Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Thank you for stalking me, Dad."

It was foggy this morning - that cool humidity that diffuses light, hides the future, and turns life into a series of captured images.  Even with the sun struggling to shine, the wispy tendrils hang on.  The whistle blew, the bell sounded, and then the faintest of lights growing brighter until the Genesis engine broke through the cloud and pulled into the station.

Quite a fitting start to the 31st of October.

In today's "Must See TV" we'll look at Tim Allen's "Last Man Standing."  The pilot did not impress me (as you may recall) but just as you should never judge a book by its cover - unless it has my name as the author, of course - you shouldn't judge a TV show by the pilot.  Often there are substantial changes to the writing team and/or cast between episodes 1 and 2.

Last Man Standing - Tim Allen
LMS was much better in the 2nd episode.  I laughed out loud a few times which is a great trick for Tim Allen.  He has been very successful and lots of people think he's very funny but I never drank the "Home Improvement" Kool-aid and find him just a bit, oh, I don't know... dull?  Repetitive?  He gets old fast.  The Santa Clause movie with him and Martin Short about sent me over the edge.  Alan Arkin saved me from stepping in front of a truck.

Point is, while I have nothing against Tim, I'm just not a huge fan of his work - although "Wild Hogs" was pretty funny.  On the surface, there's nothing new to recommend this show, either.  LMS is a typical sitcom with Tim playing his typical macho man but this time he's the married father of three daughters and the only other male is his baby grandson.  He works in a hunting supply super store (think Cabelas) for Hector Elizondo who is very, very good here.

Generally, LMS is contrived but fun.  It looks like there might be some chemistry in the cast and it was good enough that I plan to watch a few more to find out though I wasn't up for back to back episodes.  Oh, no.  That would have been too much and as I said to my wife, "Even something I'd think was funny on another night will be bleh now, he's always the same."

So we watched an "Office," laughed soundly, and went to bed happy.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"The closer you look, the less you see."

My arms hurt, like I just got finished playing a championship round of "Forearm Smash" with Rich.  You don't know Rich, I went to high school with him, and if you did a forearm smash with him, it hurt.  Ergo, my arms really hurt.  Stupid kettle bells.

The good/bad bit from yesterday ended without a heart attack so all in all, a good day.  Today?  It's dark and rainy.  Probably will be fine.

This week's "Tales From the Script" is an elementary school flashback - we're going to compare and contrast "World War Z" and "Now You See Me."  What?  They don't have anything in common?  Au contraire.

WARNING: Spoilers follow.  There is nothing other than discussion of these two films below and if you plan to see them, I may be ruining the surprises for you.

I did not have great expectations for this film.  I know the book was good but I didn't read it.  #1 and #2 saw it in the theater and thought it was great.  I didn't go.  I'm just not a zombie guy.  Long before the current national obsession began, I was plagued by zombie dreams and so I am just not entertained by them.

WWZ exceed all of my expectations.  It may not be a classic, destined to be taught in film schools for years to come, but it was very good at what it was.  The story moved along at a good clip and while there were no real surprises in the plot, you didn't have to wait for the film to catch up with where you were.  The setting was spiced up with all sorts of tid-bits.  I especially like the North Korean solution.

WWZ got all of the mumbo jumbo out of the way early.  That's key for a film like this.  The world was set, and then the rules were followed.  People were becoming zombies and Brad Pitt was some sort of specialized trouble shooter with mad skilz that would save the day.  Straightforward “grailing.”

When I say they got the pace down, they nailed it.  This was one of the most suspenseful films I've watched.  It wasn't so much scary as immersive - very similar to the feeling evoked by "Gravity."  In fact, watching this was much like watching "Aliens" back when it first came out.  These are not your Father’s zombies.

It was gory, it was startling, and there was a bit of foul language so the PG-13 rating is more than fair.  If you can stand that, are looking for an action movie, and want dangerous zombies rather that the pitiful walking dead sort, then you may want to catch WWZ - the first Brad Pitt movie I've seen where he leaves his shirt on for the whole film.

I thought this was going to be an awesome movie.  The opening teaser they released back in the beginning of the summer had me saying things like, "If we only see one movie in a theater this year, it has to be this one."  We didn't make it to the theater.  It was gone very quickly from our neighborhood.  Now I know why.

It wasn't a bad movie - we were entertained - but it wasn't good either – that’s harsh, it didn’t meet my expectation from the promise of the poster.  I got a trusted recommendation to see it and I did enjoy it, but… there were problems.

The biggest problem I had was that the mumbo jumbo was NOT taken care of in the beginning.  In fact, the end was just plain dumb.  I felt cheated.  I don't mind twists, turns, surprises, etc., but the end of this film was pure double mumbo jumbo.  Dues ex machina all the way.

And that was the next problem I had with the movie.  I realize that they were magicians and it was magic but there wasn't a single setback for any of them.  The ego problems were never really explored, the love triangle never developed, no growth, no challenges.  They walked in, floated around a bit, and walked out.  Dues ex machina.

Then there were the technical things – like a high speed chase on the FDR.  Are you kidding?  Has anyone involved with the film every been on the FDR?  There was also the scene where they discretely followed the safe – with six police cars escorting it, lights flashing.  I know about a loose tail and that’s not what it looks like.

There were some great scenes and I enjoyed them, but it's almost like in the planning there were a couple of clear ideas and the writers sort of strung them together with taffy.  I did like how they used magic to fight and escape - the card trick payoff was brilliant - but they came off as super heroes without a super villain to fight.

My final complaint with NYSM is Morgan Freeman.  He was awesome.  Amazing.  Dominated the screen.  Nobody else in the film was in his league so he made them look bad.  In some cases, really bad.  Casting him didn't bring the movie up, it pointed out how good it wasn't.  I don't want to be down on the rest of the cast, but he made their performances seem flat.  That may have been the way it was written too, though.  It's hard to inject life into a lifeless role.  But Atlas?  I just didn't like him, never rooted for him, and didn't care what happened to him.

There wasn't any gore in NYSM, the rating was just for language and they had to put a lot in to bring this fairly tame story in the profitable PG-13 slot.  There were bright lights, a good fusion jazz soundtrack, and plenty of magic tricks going for this film, it's not a waste of time.  It just isn't as good as it could have been.  I mean really, who thought that was a good ending?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Conference room. Now."

Today will be an interesting day for me - it will be for you too if you read my GITS guest post.  Back to my day... It's been a morning of extremes - good and bad - so I can't wait to see how it ends.  Hopefully it won't be a good kettle bell workout followed by a heart attack!

Maybe I should provide some context?  It was good that we had blueberry pop tarts, bad that the box fell down behind the drawers in the pantry.  It was good that #1 was able to drive #2 to the barn this morning on his way to school, bad that it took me 13 (!!) minutes to make a right turn on my way to the train.

Since the first thing waiting for me in the office today is a staff meeting (bad), there will hopefully be some good news...  You know?  This is a neat way to ponder the day.  But it has nothing to do with my regular Tuesday column, "Tools of the Trade."

The Office
Every (don't you love it when I start a sentence with such confidence?) serious and seriously aspiring screen writer needs a script specific writing application for his computer.  I chose Final Draft.  It isn't for everyone and Movie Magic is another extremely popular choice that may be better for you.  But you need one of them (or that free one, if you don't mind the learning curve).

So why did I chose FD since my recommendation is not exactly glowing?  Personal preference.  I tried the demos of both and found FD to be a little more natural.  I don't like to be distracted by my tools - I want to reach blindly for the wrench and put my hand on it without having to think about it.  FD does that for me.

I do the bulk of my writing on my iPad in Storyist (which I love and wrote about here) but there are formatting and analytical tools that the iPad version doesn't have.  I could make Storyist work with MM, but it was easier with FD.  I also don't use the advanced features that both of them offer - I don't track my revisions in a single file.

I also don't use the notecard feature.  By the time I'm working at the computer, the script is written.  I'm using it to look for name misspellings or to check the balance of description to dialogue, to count scenes, and to FORMAT the script correctly for printing when I'll be sending it somewhere.  Like to contests, or for local productions - like the Spy Guy movie from the summer, or the Christmas Play we've just started rehearsals for.

I also like that FD will read my script out loud.  I always edit by reading out loud, but hearing something else read it, even as mechanical as FD is, helps a lot.  I found several errors in my BlueCat submission by sitting through a reading of it.

I do very little writing in FD though - mostly because I write when I'm out of the studio - so keep that in mind if you are leaning toward it based on my positive experience.  Certainly do NOT buy the iPad version of Final Draft.  But you already knew that, if you read anything about it.

Monday, October 28, 2013

"I can't call him because he's in a coma!"

We had a full weekend - kettle bells, carving pumpkins, boat out for the season, fall camp fire party,  Christmas play practice, jogging in the freezing cold darkness with dumbbells (yo, Rocky!), and a viewing of “World War Z.”

More about the movie on Wednesday.  Today is Monday, let's talk about inspiration.  Actually, I'd like to talk about the opposite for a minute.  I'm sure you've heard that misery loves company.  Oh the truth of it.  As a manager I work very hard to stomp out negativity anywhere I find it just because it's so destructive and self-perpetuating.  I'm no Pollyanna, but I've seen firsthand the devestation wrought by plummeting morale when griping is allowed to continue unchecked.

"As the World Tunrs"
I believe that creative people are highly susceptible to the effects of group negativity - whether because they are over sensitive in the first place or they allow their imaginations to run wild with the most diabolical what-ifs.  Few things are more fragile than the creative ego.

I read an article in the late 90s about a study that suggested that Police Officers needed to have friends outside of law enforcement.  The article pointed to high rates of suicide compared to other fields and suggested that the difficult nature of the work, the adversarial nature of most of the professional contacts, and the constant exposure to the underbelly of our society led to depression and by socializing with others in the same field, the problems were magnified instead of resolved.  The piece went further to state that those officers who socialized with people outside of the profession were happier in life, marriage, and  were far less likely to commit suicide.

As a creative person, you should also seek out and foster relationships with people who are not creative.  I'm not saying don't participate in writing groups, rather that your best friend should be someone who has never seen "Casablanca", thinks books are to hold the door open to let smoke out of the house when dinner catches on fire, and couldn't tell you the difference between Rembrandt and Mozart.

Those sorts of relationships will keep you grounded.  Art is decoration for life.  It is not life.  That's a hard thing to say, but you don't eat art.  You don't clothe yourself in art.  You don't live in art.  Obviously there are specific exceptions by specific performance artists, but please, if you are arguing like that you've already accepted my point – that you don’t sip lemonade on the porch with art when you’re 80 and talk about the good old days.

An artist may be able to commiserate with you in a way that a “non-artist” might not.  But you don't need that every day.  What you need, when you struggle to “show up every day,” is someone reminding you that you aren’t saving the world.  That your life is more than the words or colors you put on the page.  You don’t lose perspective then.  You always remember why you are doing it.

I write because it's something I love.  It's a wonderful feeling when someone else likes what I've created.  I hope to someday be commercially successful with my writing.  But there's a lot more to my life, and my ego, than the printed page.  I received a rejection notice last week.  I'm not sure which story it was for - I'll have to look it up.  I forgot to mention it to my friends because we had a lot of other things going on and it completely slipped my mind until I sat down to write this morning.  It wasn't the most important thing to me.  I will do another pass of the story, change some words, maybe even do a whole rewrite.  Then I’ll send it out again.  Meanwhile, the world will continue to turn.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

"What's your dirt doin' in his ditch?"

Today is the day that I give up completely on an endless summer for 2013.  The temperature this morning was below freezing when I got up and so I must, with heavy heart and wet feet, take the boat out of the water.  But what to do with it this year?  I mean, it isn't exactly some squirrels stash of acorns.  Hmm.  Imagine a three ton stash of acorns.  And the squirrel that made it.

There's a clear space in the yard next to the garage and I expect to keep it there this year, under two layers of covers, sheltered from the snow by the big trees that, when it does snow, I fear will fall onto the boat.
Cool Hand Luke

When we first moved in you couldn't drive to this parking space.  There was a two foot retaining wall.  We had big old Bounder J back then (a 34 foot class A RV) and needed a place to park it so I got out the spade, the mattocks, and the wheelbarrow.  I moved that retaining wall with my bare hands - okay, they were gloved hands.

The Bounder sat there for a couple of years and then we sold it.  When it rained, mud would wash onto the driveway in deep gully began to form in the yard.  I had an idea - Hows about I put the wall back?  So I got the spade, the mattocks, and the wheelbarrow.  I moved that retaining wall back.  But the dirt had washed away and needed some more bricks for some reason.  Off to Lowe's I went.  Got what I needed in just a few more trips that it should have taken, and presto-change-O, new wall, better than the old wall.

Then my campaign to get a new boat met with success (just keep putting on the grocery list, eventually you'll get whatever you want).  Only one problem.  Where to park it?  I found the perfect place for it but first there was a retaining wall that I had to move...

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Love the DMV

The post is a bit late today, I've been working with DMV and the Commonwealth's funky V&T regulations re emissions.  It has been an interesting day and it isn't over yet.  My first stop was DMV and I had the odd experience of not having to wait before going to the counter.  Then I discovered that wasn't the odd part of the day.

The clerk was very friendly and it turned out that I didn't the form I'd brought (internet site was wrong) so I was over-prepared.  Good for me.  Then she accidentally knocked her drink off the counter.  It fell, the cup broke, and the contents went everywhere.  It wasn't water.  It wasn't even coffee.  It was a breakfast shake.  She stared at it for a minute and then said, "I'll be right back."  She left.  She came back in about a minute with paper towels.

She cleaned it up.  Two supervisors watched.  The clerk at the next station watched.  I watched.  She had to go in back and get more paper towels.  Then one of the supervisors came over to the station and I thought, "Okay, maybe she's going to pick up where the clerk left off and I can get on with the day."  Nope.  She put up a sign that said, "In Training" and then walked away.

After a bit more than 5 minutes the mess was cleaned up.  We went forward with the transfer of title and registration.  Then we did it again.  Then the clerk asked her neighbor why the system wouldn't take the transaction.  "What's the error message?"  She did it again but this time noted the error message - "Vehicle ineligible for temporary registration."  The neighbor said, and this is not embellished for the sake of the story, "You can't do it because the vehicle is ineligible for a temporary registration."  My clerk said, "Oh."  I very wisely, and uncharacteristically, remained silent.

We looked at each other for more than a few heartbeats.  Then she turned to her neighbor and said, "So what do I do?"  Turns out what happens is that you get a piece of paper which lets you drive the car for one day.  I needed emissions work - not just the inspection - so I asked, "Are you telling me that if the garage needs to order parts and spend a couple of days working on it, I'll have to come back and get another 1 day registration just to test drive it?"


There was some discussion and a couple of the supervisory audience members offered helpful comments.  I ended up with a one day registration.  The garage was very happy to see me with the temporary registration but couldn't believe that I only got a single day.  I asked if they could get it done and they thought probably, but nobody was available to drive it around.  Good thing I have a driver's license.  I've now driven the car well over 100 miles to reset the system and am waiting for the results (some work has already been done, it may actually pass) but I'm left wondering at the regulations.

While I was driving the miles I never would have otherwise (burning irreplaceable fossil fuels and emitting all sorts of toxins into the environment) I was regularly interacting with a Freightliner tractor that coughed great clouds of black smoke every time he went on or off the throttle.  Far more toxins than I'm likely to emit during the course of a month.  Or even a year – it was a really thick black cloud.

I'm sympathetic to the owner/operators who are trying to make a living on our highways - but really?  It really sort of makes me think I'm having my time wasted.  Could it be that Virginia just doesn't want 17 year old cars on the highway?  Or is there some other, some political? reason that the standards are so different?

I did enjoy my hours driving the car.  I'm quite impressed at how well it runs.  If you hid the odometer I'd guess it had 150,000 fewer miles on it than the indicated 212,000.  No hick-ups with the engine, no stutter shifts, no play in the steering or freaky clunks anywhere.  1996 was a good year for Toyota and the exemplar we have is - wait for it - exemplary.  But this wasn’t the only thing I planned to work on today.

I'm sure you were expecting the usual Must See TV post but this little adventure was far more entertaining than the new show I tried this week - "Last Man Standing" with Tim Allen.  I will give it another couple of episodes, just to be fair, but I'm shocked that Netflix thinks I'll like it as much as the 4.1 star recommendation indicates.  It's forced, incoherent, and chock full of stereotyped clich├ęs.

Have you been watching?  Should I stick with it or save my life for something a bit less "Home Improvement" with girls?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Yo, Adrian."

I'm still very excited about having been featured by The Publication Coach.  I felt like I've just received a call from Carl Weather's manager (as Apollo Creed, of course) and told that the champ wants to meet me.

It's easy to mock a film franchise that just keeps adding numbers after the title.  After all, how creative is that?  It's like those people who end their passwords with a number and increase it by one each time the system says, "Password Expired, please enter a new one."  You know those people right?  What?  Stop looking at me!

Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings - each film was unique and complete in itself (except maybe Empire...) - and all had their own name.  We talk about Return of the King being epic, or Raiders being perhaps the greatest film ever made.  Then there are Jurassic Park, Iron Man, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th,… - not so much on the original side for either title or story.  But it's easy to forget, when you are watching part 14 of something, that the original story was pretty good, perhaps even very good, and that’s why are getting to watch it again.

Rocky and Adrian
The problem is that if you watch a part 2 or 4 first, you think the whole shebang is bunk.  That's what happened to me with a certain boxer from Philadelphia.  I remember seeing trailers and posters for his movies - always the same - a sweaty guy in a boxing ring – in a never ending upward count (remember the Space Balls newscast with a review of Rocky 5… thousand?  I saw bits and pieces of some of the movies, rocked out to their themes, but when I was finally old enough to actually go watch one in the theater we were on #5.  It was awful.  Truly a terrible movie.

The boxer?  Rocky Balboa, of course.  I did eventually watch all of Rocky IV (I wore out my tape of the soundtrack) and it might have been good when it came out but it seemed pretty thin to me.

Why does everyone gush over "Rocky" - saying things usually reserved for such classics as "Gone With the Wind" and "Casablanca?"  Time and again, I asked people about Rocky and they all pretty much said, "Awesome movie.  You should definitely watch it."  How could this be?  Inquiring minds want to know so recently I've read bits of the script.  It seemed like a good story and with all the fuss, to not actually watch the film would be snobby at this point.

So we watched it this weekend during "Family Movie Night."  I was blown away.  I entered with pretty low expectations but now I can't get that silly song out of my head (though I’m air boxing rather than doing jazz hands).  It was a great movie followed by a half dozen copycats that weren't.  Let me repeat that.  Rocky was a great movie.  I recommend it to everyone.

The best scene in the movie for my wife and I was when Rocky is talking to the teenage girl that he pulls away from the wrong crowd and walks home.  The two of them go back and forth and children #3 and #4 started complaining about how "This movie makes no sense" and "What language are they speaking?" and "I can't understand this guy."  We were rolling on the floor, rotflol-ing out loud.

#1 watched the whole movie with us - and enjoyed it.  He said, "You know?  I like Rocky.  He kept trying to do the right thing even though he did some bad stuff."  And that sums it up.  In the original story, we care about Rocky.  He's a half-bum with a dream, a young man trying to get the girl.  He was honest, earnest and relatable and you couldn't help but root for him.

I think this movie worked so well because it was about a man who loved to box, not boxing.  Rocky knocked "Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot!" out of the top spot for Sylvester Stallone movies in my book.  That's kind of funny, in a way, because "Rocky" was written by Stallone - not known for his writing - while SORMWS! was penned by none other than Blake Snyder - the man behind the well-respected "Save the Cat" books.

Do you have any memories of Rocky?  Did you find inspiration from the Itallian Stallion?  I'll be running with bricks in my hands from now on.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The 5 Best Blogs for Beginning Screenwriters

When I first started writing, the only source of help I had was a father who majored in English, a teacher that lived in the city and got me a book about the craft, and a subscription to Writer's Digest.  Twenty years later, things are bit different and not necessarily in a good way.  The internet has put a lifetime's worth of reference materials at our fingertips but hasn't provided much in the way of a rating system so we know who to listen to and who to ignore.

This is where I thank you for choosing to listen to me as I list the "5 Best Blogs for Beginning Screenwriters" on today's Tools of the Trade.

1.  The Blackboard.  Okay, the blog is actually Go Into The Story, but The Blackboard is the community behind it and this one - two punch makes this the standout resource for writers of all skill levels.  The blog is about film, the community is about writing with a heavy emphasis on film and tv but I have found the tips and exercises very helpful for general fiction.  There are threads covering every topic imaginable and the participants are extremely helpful.  (Often contains mild profanity.)

2.  Script Magazine.  The digital-only magazine dedicated to writing for, and breaking into, the film business.  It's the Writer's Digest of the movies and I have it delievered directly to my inbox.  The posts are all very positive and encouraging, even when they tell you the odds are completely against you and you'll probably fail, it's written with a tone that makes you think you are the exception - the one who will make it.  I especially like that they have regular columns written by industry professionals.  It's a magazine, it's a blog, it's solid foundational knowledge.  (Rare use of profanity.)

3.  The Publication Coach.  I started reading Daphne Gray-Grant's blog about the time I started writing my blog.  It's short, informative, and covers a wide array of subject matter but all of it relating to writing or being and interesting writer.  I don't always find every post relevant, but the blog is so good I check in every day anyway - even though it has nothing to do with screenwriting.  In the interest of full disclosure, there was a recent post about me - but that came about only because I was already a fan.  (No objectionable content.)

4.  Doug Richardson's Blog.  Doug is a great story teller.  He puts you right there.  I read this blog as much to absorb his grasp of style and pacing as to learn about his escapades in Hollywood.  But the stories are really very good and you feel like you are right in the mix with studio bosses, agents, hangers on, and even Sean Connery.  I like that Doug came from the outside and broke in.  I like that he shares his experiences in such an entertaining way.  He never tells you how to write, never tells you that "you can do it, just work hard."  Instead, he writes like you're a pal, an equal, and so you are left feeling that he knows you are going to make it - no need to talk about it.  (Most posts contain some mild profanity.  Occasionally uses of stronger profanity.)

5.  Bamboo Killers - the blog of Emily Blake.  Emily has done script notes for me.  She's a straight to the point, no holds barred critic of everything and that was exactly what I wanted.  She isn't cruel, but she doesn't sugar coat anything.  Her blog is just like that - "Here's the way it is.  Either do it or go home."  She was an English teacher in the darker places of LA before breaking in.  Her story is inspiring and while she takes a lot of heat for being "negative", her pragmatic view of the industry is refreshing and important grounding.  Too much negative is bad, but if you don't have a "voice of reason" then you won't be prepared for the rejections when they come.  She wants you to succeed, but not to waste anybody's time.  This blog was on hiatus for several months but now she is posting new content again each week.  The archives are a treasure trove of information about the experience of breaking in.  (Frequent use of strong profanity.)

There are some other great blogs out there - you'll find a list of additional blogs at each of the sites above - but these are the best place to start for a new screenwriter who doesn't want to be led astray.

Monday, October 21, 2013

"Come on down!"

It's Monday already.  For me it started in even earlier than usual.  I met a friend for breakfast so I had to get up really, really early.  I am not a morning person.  Not one single bit.  But he's a good friend.  And I like bacon.

Since I'm up, and drinking lots of coffee, and full of opinions, it's time for Monday's Inspiration.

Bob Barker - The Price is Right
I have a cousin who is my hero (not heroine - apparently we don't use that word any more.  Or actress, for that matter).  She purposes in her heart and then makes it so.  Repeatedly.  She was a huge fan of "The Price is Right" for her whole life.  At Christmas one year she told us that Bob Barker was retiring - "Oh, gee." we all said.  She said, "You don't understand.  This is my last year to get on the show and kiss Bob."  My hero then proceeded to tell us about how she was going to Burbank in May to be on the show.  There were lots of, "Okay, then." sort of comments.  I felt bad for her.  She was excited and only a couple of us (all cousins) were "Hollywood" excited back.  Look, if anyone could get on the show from our family it would be her.

Later that summer I was in the enviable position of watching "The Price is Right" with several coworkers and being able to say, "That's my cousin."  She got to kiss Bob.  She works on a cruise ship now.  On the other side of the world.  Don't tell her “no.”  Ever.  Look at her and know that if you approach life with hope, dreams come true.

At breakfast this morning my friend commented on my blog.  He said, "Jon, when you started this thing I figured two weeks, tops.  You're really doing this though.  You're going to pull it off."  Forgive the hubris please, but he's right.  Discipline is a big part of that realization but really, it's about believing in the dream.

I believe in my dream.  I believe in yours too, do you?

Do you like this blog?  Subscribe by email at the bottom of this page and you'll recieve a short injection of my off-beat perspective in your mailbox every morning.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

"I just killed my wife. Is that bad?"

I had to drag a tire this morning.  My wife helped.  We weren't broken down on the side of the road and I wasn't making repairs to #1's new car (which is older than he is) - I'll be doing that when I finish this post.  We were at Koa doing the kettle bell workout and getting a break from Russian Swings by burning up our calves and quads and lungs.  Writing got easier after I'd been at it for a few months.  This kettle bell business hasn't!

The big community clothing sale is going on this weekend at a local elementary school.  It's quite something and has grown since we've been here.  A few years ago we stopped just shopping and now sell too.  The unsold items go to charity.  The prep (tagging everything) and setup (getting everything into the school and to the right rooms) takes many hours and involves fighting for parking and table space with a thousand other people.  Okay, that's an exaggeration, we'll say 800 other people.  The best part is that you don't have to sit there all day - all the sellers take turns and work a 2 hour shift during the weekend.  It's very well organized and some folks about fifty miles north might want to take notes.

The selection of products to sell at the sale is always an interesting process.  The kids suddenly need everything they haven't touched in a year.  It reminded me that everything has a story.  It reminded me specifically of a Steven King story - "Needful Things" which I never read but did watch the movie - Ed Harris, Bonnie Bedelia, and Max von Sydow.  Each item in the store had something nasty attached to it and by the end of the film, evil was ruining the town.  (My spoiler alert was that it was a story by Steven King - they all end that way.)
Needful Things

I got to thinking two things about the story I wrote yesterday.  The first was that it was just a tad over 2k words - the daily output of Mr. King, according to his book and a great encouragement to me.  The second was that I wrote it very quickly so I wondered how that happened, especially considering that it wasn't the story I had been planning to write this week.  I came to the realization that, like the closets and toy chests in my house, there are objects in my mind that I don't often use but when I look in and see them I have an immediate emotional connection.

The great thing about writing instead of packing for the great community sale, is you don't have to give up your memories to make room for new ones.  The items that came home from the sale got me to thinking - what was the little boy like who wore that hat?  What happened to the person in Bangladesh that made this orange sweatshirt, was it orange when s/he made it?

I hope you never close your eyes, or your heart, to the stories you carry within.

Friday, October 18, 2013

"I saw it standing by the water."

Usually I'm not too thrilled about switch problems delaying the train, but today it gave me the extra time I needed to finish the story.  I hope you enjoy it.

Gray Ghosts
By Jonathan Stark
October, 2013; 2183 words

1985 was the year that Mark went from being the middle child to being the oldest.  He was 15 and, looking back, would tell you that no other year in his life had so many changes in it.    Joel's death hit him hard, it came suddenly from across the double yellow, but it was also the year that he fell in love with Stephanie.  And she fell in love back.  It was the year that his parents finally took them to Disney World and the year that his grandparents’ house burned down.  It was a year of extremes but the biggest shift, the most important, was what happened to his relationship with the little guy, the brat, the spoiled kid who came along 4 years after he did and made him middle, second.  It took the death of their brother to bring Mark and Seth together but together they came, and that first summer after the accident, the summer of 1985, was the greatest of his youth.

For his part, Seth had always looked up to his bigger brother Mark.  Joel was too much older, more like an adult who sometimes had time to play but was much too busy with work and his older friends to be reliable.  Don't misunderstand, Seth adored his biggest brother and some of his friends - the ones his parents didn't really care for - thought it was totally awesome that Seth had a brother who would be old enough to buy them beer by Thanksgiving.

But that's not what this story is about.  In the last week of June that year, Mark and Seth went camping together.  They'd set up in the backyard many times, and both Mark and Joel had been camping deep in the woods behind their house for years, off in the State Forest somewhere having adventures that Seth was incredibly jealous of.  He would pack his gear while they were packing, always hoping that they'd invite him along, always hoping that this time Mom would say it was okay to go, and then always leaving his rucksack on his bed and getting to walk just to the edge of the field, but no further.

The ruck was a castoff, an old army surplus bag that Mark gave him when he got his real backpack - a pack with pockets and hooks, and a metal frame.  The kind with a belt to keep some of the weight off of his shoulders.  Seth was very careful about what went into his ruck.  A flashlight with extra batteries.  A dozen wooden matches snuck from the box in the kitchen were sealed in a small water proof container.  He had three emergency candles that his aunt had given him, an old MRE he'd found in his grandfather's garage, and the compass he won in the science contest at school.

When Mom approved the trip, Seth ran to his room and threw on his pack, ready.  He stood impatiently in Mark's doorway, watching as his big brother - it hit him for a moment that Joel really was gone - load up.  Tent, sleeping bag, sweatshirt, pillowcase, newspaper, food, two canteens, socks.  Another pair of socks.

Mark looked at his brother.  The contempt was missing.  "You have your sleeping bag?"  He didn't.  "You have warm clothes?  It gets cold in the Valley of the Gray Ghost."

A chill ran down Seth's back.  "We're going to the Valley?"

Mark smiled.  "If we're going to do this, we're going to do it right."  He paused.  "Unless you're too scared."

Seth was terrified.  "I'm not scared."  He went back to his room and repacked.  Mark came in and helped him.  Gave him a canteen.

Mom met them at the front door.  "Have fun.  Be careful."

"We will." said Mark.

"Where are you going?" she asked.

"Over to the Valley." said Mark.

"Okay.  Stay out of the river.  And make sure you have plenty of water to put the fire out."  She hugged them both.  Seth thought maybe a little too hard and long.  "I love you."

They were out the door and up the trail.  It was a well-worn path through a small bit of woods that opened into a field.  A hundred years before someone had surrounded it with a stone wall and planted something, or let animals graze.  Today it was full of scrub and tall grasses, milkweed and bugs.

They made their way to the forest on the other side.  A real forest climbing up the side of the mountain.  "Last chance to go back." said Mark.  "Once we're inside, the ghosts can come at any time."

Seth looked at the bright blue sky, felt the summer sun beating down on him.  "I hope so.  I want to see one."

The hike wasn't difficult except where they made it so, climbing the short steep banks instead of going around the easier way.  It was more fun, and Seth's imagination had them escaping from a tribe of cannibals, then on a secret mission to blow up a dam.

Mark was quiet until they reached the top.  "The Indians say that the gray ghosts came to chase the white man out of their lands."

"What Indians?" asked Seth.

"The ones that lived here until they died."

"Where did they die?"

Mark pointed.  "One of them died right there by that big old tree.  Some of them jumped from the cliff over there.

Seth stared at the tree.  It was ancient, the bark thick with deep crevices.  The soil around it was dark and fragrant.  High above the canopy swayed.  It had branches thicker than he was.  Mark watched him.  "I love that tree."

"I've never seen one so big." said Seth.

They sipped from canteens and then started down the other side.  Seth wanted to scale the cliff but Mark wouldn't let him.  "It's too far down, too dangerous."

"But you could do it, right?"  asked Seth.  Mark shook his head.

"If we were being chased?  If the Russians were coming after us?  You could do it then, right?"

"I suppose I could, if the Russians were coming."  said Mark.  Seth knew he could too, if that happened.  "Of course," said Mark, "We'd need to be careful that the Indians didn't push us off."

The Valley opened up at the foot of the hill.  It was preserved wilderness and Seth felt that he was in an alien world.  There were no roads, or power lines, or houses.  A brook ran down through the scattered trees.  He saw a flash of white ahead.

"What was that?" asked Seth.

Mark looked.  "I didn't see it."

"It looked like..." he trailed off.  "Do you think I might have seen one of the ghosts?"

"Maybe.  I've seen them here." said his big brother.  "Where did you see it?  We'll check it out."

They moved along the valley floor, Seth leading.  Excitement and pride warred with fear as he chased the flash of white.

Squirrels chattered in the trees and then stopped as they drew near.  Birds called from overhead.  Mark had rarely been in the woods on such a perfect day.  He'd rarely had so much fun with his little brother.

They crossed the brook on stepping stones, Mark going first now and helping Seth with the biggest jump.  A ravine cut into the hill on the other side and they decided to follow it.  It ended with a steep climb and Mark was concerned Seth couldn't make it.

"I don't have a choice." said Seth.

"The Russians?"  asked Mark.  Seth nodded.  Mark gave him directions on which rocks to trust, which trees to grab, and stayed very close behind.  Twice Seth slipped and nearly fell.  But they made it.

"Nice job, little bro."  Seth almost burst.  "Check this out."  Mark led him to an opening in the trees.  They walked out onto a ledge and had a view of the wilderness that took Seth's breath away.  "We'll make camp down there, where that brook runs into the river."

They spent an hour hiking to the spot and Seth began to feel the weight of the pack.  Once they arrived he took it off gladly and helped set up the tent.  They gathered stones from the river and made a circle for their fire.  Mark stopped suddenly while they working and pointed, "There!  Did you see it?  The flash of white?"

Seth didn't see it, but he did hear the crashing in the undergrowth.  "They're watching us, aren't they?"

Mark said they were, "But as long as you respect the forest, they'll leave you be."

They left their gear and hiked around some more.  A tree had fallen across the river and Mark jumped up on to it.  "Let's cross."

"But Mom said not to."

"No, she said to stay out of it.  Don't fall off and you're good." said Mark.  He jumped a little, testing how well it rested.  Nothing even shook.  "Come on.  I'll help you."  He did.  They made it across.

A short time later they found a pile.  "What's that?"

Mark poked it with a stick.  "Looks like bear scat.  We better put the food up."

Bear?  Ghosts were scary, but bears were hungry.  Seth felt the first twinges of real fear.

They went back and started the fire.  "When did you see your first ghost?"

Mark thought about it.  "I was about your age.  Joel and I were out here, further up a bit I think, and I saw it standing by the water.  It watched us for a minute, Joel said to be quiet and not to move.  Like I could move - I was scared to death."  He stopped talking, trailing off in memory.

Seth realized that Mark must really miss their brother.  He put his arm out, rested it awkwardly on his brother's shoulder.

They roasted hotdogs and ate chips.  Lots of chips.  As it grew dark, Seth insisted on a story.  Mark told him the one about the old man sitting outside of the mansion, warning the kids not to go inside.  Twice the boys saw what looked like white ghosts running through the scattered trees.

When they were ready to go to sleep, Mark put the food into the ruck, strung a rope over a low branch, and hoisted it into the air.  They put out the fire and climbed into the tent.  Seth fell asleep quickly and didn't wake up until the dead of night.

He wasn't sure what woke him up.  Mark was snoring quietly next to him and the night was still, quiet, and dark.  He tried to go back to sleep but couldn't.  Then he heard a wail.  Or howl.  "No big deal." he said to himself.  But he couldn't sleep.  And it came again.  Was he imagining that it was closer?

No, definitely closer.  He felt a building pressure and knew he had to get out of the tent to go to the bathroom.  But the howling.  He woke Mark.  "I have to pee."

"Go by the river." said Mark.

"The ghosts are howling."

Mark sat up.  Listened.  "I don't hear anything."

"They stopped."

"Then you'll be fine."  Mark went back to sleep.

Seth didn't.  He also didn't go out of the tent.  But he had to.  He got his flashlight.  He reached for the zipper.  The howl came again.

"Mark, Mark."  He woke him again.  "I think they're closer." Mark looked at him in the gloom.  "And the bear is out there."

"Okay, I'll go with you."  They left the tent and while Seth was going, the howl came again.

"Did you hear it that time?"  Seth sounded very scared.  Mark resisted the urge to tease him, to claim he hadn't.

"Yes.  Those are coyotes.  They'll leave us alone.  I think they're on the other side of the ridge anyway."

Seth wasn't sure about that and hurried back to the tent.  He heard crashing nearby and shined his light just in time to catch the dancing white of a ghost.  "That one was close." said Mark.

Seth spent the rest of the night with his head buried under his sleeping bag.

The next morning they broke camp and hiked home.  It was still an adventure.  It was still fun.  But they didn't see any more of the ghosts.  "Where did they go?" asked Seth.

"They know we're leaving, that they don't have to worry about us."


"That's part of the mystery." said Mark.

"What are they?"

"It's a secret.  You'll learn."  Mark ruffled his hair.  “Some day.”

He did.  It was autumn and they were driving home just after dark.  Dad swerved suddenly but not in time and there was a sickening thud as something hit the front of the car.  Seth looked out the window and saw a flash of white disappearing into the trees.

“Poor thing.” said Mom.

Dad snorted.  “It’s just deer.  Too many of them this year, it’s going to be a hard winter.”  Nobody said anything after that for a long time.