Book Review: Merchants of Culture

I first encountered Merchants of Culture in the Business of Books class during my first semester at the University of Houston-Victoria.  The author, John B. Thompson, is a professor of sociology at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge.  His central work involves the influence of media in the formation of modern societies, and he has written several books about communication and its uses, especially in social context.  Other focal points of his work include the transformation of visibility, the media and tradition, and identity and the symbolic project.

Merchants of Culture is an eye-opening tour of the American and British trade publishing industry from the 1960s to present (2009).  It provides a very perceptive, thorough, and in-depth view of how trade publishing actually works in the English-speaking world.  As a novice to the world of Publishing, I felt very welcome (well, to be precise, I felt like I was drinking from a firehose, but it was a friendly firehose) and felt I received a thoughtful analysis of an industry in transition into the digital twenty-first century where it faces momentous change.

Though writing the first major study of trade publishing in more than thirty years, Thompson makes no claim to be the final word in the industry.  He acknowledges from the start that “Immediate obsolescence is the fate that awaits every chronicler of the present.”  Through the ten chapters that comprise Merchants, he explores what he calls “the field” according to its own logic, dissecting the role of publishers, literary agents, and booksellers, and placing the current challenges facing the industry in an historic context.  The book should be horrendously dry, an artefact of paper and ink, but Thompson’s calm, sanguine account is engaging, no matter the reader’s own experience with the incalculably complex world he describes.

Publishing, for all its 500-plus year history, is not exempt from the whims of public opinion.  In this, it is not too different from the film industry.  This comparison has become increasingly apt as book publishing has gradually been absorbed into the greater entertainment industry.  Hits come seemingly out of nowhere from books that seemed doomed to fail, and those that were marked for grand success fail spectacularly.                         This fundamental unpredictability which borders on all-out irrationality drives Hollywood and the Publishing industry. Picture the acute terror that overtakes everyone in the Publishing world when it’s time to talk about the annual budget and how to fill “the gap,” the extra 10% that corporate demands from its imprints.  During the next 6-8 months, editors fly as manuscripts are located, and decisions to push a book through from a set of pages to finished product using methods called “extreme publishing” are made in the course of a few hours. Or worse, the moment an editor realizes he has what is called a “dead fish”– when he has exhausted every trick in his book to breathe new life into a book that simply isn’t selling–from reviews with newspapers, to nationally-run ads, to publicity tours–and he must make the decision to “let it float downriver.”  Thompson relays all this thrilling chaos through the eyes of people who have sweated, toiled, and probably wept over these books in these scenarios.

The real strength of Merchants of Culture lies in the nearly 300 interviews conducted over four years that Thompson draws upon to offer unique perspectives from many major players in Publishing.  They range from retail executives, acquisitions editors, and marketing executives to literary agents and authors. Veiled in pseudonym, these interviewees from major publishing houses offer a tantalizingly candid look at the industry’s ‘public face and private parts,’ as it were. These rich, honest discussions give Thompson’s chapters a well-roundedness and a concrete reality which transforms his narrative from a simple dull text to a valuable insider’s look.

For example, publishers can now communicate with consumers about an unknown writer at an exhilarating scale.  The marketing practically does itself when booksellers build up buzz with their customers through email blasts saying ‘coming on this date’ and the world of blogs, websites, book clubs, and others who are looking for the next big thing receive this information now available from the publisher’s website.  They start talking to one another, the excitement in the industry spreads outside and it sometimes reaches such a pitch that an otherwise unknown writer enters the market, the book can enter the bestseller list at number one.  Before, a book would start at the bottom and slowly rise through the list as people read it and talked about it in magazines, newspapers, the slower communications.   This strategy of building up buzz is an enormous change in the industry, and of course, incredibly useful.  Thanks to Thompson’s insider’s perspective, we can be wiser consumers when we go into Barnes & Noble.

Thompson does not provide predictions for the future of Publishing, nor does he offer recommendations for change.  He gives readers enough history to provide a thorough understanding of the traditions of trade book publishing and how the status quo is dependent upon those traditions, but does not take advantage of his time with the reader to offer an indication of where the traditions may be broken by visionaries in the field.    A greater degree of attention might have been offered to those in the industry who view recent changes in the field as opportunities.  Those who have that foresight often indicate where things are going, and those brave enough to join them will end up at the top of the industry in the coming years.  However, such actors may be difficult to locate for the purposes of interview, and with the incredible amount of information Thompson has offered already, he can be forgiven for not including more on these leaders of the future.

Inside Merchants of Culture, Thompson has provided his readers an insight into the structures and processes of modern publishing in America and Great Britain.  He walked us through the rise of retail chains and the timely emergence of literary agents, guided us through the “Wild West” of the British publishing arena, and discussed the digital revolution and how that has affected the traditional publishing industry so far.  For those who want to be well-informed by a forensic snapshot of the industry, who want to know what is going on behind the frosted, closed doors of that Big Publishing House, who just want to know how the industry understands the many challenges facing them in the constantly-evolving digital age, there is little that could be asked for beyond this book.

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The United Colors of Benneton Case Study

The United Colors of Benetton Case

Study Exhibit 2 in the case, some of the ads score high on ‘liking’ while others are clearly ‘disliked.’  What is it in the ads which makes for this?

March 1985: The United Colors of Benetton campaign was overall liked.  A picture of world peace with a multi-racial group of children promises a better tomorrow.  Children growing up in an environment where they see lots of different colors and get to understand that just because people look different on the outside does not mean one is better than another. It’s a really nice campaign.  It’s hard to think of who this 21-23% of the surveyed 18-34 year olds might be.

Sept/Oct 1989: The racial equality campaign.  This was the year Benetton moved their advertising in house, dropped their products, slogans, and signature knot in favor of the green square.  The ads in this cycle, a black woman nursing a white baby was well-received in Europe (won 5 awards) but in the US was seen as possibly a throwback to slavery when black women were employed as wet nurses for white infants, sometimes to the detriment of their own offspring.  The British ad of a black hand and a white hand handcuffed together didn’t seem offensive to me, but some in the UK took it to be a white officer arresting a black man Personally, I thought it was a peaceful image.  There is no stress in the hands or in the chain, it’s a sentiment of ‘we’re all here together whether we like it or not so let’s choose to get along.’ That’s what I read.

I like that the surveyors expanded their question base for the 1989 tests.  They included a wider range of ages and asked about income.  They also acknowledged the tiny percent of the sample who were either confused by or indifferent to the ads. These racial equality ads were better received by women than men, particularly those between the ages of 18-34 with 83%.  Past that, approval drops to 75%.  It is interesting that a full 25% of the higher age group (35-55) disliked the racial equality ads. These people would have been right in the middle of the European civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, so this could potentially be some holdover from those days.
Those with higher income liked the ads (81%)– why is this?  Perhaps access to higher education or more extensive travel expanded the horizons of these people, making them more open to the idea of racial equality.

Sept/Oct 1991: The social issues campaign.  This moved beyond the racism issue into the topic of war, STD/s, the myth of overpopulation, and finally into the most controversial territory of a priest and nun kissing, then Giusy, a screaming newborn baby with her umbilical cord still attached.

This mass of ads stirred quite a bit of trouble with consumers.  The first sample, taken in September, showed that the overwhelming majority of men and women (64% and 69% respectively) did not like the ads that month, namely the Angel & Devil and Priest & Nun ads.  While both tried to strip away the ability of the public to ignore the harsh reality of racism, that those with darker colored skin are often viewed as evil (devil horns on the black child, the priest clad in black) and lighter skin are viewed as good (golden curly hair on the white child, nun clad all in white), people took the ads as Benetton depicting reality, i.e that white is good, black is evil.  Also, for those of the Christian faith, the depiction of two of the noblest characters in Christianity, men and women who have dedicated their lives to the service of God are seen breaking solemn vows and interacting with one another in an intimate way, this ad is very offensive.

The second sampling, taken in October of 1991, showed more acceptance.  In this sample, 60% of men and 58% of women liked the campaign.  It was most accepted among the 18-24 year old group (65% acceptance) but the largest group of dislikes came from the 35-55 year olds.   But which campaigns were the subject of this group?  The Giusy ad was banned in France, Germany, and Ireland, with only a little acceptance in the US.  As Ex.2 October 1991 sample was focused on France, they would not have been familiar with the Giusy ad, or if they were, it would have been only briefly.  I am in agreement with the writer from L’Unita who wrote, “We should ask ourselves the question of why such a natural, vital and basic image as that of a baby being born, offends the public.  Every day we are confronted with pictures of death, often meaningless, and we put up with them in silence…. Yet we are afraid to see an image of life.” (L’Unita, 10/9/91)

Sept 1993: The HIV-Positive Campaign. After a decent reception by the public with the Fall 1991 campaign, Benetton found itself back in hot water with its HIV-positive campaign which depicted three stark photographs showing an arm, buttock, and crotch, each branded with the words ‘HIV Positive.’  My first reaction to seeing the image was that the ‘brand’ is more of a ‘stamp.’  I was ready for some seared flesh and red-hot permanent marks, but I see a purplish stamp on each of these areas.  Benetton’s explanation, that the photos refer to the three main avenues for infection as well as the ostracism of AIDS victims, seemed legitimate to me.  The public outcry on this campaign was worse than before, with a full 70% of men and women disliking the ads, fairly across the board in terms of income and age.  Its strongest support came from the 35-55 age group (24%) with lower income but strongest dislike came from the 18-24s (69%) with higher income.  This is not unexpected, I think, with the amount of people a young person comes into contact with, they are likely friends with someone who suffered from HIV or AIDS or at least had had a scare.  The access to higher education and potential for horizon-expanding travel also tends to soften hearts when it comes to the sufferings of people. I think those who are older tend to view an STD as an unfortunate kind of justice for ‘screwing around.’

Either way, many AIDS groups were outraged and one, Association Française de la Lutte contre la Sida (AFLS) even sued Benetton over ‘hijacking a humanitarian cause for commercial ends.’  Clearly, this was a misstep for Benetton Communications Group.  Yves Saint Laurent, a known competitor of Benetton took the opportunity to kick Benetton while they were down, taking out an ad showing a condom stuffed with bank notes next to a ‘United Boycott’ logo in Benetton’s signature typeface and green color.  Stores were vandalized, store owners voiced their dissatisfaction with Benetton’s folly in ad campaigns.

To what extent is the communicated message universal?  To the extent the message is universal, one would expect a uniform global ad campaign to be successful.  Would this be the case here? Why/Why not?

The communicated message goes out to all people, it is seen by most, and everyone has to see, comprehend, and react to it.  The communicated message also touches people in some way.  Some people are in an interracial relationship with varying degrees of support, some may have family or friends who have had a brush with an STD or who may have lost friends to HIV/AIDS.  There are military families who are affected by war to varying degrees (all gave some, some gave all), there are always going to be families with babies.  I think Benetton was trying to get to the heart of the fact that we humans have universal experiences.  If you haven’t personally been on the receiving end of, say, racism, then you probably know someone who has. Benetton was trying to highlight the fact that there aren’t “races” there is just the one, human race. We need to talk about the hard topics like war, sex, and inequality, then come together and bring peace in our time.  I think the way he went about bringing up the topic was ham-handed and not well-explained.  What would the outcome have been, ideally?  Whatever it was in Benetton’s mind, it was probably naive to think that way.  The topics he chose to address in his campaigns are polarizing. While it’s important to bring attention to the things we want to change in the world,  there are better ways to open dialogue for real change.  For example, the images he used were hard-hitting and, in the case of some photos, culturally insensitive (I am thinking specifically of the ad with the multi-racial trio of children sticking their tongues out… in some places that’s the equivalent of flipping someone off) in the context of advertisements.  I don’t think it’s possible to use these hot-button topics in a global manner and have it be a successful campaign.

Discuss the ethical aspects of using human suffering in ads. Does your answer influence how likely you would be to buy a Benetton product? Why/Why not?

I think that advertising, social communication, and the media have enormous influence worldwide.  Advertising is a pervasive, powerful force shaping attitudes and behavior in the world and has a profound impact on how people understand life, the world, and themselves, especially in regard to their values and ways of choosing and behaving.  This is what Benetton tried to harness in his campaigns from 1985 to 1991 (and even today).

Basically, advertising has two purposes: to inform and to persuade. Both are very often simultaneously present in a given campaign.  Advertising does not simply mirror the attitudes and values of the surrounding culture.  It does act as a mirror in the way social media does, but it is more like the general media in that it helps shape the reality it reflects, and sometimes presents a distorted image of that reality. Advertisers are selective about the values and attitudes to be fostered and encouraged, promoting some while ignoring others.  This selectivity gives the lie to the notion that advertising is simply a mirror, for example, the absence from advertising of certain racial and ethnic groups in some multiracial or multiethnic societies can help to create problems of image and identity, especially among those neglected, and the almost inevitable impression in commercial advertising that an abundance of possessions leads to happiness and fulfillment can be both misleading and frustrating.

Advertising can play an important role in the process by which an economic system guided by moral norms and responsive to the common good contributes to human development.  It is a necessary part of the functioning of modern market economies, both emerged and emerging.  Advertising can be a useful tool for sustaining honest and ethically responsible competition that contributes to economic growth in the service of authentic human development.  It does this, among other ways, by informing people about the availability of new products and services and improvements in existing ones, helping potential buyers make informed, prudent consumer decisions, contributing to the efficiency and lowering of prices, and stimulating economic progress through the expansion of business and trade.  All this can contribute to the creation of new jobs, higher incomes, and a more decent and humane way of life for all.  It also helps pay for publications, programming, and productions that bring information, entertainment, and inspiration to people around the world.  Advertising benefits the political, moral, cultural, and religious aspects of a society.

There is nothing intrinsically good or intrinsically evil about advertising. It is a tool, an instrument. It can be used well to benefit society or it can be used badly to have a negative, harmful impact on individuals and society at large. More often, though, advertising is used not simply to inform but to persuade and motivate — to convince people to act in certain ways, to buy certain products or services, patronize certain institutions, etc.  This is where abuse can occur. It is essential that those in media have some sense of moral order and apply it faithfully– the moral order being the law of human nature the “public order and general morality” that the Italian High Court spoke of in our case study. In this context advertisers and the media have only two options: either help human persons to grow in their understanding and practice of what is true and good, or they are destructive forces in conflict with human well-being. Advertisers are morally responsible for what they move people to do. This is a responsibility laid on the shoulders of everyone involved in media, from Publishers to network Executives.

This all comes full circle in the Benetton case. This moral  responsibility also applies to the means and techniques of advertising: it is morally wrong to use manipulative, exploitative, corrupt and corrupting methods of persuasion and motivation. There is an imperative requirement, finding its base in the law of human nature, that advertising respect the human person, his right duty to make a responsible choice, and his interior freedom. Advertising can violate the dignity of the human person both through its content and through the impact it seeks to make upon its audience. Appeals to lust, vanity, greed, envy, and techniques that manipulate and exploit human weakness are some such violations.  In such circumstances, advertisements readily become vehicles of a deformed outlook on life, the family, religion and general morality– an outlook that does not respect the true dignity and destiny of the human person. This problem is especially acute where particularly vulnerable groups or classes of persons are concerned: children and young people, the elderly, the poor, and the culturally disadvantaged. Benetton fell neatly into this category of violation of human dignity by creating and selecting for use images he knew to be provocative. There was no follow-up dialogue to help soften a hard-hitting images, in the case of the AIDS ad, no follow-up to push the dialogue towards prevention or elimination or even to raise awareness, there was only him throwing the ad to the public and sitting back to see what happened. Only when the outcry reach a certain pitch did he release a statement that was not an apology, but an explanation of  “what he meant.”  In many cases Benetton indicated his surprise that the public did not immediately grasp his meaning. Sometimes ads were pulled from circulation, sometimes they were not, depending on the number of publishers willing to print them, or in the case of the trio with their tongues out, cultural norms superseded Benetton’s point about racial integration.

Advertising that specifically utilizes human suffering has its place with companies that actively work to alleviate that suffering. Organizations such as Living Water International, Habitat for Humanity, the Sisters of Charity, etc. all work on the ground with those who desperately need help.  They can properly use images of human suffering because they are reaching out with an emotional appeal to would-be benefactors so people can see the suffering they work to heal and they can be moved to give freely to the charity or organization. Thinking of a local ad, the HSPCA (the Houston chapter of the ASPCA) puts out a plea for donations using the worst pictures and videos of emaciated dogs and cats.  The world’s sadness is found tenfold in the eyes of these sweet animals and it makes you want to empty every wallet, bank, and coat pocket, adopt them all, and make sure none of them ever go another second without your love. How much more do we feel that desire to give when we see a suffering human?  

I don’t feel like Benetton himself is being sincere when he offers excuse after excuse for this exploitative use of provocative images. He clearly isn’t learning from the indignation the public rightly shows towards these types of ads. Given all this, I wouldn’t buy a Benetton sweater.

What’s the Story with E-Reading?

Reading is reading, right?  We can be okay with our children staring at a tablet screen consuming age-appropriate texts, because “at least they’re reading!”  We can nod approvingly to ourselves when we students borrow a textbook and read it on our e-reader because we saved some money and “it’s the same text!”  We can sit in front of a screen, be it a desktop, laptop, tablet, e-reader, or cell phone and tell ourselves we are learning and growing with the digital age, even if our eyes are screaming at us, our vision is blurred, and we can’t really retain what we’ve just read.  It’s all part of progress, we tell ourselves, we’ll learn to do it better with more practice.  That’s why we’re always on our phones, isn’t it?    

Let’s talk about our brains when it comes to reading. How do we process digital reading?  When we use an e-reader, what are the effects this method of reading has on our ability to process and retain, i.e. learn the information we are consuming?

For the purposes of this work, clarification of an “e-book” is an electronic book, a book-length publication in digital format, consisting of text, images, or both, readable on computers or other electronic devices.   An “e-reader” is a device that allows access of e-books, it could be a tablet such as an iPad, or a dedicated e-reader device such as a Kindle.

As e-books have risen in popularity and use over the last decade, a question has emerged, as it does with each new piece of technology: is it safe, and is it beneficial?   With children growing up with a digital screen in each hand, it is an important and worthy question that requires an answer.

From birth, human brains are “plastic” or moldable.

“What molds our brain? Experience.  Even into old age, our experiences actually change the physical structure of our brain.  When we undergo an experience, our brain cells–called neurons–become active, or “fire.”  The brain has one hundred billion neurons, each with an average of ten thousand connections to other neurons.  The ways in which particular circuits in the brain are activated determines the nature of our mental activity, ranging from perceiving sights or sounds to more abstract thought and reasoning. When neurons fire together, they grow new connections between them. Over time, the connections that result from firing lead to “rewiring” in the brain. This is incredibly exciting news…we can actually rewire [our brain] so that we can be healthier and happier.”

Part of these experiences include emergent literacy in which children are taught to read and write.  Ideally, after basic reading mastery, a child will be able to progress to a point where they practice what educators describe as “deep reading.” Deep reading is the concentrated, focused reading we do when we want to immerse ourselves in a novel or read a legal document.  It is related to linear reading, which is what you are doing now.  As author, I have predetermined what I will say in this work.  I have written it in a left-to-right manner, and as you read, you progress line by line and page by page.  You, as reader, cannot enter the text on any page you wish in hopes of gaining understanding of the whole text.  By contrast, in non-linear reading, which is what readers do with electronic sources such as the Internet (think about how your eyes move when you check your Twitter feed), there is no predetermined sequence, the reader can move among various media inserts such as video, pictures, or links.  Because the content is so varied and can be accessed at any point, it is impossible to create as much meaning as a logical progression through words on a page.

Our brains are trained from early on to read in a linear fashion because that is how we can focus and get into the ‘deep reading’ mindset where we create those new neural connections, and acquire deep reading processes.   For the Neiman Report, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University Maryanne Wolf writes,

“When reading even a single word, the first milliseconds of the reading circuit are largely devoted to decoding the word’s visual information and connecting it to all that we know about the world from its sounds to meanings to syntactic functions….Within the next precious milliseconds we enter a cognitive space where we can connect the decoded information to all that we know and feel. In this latter part of the process of reading, we are given the ability to think new thoughts of our own: the generative core of the reading process.”

The act of going beyond the text before our eyes to analyze and generate new thoughts is the product of years of formation, learning to read with expanding comprehension.  As adult readers we have developed a reading circuit for which there is no pre-programming or genetic guarantee of existence.  Dr. Wolf describes it, “The reading circuit’s very plasticity is also its Achilles’ heel.  It can be fully fashioned over time and fully implemented when we read, or it can be short-circuited…in the execution of only part of its potentially available cognitive resources.”

In short, if you don’t use it, you lose it.

We know a great deal about how the brain learns to read and processes the information it takes in, however, we still know very little about the digital reading brain. Will an immersion in digitally dominated forms of reading change our capacity to think deeply, reflectively, and in an intellectually autonomous manner when we read?

Studies within the last ten years have demonstrated that students reading print performed better than their peers reading the same text on a screen.  Why is this?  Our brains automatically switch into non-linear function when we look at a screen, eyes darting around to take in all the stimulation, the brain being naturally attracted to novelty. Confronted with this glut of information that does not reach our deeper, critical-thinking level of reading may mean that readers, both experienced and inexperienced, will have neither the time nor motivation to think through the possible layers of meaning in what they read.  This mindset towards reading seeks to reduce information to ‘easiest to digest,’ or a lowest common denominator.  So while the Internet may aid in a skill such as speed reading or assumed efficiency, neither of those are desirable for deep thought.

Ziming Liu remarked that neuroscience refers to this effect as a “‘bi-literate’ brain.’… And the problem is that many of us have adapted to reading online just too well. Screen-based reading behavior is characterized by more time spent on browsing and scanning…one-time reading, non-linear reading…. Decreased sustained attention is also noted.”

This has a huge potential to affect students in the secondary and higher levels of education.  These are the students who are reading for information and to prepare themselves for interaction with the real world in ‘live’ situations.  If they do not have the capability to read deeply, retain that information, and reflect upon it, we are looking at a situation that technology visionary Edward Tenner described in 2006: “…If brilliant technology were to end up threatening the kind of intellect that produced it.”

In this era of digitalization, print books are given no quarter.  E-books are changing the way we create, disseminate, and display information, and nearly any device can be turned into an e-reader.  Dedicated e-readers are like little libraries, able to carry thousands of books within a compact space.  E-books are cheaper, more environment-friendly, and can be personalized in terms of font, size, display color contrast, etc.  E-readers are often also tablets, giving them a multi-functional advantage over a print book.

Another comparative advantage of e-books over traditional print books is the upfront cost. Textbook prices in particular can be an extremely heavy burden for an already-impoverished college student, oftentimes a required purchase with no guarantee that the professor will actually assign reading from the book.  Naturally, in the name of economy, the e-textbook is presented as an option that can be downloaded (even ‘rented’ temporarily), and accessed with nearly any device the student may have.  A study with high school students demonstrated that students themselves see the benefit and allure of carrying a single Portable Electronic Device (PED) and not twenty pounds of different textbooks.

This discussion is not meant to turn into an “us. Vs. them” battle.  Readers today still purchase print books, perhaps more purposefully so that they may take advantage of the full-bodied pleasure that comes from holding a book in one’s hands, smelling the pages, and taking the time to read deeply.  But these same readers will also consume digital content, and they will do so in a nonlinear manner: perhaps pulling together journal articles to create a unified paper for a graduate school course, or sifting through YouTube videos and other multimedia to find a how-to guide.  This is transformation, not destruction, says Mark Gross of Book Business Insight. “Freed from just print, the new economies of electronic ‘publishing’ have already transformed many areas of the publishing industry…. With the cost of publishing content greatly reduced, and the new ease to distribute globally, publishers can now find viable audiences for materials that were previously too obscure or specialized.”

We are not going to go back to an era where e-books simply don’t exist, and e-books are not going to eradicate print books. Publishing industry maven Jane Friedman thinks of the e-book as complementary to, rather than competing with, the print book.  She said in a 2008 interview with Bill Moggridge, “Physical books will not disappear, but the reading experience will change dramatically.”  Nearly a decade later, we see that the reading landscape has indeed changed dramatically, with print books and e-books coming to a new equilibrium.  New advances in technology have made our e-readers more print-like than ever with the advantages of e-Ink and backlighting that reduces problems like eyestrain.

For our brains, our retention of information and the question of exercising that developed ability to take in, process, and think upon what we read the best solution may be as simple as making sure we (and our children!) take purposeful time away from the screens and non-linear reading to ensure that we get to practice that deep, slow reading that we associate with printed books. ◆

Publishing

 

The day I learned to write, the course of my life was set.  I wrote on every scrap I could find, carving rough letters into a table-top with the mangled end of a fat learning pencil,  filling sheets of ruled paper, scribbling on the margins of newspapers, napkins, paper tablecloths– name it, and I wrote on it. The ideas for characters, plots, twists, betrayals, machines, circumstances, battles, animals, and what-ifs all came spilling out.  I would beg my parents for spiral notebooks to keep track of what was bubbling up inside me and a pen became my constant companion.  Whether in the car on a family road trip or sitting in my school classrooms, I wrote. Over the last twenty-five years, I have filled pages upon pages of text, and I still hold on to that pen and notebook, but the stakes are higher.  Writing is a central part of my life and with all this writing comes the task of editing, and the hope of one day becoming a published author.  While that ultimate goal is still in the works, there is no better place to be than in the industry that provided the avenue for the creations of many talented writers to be shared

In my literary nascence, I blazed through the learn-to-read books and quickly became the best reader in my class.  When I got to elementary school, we received a green-backed reader with a workbook, and I spent a weekend working ahead to the end of both. By the end of second or third grade, I was devouring more complex works like Heidi, The Giver, and the Redwall series.  Brian Jacques, writer of Redwall, passed away in 2011 so I will never get to thank him enough for helping to shape my imagination and implanting those beautiful, deep ideas of heroism, bravery, loyalty, friendship, and overcoming impossible odds.  I also have a great love for badgers, hares, and a well-crafted feasting scene replete with honey mead thanks to Mr. Jacques, may he rest in peace.  

It was in elementary school that I met my best friend, Margaret.  Despite having lived in different cities since we were about thirteen, we are still best friends, and keep in touch frequently, exchanging handwritten letters and cards.  During the beginnings of our fast friendship, Margaret and I passed a notebook back and forth in class that contained a joint work of our own creation about far-away places, magical heroes, and warrior queens. We talked about publishing our work even then, wondering who would read it, and how it would be received by our friends and family. She grew up, went away to school, and became an English professor at Notre Dame.  I grew up, went away to school, had a long battle with myself about majoring in English or Theology, ended up majoring in Theatre, became a wife and mother, and got a job at a cube farm. I have never done anything the easy way.  

During this first foray into the corporate world of recruiting, I spent the downtime between interviews making 15-minute entries on a creative writing blog– “flash fiction,” I called it. Just to keep my edge sharp, I told myself, because this cube job was not all there was going to be in my life; I was determined not to become a cube slave.  The brightest part of that position was volunteering to create content for the recruiting blog and being published on the company’s Facebook page for an article I wrote about Nurse’s Week.  Another article I wrote for that company was featured on a widely-read UK recruiting blog called “The Undercover Recruiter.”  I had readers from at least 15 different countries– a very great pleasure for me.

After the corporate job, I became a stay-at-home mom while my husband stepped into the sole breadwinner shoes for our family.  This worked much better for us, as childcare is expensive, and at that point we had a little boy and a baby girl.  This was also supposed to open up my time to write more, as I had been audibly lamenting my busy schedule that left me tired with no time for art.

My husband is a movie buff.  He excels at dialogue and has an incredible eye for cinematography, both of which power him forward in his own filmmaking dream.  His passion for his visual art is exceedingly contagious, and he encouraged me in both word and example to keep up the pursuit of my written art, and to not let my writer’s persona disappear into the survivalist-mom ‘thing’ that was my waking life– living on lattes, dry shampoo, and leggings.      I really owe him a great debt for the many pep talks, patient ears, and solid advice on what would read well in writing.  He reminded me that I am, after all, still part of the Long Patrol of Redwall, and I still have yarns to spin around the campfire every night with my mates.  

My husband and I have a mutual best friend, Tanner, who is about the best non-professional writer I know.  He has a way of bringing a world into focus and raising intricate characters right off a page with seemingly little effort.  He writes in his spare time, as I do, and if I had to pick any one of my friends to be first to the publishing line, it would be him.  Tanner introduced me to NaNoWriMo– National Novel Writing Month, which takes place in November every year. The goal of NaNo is to write 10,000 words inside the month using a variety of writing tactics–word sprints, all-nighters, write-in’s (similar to a sit-in), coffee shop invasions, etc.  Editing is discouraged during NaNo, participants are encouraged to just create.            Tanner actually finishes his NaNo novels and has a very jolly December going through and editing his work.  I am amazed at my dear, dear friend’s capacity for production, and strive to be like him in effort, dedication, and constancy.

About a year ago, my mother-in-law and I were conversing about her decision to pursue her Master’s degree in Psychology. She had just come away from her Bachelor’s degree and I was amazed at her tenacity and will to obtain higher education.  She looked me square in the eye and said, “Have you ever considered going to grad school?”  I said that I had given it some passing thought but was not sure it was the right time.  She said, “You know, University of Houston-Victoria offers a Master’s degree in Publishing.  You would be really good at that.”       I filed the information away for another time.  How serious could this be?  But the idea did not leave me. I went about my daily affairs for the next six months, the thought of grad school becoming less absurd in my mind.  At last, I could hold out no longer and I threw my hat into the ring to attend UHV starting in Spring 2017, taking online classes for a Master’s degree.  This is where I am now, and from here, I look forward to a future of hopes and dreams.  

In true Redwall fashion, I dream of being a heroic savior, particularly of saving the world from drippy, badly written supernatural stalker “romances” that eventually infect the film sphere with equally terrible movies.  I dream of being Heimdal to the Publishing world– all-seeing sword-bearer and exceedingly protective.  I dream of being Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada— an industry leader, ruthless and respected.  I also still dream of being published myself, becoming wildly successful, and retiring to an estate in rural England. But to paraphrase a particular Hobbit: I want to make a difference, but I do not know the way.

I chose the graduate program at University of Houston-Victoria as my gateway to the Publishing realm in part because it is fairly local to me, but mostly because it is renowned as being among the best in the nation.  I applied not only to satisfy my intellectual curiosities but because a degree from a program ranked third in the country will increase my likelihood of being noticed in the real-world industry.  I hope to develop some interpersonal connections with fellow authors and editors. After all, writing and editing can be solo projects, but the very best authors never work alone.

While I incubate, immersed in the “tutorial section” of this industry, I’m still writing.    My husband and I meet weekly with a group of our friends to play Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Mutants & Masterminds, and other tabletop role playing games. Story after story springs from my pen, inspired by these games, sometimes a retelling of what happened, sometimes a retelling with a better ending than the one we created while at play.  A few weeks ago, we decided to start a fiction writing and read-aloud event where two of our members generate a fantasy-related prompt (for example, “pirates and tombs”), spend a week free-writing, and then read our stories to one another on Friday evenings. This has been a wonderful experience for me, getting to hear other people’s stories and getting to read mine aloud to a receptive and supportive group.  

Publishing, viewed from the outside, is one of the “glamour” industries– seemingly full of glitter and parties, high-profile acquisitions, and schmoozy conversations. There may be some of that, but at the heart of everything, publishing is about unstinting devotion to a profession that is vital to our development as human beings through the dissemination of ideas.                 Human creativity and accomplishment in the West really began to get off the ground with the invention of the printing press in 1400. Before Gutenberg, printing was limited to the work of scribes and monks, literacy was practically nonexistent, and many worthy thoughts and ideas perished with their originators.  After books became more readily available, literacy soared, and ideas began to spread all around Europe.  We humans have not looked back but have churned ever forward.  Publishing today, while still important to our continued development, is rife with long hours, notoriously low pay, and fresh uncertainty with the rise of ebooks and plentiful self-publishing mechanisms. I suffer no illusions of grandeur.  I am doing my part to preserve civilization, and entering this industry is to me, a most worthy endeavor.

In answer to this call, in the next five years, I see myself working from a home office.  My ultimate goal is to become an acquisitions editor somewhere, but still have the flexibility to work from home. I look forward to working with literary agents, developing relationships with writers and editors alike, and having the opportunity to read some great, and perhaps some not-so-great, manuscripts. I think my strengths in the publishing world come from my patience, honed by motherhood and polished by the UHV graduate program, and my eye for retailoring a work that needs a nudge in the right direction to become something truly special.  I look forward to letting my Miranda Priestly out, just a little, not to shatter and belittle those with whom I am working, but to be that force for good, protecting my publishing house from weak writing.            I look forward to being a sword-bearing Heimdal, or an ever-vigilant hare on the Long Patrol, ensuring that the part of human literacy and civilization left in my care is well-preserved, allowing no weeds or wounds to appear.

When I learned to write all those years ago, I was not fully aware of how far this basic skill would take me.  I did not see myself as a protector of human literacy as a profession, but now that I am settling into the publishing world, I feel more and more like I’ve come home.        I am grateful for the opportunity presented here and now, and I look forward to the day I can well and truly call myself a Publisher.

Some Thoughts About Assisi

I was privileged to spend a semester in Rome, Italy during the Fall of 2007.   My school, the University of Dallas, has a twelve-acre campus in the beautiful rolling foothills just off the Via Appia Nuova.  Once a small farm, it was built up to include a three-story dormitory, food and meeting halls, a swimming pool, sports field, quaint gardens, a chapel, and an administrative area that also serves as rooms for on-site faculty.  The campus sits on a well-appointed (newly-productive!) vineyard an hour southeast of Rome, very close to Lake Albano and Castel Gondolfo where popes go to take their summer rest.  Known as Due Santi (“The Two Saints”), the area is a historic district named in honor of Saints Peter and Paul who are believed to have stopped at a nearby well. Additionally, archaeological finds on and near the campus have uncovered marvelous suburban villas built by ancient Romans who must surely have valued the area for its fresh air and beautiful landscape, as the students have in that glorious space since 1994.

Going to Rome is a rite of passage at the University of Dallas. It is a unique draw for the school and offers students a life-changing opportunity in the vein of the old Grand Tour of Europe referenced by such writers as Mark Twain.  The semester’s “Rome class,” numbering about 80 sophomore students, spend four days a week pursuing a full course-load so as not to fall behind with the rigorous University academic program, but are given three-day weekends for maximum opportunity to travel as far and wide as possible.  My class was also taken on group outings to northern Italy (visiting Florence, Venice, and Assisi) and to Greece, given a full ten-days off just after mid-terms to jet away on our own grand European adventure, and another five days off at Thanksgiving. Suffice to say the possibilities were endless for the mischief we could make!

The group outings, whether in and around Rome or to distant destinations, were always an interesting time.  Our class was divided across two buses, big luggage stowed carefully underneath, personal backpacks stuffed with iPod, headphones, writing supplies, class texts, strange European cell phone, either at feet or above in a bin.  After a rough start to the semester, being outrageously shy and insecure, I had made plenty of friends and so plopped down next to a window near the front of the bus, careless of who sat next to me.  This first part of the trip would be the best time to get some reading done, so I snuggled into my new off-white Italian jacket that  I’d bought on a whim the previous weekend at a midnight festival in the neighboring town of Marino.  It gave me a sense of comfort and freedom for the price of €40, but was an unusual purchase for my frugal self. Comfortable, I dug into Thomas Aquinas.  This endeavor was abandoned about half-way through the journey, I am sure, in favor of chatting with my now-forgotten seatmate or taking a nap (due to a curious phenomenon we dubbed “travel narcolepsy” that strikes after the first hour and a half of a long ride).  I awoke just as we began our approach to Florence and was able to snap some photos of the red-domed city through the pervading chilly drizzle outside.  

Specific events from the time we spent in Florence and Venice are a bit of a blur to me now.  I do remember leaving my purse at our restaurant after dinner in Venice one evening and having to sprint back across the unfamiliar canals in the chilly gathering dusk,  hoping against hope they had not closed for the night (they had not, I was able to get my belongings and thanked them profusely). I also remember that in Venice my friend, Paul, had his room broken into and his passport stolen.  He recalled stepping into the shower and hearing the door open, but thought nothing of it as we shared rooms with our classmates.  When he came back out, he couldn’t find his wallet or passport, both of which had, perhaps a tad carelessly, been left on the bed in plain sight. We were far from the nearest American embassy, and our professors told him he would have to travel by train back to Rome within the next day or two to get a replacement passport and student visa–mandatory documents for travel even within the country– but for now we were pressing on to Assisi.  

Our buses trundled up the road toward what looked to be a medieval fortress. Around us, the Umbrian countryside was shedding its summer greenery revealing a dry, brown, though still lovely, Autumn raiment.  I immediately felt a sort of stirring in my deepest being that I had never felt before, that we were entering a valley of God.  This place, those walls, the ancient village architecture soaring into the skies, they were all beautiful, but in a peculiar way.  Other places I had been during this semester had claims to beauty, some were even lovelier to look at than this. Now, as I gazed out the window, I noted how the Umbrian light of late afternoon fell across the strong walls perched on their rocky spur, could see the dust churned up by the lead bus drift lazily off the side of the road, and I poked in my headphones, not wanting to be disturbed as I held onto these thoughts.

The plunge backward through the centuries intensified as we disembarked and gathered our belongings to take to our hotel. The so-far mythological past I’d read about in the lives of the saints was rushing around me, filling in and shaping sharp, distinct reality all around me.  As I hefted my duffle bag, I felt that at any moment Francis would appear from around a corner, a poor little man in sackcloth holding up his arms to us, wounds of the stigmata clearly visible, or that I would see the beautiful Sister Clare coming up from her hermitage at St. Damiano, which had been behind a slight hill we’d passed on our drive in, monstrance in hand, ready to ward off fresh militant invaders.  We walked to our hotel, a humble, clean place abutting the Chiesa Nuova, the New Church. I slung my bag into a room with two of my lady friends, then immediately went to the window to see what kind of view we’d been afforded.  Rooftops, mostly. But in between the interlocking clay tiled roofs, of which I had an intimate view, I could see we overlooked the plain between Perugia and Foligno. A breeze pressed against the glass; I could feel it through my fingertips.  I looked down into the square below our window and saw, to my delight, a statue I took to be a depiction of my saintly friends, Francis and Clare. I smiled to myself and turned away to prepare for dinner.

Waking up in Assisi is not quite like waking up anywhere else.  Once you have known morning in Assisi, it is perhaps a little easier to wake up anywhere in the embrace of God.  We awoke to the bells of several churches pealing, the uniquely beautiful Umbrian light streaming through the shutters of our room.  Our first steps outside after a simple breakfast allowed us to breathe pure, unbridled air into our lungs and our hearts soared into a pure blue sky– all the elements speaking of new life and the new tenderness of serving others that Francis and Clare are best known for.  

Our first outing of the day was a guided tour of the magnificent Basilica of St. Francis.  Built within a generation after Francis’ death, the saint rests in a cavernous crypt alongside his closest early followers. His bones are situated on a ledge behind a grate right above and behind a simple bronze crucifix with two kneeling figures at right and left.  His friars were intent on making sure his remains did not fall prey to aggressive relic-hunters. The saint’s relics rest under a nameplate declaring “S. Francesco 1182-1226.”

I would not describe myself as a mystic. I had never prayed at anyone’s gravesite or tomb.  I was set on crossing the Tiber to become a Catholic at this point, but all the external habits still seemed a little foreign to me.  I had not prayed at St. Peter’s tomb in Rome,  I had given only a long, curious stare at the gravesite of the incorrupt St. Vincent in Paris, I had not even knelt at the tomb of St. Nicholas (yes, that one) whose relics give off a sweet liquid every year.  Now I knelt, and I spoke to God.  I asked him why he had invited me into conversation here, now, at this place of burial.  What benefit could there be?  In my spirit, I heard, You are with my servant Francis’ mortal remains.  And I would like to visit with you here. Now.

I did not move.  I could not hear anything except the steady beating of my own heart in my ears.  I sensed a presence over my shoulder, and thinking I was blocking one of my friends, I opened my eyes just a crack and turned my head so I could give them room.  But there was no one near me.  Returning to prayer, I thought the feeling would leave me, but it did not.  As real as anything, I felt very deeply that it was St. Francis himself at my shoulder.  Still, I chided myself, surely this was only the power of suggestion in an overwhelmingly appropriate environment.  But I felt a question forming in my mind: Can you honestly deny that presence is not there?    The answer was obvious.  I accepted the presence for what it was, and it remained at my shoulder through my whole time in prayer.  The warm peace I felt washing over me again and again, this saturation in the charism of this extraordinary shrine, was beyond description.

In reflection, this was a really curious experience for me, obvious points aside, as I had not been drawn, spiritually, to St. Francis.  I liked his story well enough, his impact on the Church echoing through the centuries, but here in this holy city of Assisi, I felt like I was finally in a place I’d always known, but never seen.  It was joy too, unlike any I’d experienced.  Unexpected joy. Curious joy.  A taste of sweetness like the wine from the vineyard terraces that lined the hillside below the city.  I thought for a long time afterwards just what that experience was about.

We were given the afternoon off to enjoy the reverent quietness of the streets.  My friends and I, including Paul, the one who’d had his passport and wallet stolen, wandered up and down the shopping district, picking through faux medieval weaponry, leather goods, religious trinkets, and other kitschy tourist trophies. I could not help but notice how tremendously agitated he was, but I was not sure what I could do for him.  He was genuinely unable to enjoy our time in Assisi because he was so concerned about traveling back to Rome to replace what had been lost and what that meant for the rest of our time in Northern Italy.  Even after a beautiful Mass in the Church of St. Stephen and dinner with our friends, his agitation escalated to such a pitch that I suggested we take a walk.

As our friends and the rest of our class drifted away to find out whether Assisi had any nightlife,  Paul and I bundled up against the chill that had descended with the darkness—I wore my multi-colored striped gloves, mismatched with striped knee-socks, plaid hat, and my new Italian jacket—and we made our way in the direction of the Basilica of St. Francis.  The winding streets were abandoned at this time of night, though they were well-lit with romantic gas lamps, and our feet took us on a course no less meandering and deserted.  We passed through ancient stone gates, past shuttered residences, and ended up close to what I recall being some kind of great fortress overlooking the townsite.  As we crested this last hill, I gasped audibly.

Was it some low, white clouds, or was it the Milky Way? Should I even try to locate familiar constellations among so many thousands of stars? Above the townsite, between Assisi and the fortress, Paul and I had come across a flat, open ground and the most glorious view of the stars I had witnessed during the entire semester. I spun in the darkness, reveling in the black sky edged only at the horizon by some distant golden glow, the velvety darkness holding pinholes punched into it by some great god—no, an infinite, creative, masterful God. I felt my spirit lift and give a great shout of joy and appreciative astonishment as it gazed upon this part of creation.  There was no greater possible end to that day.  From dawn until now, it had been sensual, but in the best meaning, saturating every sense so that flesh became finally a thing of such goodness that I blessed my Creator for making me and for holding me in existence.  

How fitting, how wonderful it was to be here.  We sat on a low-lying stone wall and talked about Paul’s troubles.  I told him every detail of my experience in the crypt that afternoon.  As I talked about the presence I had felt, I saw him drinking in every word.  It was not by accident that I was able to be there for my friend in his time of need after having such an experience.  We Christians take very seriously the “communion of saints.”  The Body of Christ is a real body, with all parts connected, and death does nothing to disturb this reality.  We can, through the grace of God, encounter those who have gone before us, as I did.  The presence of St. Francis, known for his peaceful nature, was precisely what Paul needed at that very moment and there I was conveying that to him and even amplifying it by being physically present myself.  Here in this medieval town where once an extraordinary young man had penned divine praises to God, as a lover speaking to his beloved, here the restoration of man to his true self (as he was intended by his Creator to be) was no longer only a dream of a saint.  My friend was now visibly relaxed and as we prayed together for guidance in sorting out his worries, I saw him tilt his head and gaze upward at the sky, the peace of Assisi and St. Francis, the peace of Christ Himself, finally breaking over him too.

Crime – 15 min.

On the lawn I skidded to a halt and turned to face our pursuer.  My sisters had disappeared into the brown house and into safety.  I was pissed.  I felt my blood boiling and felt my rational mind retreating behind a cloud of utter fury.  I let out a banshee scream intended to frighten this man who had been on our heels—he was now angling towards the door trying to get past me.  I admit that I’m not the quickest on my feet but damned if he was going to get into that house and hurt my sisters.  I swung at his head in a wild haymaker.  To my surprise, and I imagine his, the blow connected and he paused long enough to reassess.  “Back off,” I commanded, still seething.  “They didn’t mean to run into your damn car!”

            He spouted some profanity at me and shoved me aside.  I grabbed his arm and sank my teeth into the flesh right above his elbow.  He howled and hammered at my face.  I immediately let go because that hurt!  Throwing my full weight at him, I screamed, “They’re kids! Leave them alone!” He stumbled and I pushed my momentary advantage to get him on the ground.   He rolled away, and I followed on my hands and knees, clawing at his shirt and jeans to keep him down.  I felt I had an advantage here.  I lunged forward again, catching him as he scrambled to his feet and taking him down to the cement sidewalk.

            One of the bricks was loose.  I saw my hand reach for it, felt my fingers close around it, and I felt my arm swing down with all its might.   The man howled, blood running down his face from the gash on his forehead.  Something tore inside me and I lashed out again, harder, trying to erase that noise from the earth.  Again, and again, I struck, and I felt blood spatter onto my shirt.  “Leave my sisters alone!”  I was sobbing now.  I felt completely intoxicated.  It was only when my uncle pulled me off that I began to regain some of my senses. 

Free Write – 15 min.

Xaon grimaced.  “I’ll call in so the bodies can be recovered.”

“Alright,” Elizabeth slung her rifle around and checked the charge.  “Eighty-five percent.  How are you?”

“Same,” Xaon flipped open his communicator.  “Talos to base.”

“Go ahead.”

“Discovered cache of human remains.  No survivors.”

“Alright, we’ll send down a recovery team.”

“Many thanks.  Talos out.”

Elizabeth stood, her leg armor creaking as she did.  “Colder in here,” she noted, mostly to herself.  “Let’s go.”

The pair continued down the white corridor.  The story-high windows allowed the sunlight to stream in, illuminating the crumbling walls and floor.  Graffiti and other vandalism were the only signs anyone had seen the interior of this building in quite some time.  Somewhere above them, the rafters of the building groaned in the mounting wind.  Xaon’s sense of unease grew steadily as they ended the corridor and rounded into a stairwell.  “Up or down?” he asked casually.

“I’d say up, then down,” his partner responded.  “I don’t like this place.  It’s got something I can’t lay finger to.”

“Agreed.”

They carefully made their way up the stairs, avoiding holes where rust had eaten through the steps.  “Tread lightly,” Elizabeth pointed at a particularly raw step.  Xaon could see the floors far below.  The iron grumbled protestingly as he passed over it.  Suddenly Elizabeth held up her hand to stop.  As she did, a harried fluttering of wings and indignant bird noises came from the top of the stairwell.  Both explorers flattened themselves against the outer wall, hefting their rifles into better battle-ready positions.  Elizabeth crept forward, remaining hunched over to keep their presence unknown as long as possible.  “What do you think it is?”  When Xaon’s only response was a shake of his head, she said, “Call it in.”

The communicator sprang to his palm.  “Talos to base,” his voice was extremely quiet.

“Go ahead.”

“Be advised we have encountered some disturbance on floor three.  We are moving to check it out now.”

“So advised.  Do you require back up?”

“Not at this time, however please prepare to respond quickly should we call.”

“Sir.”

“Talos out.”

Elizabeth stretched out further up the staircase and peered over the edge.  No movement, now that the birds had taken flight.  She carefully scanned the great open room, her sight finally falling on a white form at the center of the floor.  Raising her head, Elizabeth squinted.  “Talos, there’s someone up here.”

He tightened his grip on the rifle. “I’ll cover you.”

Nodding, she stood and stepped noiselessly up three remaining steps and onto the third floor.  The figure lay face down, sprawled and undignified.  Definitely human, likely a former patient, judging by the bland clothing.  Close-cropped hair gave no indication as to a gender.  How did we not hear this person before?

“Excuse me,” she spoke aloud.  The silence of the entire building seemed to deepen as her words resounded off the dirty walls.  “Excuse me,” she tried again.  “Can you hear me?”

No reply.  No movement.

Xaon, still at the stairs, eyes roving uneasily, with rifle aimed at the prone figure, shook his head.  “Another corpse.  Recovery team will get him.”

Elizabeth ventured closer to the body.  From this proximity she could see part of the person’s face.  There was something vaguely masculine about the jawline, though it was hard to discern when the haunting look of emaciation and poor treatment hung so heavily over him.  Something at his throat caught her attention.  “Xaon.”  She took three hasty steps forward and knelt by the figure.  “It’s blood.  Fresh. This man was alive a few minutes ago.”  She took the body by the shoulder and raised him.  “Throat’s been slashed!”

“We’re not alone,” her companion came quickly to her side, rifle at his shoulder.

“Do you hear that?” Elizabeth stood, pulling her own rifle up.  “The screeching.”

Very faintly, but growing in volume and intensity, a definite sound of screeching came to their ears from several floors away.  Xaon flipped his communicator open again.  “Talos to base.  Third floor not secured.  Be advised: this hospital is infected.”