Quarter Report 2021

Not following the arrow

I live my life a quarter mile at a time. — Dom Toretto

This is not the first time I’ve referenced this favorite quote in this space. Vin Diesel’s line is a running theme throughout the Fast & Furious franchise, and, to me, is a tremendously apt way to describe living in the moment.

My specific reference is not miles, but years. Having cut my teeth in the business world in the discipline of accounting, I’m prone to think of years in quarters. And as I find myself at the end of Q1 2021, it felt like a good time to post a quarter report. So here, in no particular order, are some particulars:

  • While I have not been idle, I have still not prepared the manuscript of my 3rd novel for public consumption. But I have set a fast (and furious) goal of having it prepared by end of Q2. Q2 2021, just to be clear.
  • I completed a “game-ified” course in the Python programming language through an app called Mimo. That’s all I have to say about that.
  • I discovered the writer Jess Lourey. I have not read her — I watched a webinar on editing she offered through Sisters in Crime, and was thoroughly impressed. I plan to take more of her online courses, after I finish my editing work (see bullet point #1).
  • I finished Don Quixote. I found myself thinking of the musical theme to Monty Python and the Holy Grail through most of it. And realized how much Terry Gilliam must have been influenced by Don Quixote. In fact, I discovered there’s a 2018 film, written and directed by Terry Gilliam, called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. With Jonathan Pryce as Don Quixote, and one of my favorites, Stellan Skarsgard, as a character called “The Boss.” And Adam Driver as Toby, and my guess from his billing is that he is the eponymous “man who killed Don Quixote.”

Anyway, to wrap this up: I’ve added The Man Who Killed Don Quixote to my ever growing “to be watched” list. But, I close the book on Don Quixote thinking how little, and how much, has changed for writers in the past 400 years. And I believe it’s a net positive for writers in the current era.

How little has changed: there’s a scene near the end, in Chapter 62, where Don Quixote enters a book printer’s shop in Barcelona. Don Quixote asks an author he encounters whether he is printing at his own risk, or if he’s sold the copyright to a bookseller. The author answers that he would not give up his copyright so readily, and that he is printing at his own risk: “I do not print my books to win fame in the world, for I am known in it already by my works; I want to make money, without which reputation is not worth a rap.”

How much has changed: to me, the risk an author hazards in the digital era is significantly less than 400 years ago, or even 25 years ago. With an exponentially increased potential readership over 400 years ago, and a reduced out-of-pocket cost compared to 25 years ago, it seems to me that a writer has very little to lose by putting her works out there.

Or here.

You asked for miracles, Theo?

I give you the F.B.I. — Hans Gruber from Die Hard

Jersey barrier, chain link, sign…we get the idea

On Monday, I had the amazing opportunity to attend presentations at the FBI field office in New Orleans. Many thanks to the New Orleans chapter of Sisters in Crime for arranging this outing for its members. Sisters in Crime is a national organization offering networking, advice and support to mystery authors. (While I wouldn’t qualify myself as a “mystery author,” I certainly seek to incorporate elements of mystery into my stories. My membership in this group has proven very worthwhile).

Having never been in any real trouble with the law, my impression of the FBI is mostly formed from movies. So, of course I’ve had Hans Gruber’s aforementioned quote from Die Hard going through my head as I attempt to write this piece. And then there’s also Agent Kay from Men in Black, when he’s posing as an FBI agent: “We at the FBI do not have a sense of humor we’re aware of.”

Entering the FBI field office was certainly serious business. We had to pass a limited background check in order to access the facility. And as the picture above shows, you can’t just waltz through the front door once you’ve been approved. We had to sign in at a guard gate, and then we were escorted by private security to the front door, where “Federal Bureau of Investigation” appears etched in invisible ink around the arch. You can barely make it out in the picture—which is, by the way, the only one I have, because we were not allowed to bring cell phones or any electronics into the field office.

Once inside, we were escorted by the community liaison to the “Old Case Files” room, where we were greeted by the Special Agent in Charge, Eric Rommal. He explained a little bit of how the FBI is organized around the country. The largest offices are in New York and Washington, D.C.; but they each cover a relatively small geographic area. New York covers the five boroughs, and Washington the D.C. metro area. By comparison, the New Orleans office covers the entire state of Louisiana.

After the SAC’s introduction, the newly-appointed Supervisory Special Agent (SSA) from the local Cyber division presented a case study on the investigation into some criminals, who stole about $100,000 by hacking into and assuming someone’s personal email address.

Later, when it was time for a bathroom break, I got a glimpse into why there was so much pre-screening before the FBI just let anyone into their facility. We had to be escorted to the toilets, too—right past an open door with “Gun Vault” marked alongside the door frame. I could see a line of rifles—I think they were rifles, I’m no gun expert—secured against the wall inside.

Our final presentation in the “Old Case Files” room was from the SSA of New Orleans’s Counterintelligence division. He played a lead role in the investigation of Tai Shen Kuo, a New Orleans resident who was convicted of spying for China. The case has been declassified, so SSA Bob Thibault was able to present a fascinating, first-hand account of all the cool, espionage-y details. My imagination was definitely sparked.

Finally, before we left, we received a quick demonstration of FATS, a firearms training simulator. It was a sobering look into the use of deadly force, and how every single time it boils down to a judgement call on the part of law enforcement.

It was pretty phenomenal to get a look inside an institution as public, in-the-glaring-spotlight/news-every-day-kinda-public, as the FBI. They’ve been at this for over a century! In the few hours I spent in the New Orleans office, I got a sense of earnest people, just trying to do their jobs, protecting honest folks from bad actors. Sorry, Hans, that may not be miraculous, but I’m grateful people remain willing to do the job, just the same.