Blackjack: Ransom for a Dead King, chapters 11 and 12

We continue with the next installments of this thrilling adventure for your entertainment. All previous chapters are available on this blog.


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Blackjack: Ransom for a Dead King, Chapters 7, 8, 9, and 10

We need to catch up to the thrilling adventures of Alex Simmons’ Blackjack, recently nominated for. Glyph Award as Best Black Male Character. I was honored to write with Alex the serialized adventure “Blackjack: Ransom for a Dead King” and chapters 1-6 are available free for your entertainment elsewhere  on this blog. Let us continue the celebration of this outstanding hero with the next few chapters.


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Keys to Traveling for Your Creativity, Part III

(Completing advice and lessons learned for the benefit of those who travel to further their creativity at conventions and festivals.)

21) As Weird as it Gets, There’s Always Stranger Places to Go, Continued.

As fascinating as any convention or festival may be, nothing beats an awards dinner for sheer sensory overload.And WorldFest Houston did not disappoint. Whenever there is an opportunity to experience one, nominated or note, my advice is … see that show!

The PreShow: It began calmly, as all wild nights do. People from various continents began to gather…

The waiting area was walled with film banners…

And the usual suspects began to show up…

And so did these guys, because Texas or Mexico, this is the music of the region…

And there was traditional cultural dress everywhere; Chinese, Korean, Italian, French…

Yep, that’s a cowboy couple on the couch and this guy in the center was one of a group wearing kilts.

And then the crowd descended. Starlets with toy dogs, corporate money, international investors, filmmakers from almost every continent. All of them looked splendid, wanted drinks, food, awards, seats. The latter proved challenging… but eventually , it all got sorted out, or abandoned, and we all moved to…

The Main Event….

The dancers came from all over…

Dancing in all styles…

And awards were distributed.

Clandestine director David LaRosa was presented the gold for Crime Drama, and immediately shared it with the team. That would have capped the night and the trip, but he had also been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and Nick DeMatteo (the “usual suspect” to the left pictured earlier in this blog) was nominated for Best Actor. What a night…

Here’s a close-up:

… then there was more dancing…

… and pictures were taken…

 And then came a lovely surprise….

Kate A. McGrath won Best Supporting Actress from the Houston Broadcast Film Critics. Presenter Nick Nicholson made sure the crowd new that she also wrote Clandestine, with which he said he was quite impressed.

So much so that he had one more minor heart attack for us…

Yeah, I got nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Couldn’t believe it. Still processing it.

The lessons we learn when we leave the house….

The best lesson for me was what an honor it is to give all to a project with fine, creative people. So much is learned, so much life is shared…

And that’s the point of all this, isn’t?

Safe travels to each of you, and may you never stop learning.

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Keys to Traveling for Your Creativity, Part II

(Continuing advice and lessons learned for the benefit of those who travel to further their creativity at conventions and festivals.)

10) Toss Your Expectations Aside

When you’re traveling for your creativity, you may get closer to your creator (as I did in Part I of this blog trilogy- can’t wait until they make four films out of this), but you may also find yourself in places you’ve never been before. Some might expect to experience an Emerald City like the one in Oz; I expected a bit of the Wild West from my trip to Houston. Mostly, I experienced gray skies and grayish buildings and roads that looked too much like Route 17 in Bergen County, NJ. Hmmmm….

11) Give Peeps a Chance

I started my time in Houston inside Bush International Airport. George was not around but his airport was clean and huge and generic and full of helpful people who advised against spending $65 on a cab and put in a shuttle van with a very nice young Southern belle with very definite plans to become a funeral director.

 12) Stereotypical Preconceptions Will Not Help

I will admit, as I left the airport I expected to see 10 gallon hat’s and sagebrush and the wild West. What I saw looks suspiciously like Route 17 in Bergen County New Jersey. Commerce has marginalized large swaths of the United States, especially population centers, so Houston, Texas has staples, and McDonald’s, and even an Olive Garden.

But they do have places that are uniquely Houston’s….

I apologize for being New York ethnocentric, but the five words on that restaurant sign above should never be together.

13) Weird Things Will Happen

When I got to the hotel, I went to sign-in for the festival, and found myself at the welcome desk for a convention of… funeral directors. That inspired three quick questions: Does the nice girl from the shuttle know about this? Am I in the wrong hotel? Why do I keep running into funeral directors?

14) Find One Sane Person

Luckily, I discovered the WorldFest sign-in was housed in a guest services booth just 13 steps away. I recognized that makeshift closet with a window as being allocated for WorldFest Houston because postcards advertising various movies were displayed all along the front of it. Inside was the glorious Elease Jenkins, who would prove to be the sane center of a truly interesting few days.

Elease’s first question was whether my wife Tina was with me as she had come to understand. First the airline thought I had a baby with me, now WorldFest thought I had Tina with me, apparently no one trusted me to be on my own.

But Elease hooked me up with my VIP and all access passes. Now I was set, baby.

15) Make Your Room a Sanctuary

Conventions and festivals can be intense. Make sure you have a place to mellow out and regroup. Your hotel room can be perfect for this.

My room was generic hotel room nice, which is about the best you can hope for when traveling for your creativity. One time I got a hotel room that was clearly designed for a swinging single guy; that really disoriented me. This room was quiet and sedate just like I wanted it.

The view below, however, held promises of lovely young starlets-to-be lounging in the southern sun.  All I got was gray skies and rain, and one day when the sky cleared for thirteen minutes, two Italian guys in Speedo’s. Not what I was hoping for….
In fact, the only cool thing that happened around the pool was this underwater Roomba which cleaned it every day. Sort of R2D2 meets Aqualad.
16) In This World, You’re on Your Own

Once you are all settled in, you will need a plan. Cons and festivals are designed to overwhelm, providing too many choices. No way can anyone attend every event, so decisions must be made. There I was, all on my own, at a truly international film festival. They were movies from China, Russia, Italy, and more, all right here in Texas. What would I choose to see?
I chose a Western, Five Grand, which has Eric Roberts in it for a little while.

Actually, it was a good reason to choose this film. We used Tom Sizemore in our film Clandestine, in much the same way. Actors of some reputation attract international distributors. I wanted to see how they use Roberts and then compare it to what we did with Sizemore.

17) At an Event, You Always Represent
Right before Five Grand started one of the hosts mistook me for a producer of the film and asked me to say a few words. Not wanting to insult or embarrass anybody, I said, “I’m here as a producer of Clandestine which is showing tomorrow at 9 PM right here in this theater. Tonight’s movie is a western; ours is more of an eastern.”

18) ASOF- Always Scope Out Food
Free tip for conference or festival newbies: always check out what food is available before you are hungry. If you don’t you’ll get on the first line you see, and survive on a passable breakfast, when a beautiful, affordable breakfast buffet is available just 25 steps away.

19) Learn What You Can From Every Opportunity

I go to as many classes as possible whenever I am at a convention or a festival, always looking to learn something new. Worldfest Houston was an uneven education. From a veteran screenwriter I learned the need to make sure information is current as I watched her demonstrate how to layout a script page, apparently unaware that Final Draft, etc., exist. From another, I learned to quadruple test the selling point of any presentation when I sat through a class on filming with drones and the drone didn’t work.

Two other classes stayed with me, however. The first flipped on me later in the fest. Nick Nicholson, a Houston Broadcast film critic, did a master class on screenwriting, with a focus on making the film work.  Honestly, the opening threw me; Nick showed clips from his movie review show, wherein he trashed about twenty films (many of which I agreed were problematic) and a few he liked (his Deadpool review was a welcome relief). Nick’s point was basically screenwriting and acting and filmmaking are difficult, and when any area of this art form fails, it makes his job as a reviewer that much more difficult.

At first, I thought he just hated movies, but eventually I got his point; Nick Nicholson loves cinema to the point where he becomes angry when he has to sit through faulty work. It was ultimately a lasting reminder that people will be watching and excited to enjoy our work, and letting them down isn’t right. There are so many ways for creativity to go off the rails –a producer with an agenda, a director ignoring the source material, an actor mailing it in– that creatives have to really fight to make every second the best it can be.

This applies to novels, art, music, anything creative. People want to be transported and if we do not diligently weave all the elements needed to get them there, we’re not doing our job.

20) Every Once in Awhile You Hit the Motherlode

The other class that knocked me out was this guy from NASA who humbly came to us to show us gorgeous footage shot in space, and then tell us NASA had hours and hours and hours of it, and was offering it to us as fair usage.


The NASA guy said it would be fair to use the footage in our films, but it wouldn’t be fair to use it, then cut to a box of laundry detergent and say, “NASA endorses Washy Suds!” Fair enough.

Here are the links:



for more information on NASA media usage:
21) More Weird Stuff Might happen, Roll With it

When I got back to the sanctuary of my room, the only one I wanted to contact was my wife. Somehow I messed up my iPhone, which made for really cool time travel texts….

Sometimes when you try to regain control of your environment, this happens….


21) As Weird as it Gets, There’s Always Stranger Places to Go

I thought the time travel was as odd as it would get. Amazing how wrong I was….

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Talking to Pop, 14 years later

Sad to say, but Facebook reminded me of my father’s anniversary.

Fourteen years ago today, my father passed on. 

Seems like yesterday. And centuries ago. 

I don’t really know what I would say to him today. But I do know I have a lot of questions, and so, on his anniversary, I would like to have a conversation with him. If I could, here’s what I would ask…

Hey Pop, would you explain this world to me, so I can explain it to my sons? How do I look them in the eye and tell them there is still an American Dream to believe in?

You instilled in me a deep belief in American values: hard work, faith in leadership, and a belief in the potential of this country. 

Two out of three ain’t bad. 

I still believe in hard work, Pop, and I still deeply believe in the potential of this amazing country, but the leadership, they’ve gone from disappointing us to to downright preying on our jobs, our retirement, our Social Security, our ability to sleep at night. How do I tell my sons it is still worth believing in a country whose leadership aggressively wants to take away the opportunities of its own people? How do I get them to invest their faith in a society so rigged towards the one percent? What would you say to me about such a fixed game?

I think you would tell me that, to more or less of a degree, it has always been this way. Maybe, but it sure feels like it’s gotten worse, and I have sons to answer to for the choices my generation has made.

What I wouldn’t give for the ability to sit across from you, look into your sharp eyes, and see the truth you had for me, or better still, to sit back and watch you have a discussion with my sons. The perspective you would be able to give them would be so valuable, and I believe it’s one of the biggest things that is missing from our society. 

Your generation’s beliefs are not represented anymore. You were a Republican Conservative, but I do not think you would recognize your own party, just like old liberals wouldn’t recognize the Democratic Party. 

I understand that things have to change, but it was supposed to be an evolution; we were supposed to get better, to grow. That doesn’t seem to be the case. Things just seem to be getting more absurd. 

In the face of overwhelming scientific proof of looming catastrophe we really don’t take climate change seriously, and some of us flat out deny its existence after each natural disaster.

We fail to talk together and come up with solutions for the ills of our society, even after each mass shooting.

We actively vote for politicians who clearly do not have our best interests at heart, and fail to tar and feather them when they actively betray us.

And now, here comes the Presidential race. Donald Trump. Ted Cruz. Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders. Each of these mostly fictional characters has a spin on the nation’s future that is largely unachievable, and yet we will eventually vote one of them into office during a time when the leadership of this nation really concerns so many of us. I wonder, what would you say about these four, Pop? Would you shake your head and chuckle at me? More and more that’s what I do. But it’s a mirthless chuckle, a dark laugh, because I’m pretty close to handing this world over to my sons; they are 20, in a few months 21, and this world’s gonna be theirs. And it’s gonna belong to my students. What do I tell them, Pop? How do I give them faith?

Maybe that’s something that they have to discover on their own. Maybe that’s why you chuckled at me so often when I was their age, knowing that I had to find my own truth. One of the most generous things you ever did for me was giving me room to figure out some this on my own. You were a trustworthy sounding board and advisor, but you never forced me to think like you did. I get that now. And I am so grateful for that gift.

And even as I write this, a young couple walks past, arm-in-arm, sneaking a kiss, laughing with each other. Maybe that’s where they find their faith. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for; that they each get lucky enough to find someone to go through the journey with, no matter how crazy it gets. 

Worked for me.

Sure would be a lot easier with you around.

Still miss you, Pop, every single day.

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Keys to traveling for your creativity

At some point, creators have to travel for their art. This is one such tale, told in hopes of making other creators’ journeys more pleasant and positive.

World premieres only happen once, obviously, and experiencing them in whatever form they take can be worthwhile.

Thursday was the world premiere of “Clandestine” by Feenix Films. Full disclosure, my work on the film was done long ago, but the Core Four of Feenix Films, David LaRosa, Nick DeMatteo, Kate A. McGrath, and Jeanine Laino, have worked tirelessly. They deserved a premiere. Once I saw the dates of the Houston Wordlefest Film Festival lined up with my scheduled Spring Break from my other life, I wanted to support their efforts and experience the event myself.

So with the support of the goddess, I headed south. Here are some lessons I learned…

1) Pack early, whatever that takes. For me (a storyteller who sometimes acts but mostly stays home writing) ddeciding what to wear became an issue. My go-to New Paltz Hawks sweatshirt wasn’t going to cut it. Neither were any of my Hackensack High School sports gear. I needed button down dress shirts, but every one that I owned was in the dry cleaners (yeah, about two dozen, happens too often, and my dry cleaner laughs at me). Retail was required.

2) Find what you are going to pack your stuff into well ahead of time. Turns out my son used all our luggage to move up to college and never returned any of it. I announced that it was no problem, I would use the garment bag we have. Actually, we have two, so I was set. Upon inspection, however, we discovered they were stored above our dryer and heat from that aging dinosaur of an appliance had discolored” them and warped their frames. Some more retail was required.

These would not do. The goddess took over and  shopping ensued.

Ummmmm, no.

Now we’re talking.

3) Read the Omens. As the goddess and I entered Newark Airport, we saw this:

I should have recognized it for the sign it was; if a New York pigeon was having trouble finding his luggage, challenges loomed. 

The second omen was when we realized everyone else in line (this is an airport, there are always lines) held a different piece of paper than us. Long story short, we needed to go to a machine to do a “first check-in” which resulted in a baggage tag and and a boarding pass (I told you I mostly stay at home writing). Hijinks ensued.

4) To thine own self be true. A helpful airport employee (yes, they exist; not all are defensive) translated the check-in process for us, and kindly asked, “And will Nick be sitting on your lap?” Now, I love me some Nick DeMatteo, but I really have to profess that love to be platonic and based strictly on an appreciation of his myriad artistic skills, not potential lap dancing, so I politely replied, “Um, who?”

“Your son? Nick?” 

A second boarding pass for a Nicholas Ryan had also printed. I explained that I had no son named Nick and the sons I did have were now really big and would balked at any physical interaction. She resolved the issue by stuffing Phantom Nick’s board pass into her pocket and announcing we were ready to go.

5) Romance must take place before you get on line. The goddess offered to drive me to the airport (bonus advice: if at all possible, hook up with a god or goddess, that one move will make life worth living), and we planned to breakfast together and then smooch at the gate a la Casablanca. Wrong. In Terrorism World, the airport is the least romantic place on Earth (yes, even less romantic than the dentist’s office, a colonoscopy room, or divorce court). The lesson here is that all the romance goes before the airport. Rumple the sheets before you leave. Hold hands in the inevitable traffic.  Find a nice diner.

6) Seating on the plane is crucial.
The forward section is best and costs more. The middle is pretty smooth and costs less than first class. Economy is a thrill ride. 

Call me Indiana Jones.

First class was two suburban blocks away. I had the perfect seat to serve as bathroom monitor. If it is possible to top such perfect accommodations, the combination of engine roar thundering by on either side and my location’s ability to allow me to experience every shake and roll of take off worked in tandem to put me in direct contact with God. 

Well, almost. 

It had been so long since I prayed this fervently that I feared Our Creator might be disclined to hear me out, so I addressed my desperate pleas for deliverance to Mary because, as a Mom, she is allegedly a softer touch. 

And then a voice that was not a voice but a spoke unto me, saying “Listen to podcasts, loudly.” 
And I was delivered.

(Yes, this Divine Intervention strongly suggests the Blessed Mother is a Joanna Penn fan. Makes sense to me.)

7) Risk a look at heaven. Hey, the nuns always said God’s eternal reward was in the clouds, so take a peek…

Alas, these acres of eternity were sparsely populated – another omen?

8) Entertain yourself while waiting out the chaos of everyone trying to “deboard” at once…


… I watched my luggage deboard more efficiently than I did.
9) Once back on the ground, savor life’s blessing ... 


… At least until the flight home.

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#TWD Finale Postmortem: #Whoisit?

You have seen The Waking Dead Season 6 Finale. You witnessed the taunting. Saw the barbed wire bat come down. Heard those horrible, haunting sounds. Saw the blood. So who is it? Who died?

Here are some unofficial odds:

1)  4 million-to-one: Rick Grimes


Just no. He’s the center of the show, the core of season 7 battles with Negan. No way.
2). 3.5 million-to-one: Carol and Morgan


They weren’t even there and Rick has longer odds than them, that’s how safe Rick is.

 3) 100-to-1: Rosalita Sure, it could be her, but why? Where would the dramatic impact come from if she died? And it would cost Abraham too, because that guy would scream out something like “Man vagina!” and try to take on the entire army of Saviors.
4) 50-to-1: Abraham

Still a long shot, but he gave Negan loud face, made him stop and comment. Possible.
5)  49-to-1: Eugene

 Almost as long a shot as Abraham, but he gets as smidge closer because the beating his face took suggests he annoyed someone in the Saviors’ camp already.

6) 30-to-1: Sasha

She was there, but Negan did not seem interested in her as a victim. We may see why next season.
7) 29-to-1: Michonne

Michonne is such a baddass she kind of rose up on her knees and looked Negan dead in the face, but again, he didn’t seem interested at all.
8) 15- to-1:  Daryl


 Nearly impossible, but he looks to be bleeding heavily already, so maybe Negan will just finish the job (millions of women just screamed and cursed my ancestors).

9) 10-to-1: the Justin Timberlake stand-in  

Probably just a distraction, but they cut to him a few times during the TWD fatality shell game right before Negan raised Lucille.
10) 9- to-1: Carl

I doubt Carl is the target mostly because there is too much good story between he and Negan still to come, but the showrunners have wandered from the comic before…
11) 5-to-1: Maggie

This would also stray from the comics, but what a heartbreaking reversal, and it would cement Negan’s reputation as cruelest villain of all time.
12) 1- to-1: Glen

The poor guy has everything working against him; comic book lore, he reluctantly commited cold-blooded murder on the Saviors, he resisted most noticeably, he was the only one to break Negan’s rule, and reactions to him being dragged back into line made it clear his death would have emotional impact to a number of people. I truly hate to say it, but things look bleak for the nicest optimist in the cast.

What do you think? Toss your theories in the comment section. We might as well discuss theories, because the reveal episode won’t be here until October….

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