Saturday, August 31, 2013

" I'd say more like one out of a million."

This is it.  The last weekend before school starts for my children.  They aren't exactly excited, but the younger ones are certainly keen to celebrate with something special.  My oldest just - like right now just - experienced a forceful ejection of his stomach contents.  Hmm.  That not only has changed the course of this post but also likely will impact our weekend.

Personally, I already don't feel especially well.  My day started with an alarm clock which isn't exactly fair for a Saturday.  Then when I ignored the alarm clock my wife insisted on waking me up.  Also not fair as I do not wake her up when I have to get up stupid early during the week.  In her defense she did leave the room before I was out of bed so I was able to go back to sleep - until the tea kettle started whistling.  And whistling.  To add insult to injury, all of this was so we could attend a kettlebell class. You know how you don't really feel like working out but after you go you're glad you did?  I don't feel that way today.  I'm now more tired and more sore than when I first got up.

About the class - it wasn't a bad class, we did a "team workout" which makes about as much sense (read: is as relevant to what we did) as the tactical lunge.  To me, a tactical lunge involves some sort of stabbing, thrusting, striking, grabbing, punching, or head slamming into wall/pavement/car door motion.  In reality it's as awful as a regular lunge but you have to pass the kettlebell under the bent leg into your other hand, repeating as directed.  The "team workout" was actually just a small group rather than a big group where you totaled up your reps to get 1500.  But everyone had to do minimum numbers and there was no competition between teams so unless you wanted to cheat yourself, you did reps even in the hard exercises.
How far would you go to follow your dream?

And really, 1500 reps split between three people?   I remember, very well, the afternoon 15 years I ago when everyone in the class did 1500 reps each.  4 count jumping jacks.  That's 3,000 jumping jacks.  No break, no water, snowing uphill on us both ways.  It doesn't sound like much but I'll tell you, about twenty minutes in, you don't ever want to do another jumping jack in your life.

Enough of all that.  I won't have to go back until Monday morning and there's all sorts of fun things that might happen in between.  My daughter wants to buy new clothes for school because apparently she can actually shut one of her dresser drawers and thinks there's room.  #3 counted up his money this morning and suggested we all go to 5 Guys - but where everyone buys his own food so it wouldn't cost Mom and Dad quite so much (interesting take on why we might say "No" to going out but I don't recall every using it as an excuse).  #1 had plans but the forceful expulsion of Cool Ranch Doritos has likely adjusted those.  As for #4, he's already had a full day and will be up for whatever the rest of us decide on. Meanwhile, he's busy being not bored.

I plan to enter the Blue Cat Screenplay Competition today.  I've got a short script that I think is ready to go.  Will I win the $5k first prize in that category?  That's not for me to decide.  But it is an established competition and they provide written notes for every very reasonably priced entry so even if you lose, you win - when your goal is getting better.

I think that Han and Lloyd got it right.  "Never tell me the odds." and "So you're telling me there's a chance!"  Don't be bored.  Don't be worried.  Don't deny yourself success by never getting out of the boat.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

"I'm your partner. That means I'm with you until the wheels fall off."

Must See TV again already?  Life sure is flying by.  Today will be short, I have a project I'm working on and am anxious to get back to it.  Hopefully this won't end up being mocked the same way my dog training project was - apparently I'm the only one who thinks it's a good idea to teach a border collie the command "Ottoman", no matter how cute he is curled up on mine.
 

We are big fans of streaming - on demand commercial free - but there are some shows you can't stream from Netflix, you have to order the DVDs.  It's a little less convenient but you generally get some extras that aren't available through the download.  Remember the bonus content when movies first came out on DVD?  Some TV shows still have that and they can be great fun.

Last night, after the regular episode, I called my dog to the ottoman and started a special feature called "Seamus and Jon" on disc 5, season 2 of that show I'm always going on and on about.

So what?  I'll tell you what.  Seamus and Jon watched "Seamus and Jon" on TV and it was fun.  That's what.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"Don't kill yourself tonight."

It's overcast today with a bit of rain and thunderstorms from mid-morning through tomorrow.  Yes, I started with weather.  No, I'm not changing my rule (adopted from Mr. Leonard) - consider it both foreshadowing and a testimony as to how much I've been thinking about E.L.'s passing.  I generally don't pay much attention to the goings on of the "rich and famous" or "celebrity" but I really enjoyed his story telling and the idea that there will not be another "Rum Punch" (a.k.a "Jackie Brown") is disappointing.  They weren't perfect, or for everyone, but they were laugh out loud funny and I have tried to emulate his style with a few pieces.

Today, however, is not about ole E.L.  It's about "Little Miss Sunshine" because Wednesday's are “Tales From the Script”.

LMS needs a little over an hour and you'll want to be able to read it in a single sitting.  Few of the scripts I've read were as compelling and demanded that I resume my read as quickly as possible after getting off the train.  The film is 'R' for language and if the script is any indication, there's about six movies worth in there - and not the lightweight stuff, I'm talking big box, Costco sized bombs being dropped by pretty much everyone except the youngest character.  She is pure, naive joy - an island of hope surrounded by broken dreams, wasted lives, and maniacal misery.

The plot is very straightforward.  Little Miss Sunshine is the name of a beauty pageant in Florida. Our story begins in Maryland.  It takes place over a weekend.  You guessed it, road trip movie.  It even has the stereotypical cast - Goofy Dad, Mom who holds things together, moody Son, quirky extended family members, battered car, etc.  But there's a twist - Dad is scary, not just goofy.   Mom is on the verge of a breakdown the whole time.  The moody son?  All set-up for major character development.

This isn't just an off-beat comedy.  It's a drama with serious story chops.  The family is hysterical and dysfunctional but each character is uniquely written, with his own voice and own psychosis which remain consistent and lead to seriously funny situations/lines and powerful arcs for everybody.  Except LMS herself.  Much like Dr. Kimble in “The Fugitive”, she drives the action, forces the change, yet remains much as she was on page one.

As a writer, I picked up a couple of things that I liked.  The first was how Mr. Arndt wrote telephone conversations.  Compact, efficient, and completely trusting the actor to get it right.  I'll be able to save pages going forward.  I also liked the way sequences were introduced - obvious, but clear and you were quickly back in the story but understanding exactly how it was going to look.  The relationships between the characters were set up with action, dialogue was reserved for laughs.

I haven't quite figured out why this was so great - the story doesn't sound all that intriguing, after all, I'm not into pre-tween beauty pageants, and as funny as I think Steve Carrel is, he wasn't in the script.  This is a story to be read a few more times.  There's magic in the page that makes you care and want to see where it's going.  You're rooting for everyone.  I was surprised a couple of times.  It keeps switching between subtle and in-your-face.

I'm sure that Mr. Leonard enjoyed it.  Not quite what he would have written, but certainly up his alley.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

"I was wrong. We were so wrong."

Wow, so it's been since the beginning of the summer since I've written in my studio.  That's good - I've been out doing which, of course, is critical to writing interesting things.  And paying for your life before you become a Nora Roberts, Lee Child, or the man I will miss, Elmore Leonard.

This is the last week of vacation for my children.  So far they have a pretty good attitude about it but I suspect that has far more to do with denial then any new found Zen enlightenment.  What can't be denied is that the film, "Prometheus", was not very good.  Expensive?  Sure.  Good pedigree?  Absolutely.  But, and it's a really big but, it failed to deliver.  Part of the problem is that it's a prequel and prequels always start at a distinct disadvantage.  Perhaps the best prequel ever was Tom Clancy's "Without Remorse" and I had to re-start it several times.  It just kills the magic of the universe when you explain it away.
Album cover from 1974?

The other part of the problem?  It was two completely different movies.  On the one hand it was an "Atlas Shrugged" style discussion of life, origins, and meaning.  On the other hand it was a gory "Alien" movie.  On all counts, it was a stiff, unemotional, highly predictable film that - in the spirit of every Dodge product built since I've been alive - looks great but quickly falls apart.  I was reminded very much of Alien 3.

Fortunately that wasn't the extent of our day yesterday.  It was the quintessential summer day with highs in the mid 80 and almost no humidity.  We celebrated with an expedition on the boat and a kettlebell class.  The movie was far more painful than the class.

If you think this blog post was plodding along somewhat randomly, you should skip "Prometheus".  I said that already?  You noticed?  Definitely skip it.

Friday, August 23, 2013

"This is not recess. Everyone is accountable."

Where I live almost everyone has a vanity plate.  It's silly.  But last night I saw one that really caught my eye "PUBLISHD".  I get that.  Good for her.

Today's fiction is backstory for another project but don't let that throw you, it's complete on its own.

Jettisoned
By Jon Stark
August, 2013; 689 words

She stared at the pills - tiny escape capsules beckoning while klaxons raged through her head.  She picked one up and studied it - "E31" stamped on the healing poison.  She set it down.  A tumbler with three fingers of Jack distracted her.  When she set that down it was empty.

The room was dark, lit only by the dregs of a distant streetlight not quite filtered by the curtain.  It didn't matter though, she'd spent a lot of time here, knew the place well.  She closed her eyes and placed her hand on a bottle of Jack.  She refilled her glass.

She'd been through a thousand doors, been shot at and shot back, stabbed and pushed down stairs.  Nothing, all of it.  Tonight she was terrified.  The Jack disappeared from her glass in a rapid succession of slurps, burning down her throat between gasping breaths.  "E31".  The one that always got her.

It's not something easily understood if you haven’t been there - how anyone could so desperately not want to do something yet is nearly powerless chose a different path.  With startling speed she snatched a pill and scooped it into her mouth, her other hand - in practiced coordination - taking up the bottle and, no time for a glass, putting it to her lips.

The pill was lost in a rush of liquid that no longer burned.  She spilled a little and with abrupt clumsiness banged the bottle against the table.  It was loud, even to her numbed senses.  From deep within the apartment there was a muffled cry.  Connor.  He looked like his father, was named for his father, but wasn't him.  That had been a huge mistake, but he wasn't.  Connor.

She began to sob softly.  The cry came again - not awake, not in need, but an expression of solidarity – “There are more demons here than yours tonight, Mommy.”

Her eyes opened.  She shoved away from the table and stumble-ran to the bathroom.  The light was too bright but she was already blinded and didn’t care.  Without hesitation she knelt before the porcelain alter and, with two fingers placed expertly at the back of her throat, confessed her sins.

"Angie?"  A knock at the bathroom door.  "Are you okay, Baby?"

Irony.  "Yeah, Mom."  Her voice was harsh and the words burned coming out.  "I'm okay now.  Go back to bed."

"Are you sure?"

Angela could picture her mother, just outside the door in her long worn-out baby blue housecoat, leaning her head against the battered wood.  "I'm good.  You don't have to worry.  I'll be out in a minute."

There was a pause, then shuffling from outside.  She cleaned up the room and her face.  The mirror was in a very honest mood.  She slammed the light switch off.

She checked on Connor, sleeping peacefully.  She went back to the kitchen and put the bottle away.  She drank a glass of water.  Then another.  The pills still sat on the table.  "I can do this."  She spent a long moment looking out of the window, seeing where she had taken her life.  Barely looking, she put them back where her mother kept them.

Her hand rested on bottle for much too long.  "E31"

She swiped her cell phone from the table and went outside.  The night was stifling - hot and humid, filled with sirens and an unexplainable banging maybe a block away.  She lit a cigarette and dialed.

"Hello?"  He was very sleepy.

"You alone?"

"Angie?  Doesn't anybody say hi anymore?"  He was groggy but waking up fast.  "You want me to come over?"

"No.  Mom's awake.  She'd be suspicious."  A pause.  It hadn't come out as funny as she hoped.  It was more... guilty.

"You're smoking.  Rough night?"

"I... You need to know that..."  She started crying.  “I messed up.”  His words were lost but she could hear him.  She knew the tone.  He believed in her.  Even when nobody else did.

"You can do it, Angie.  You can beat this thing.  I'm right here."

He promised everything would be alright.  He really believed that.  And maybe she did too.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

"Good luck, Charlie."

Must See TV this week is about "Good Luck Charlie" which is probably my favorite tween show, even better than "Drake and Josh".  I suppose I've started something akin to "Daniel Craig is a better bond than Sean Connery" but I've said it and I'll stand by it.  Don't get me wrong, I love "Drake and Josh", but it didn't have the same legs.  GLC is about six major characters, not D&J's three.

I've only seen a few full episodes but I catch snippets all of the time.  Have for years.  I've probably actually seen every episode in its entirety, just out of order - a sort of "Memento" experience.  I always have to stop whatever I'm doing to watch a few minutes.  Then I have to look for my coffee again.

It's on all the time in my house because we don't have cable - just the NetFlix thank you - and my kids are always streaming it (or one of two other shows).  They've done this for years, watching it like I watched "The Karate Kid" during the summer of 1987.

What makes it so good?  There is a strong engine dressed up with very clever writing.  How strong is the engine?  It's such a driving force that a couple of weeks ago when I sat down to watch the show with my kids and was laughing out loud, my daughter started explaining it to me.  She nailed it.  Every aspect of the engine (it isn't a formula anymore), the beats, turning points, resolutions, etc - down to the timing(!) in the episode.  The thing is, the writing is so snappy that you can't predict how anything is going to happen, even when you know what sort of thing is going to.  It's an engine on par with "Seinfeld" which never failed to surprise even though every episode followed the same format.

Also, like "Seinfeld", each episode is so different and so quirky, that you can watch them over and over and still think they're funny.  "Friends" never quite reached that - there was too much story between the characters and while it was great in first run, that doesn't fuel a strong engine well.

What do I mean?  In "Seinfeld" the characters were all friends and brought their completely different circles of associates/nemeses into the show.  All romance and serious conflict came from characters that weren't part of the main cast.  In "Friends" the conflict and romance was between the main cast.  Sort of a family tree without branches.  GLC basis the show on a family and the inciting conflict always comes from outside of the main cast.  D&J was the same way (albeit with the Miss Cosgrove playing nemesis every time), but had fewer players for variety so it couldn't stay as fresh.

If you haven't seen GLC, I highly recommend it.  You can stream it or catch a marathon on cable.  Invest the 22 minutes in an episode.  You don't have to know the characters when you start, you'll learn everything you need to as you go.  You will laugh, whether you are 8 or 80, it really is that good.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

"Tell them we're in a jam. Loosen up and lose some altitude. We're turning North West until we run out of gas."

"Island in the Sky" is high concept.  An airplane is forced to make an emergency landing north of the Arctic Circle plunging the crew into a fight for survival while their friends desperately search for them.  Add to the mix John Wayne as Captain Dooley, the manly but sensitive leader, and a kid that looks a lot like Wally from “Leave it to Beaver”.  (I refuse to look it up, just on general principals.)  Then stir in a healthy amount of hoo-ah and a dash of chauvinism.  That, my friends, if you can see through all the cigarette smoke, is the movie.
 

I must confess that I thoroughly enjoyed watching it.  It reminded me very much of a book that I read a couple of times when I was kid - "Arctic Survival" or something like that.  It was about an Air Force brat in Alaska and his friend visiting from California.  They go on a sight-seeing tour to Point Barrow and the plane goes down.  What follows is literally a dramatization of the military's arctic survival guide - complete with happy ending - but in a telling worthy of Jack London.  As I watched the movie, I kept thinking, "Now they need to do X" and low and behold, in the next scene they would.  If I can remember that silly book, why can't I remember to brush my teeth?

There was nothing the least bit surprising about the storyline of the film.  WYSIWYG all the way.  Why was it still fun?  Simple - it's a good story.  I knew they weren't going to crash, I knew somebody would have to die for not following orders, and I knew they'd get rescued.  You would too - no spoiler warning needed - it's John Wayne!

I was paying close attention to the construction of the film as I watched and a few things stood out.  The first was that it seemed to me to have far more in common with a play than a modern film.  The scene would be set, the characters would make busy work where they were but hardly ever actually move, and then they would talk the story rather than do it.  After a scene like that you'd get a cut of a DC-3 (C-47) flying over mountains, or through clouds, or being covered with ice.  Then you'd go back to the talking heads.  Even wandering around in the blizzard, it was essentially a still camera watching someone on stage stumble in circles.  All well done, but not what's done now.

There was a lot of voice over narration.  I think the narrator had as many lines as John Wayne.  I get it for setting the story, but he also read character synopses the first time we met the cast.  There were only two of the other pilots that were introduced through action (both well done scenes) and they were the supporting characters I remembered.  I couldn't tell you anything about J.H., but Mack?  Oh, I know all about him and I’d love to be part of his crew.

I don't think my wife would have stayed awake for it and while they may obediently sit through it, I'm not sure that my younger boys would like it.  Maybe - the story is good - but I think there wouldn't be enough on-screen excitement to keep them engaged.  As for my older children?  It's black and white, they won't give it a chance.  Besides, what kind of movie ends with the line, “Six of ‘em.”?

"Well I'll tell you what kind.  A good one.  A story about men surviving against all odds.  A story about men I'm proud to call my friends.  That's what kind.  Now shut up and watch it." said John as he pulled the last drag from his Camel.  "Well go on!"

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"Yes, I do. With all my heart, Pita. Go."

My daughter won a contest.  She wouldn't think of it that way and maybe I shouldn't either, but while I'm riding a train into the heart of "the most powerful city in the world - just ask anyone who works there" she's on a cruise ship plying the incredible waters of the Caribbean.  I'm color blind and still think it's the most beautiful water in the world.  (Of course, I haven't been to the South Pacific yet.)

See what I mean?  She's a winner.

Her brothers spent yesterday shopping for school supplies.  I'm sure they think I'm a winner (graduated – yah for me!) but I've got to say, the hours are much better for school and they are not taking into account the fact that on their vacation day of shopping, I was at work.  My daughter was blissfully unaware, sailing as she was.

Don't ask me how I feel about her traveling outside the country without me.  You'll get a rambling inconclusive answer and I'll get an ulcer.  It isn't about trust - she's going with the right sort of people.  It's about how long it would take me to get to Nassau to start looking for the malefactors that took her.  I'd lose the critical window in travel time.

But that's just the ramblings of a career spent being paranoid so other people don't have to be.  She's going to have a wonderful time and while to her it's just really cool that her friend invited her on the cruise, to the rest of us, she's a winner.

Note: The obvious movie reference would be "Taken" but I don't think the story was nearly as good.  People complained a bit about "Man on Fire" being slow to start.  Those people aren't parents.  Those people didn't see the love story that transformed Creasy.  Without getting to know Creasy, Pita, and Lisa, the story would have meant nothing - it would have been as empty as "Taken".  I have to work very hard to remember any of the scenes from Taken yet just reading qoutes from "Man on Fire" gives me chills.  Denzel Washington didn't play a cold blooded killer.  He played a man on fire who understood damnation and redemption inteimately - and convinced us that he would do anything to get Pita back because he loved her more than life itself, not becuase it was in the script.

When was the last time you were on fire?  Alive with burning purpose?

Man on Fire earned it's rating for language and graphic, brutal violence.  It is not a borderline PG-13 film.

Monday, August 19, 2013

"Rrrrggrrbbbrrrrhhhhh."

Today wasn't Christmas, but try telling that to my dogs.

Each morning we have a routine.  The alarm goes off; Seamus sings with it then demands that someone pet him.  Maggie runs to the bedroom door and waits expectantly.  Misha keeps sleeping.

I slip out, leaving the dogs, and make coffee, study, and eat breakfast.  Then I slip back in.  Seamus is still by the door, but lying down so I usually have to push him a bit to get back in.  Maggie is back by her bed, Misha hasn't moved.

I prep for work with Seamus at my feet but and this took a while to teach him - not ON my feet.  Then, when he gets up to follow me around, Maggie moves to his now vacant spot by the door.  This is also new, she didn't used to pay quite that much attention.

Once I'm ready for a day of crime fighting, I head to the door.  There is a mass shifting of dog at that point as I usually have to move at least one to get to the door, get it open, and get through it.

When it was just Misha and Maggie there wasn't much of a problem but when Seamus came, his energy sort of got Maggie excited and if you weren't careful, you might be trampled and then rolled down the stairs.  I've taught them to wait, sitting impatiently inside the room, while I make sure there is nobody on the stairs or even at the bottom, before giving the command.

The command released something akin to the Warner Brother’s Tasmanian Devil.  They bump and push to be the first out of the room, sometimes running near full speed into the wall or edge of the door.  They make the tight 90 degree turn and dive down the stairs - rolling on occasion - before smashing into the bench at the bottom and bouncing off each other.  Then there is the scramble of toenails on hardwood as they each try to be first to the outside door.  As I work my way down the stairs (about half way by the time the toenail scramble is over) I hear jumping and the odd “wrarrhhwa”.  I've given up on training at the sliding door to the outside - when it's open, they dart out no matter how long they've been sitting.

That's exuberance.  And it's every day.  My kids only run downstairs like that when it's Christmas.  Are you the sort of person who needs Christmas to be excited or have you found the daily joy in getting to go outside for a big bowl of dog food?

You can laugh at the dogs, but really, they've got it figured out - what's important in life is a place to lay your head, companionship, and something to eat.  If you've got all that, every day is like Christmas.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

"We make our own destiny."

Plans change.  Sometimes very quickly.  You can cower, grump, or seize an exposed opportunity.  If you’re really talented, you can do all three.

I took #3 and #4 (the Boys) to see “The Sea of Monsters” last night and we had a good time.  Got home the same time as my wife.   More on the movie in a moment.


The original plan was not for the film.  We were going boating with a small campfire on the beach and a starlight cruise home.  Then life happened.

My wife was reminded of previous engagement and had to go out.  No boat.  I thought of the movie and how much #3 wanted to see it and though that would work.

Then there was the list – Take #1 and his friend to their all-night teen shindig, pick up dinner, #2 was at the stables riding.  Dinner was easiest but delayed getting home.  Time was slipping.  I checked showings and found out that it started 5 minutes after I was supposed to drop of #1.

But he was flexible.  Check.

I ran down to the stables to discover that they had only just started riding.  Wasn’t going to give them anytime at all and I couldn’t leave while they were on those big, tall, dangerous beasts.  But there was coverage – the other Mom was staying and wanted to take #2 for food afterward.  That worked.
Back to the house with marching orders – if we left in 2 minutes we’d make it.

We actually left on time.  Dropped of #1 and his friend.  Had great conversation back toward home.  I pulled into the theater parking lot.  “Where are we going Dad?” – “Thought you might want to watch Percy Jackson tonight.”  - “Really?” – “Yep.” – “COOL.” (beat) “Can we go home and get my glasses?”
Brakes.  U-turn.  Suddenly nothing was going right – long traffic delays, backup at the gate, and the time running out.

But we made it.  Even got to see some previews (trailers).

There was the sequel to “Rio”, the sequel to “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”, the sequel to “The Hobbit”, the remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, and one original story – “Frozen”.  That’s right, just one.  I’ve been hearing a bit about the fear of going with original but that was crazy.  Just one original story in over 10 minutes of commercials.

Of course I can’t complain – we were the prime demographic to sell “more of the same” to since the film we’d paid to see, “Sea of Monsters”, was… a sequel.

We did have a good time, the movie was alright – about what I expected – but we’d read the book together and driving home there was quite a discussion about what was included, what was changed, and what was completely missing but should have been there – hello! Percy never changed into a hamster in the movie!  Whoops, spoiler alert.


The business is the business, but it’s there because some Friday nights, a Dad has to take his boys to see something fun. 
Rick Castle making fun of "Firefly"

Friday, August 16, 2013

"Hey, I don't believe that any system is totally secure." - Wargames, 1983

Prenote: I made some changes to the appearance of the blog.  How's the background/layout for reading?  Also, there are now rating buttons at the end of each post.  Please feel free to use them and/or suggest button categories.

Now to the post.

Today, an excerpt from a short story I'm working on.  I've had the idea for many, many years but have only recently started on the story arc.  Okay, recently is this morning on the train.  Everything sort of finally came together and I'm going gangbusters on it, but it isn't done and even if I had a full draft complete I wouldn't post it becuase I need to write more than one draft and the story is SO GOOD that I don't want to spoil it for you with less than "perfect at my current skill level".

I haven't settled on a name for the piece yet but this bit I thought would sound hip with the title...

Supah-Computer
By Jon Stark
August, 2013; 362 words

Deep in the Utah desert, buried beneath tons of silicon and paperwork, lay a super computer so powerful that it was only legend in the darkest corners of the net - so powerful that the fanciful rumors of what it could do barely scratched the surface of its true capabilities.  Indeed, it was so powerful that those in Washington and Ft. Meade who were "in the know" actually knew nothing about the true scope of the project they'd secretly funded.  There was a compound with razor wire, guard towers, attack dogs - and, according to one internet source, sharks with lasers on their heads - guarding a fairly large-sized bunker which held a token Cray XT4, a small kitchen, a really nice gym, and a secret elevator.  The computer below stretched far beyond the security cordon, beyond the eyes of anyone but its caretakers.  It was RONIN.

In cyberspace it left no presence.  It would launch virtual assassins who came violently into chatrooms and corporate mainframes from the shadows as untraceable rogue code.  The intelligence gathered was packed up and left in prearranged drops to be retrieved by couriers of unbelievable speed and stealth - packet stealers that disappeared into the shadows.

Three months ago they stole a packet with a hidden transmitter disguised as a phone call between a terrorist and his grandmother.  They brought it into the dark place of the web that was RONIN.  The Trojan code sent a single pulse from within the domain before being erased.  The pulse was received by a young mathematician named Sanjay Horowitz.  He released specially coded worms that followed the signal back and careful began the process of outlining the hole in the net where the computer lived.  There would be no way to burrow through the virtual castle walls but there was always another way in.

Two weeks ago one of his worms found the back door and Sanjay snuck into the United States Government's most classified secret.  He didn't have a Q-Delta-Zero clearance (even if he did, it wouldn't have been high enough for access).  He wasn't interested in the secrets, though.

Sanjay wanted processing power for his counting algorithm.




Any ideas for what RONIN can stand for?  Put them in the comments.  The one I thought up on the commute was "Ridiculously Overpriced National Intelligence Network."

Thursday, August 15, 2013

"I don't know where we're goin', but there's no sense bein' late."

Last evening my dog went walkabout.  Might have been alright if he was part dingo, but he's not.  He's purebred, "Ball?  Throw the ball?  Pleeeaaassssuuuh?  Look, I brought you my ball.  Ooo - Ooo, here's another one.  And here's a big plastic thing that isn't a ball but I brought it to you anyway.  Throw something." a.k.a. border collie.

I had taken the afternoon off to drive to Dulles because I hadn't had my fill of being stuck in traffic during the morning commute where it took an hour to get to the station a mere 8 miles away.  No sir.  I wanted to drive through Fairfax County in the full press of rush hour.  And we had to pick up our friends.

At some point during our excursion, the gate to our backyard fence was opened.  It didn't fall open, didn't blow open, and the dog certainly didn't open it (I know that was your first thought but it's the wrong sort of gate latch up much too high for him to reach without jumping).  I have two competing theories but without proof or profit, there is little point in pursuing either.

The first clue for us that something was amiss occurred when I pulled into my driveway and was met by the black lab.  She was not supposed to be waiting for us on the front porch.  A quick check revealed the open gate and empty backyard.

I'd seen animal control at the local constabulary on the way in and went off to catch the catcher.  I was too late but the local constable said, "That's your dog alright.  I'll try to get animal control back."

He was able to use a combination of encrypted FM two-way radio technology and an iOS based smart phone to reach the local Ringer who quickly agreed to comeback.  (Clearly his first name was not "Shane").

While we waited, I heard the story.  The dog, often referred to as "Nose", had gotten loose and made contact with a dog walker (described only as a "kindly woman walking three dogs") about 1/2 a mile away from the house.  He went right up to her, was a sweet as candy, so she called the police.
 

When the 5-O-boy-we're-in-trouble-now arrived, they took him into custody and incarcerated him at the precinct.  Whoops, I switched vernacular - he was detained at the constabulary.  They built him a nice kennel from cardboard and posted his picture on Facebook.  Lots of folks wanted him and offered new homes if we didn't ever comeback.

The authorities were concerned that he was so thin and hungry and thought he might have been loose for days so that's why they didn't hold him overnight but instead sent him off to the pound.  We also were concerned about him being thin and always hungry for the first several months we had him, but the Vet and the Trainer always say he's right on target for the breed.  I passed this along and was assured that there was no concern about abuse or neglect - "he was too sweet and well behaved for that" but that, professionally speaking, he was a three when he should be a five.

I was content just to have him back.  He was a bit subdued last night, staying close and (after his dinner) quite calm.  He even watched “Castle” with us without being a freak-a-zoid.  Perhaps the ride in the truck with a cage changed him?

Not a chance.  Like so many of my clients, shortly after being freed, he returned to his old self and ways.  I was woken up this morning by the "Nose" and he was as impatient as ever with the alarm clock.  "Rawrrrrah.  Woof.  Rawwwraaawrrraaaaah."  There is no fonetik (ironic misspelling) way to duplicate his "good morning" and you can't possibly imagine his affection from my written word.

Hopefully, instead of being down the road, his next walkabout will just be [in the] Outback.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"Hakuna Matata"

When I walked out of my front door this morning I was struck by the temperature - it was unexpectedly cool.  After taking a moment to breathe in the refreshing mixture of gaseous elements, I reflected on the expression I had used.

"Unexpectedly cool."  What a wonderful phrase.  It's more versatile than the home furnishings sold by Ikea.  Observe.

She'd been on blind dates before but this man, he was unexpectedly cool.  Maybe there wouldn't be any more need to feign need of the restroom followed by a quick escape.

He'd brought flowers and chocolates yet she remained unexpectedly cool, as if their previous conversation had never happened.

Bud was unexpectedly cool as he clipped the trigger wire on the bomb despite the green of the glow-stick making both the blue and red wires look alike.

Camel Menthol 100s - unexpectedly cool.

Day 13 and Doctor Sholls entered the ward with little hope,
Marburg was famous for its 80% mortality, yet when he looked at the young boy his color was better, the sores were healing, and his skin was unexpectedly cool.
What about you?  Any ideas for using "unexpectedly cool"?  Post them in the comments section.

Monday, August 12, 2013

"They strike, wrap around you. Hold you tighter than your true love. And you get the privilege, of hearing your bones break before the power of embrace causes your veins to explode."

Today’s the last day of my vacation.  We’re home, but I've found that taking an extra day makes for a smoother transition back into – oh my gosh.  That snake was fast.  Somebody please explain to me why a very fast snake lives in a hole against the foundation of my house and likes to sun himself on the shrubbery next to the walkway between my front door and truck?

No, really.  Why?  HE IS FAST.  And creepy.
 
Anaconda.  Awful, just awful.
Perhaps some explanation.  I had just sat down to write this post when my daughter’s friend popped back in the house to say, “The snake is back.”  What snake?  Apparently, while I was at the grocery store, this snake had been seen.  They forgot to tell me about it – I walked by four times with hands full of groceries.  I’m getting freaked out again.

So I was sitting down to write and had to go deal with the snake.  It was fast.  Like I've never seen a snake move so fast before fast.  The girls wanted me to catch it and put it somewhere else.  They left.  I should have killed it instead of trying to catch it – it’s just that I had no idea how fast it could move.  Most of the snakes I've gone after aren't quite so quick.  "Warp speed Mr. Sulu."

It was aggressive too until I put the rake on it and then it fled to its hole.  I caught the tail with the spade but didn't chop it (I should have) so it wriggled away.  This is totally not cool.


I’m just calm enough to reflect on my wife’s final words before she left.  “I've never seen a yellow one before, have you?”  Great.  Of all the houses in all the developments in all of the states, the alien snake had to pick mine.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

"What kind of a host invites you to his house for the weekend and dies on you?"

It seems I was caught up in my travels yesterday and didn't post.  Sorry about that, it's just that the wind and sun and surf and history and food and architecture all sort of overwhelmed me.  We had quite a day.  It started with a run off the island and back.


Not Seven
by Jonathan Stark
August 2013; 1216 words

There was a bit of discussion but I was ultimately dropped at the light.  I think it's the busiest place on the island.  Getting across the street and then the 100 yards to the part of the road - causeway - with a shoulder was like playing Frogger.

I knew the first part - the arch for the bigger ships over the inter-coastal - was going to be steep but I didn't realize how long or how steep.  A quarter mile in and I was already winded.  The traffic was incredible.  Car after car.  No let up.  I saw a new Mustang convertible, top up, tailgating the car in front.  What a waste.

I tried to look out over the salt marsh and had some luck, but there weren't many birds and the cyclists were too afraid of the cars to give me much room on the shoulder.  They were friendly enough but it was tight.

About a mile along I saw another Mustang convertible.  It could have been my father's car, before I was born.  The top was down and there was quite a line behind it.  The woman driving it was watching the birds and living on island time.  I guess it could have been my mother's car too.

"I'd never buy a convertible." she said.  "But you'd drive with the top down." I told her.  I was right so she changed the subject.  "Isn’t it lovely out here?  A mile from land in either direction?"  It is nice, but I say, "There are too many cars.  All I hear are their tires on the concrete."  "But you’re practically deaf!  Look the other way and you won't even notice."

I run in silence for a time, the rhythm of my steps and breathing chasing the roaring away.  "Do you smell that air?" she asks.  "Barely."  "But you do smell it, right?"  I have to admit that I do.  A yellow butterfly crosses my path and I watch out over the marsh as it goes.  A white heron stands twenty feet below me.  "Do you remember the heron in Muddy Brook?"  How could I forget?  We saw him nearly every day for what seemed like years to me as a little boy.  But I say, "He was a Great Blue.  Not like these."  My feet pound against the tarmac, the cold bottle of water I carry already hot in the sun as I switch hands.

"Will you just enjoy this?  We'll remember this walk for the rest of our lives."  I don't argue with her this time though neither one of us is walking.

The causeway ends 2.1 miles from where it starts – time to pull a you-E.  I dart through the opposing lines of traffic like a sandpiper flirting with the breakers.  The couple from the "ask your doctor about" ads on TV ride their beach cruisers by me, smiling and saying, "Hello."

The trip back has the sun in my face.  It's hotter but the breeze is strong.  Strong enough that the father and son on their fancy racing bikes are complaining about it.  I nearly twist my ankle in one of the seams between the sections of roadway.  There's a pretty big gap, with grass growing in it.  I spent most of the rest of the way across noticing just how not quite together the causeway is.  I won't be as calm driving it anymore.

I searched for gators but didn't see any.  I never do.

The hill at the end was even worse going back.  I made it, but then I was really tired and I still had half the run to go.  When I turned at the light the wind stopped.  I was on the island and it was sheltered.  I think it got about 20 degrees hotter too.  I slowed to a walk at the first shade and drank some water.

"Wow.  You're going fast."  My Dad is always full of encouragement.  "Thanks.  It's pretty easy going, only the one hill."  He looks back - I never do anymore.  "You've really come a long way."  "I've got to be able to do 10 miles in two months.  I'm not sure this is far enough."  "It is.  You couldn't get this far a month ago.  How far do you have left today?"

In my head I do the calculations.  “Should be about 3.5 miles.”  I don't run with a watch so I'm not sure how long I've been at it.  A figure runs out of the sun toward me.  She has a watch on but I suspect it would be creepy to ask for the time so I let it go.

"You should drink more water."  He's right, of course.  I do take some.  It's hot enough to make tea, but I’m drenched in sweat and need it.  "You should stop and rest under one of these palms."  I won't.  I'm not going to stop.  I think about my blog, want to say, "You cannot make me quit" but that wouldn't fit.  He's never made me quit anything.  I settle for, "I'm not going to stop.  I won't quit."

He laughs.  "Oh, I know that.  You never quit anything."  It's an awkward silence; we both know that isn't true.  "It's too hot for me.  I'll see you in a couple of weeks."  I'm struggling now, but not so much I can't answer him back.

There is no break from the sun.  My fingers tingle.  Sweat is pouring into my eyes.  I don't think I can actually see very well anymore and I keep drifting to the right off the sidewalk.  I've made it to the wall - figuratively because I'm tapped, and literally - the giant flip-flops are as big as me.  It's shaded so I walk and finish my water.  I'm sure my heart is pounding and I know that my clothes are drenched.

The last big straight away - a full mile of palm trees and sun.  I can't make the second gate.  I take the first knowing that I'm off the planned route but needing the shade.  It's a struggle.  A grumpy old lady pedals by and gives me a death stare.  I'm not sure how I've offended her.  A family passes on their bikes.  They are friendly.  Nothing makes sense.

I stumble past the second gate.  I'd stop, but this is an 8 mile run, not 7.  A funny thing happened then.  I ran faster.  I started passing people.  I felt strong.  I actually had some chills.  Decided that wasn't a healthy sign but I was within a mile of the finish.

Then it all fell away.  I was struggling again.  I argued about the importance of a walking cool down and I should probably start it now.  But I wasn't going to walk.  The debate brought me to our parking lot.  I was surprised when I saw the sign.  I'd made it.


The stairs were a challenge.  I met my wife at the door - she was on her way out to find me.  I was overdue, I'm hoping it was the heat that slowed me down.  My daughter thinks it was.  I know I've come a long way from where I was.  And I'll remember running the island for the rest of my life.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

"I am not going back in there."

Must See TV this week is all about the Discovery Channel and Shark Week.  Not really "all about" since I can't stay on topic, but Shark Week is featured.  I watched about 20 minutes of #Great White Serial Killer.  The idea of posting tweets that say, “This show is awesome, everyone needs to watch it” is killer – I found myself almost believing that I was missing something.

I'm afraid I couldn't watch it all the way through though.  Not because I'm at the beach and went for a dramatic swim through open water yesterday, but because of the high school play over-acting, the need to splash blood into every shot, and the way that everything was choreographed.  There was the dark scene of the expert being consulted, "Would you pass me that jaw bone?  I'll show you the bite pattern."  There was the befuddled policeman whom we could only watch through a reflection in a mirror.  I was reminded, in a bad way, of the old Fox specials "When Animals Attack", "When Animals Attack, part 2", "When Animals Attack, part 3", "When An-" you get it.  “When Trains go Bad” – sorry, had to do one more.  It wasn't a documentary, it was a gameshow.

Not all TV from that golden age of Fox was bad - NBC was playing the last few seasons of Seinfeld.  (On Must See TV night...)  I watched two episodes of that last Saturday and I must say that while I probably couldn't sit through a marathon, it's just like I remember and still made me lol out loud.

My children have been glued to shark week, talking about it, worrying about it, trying to get up enough courage to actually watch it - after all, we are on open ocean and aren't allowed to swim in the twilight because of sharks.  Last night they dove in and consumed two of the specials.  I haven't watched any of Shark Week in years so I really was disappointed that the emphasis is now on scaring people out of the water rather than educating but I shouldn't have been expecting anything else.  And it did work a bit - some of what I saw was a little spooky, in a “hiding beneath the surface to jump up and eat your flesh” kind of way.

There was a sand shark spotted along our beach two days ago - allegedly - and that caused a wee bit of concern but it was a tiny little thing, an anomaly, presuming it really was a shark.  There are lots of dolphins and I secretly suspect “they” saw a dolphin dorsal and proceeded to tell stories.  Yesterday we swam out to the sandbar.  I was only concerned as we got close because I didn't want #4 to cross it and be swept out to see (no need to worry, it was at the surface, an island of its own) but my wife was a bit more concerned about things with teeth.  Distances are deceptive and we were quite far out swimming for a long time against wind, current, and tide.

No need to worry about the carnivorous sea life though, the only things that got our party had stingers.  It was quite an adventure, really, paddling out to sea, walking on water, digging up shells and sand dollars where only a few brave (or foolhardy) souls dared to tread.  My daughter thought we were nuts when she heard about it.  I don't think after last night's TV viewing she'll be in water deeper than her ankle for the rest
of the trip.

Not me.  There is something very special about the shore and exhilarating about riding the waves in – I’ll not give it up for a wee spot of fear.  We got up early so went off to see the sunrise.  It was spectacular.  On the way back we saw two very excited dogs digging and barking.  They'd found a crab.  I'm thinking he (the crab) would enjoy this bog - despite the barking and growling, he didn't quit.  As a schnauzer's schnoze would get close, he'd snap at it with his claws and the canine would leap back and dart around to another side.  He was far more Sebastian than Mr. Krabs.

PS.  Today's post and photo aren't from the movies or TV - they are from my children and blackberry.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

"Oh spare me, Clark, I know your brand of family fun. Tomorrow you'll probably kill the desk clerk, hold up a McDonalds, and drive us 1000 miles out of the way to see the world's largest pile of mud!"

Tales from the Script this week looks at a lesson learned from the script I gave notes on.  The descriptions - scene and action - really popped.  I mean seriously.  I noticed it, and my wife noticed it.  She then was supportive enough to draw a direct comparison to my writing.  That's no kidding around; her feedback is honest and extremely helpful - devoid of most sugar coating.

The point made was that my scripts still read like novels.  I am very descriptive, but in a wordy way.  This author accomplished in a line what I struggle to cram into four.  A script is like those sketches that are just a couple strokes and then your mind fills the rest in.  A novel is more like a mural - never ending splashes of color with [often] excruciating detail.  The key is to pick the most important element of the scene - the one with the most VISUAL impact, and use that to describe everything.  It's something I have to practice or my scripts will always be slow reading and tedious.  It makes me wonder if I should just stick to novel writing.  But then I look at the unfinished novels and think, "Probably not a good plan.  I've actually finished screenplays."

I made startling connection this morning between stories and life.  In my mind I specifically used the word

"scripted" as a metaphor for how we planned activities during our vacation and how certain people want certain other people to think, act, and feel a certain way.  Real life is full of things not working out quite right - it's why real life isn't usually good for stories - but the caveat is, and it was demonstrated in the script I was talking about earlier, but if you script it to be perfect, there is not enough drama.  The trick is making things hard for your characters, but then making the right things work out.

So what does the typical family vacation script look like?  Let's just say that I think each of us, deep down or close to surface, can admit that there's a bit of Clark Griswold inside that would take as many hostages as necessary to make everything perfect.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"Look, Jessie. You can't plan who you fall for. It just happens. I mean, look at... Posh and Becks"

Before I talk about today's "Tool of the Trade", I'd like to point your attention to something that is most definitely NOT a necessary part of my writing.  The python.  Especially of thechild eating variety.

What is part of my toolkit are great people.  For this discussion, let's define great people as calculated risk taking doers.  They don't theorize, they don't nay-say, and they don't rest on their laurels.  They get it done when nobody else does.  They are often called lucky and usually are the focal point of a great deal of jealousy.  Many people don't like them claiming that these people are arrogant or assertive but I suspect that what is really driving those negative feelings is self-examination - and seeing where we come up short.


Before you totally disagree with me, I know that some people are just horrible to be around and we both know people that the other of us wouldn't care for, but that isn't what I'm talking about.  There are also lucky people but I think that if more people were willing to latch onto a possibility, take a chance, and go for it, we'd see there were a lot more lucky people in the world.

I enjoyed a wonderful dinner with a mature entrepreneur last night.  He has made hay pretty much everywhere and lives very comfortably.  We were laughing because he's retired about six times but says you can only play so many rounds of golf before you need something else to do.  (I can only make excuses about not completing my writing projects so many times before I'm not really trying anymore.)  He then told a really neat story about my 2nd cousin who has dreamed of being a professional soccer player for about ever.  I remember when he made a college choice based on soccer and how much discussion ensued - "You're crazy for doing this.  Nobody plays professional soccer."

But some people do.  He's now in Guatemala playing for a Manchester United farm team.  There aren't a lot of people playing professional soccer when you look at a global population of 7 billion, but there are some.  They're the people who don't just say, "Man, I want to bend it like Beckham and then marry a Spice Girl."  They're the people who put the hours in to practice, they fight family and friends and people they don't know who say, "You'll never make it.  Be real."  I have little doubt in my mind that he'll leave the minor league and play for a major European professional team.

What about you?  What are you doing?  Are you serious about this writing thing?  I mean really serious?  I know you're talking up a good game, but are you a doer?  I don't think it was luck that got my short story accepted for publication last month, I think it was confidence combined with work - I believed it was good enough that someone should read it and I researched appropriate markets and then read the submission guidelines VERY carefully.  I'm not any luckier than you at all - I sent out three stories and had two rejections.  An incredible average that will only go down.


I'm looking out at the ocean and can't see the other side.  There were only a handful of people with the courage to set out across it.  Watching the waves beat back the shore it's easy to see why so many people gave up or didn't even try.  That's okay - less competition for us.

Monday, August 5, 2013

"You know, it's just like a dead person to say something like that."

Be inspired by where you are.  I can't stress this enough.  As a writer this is true figuratively (as for everyone) but also quite literally.  Everything we produce as writers is based on sharing an experience - whether real or imaginary - with someone else.  The goal of that sharing to is to inform the reader of that place/event/thing in
Talk about being completely there.
the most complete way possible without putting them to sleep or at least yawning and saying, "I get it already.  I'm reading something else."

I've read some remarkable essays over the years.  Now they are usually called "blog posts" unless they are specifically being marketed.  I've also read some really good news pieces.  In Wired, you often find essays filled with news or are biographies - but only the important bits.  I'm actually just realizing how much biography is in Wired.  I'm not really a big fan of the biography.  I've read a few but they don't usually interest me that much, few focus exclusively on the interesting things people have done.  My biography would be pretty dull except for maybe four places.  I'm having a blast but you wouldn't think it was very interesting.  If you did, I'd have to get a restraining order against you , Mr. Stalker.

History is different - tell me all you want about a person as he and significant history interact.  Just don't spend a chapter on the childhood dog.  Sure, the writing is great and I'm glad he played fetch, but unless the dog tried to drown him, what's the point of it in my life?  Don't mean to be rude, just pointing out how the reader thinks.


What a rabbit trail.  Sorry.  The point is, you should be engaged, fully, wherever you are, whether you plan to report it or not.  Let it inspire you because the place, your feelings, the things you say, hear, and think will all find their way into making you a more interesting and authentic author.  Not a writer?  No problem.  You'll be less of a bore at dinner parties.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

"And you people have to tear him down so you can sleep better tonight!"

In the swirling mess that is my head - made even more messy by a pesky migraine today - two comments have come together in a sort of cosmic connection.  Probably not at that scale, but the alliteration was fun.  The first was made to me a few months ago and went something like, "Why do most authors have such low esteem about their work?"  I presumed at the time that it was based on the ratio of rejection to acceptance
He had a terrible headache too.
but now think that isn't quite it.

The second comment was along the lines of, "Why do most people only focus on how far they have to go rather than reflecting, even for a moment, on how far they've come?"

Why, indeed.

I see these two as interconnected now - the writer is never satisfied because he is always improving his skill so anything that was written before isn't as good as it would be, were it written now.  I've read dozens of books where I felt, with a great degree of confidence, that I could have written it better (if only I had the discipline to sit down and write it) but there are dozens more that leave me thinking, "Why am I even trying?  That book was amazing."

We, as writers, always see how far we have to go to be among the greats.  We don't look left or right at our peers - they aren't the mark.  Then, on the occasions when we actually look back, instead of being encouraged, we see only embarrassment - someone actually read that - mixed with hopelessness - I thought that was good?  I have sooo far to go.  When I'm running I have just the opposite.  Two miles was hard, then easy.  Five miles was hard, then easy.  When I look back I can say, "Wow, I've gotten a lot better.  I never could have done this before."

We should be able to do that as writers too.  I don't know why we can't.  Is it that the self promotion makes us uncomfortable?  We already felt weird telling someone that we are so good they should invest their life in reading what we wrote - such arrogance, right?  "I know you usually only read Hemingway and Higgins-Clark, but my stuff is just as worthy of your time."  Is it having to overcome our resistance to that and then looking back and seeing how awful it actually was?  (Usually in our minds only, most terrible writers give up long before more than a few very close friends have seen their work.)

When that doubt creeps in, when you are tempted to belittle how far you've come, resist.  You are better than most because you haven't quit.  Each piece you write on purpose will make you better.  Sure, doubt is still there, but... "Pretend You Don't See Her".