see them again just for the thrill.”

Another symptom of this language affliction is that once you start down that rabbit hole, you can’t stop. Notice use of the word “bomb” above in describing a “blockbuster.” And thus my next question. If blockbuster somehow evolved from a bomb into a big hit movie, how did “bomb” evolve from a big hit to a dismal failure, namely, a dud? Or, even odder, how did the term for a destructive explosive device evolve into the expression “the bomb,” which is a term to describe something totally cool. Here is one explanation I found:

People have been dropping the word bomb in many different ways for years, and it’s easy to see why: because it’s such a short and evocative word, it’s perfect for slang. At times bomb has meant a large sum of money, a marijuana cigarette, a nice car, and an old beat up car. Americans traveling in England might be confused, because in the UK, a performance that is a bomb is a tremendous success, whereas a performance in the US that bombed is a failure. Both meanings play off the idea of explosive impact, but one focuses on the positive (it was exciting!) and the other the negative (it was disastrous!). By the 1990s in the US, the British slang had rubbed off on speakers of American English, and for a time anything cool could be called “the bomb.”

And while we’re on the subject of bombs, how did the noun “bombshell” evolve from an explosive device to a shocking development to an extremely attractive woman? As the etymologists explain, all three meanings include the notion of a head-turning, eyes-wide moment.

Which moves us on to “rubber-necking,” which edges us close to a “red herring,” and which promises us no exit from this particular rabbit hole. But rather than “tilt at windmills” or “burn any more bridges,” it’s time we “talk turkey.” But first let me grab a “brewski” or two. But don’t worry. I’m not a “navel gazer,” although I like my maritime slang. So even if you join me at a “kegger,” I promise I won’t get “three sheets to the wind.” And if things get “dicey,” we can always “cut and run.”


Some X-Rated Thoughts

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As an intellectual property lawyer by day, I can confirm that my area of law is, to quote Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, “the gift that keeps on giving the whole year.” Not a month goes by without the arrival of yet another quirky case.

Copyright law? Hard to top JCW Investments, Inc. v. Novelty, Inc. 482 F. 3d 910 (7th Cir. 2007), which opens:

Meet Pull My Finger® Fred. He is a white, middle-aged, overweight man with black hair and a receding hairline, sitting in an armchair wearing a white tank top and blue pants. Fred is a plush doll and when one squeezes Fred’s extended finger on his right hand, he farts. He also makes somewhat crude, somewhat funny statements about the bodily noises he emits, such as “Did somebody step on a duck?” or “Silent but deadly.”

What was the copyright issue? Believe it or not, another farting doll. As the Court explains:

Fartman could be Fred’s twin. Fartman, also a plush doll, is a white, middle-aged, overweight man with black hair and a receding hairline, sitting in an armchair wearing a white tank top and blue pants. Fartman (as his name suggests) also farts when one squeezes his extended finger; he too cracks jokes about the bodily function. Two of Fartman’s seven jokes are the same as two of the 10 spoken by Fred. Needless to say, Tekky Toys, which manufactures Fred, was not happy when Novelty, Inc., began producing Fartman.

And then we have the joys of trademark law. One recent example: a ruling by the Trademark Office’s Appeal Board on whether a trademark that includes a slang term for a male body part should be deemed “scandalous” under the Trademark Act and thus inappropriate for federal registration. What was that two-word term? See if you can spot it in the microbrewery’s label for its brown ale, displayed above.

The Board’s decision to allow that registration–a decision that acknowledges society’s changing standards for what constitutes “scandalous” matter–got me thinking about the evolution of taste in literature and arts.

For example, on my first date with my future wife, we saw an X-rated movie. She loved it. So did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awarded it the Oscar for Best Picture of themidnight-cowboy-movie-poster-1969-1020142677[1] Year. And in less than a year, the rating for Midnight Cowboy was lowered from X to R. If it premiered today, it would probably be rated PG-13.

The same is true, of course, in literature. What was once obscene–such as James Joyce’s Ulysses–is now passé. There are passages of dialogue in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls that will seem silly to a modern reader because of the way Hemingway substitutes non-obscene words for the actual ones. The words “muck” and “mucking” appear throughout the novel. They rhyme, of course, with another pair of words that start with a consonant closer to the beginning of the alphabet. That was then. Nearly a half century later, the expression Erica Jong coined in her novel Fear of Flying was not “the Zipless Muck.”

So, too, throughout For Whom the Bell Tolls various exasperated characters use a common Spanish curse that Hemingway “translates” as “I obscenity in the milk of thy mother.” In the original Spanish, “obscenity” is a verb that rhymes with “skit,” and “thy mother” is a shortened reference to your mother and her work in the world’s oldest profession. By contrast, the opening chapter of Don Winslow’s recent, critically acclaimed Savages consists of exactly two words, the second of which is “you.”

forwhomthebelltolls-744380[1]And in the grand scheme of things, that’s life. Standards change. The 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in Paris caused a near riot in the concert hall and received scathing reviews from music critics. Within a year it was viewed as a masterpiece. The art critics of Paris derisively labeled the paintings of Monet, Renoir, and Pissaro mere “impressionism.” And in Elvis Presley’s first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, the camera stayed above his waist to avoid shocking the nation with the sight of those wiggling hips–a far different camera angle than the one for the halftime performances of Beyonce and Bruno Mars at Super Bowl 50.

What’s more interesting to me, though, are the reasons standards change. And for that, the Trademark Appeal Board, in approving the NUT SACK DOUBLE BROWN ALE trademark, offered a nuanced explanation for why slang terms are often less in-your-face than the proper terms:

“[M]any slang terms come into the lexicon because the formally correct, clinical word for the thing itself is deemed uncomfortably potent. This seems to be particularly true with respect to parts of the human body, in which case speakers adopt the slang terms precisely because they seem less intense, less indelicate, than the formally correct or technical terminology.”

Then again, if Ernest Hemingway were running the Trademark Office, his response would be: “I obscenity in the nether regions of thy fermented beverage.”

“You Can’t Make This Stuff Up”

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Fiction versus reality.

I have written occasionally, and contemplated more often, the profound wisdom behind the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction. The laws governing the real world are, in fundamental ways, different than the laws governing the world of fiction. Coincidence is a fact of life–right out there in the open, obvious and accepted. In fiction, however, coincidence must be disguised or your audience will reject it. In life, the cavalry occasionally does arrive just in time to prevent a massacre; try that trick in a work of fiction and you’ll be mocked. In life, a U.S. Congressman who sends photographs of his penis to female admirers can be named Wiener. Give him that name in your 51k02psI2sL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]novel and your editor will make you change it.

“You can’t make this stuff up.”

I’ve heard that line twice this past week, each time from someone recounting a life experience so outrageous and sad that it could never be included in a work of fiction. In one of those cases, the man’s beloved father had been rushed to the hospital with a near fatal heart attack. The doctors had saved his life, the father had spent a week in the ICU, and as he was being transferred to a rehab facility where his family was waiting to greet him, a truck collided with his ambulance and killed him. True stories like that are so infused with pain and sadness that it almost makes you question the purpose of art in a world filled with such tragedies.

And yet.

And yet.

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche

Think of those works of literature that have helped you make sense of your world. One friend who grew up in a household dominated by a narcissistic father finds comfort in Shakespeare’s King Lear. How many trapped in an unhappy marriage find resonance in Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary? Whether it’s Balzac or Vonnegut or Hammett or Faulkner or, occasionally for me, James Lee Burke, great authors and their works help us make sense of this world.

And thus I will let Friedrich Nietzsche have the last words: “We have art in order not to die from the truth.”

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction . . . Usually

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We who toil in the field of fiction soon learn that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Specifically, the laws of fiction prohibit the incredible coincidences that occur all the time in the real world. The key word here is “incredible.” Yes, there actually were twin girls, separated at birth, who found one another decades later on a train ride through the south of France, and yes, there really was an Illinois farmer, about to lose the family farm, who bought a lottery ticket with his last dollars and, lo and behold, won the Illinois lottery the day before the bank was scheduled to foreclose. But try to use either of those coincidences as a key element of your plot and you will never get published.

And it’s no use telling your editor, “But this really happened.” That’s because readers of fiction view obvious coincidences as pathetic plot devices. One of my favorite author cartoons is entitled Novelist At Work. The author is seated at his computer, and on the wall is a sign reading “10 Days without a Contrived Coincidence to Forward the Plot.” Every novelist who sees that cartoon smiles knowingly.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene Review 5 stars phistars wallpaper[1]And while truth is stranger than fiction, every once in awhile fiction can be stranger than truth. Specifically, sometimes you invent a character or a situation that you later discover actually exists in the real world. Graham Greene creates that experience in his black comedy, Our Man in Havana, which is set in the 1950s in pre-Castro Cuba. James Worwold, an ordinary vacuum cleaner retailer in Havana, is improbably recruited by the British secret service to provide espionage services in Cuba. Because he needs the money but has no information to send back to London, he fakes his reports, sprinkling them with names he finds in the newspapers. To liven up those reports, he includes sketches of vacuum cleaner parts, which he claims are sketches of a secret Russian military installation in the mountains. The British spy agency falls for his imaginary accounts hook, line, and sinker.

gg56031772[1]A key figure in those reports is a fictional pilot named Raul, who is Worworld’s imaginary mole. To Worwold’s dismay, the Brits send over an agent to meet with Raul. But just when Wormwold is about to be exposed as a fraud, a real pilot named Raul is killed in a car crash.

I loved that novel, and particularly the seemingly improbable way that an imaginary person in the novel could turn out to be a real person. Well, a “real” person within the fictional world of the novel.

And then it happened to me. In real life.

constantin-guys-girls-in-a-bordello[1]In one of my novels, which shall remain nameless here for reasons that will become apparent, I created a character–a bad guy–who was the son of a highly respected physician. I needed to create his backstory, namely, why would the scion of a wealthy and esteemed family go bad? I sought guidance from Honore de Balzac, who wrote that “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”

And thus I created a family tree stretching back four generations to its shady origins at the turn of last century. The family founder was an itinerant linen peddler who’d immigrated from Russia in the 1890s and eventually settled in St. Louis in 1900, where he established a linen service. Ever the entrepreneur, he realized the unique economic opportunities presented by the upcoming World’s Fair in 1904, especially since he was now the sole supplier of clean sheets and towels to all of the city’s whorehouses. By the time the World’s Fair closed, he was a wealthy man who not only controlled several of the town’s most profitable bordellos but had ownership interests in the suppliers of alcohol, drugs, and gambling in St. Louis. His son became a prominent criminal defense lawyer, and eventually a state court judge. His grandson became a renowned surgeon. And his great-grandson became the bad guy in my novel.

Six months after the novel was published, my secretary answered a call from a local heart surgeon who wanted to speak with me. That he had the same last name as the surgeon in the novel was a fact that didn’t register when I answered the phone.

“I’m curious,” he said. “How did you find out about my grandfather?”

“Your grandfather?” I said. “What do you mean?”

“All that stuff about how he got his start in the linen business, how he supplied linens to the whorehouses during the World’s Fair. I didn’t know that anyone outside our family knew about that.”

Turns out that all of the basic facts about my fictional linen supplier–right down to his first and last name–matched up with a real man by that name who did indeed supply linens to the St. Louis whorehouses during the 1904 World’s Fair.

Eerie. But true.

A Magical Poem

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Despite being an English major in college, poetry has never been at the top of my list of favorite art forms. But several years ago I came across a poem that I immediately fell in love with: “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats. Wanting to save that poem, I copied and pasted it into a Word document that I optimistically labeled Favorite Poems, hoping that someday I would find others to add to my existing “collection” of one poem.

And, fortunately, I did. Over the years that Favorite Poems document has grown into an eclectic collection that ranges from “Ul10860179_1563633677200795_861028892_n[1]ysses” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson to “The God Who Loves You” by Carl Dennis. And while I don’t often read through the collection, everyone once in awhile something will happen that sends me back to one of those poems.

The latest example is our recent trip to Chicago to visit our two oldest children, Jake and Hanna, their spouses, and our11906361_1628455720744311_179259593_n[1] five grandchildren. We stayed at our daughter Hanna’s house. (The photos here are of Hanna and her family.) As I watched her juggle all the various tasks that moms with little kids have to juggle, I immediately thought of one of the poems in my Favorite Poems collection: “Things You  Didn’t Put on Your Resume” by Joyce Sutphen.

I first came upon that poem many years ago, back when Hanna was in 8th grade and her mother Margi was juggling all those Mom Tasks with Hanna and her four younger siblings. The first time I read it back then, it made me smile and it brought tears to my eyes.

After coming home from Chicago, I read that poem again, and once again it made me smile and tear up. I sent it to Hanna. And now I want to share it with you.

Enjoy–and have a Kleenex handy!

Things You Didn’t Put On Your Resumé

by Joyce Sutphen

How often you got up in the middle of the night
when one of your children had a bad dream,

and sometimes you woke because you thought
you heard a cry but they were all sleeping,

so you stood in the moonlight just listening
to their breathing, and you didn’t mention

that you were an expert at putting toothpaste
on tiny toothbrushes and bending down to wiggle

the toothbrush ten times on each tooth while
you sang the words to songs from Annie, and

who would suspect that you know the fingerings
to the songs in the first four books of the Suzuki

Violin Method and that you can do the voices
of Pooh and Piglet especially well, though

your absolute favorite thing to read out loud is
Bedtime for Frances and that you picked

up your way of reading it from Glynnis Johns,
and it is, now that you think of it, rather impressive

that you read all of Narnia and all of the Ring Trilogy
(and others too many to mention here) to them

before they went to bed and on the way out to
Yellowstone, which is another thing you don’t put

on the resumé: how you took them to the ocean
and the mountains and brought them safely home

Join me on November 19 at 6:30 pm . . .

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. . . for what the Maplewood Public Library has labeled An Evening with Michael Kahn. Here is a link to a description of the event, which should be lots of fun. I will be discussing and fielding questions on the topic of “Why Truth Is Stranger than Fiction?”51r2Cj94myL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1]

Here is the Library’s description of the event:

Michael Kahn is a trial lawyer by day and a writer by night. He is the award-winning author of the nationally popular Rachel Gold mystery series. The latest entry in that series is Face Value. Earlier this year he published The Sirena Quest, a stand-alone novel that Publishers Weekly praised as “Equal parts rollicking adventure, existential and spiritual quest, and coming-of-(middle)-age tale.”

A former elementary school teacher in the Chicago public schools, Michael somehow finds time to practice law, teach classes as an adjunct law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, blog on his webpage, and write this entertaining mystery/thriller series.

Come spend an evening with Michael Kahn as he shares his love of writing and the legal realm.

Books will be available for sale that evening.

The Library is at 7550 Lohmeyer in Maplewood, Missouri 63143. And yes, as the engraving above the doors indicates, the Maplewood Public Library occupies what was formerly the Maplewood Municpal Pool. I don’t know whether there will be lifeguards at the event.

Was Yogi a Yogi?

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We in St. Louis joined Baseball Nation in mourning the recent death of baseball legend Yogi Berra, a beloved son of our town who grew up on the Italian Hill. As might be expected, the obituaries celebrated not only his remarkable baseball career but his equally remarkable quotations–sayings that might strike you initially as absurd or idiotic but which, upon reflection, reveal a deeper level of wisdom. Examples include:

  • “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
  • “It’s déjà vu all over again.”
  • “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
  • “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

And my favorite line of his, when asked about a popular bar: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

66789[1]As I read through one celebratory obituary after another, I thought back to one of my favorite Sports Illustrated articles by one of my favorite writers, Roy Blount, Jr. Originally published in the April 2, 1984 issue of Sports Illustrated, the piece opens with the provocative question: “Is the new manager of the New York Yankees a true yogi?” And centered directly above that sentence are a pair of quotes, one from the baseball Yogi and one from, well, another Yogi:

“Yoga consists in the stopping of spontaneous activities of the mind-stuff.” —YOGI PANTANJALI

“How can you think and hit at the same time?” —YOGI BERRA

Blount intersperses the rest of his piece with brilliantly matched pairs of quotes, one from the ballplayer and one from a religious yogi. Here’s an example:



“The time is now and now is the time.” —YOGI BHAJAN

“You mean right now?” —YOGI BERRA when someone asked him what time it was.

And another:

“One thing you cannot copy and that is the soul of another person or the spirit of another person.” —YOGI BHAJAN

“If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.” —YOGI BERRA

Enjoy the article.

And let me end with one final bit of advice from our St. Louis Yogi: “Always go to other people’s funerals. Otherwise, they won’t go to yours.”

A Fun Conversation with Author Jonathan Watkins

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We authors are accustomed to being the interviewees, i.e., the ones giving the answers to the questions. Thus it was a pleasure to settle down with fellow attorney-author Jonathan Watkins and finally get to ask some of the questions I’ve often wished an interviewer would ask me. And it was even more of a pleasure to receive his answers.

Motor City Shakedown CoverBy way of background, Jonathan lives and works in Ann Arbor, Michigan. An attorney and a self-described “life-long fan of detective fiction,” he is the creator the Bright & Fletcher mystery series, the latest of which, Motor City Shakedown, has just been published. Set in Detroit’s criminal justice system, the novel has been described by one by reviewer as “a fast-paced, humorous thriller that will leave you guessing until the very end.” (And if you prefer to listen to your thrillers , here’s a link to the audio version.)

But enough preliminaries. Let’s chat with Jonathan:

Mike K.: We are both trial lawyers who also write novels, and thus we are both often asked why are there so many lawyers writing novels. A better question, though, is: what are the parallels, if any, between the job of a lawyer—and especially a trial lawyer—and the job of a novelist?

Jonathan:  Great question. They’re both acts of storytelling. If you’re running a trial, you’re telling a narrative in competition with the other side. They have their story and you have yours. When all the motions have been heard, the witness list has been finalized, and the last minute plea offer rejected, what you’re left with is the job of telling a story to the jury that is better and more believable than the other guy’s. Losing the thread of that story (not being mindful of it when you’re choosing what questions to ask a witness) or telling it in a confusing way will sink you. There are a lot of moving parts to some trials, and they are all important. But you can’t forget the ‘Big Story’ that you’re presenting to the jury.

Mike:  Have you seen any impact in the real world of courtrooms from all of those courtroom dramas on TV?

Jonathan: Not as much from the courtroom dramas as from the ‘CSI’-type shows and cop procedurals. Today’s juries have watched years of these shows, all of which present scientific tests as the definitive way to offer proof that something did or did not occur. But the truth is that most cases won’t rely on DNA testing, computer models, blood spray analysis, or even fingerprints. A lot of crimes simply don’t have any elements that would make scientific inquiry necessary. Most trials involve testimony from witnesses. You’ll get a cop, the victim, and a witness or two. The most ‘hi-tech’ evidence admitted will be some photographs or some documents.

Somewhere in that jury is likely a man or woman who mistakenly thinks that the super-science procedures shown every week on their favorite procedural are actually real (most of them aren’t) and also very commonplace (the ones that do exist are rarely used). And that man or woman is going to be a lot more susceptible to thinking that a trial where none of that super-science has been presented is in some way deficient.

It’s akin to how non-lawyers will say something to the effect of, “Yeah, but the evidence was only circumstantial”, as if a case shouldn’t be brought unless it is entirely supported by direct evidence and free of anything that could require a juror to make an inference. TV show lingo was responsible for that misconception as much as it is for the idea that every crime scene is crawling with the best scientists in the nation, wielding the most cutting edge instrumentality, and scrutinizing every microscopic filament with the deductive acumen of Sherlock Holmes.

Of course, this is all to the benefit of the Defense side of the story. The more serious the crime, the more some jury members are likely to believe that cutting edge scientific evidence is not just preferred, but even necessary, in order for them to feel comfortable finding someone guilty.

Mike: Hollywood comes knocking and buys the movie rights to Motor City Shakedown. Incredibly, however, they give you total discretion over casting the movie. Who will you pick the play the main roles, and why?

Jonathan: Issabella Bright would be played by Anna Kendrick. In the film Up in the Air, she looked almost exactly like how I picture Issabella. Also, Ms. Kendrick is one of those rare actors who is equally adept at both drama and comedy. She would be perfect for the tense moments in Motor City Shakedown as well as the lighter bits.

Darren Fletcher would be played by Jason Bateman. He doesn’t fit my image of Darren physically, but he’s close enough. More important than the appearance, I think he would nail the beleaguered, run down state Darren is in when we find him at the book’s beginning, while still being able to nail the humor and outrageous behavior that Darren displays throughout the rest of the book.

Theresa Winkle: Melissa McCarthy. Theresa is an eccentric who lives in a bar with her collected herd of unicorn figurines. She’s blunt. She’s uncomplicated in her view of the world and isn’t shy of saying exactly what she thinks. I can’t think of any other actor out there who could carry that type of part as easily as Ms. McCarthy.

Mike: As a reader and a writer, many of my favorite characters are the ones I label “cage-free,” namely, the ones who somehow escape the confines of the outline and yank the story in a new direction. Beloved examples from literature include Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays and Sancho Panza in Cervante’s Don Quixote. Have you ever had a cage-free character appear in one of your novels? If so, describe the experience.

Jonathan: For me it was Malcolm Mohommed, the hit man in Motor City Shakedown. Originally he was only going to appear in one or two scenes to fill a minor plot role before disappearing out of the story for good. But as soon as I started putting him together, he became irresistible to me. His unique view of the world, his artistic mission, his deadly machine-like quest for personal vengeance—all of it conspired to blow up my original outline. He became a major, vital player in the book’s narrative. If I ever have the right story for him, he’s the one secondary character from the book that I would want to make the lead of a stand-alone novel.

Mike: Which books on your Top Ten List do you think might surprise your readers?

Jonathan: Probably the fact that I really am a sucker for American classics. I write genre fiction, proudly. But if you were to demand to know which books I return to again and again, they would be The Sound and the Fury, The Great Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Don’t get me wrong, I read a lot of detective fiction, mysteries, thrillers, horror, fantasy, and science fiction. They are my comfort reads, and I go through them fast. But those books I listed above are burned into me. I have to pull them out now and again, to pick over and puzzle out and try to learn from.

Mike: Okay, now for some important stuff. I went to college with two guys from Detroit who rhapsodized over Stroh’s beer. Are you a Stroh’s fan? Is it still around? And what does “fire brewed” mean?

Jonathan:   Anyone who would rhapsodize over Stroh’s needs to have their taste buds arrested and their stomach apologized to. Stroh’s is the beer you drink when you’ve just turned of legal age and don’t have enough pocket money to buy a beer that doesn’t hate you. I’m sure “fire brewed” is a real process. I’m also sure that it perfectly describes the state of your intestinal tract after you’ve been drinking Stroh’s. Maybe your friends were trying to haze you.

Mike: These days a popular question for writers is to have them name 3 other authors, living or dead, that they would invite to a dinner party. Who would you invite?

Jonathan:   Robert B. Parker, because I grew up with his Spenser character, whose innate nobility and personal code of right and wrong informed a lot of my young world view.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, because every dinner party needs that one guy who just won’t tolerate small talk and demands actual conversation about weighty propositions.

Norman Mailer, because you also need the unhinged provocateur who breaks up the flow of things with bravado and brash posturing. If nothing else, I think he would refuse to allow an evening to be anything but memorable, even if it was memorable for how it devolved into shouting and punching.

Mike: Finally, who’s your favorite fictional hero or heroine, and your favorite antihero or villain?

Jonathan:   My favorite hero is and will ever be Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. I know that’s the most obvious answer for a lawyer, but there you have it. He was honest, kind, devoid of bigotry, and willing to stand against the tide of racial injustice.

My favorite villain is Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I’ve never read a more hellish, obscene, or terrifying depiction of the worst impulses inside the human heart than what’s contained in this book. And the Judge is the physical manifestation of it all. Pure evil and purely fascinating.

Mike: Yes, the Judge from Blood Meridian is one of the great villains of all time. I doubt whether Iago or Hannibal Lector would even be willing to get into the ring with him–even if they got to go in there together. Jonathan, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for taking to time to share your thoughts with our readers, and good luck with your new novel.

Jonathan: Thanks so much for the questions, Mike. These were great fun to answer and I appreciate the opportunity.