Author Archives: Michael Conniff

CON GAMES: Post 9/11, Pen Mightier Than Sword

Were this not the anniversary of 9/11, I would not be telling you the story of how I survived a terrorist scare this week on a redeye from Denver to Fort Lauderdale. No one knows about the scare, not even my wife, who was sitting next to me for the whole thing.

Here’s what happened. We were in the back of the plane, in the aisle and middle seat, with no concern beyond seat backs that would not go back, an affliction shared by all the passengers. Just before we were ready to take off, three passengers came on board and sat behind us–three young men in their 20s, presumably Muslim, speaking a language I presumed to be Arabic.

There was nothing threatening about them. From my seat it sounded like they were doing nothing more than shooting the breeze–anything to make the three-and-a-half hours go by.

But I was on red alert on the redeye. What was I going to do if I suddenly heard “Allahu Akhbar” or “God Is Great” as three young men of prime terrorist age tried to take over the plane? I have read many books about 9/11 and seen all the movies, especially “United 93,” the story of the passengers who fought back against terrorists on 9/11 and died in the countryside of Pennsylvania as heroes.

I knew I was being paranoid. I pretty much knew it wasn’t going to happen. But I was scared and I wanted to be prepared. My job was to protect my wife. If I did that then I would do what I had to do no matter what happened.

If you’ve seen enough movies you know the first thing you need is a weapon. I thought about what was in my bag and in my pocket, and I moved a black Uniball pen with a hard sharp tip from my pocket to the opening above a button on my shirt, where I could weaponize it in seconds.

Then I ran the scenarios through my head. I was on the aisle, with my wife in the middle seat to my left in the back of the plane. If this were a terrorist takeover, then I figured the first guy, shouting “God Is Great” in a language I would never understand, would get by me, but the next two would not. I’m big to begin with and I would be armed with a Uniball pen. I had a shot at nipping the hijacking in the bud if it came to that, or at least alerting the other passengers while there was still time.

So there I sat for the rest of the flight, dozing only for a few moments, but alert to the terrorist threat as I read it. And of course nothing happened. The three young twentysomething men talked to each other through the night without an incident of any kind.

When I looked behind us after we landed, I saw the three of them bent over their knees in precisely the same way. At first I thought they might be sleeping–but then I decided they had to be praying, as thankful as I was that we had made it to our final destination.

This piece is a work of satire.

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CON GAMES: Print Comes Tumbling Down At Aspen Words

ASPEN, COLORADO–Here’s the reveal from Summer Words from Aspen Words: a new wave of editors and agents–no gray hair here–see a world inclusive of the plain old book without putting the same old, same old at the epicenter of publishing. To use a phrase from the dawn of digital time, these relative newbies “get it” well enough to realize the world has changed–and maybe even for the better.

Natch: the old ways remained powerful and palpable at Summer Words at The Gant Aspen. One of the first panels at the conference featured an agent who has incoherently decided Twitter is only for a certain type of writer–this despite the millions of fans who follow the tweets of sundry literati. The same panel featured two novelists, both women, who only began their literary careers after years at two of our finest literary magazines.

My takeaway from said panel: don’t bother with Twitter if you can get a job at The Paris Review.

But the worm and the word turned at a panel called “The Business of Publishing,” populated by agents and editors not yet of a certain age, with no fear of the aborning digital apocalypse.

Based on the panel at Summer Words, the publishing industry is no longer quite so black-and-white. Let’s say your book is in a clean, well-lighted genre, like fantasy or science fiction. In that case, self-publishing might not only be possible but desirable, according to Brettne Bloom, an agent at The Book Group once in the fiction department at The Atlantic magazine. Nor has e-publishing been ignored: Kendra Harpster, an editor at Berkley Publishers Group, pointed out NAL/Berkeley has launched an imprint called Intermix that “introduces original e-books from new authors and offers favorite backlist titles from beloved authors not previously available as e-books” according to the website description.

And then there’s Book Country from Viking Penguin–represented on the panel by associate publisher Chris Russell. At Book Country, according to the site, “writers can find and connect to writers just like them, workshop their manuscripts, learn about the craft of writing and the business of publishing, and build their first audience as they prepare to publish their books.”
With no apologies from the agent on the first panel at Summer Words who didn’t “get” Twitter, Russell said that an author’s social media “definitely can make an impact.” And Brettne Bloom, who represents multiple bloggers, says that blogging “translates into major success”–though only “sometimes.”

Wretches? You now have permission to feel less wretched so long as you don’t eliminate the ink altogether. With self-publishing, social media, blogging, ebook imprints, and online communities, the door to publishing of all kinds is open for business, with the walls there for climbing if you’re so inclined.

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The High Life in Beaver Creek

Hotels can be aspirational: you can actually aspire to a hotel in the same way that you might covet a car, or a bracelet, or a house on the beach.

There was a time — in a galaxy far, far away — when a person could live in such a hotel. I know it’s so because my very own father used to live in a very fine hotel in New York City known as The Hotel Elysee, home to the famous Monkey Bar. Back in the day — the 1940s — my paternal ink-stained wretch could share said hotel with the likes of Joe DiMaggio and the actress Tallulah Bankhead, may they rest. You didn’t have to be a millionaire to live like one.

Nowadays very rich folk live in hotels like The Plaza and The Carlysle in New York, and very poor folk live in Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels. There’s really nothing in between the rich and the poor when it comes to hotel living — and please spare me any edifice that begins with the words “extended stay.”

Sorry Cholly Knickerbocker: nobody aspires to an extended stay in an extended-stay hotel.

Which brings us to the hotel in Beaver Creek that I’m more than happy to aspire to, The Westin Riverfront Resort and Spa at Beaver Creek in Avon, Colorado. Here’s what I mean: first of all, you actually can live there, in one of the condominiums with all the amenities that implies, starting with room service and Starbucks in the lobby; living there also means fresh laundry, fluffy bathrobes, and a staff that caters to your whims and wishes without becoming cloying or obsequious. If you lived there, you would have access to a great workout room, a heated swimming pool, hot tubs with mountain views, and a spa that can leave your mind, body, and spirit spic and span.

But let’s not forget the obvious: by living in The Westin Riverfront, you would also have direct gondola access to the aforesaid Beaver Creek resort, home of the Birds of Prey run and some of the best skiing in Colorado.

So there’s that — but that ain’t the half of it.

The Westin Riverfront is way cool in a way that makes the demonstrably uncool (moi) feel like at least there’s hope in the slip-and-slide slipstream of popular culture. I’m not sure that I can put my finger on the whys and wherefores, but I think my comfort level has something to do with the bang-zoom combination of old world comfort and new world taste. The lobby, for example, has just the right level of lushness and plushness without feeling like your grandfather’s Oldsmobile, and the fireplaces and fire pits bring in the warm far beyond the creature comforts a thermostat might imply.

The hotel is LEEDS-certified and almost belligerently green in its maintenance and operations, but that’s not what I’m talking about, though that does give the patron the sense that the moral tax on consumption is being paid off elsewhere.

At the end of the day — and every year that we go — The Westin Riverfront provides the ultimate feeling that any hotel can aspire to: that we’ve finally come home to the place where we were meant to be. And that’s something worth coveting.