Thursday, May 29, 2014

"It's a snow cone maker?"

I did a notes exchange last week for Falling Star.  Got some good suggestions which led to a few structural changes.  I think that I’ve increased the contrast and stakes for the conflicts.  We’ll see what my opinion is a year from now.  An interesting side effect was that I got to read a script for half hour cartoon – not something I would have read otherwise.  It’s not my story to tell so I won’t share the details here, but I wish the author well.  It was entertaining.

Also entertaining was Godzilla.  Not amazing, not mind blowing, not anything of the sort of thing that would get a headline were I to write for a newspaper.  It was exactly what it said it was going to be.  A Godzilla movie.  The fact that it made so much money during the first weekend is a statement about 1) how many people love Godzilla movies, 2) The incredible marketing that made people think they might love a Godzilla movie, and 3) how hungry people are for real action movies rather than CGI demo videos.

The most startling thing for me about the film was the restrained way in which the CGI was used to advance the story rather than using this film as a resume for the next project.  Yes, there was a lot of CGI but if you remember Jurassic Park, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  As Eric Clapton said, “It’s in the way that you use it.”  There were no high-speed, shaky camera, Disney World rollercoaster action sequences of giant insects eating fighter planes.  You could actually watch the film without getting a headache.

I was not expecting a story so I was pleasantly surprised.  There is a story.  With arcs and everything.  It wasn’t complicated, there were no twists, but it bore us along without being boring.  Everything made sense, in a “this is a universe that has Godzilla” sort of way.  I didn’t get pulled out of the story saying, “What?  That’s dumb.”  Maybe it was my low expectations but I don’t think so.  I think it was that there was actually a relatable story.  I might have done it a little bit differently but I haven’t been hired yet.

The magic formula of this film, in my opinion, is that it didn’t pretend to be something it wasn’t.  It promised a story about Godzilla and delivered that in spades with polish and style.  I haven’t seen much of that in the action genre over the last few years.  Earlier this month I was complaining that CGI has destroyed movies because you don't need any ingenuity in the writing or effects department, you just need some screwball idea and a computer whiz.  There has been nothing in any of the Marvel “blockbusters” that even comes close to True Lies.  Terminator 2 had computer generated effects, but it was also filled with amazing stunt work that gave the picture a more honest feel.

**Spoiler Alert** in case you haven’t read the papers that said a Godzilla sequel was ordered the Monday after opening weekend.  Godzilla gets up at the end of the movie and goes back into the ocean.  Like another famous Californian, he’ll be back.  Will it be as good?  No.  It will be the most expensive film made that year and will flop horribly because they’ll insist on “the same but bigger” rather than what works.  It’ll be Jurassic Park 2 all over, a big budget brand name rushed to be released in a lucrative time slot.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Blazing Footstools

I missed the #5 minute fiction this week.  I was just about done, writing the last line and judging whether or not there was enough time for a quick read through when ZZZap.  Out went the power.  I was not using a laptop.

I also did not have a flashlight handy.  Or my cell phone.  It was cave dark.

By the time the power came back it was much too late to attempt recovery.  Fortunately the house didn’t blow away.  And the power did come back.  I consoled myself by watching Chuck.

October 8, 1871 – Chicago, IL
It has been a wonderful stay in the windy city.  The last four days have been quite full.  Who would have thought there would be so much going on this far west?  I’m expecting the O’Leary’s back on the eight o’clock train in the morning and will then be on my way to Manitoba to inspect a ranching operation for Mr. Cogsworth.

That leaves just tonight for one last bit of frolicking in the big city.  I plan to start with “The Five Tubs” and then have dinner at the Windsor Ascot, their steak is amazing.  That reminds me, I think I left the lantern in the barn when I finished milking Bessie.  I’d better get that before

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Were you scared?

“Were you scared?”

“Not the first time.”

How’s that for a conversation?  It’s funny, but then you get a little worried about it.  Then you start to wonder what it’s about.  After all, we could be discussing anything from ear piercing to child birth.

Or jumping off the flybridge of a Carver 350.  Gosh, Jon, that seems sort of specific and out of left field.  Well, yes.  But there’s a story that goes with it.

We were planning to take our boat out yesterday – perfect boating day – but the trim control for my outdrive froze and after several fruitless hours of tinkering I towed it to the shop.  We went to Lowe’s and bought mulch instead.  Except for #4 who stayed at the marina with his friend and went down the river with them on their… Carver 350.

He got back with all sorts of stories and one of them involved diving off the top of it.  Jumping, actually.  His mother was a little concerned – it is about 15 feet to the waterline – but he wasn’t.  “It was that feeling you get in a rollercoaster.  When your stomach moves around.  Know what I mean?”

Oh yes.  It’s the same feeling I get when people talk about dental work or clean a fish on the railing of the boardwalk.  But what a great story and the line.  Gold.

There are stories that are fun to relate but aren’t fiction material – like this one, it’s seasoning, not the basis of the tale.  Then there are stories which are the real deal.  The anchors for a great work.  Like the headline on CNN.COM last night before I went to bed.  Between the computer and the toothpaste I saw the whole thing.  I gave the 30 second pitch to my wife.  She got it.  “That’s really good.” she said.

It sounds arrogant to say it, but I knew it was really good when I started the pitch.  Sometimes you know things.  It’s simple and compelling, the very definition of high concept.  You may even recognize some of the lines.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Ask not what you can do for CGI, but what CGI can do for you!

**11,000 page views!  Thank you.  Seriously.  Wow!
Looks about right

The birds are chirping.  Just outside of my open window.  They sound so happy – especially considering that their primary food source is worms.  They’re annoying.  I’m trying to write and at random, yet highly frequent intervals, they chirp.  Sort of like the lady on my train last Tuesdayfriday that was all upset about her weekend plans being messed up by someone not wanting to come see her.

You know, the birds aren’t so bad.

In fact, I kind of like them.

I went to see Godzilla last night, on a whim and against my better judgment.  But I kind of had to.  I like movies, that one is extremely popular right now, and I had to see what the fuss was about.  I also had the chance to go socially without forcing my wife to watch a film she really wouldn’t care for.

I’ll go into length in a “Tales From the Script” post but will leave you with this, if you are curious.  It was much, much better than I expected.  It’s a monster movie, make no mistake, but there was a story and while there was CGI everywhere, the special effects served the story not the other way around.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Holiday Road

We made it back safely.  We made it back.  I suppose safely is a relative term.  We were passed more than we passed if you need a reference point.  I’ve discovered a neat trick.  If you are going to drive 1k miles in a day, it helps to switch cars half way through.

Road Trip

I’d like to say that this story is made up.  But it isn’t.  I lived through this.  I’d like to say that no small animals (or large animals) were harmed during the events of this story.  “No small (or large) animals were harmed during the events of this story.” said I.

The first amazing thing that happened was that we drove out and around D.C. without any traffic.  That was perhaps the most amazing thing, something that will be even more meaningful to you as these events unfold.  There were three of us, in the beginning, representing three generations.  I was the one wearing hearing aids.

I discovered that while it is possible to write in a moving car, it is not the same as writing in a moving plane or moving train.  The bumps are more immediate and dramatic.  When you have a touch pad/screen laptop, sudden bumps cause all sorts of interesting changes to your settings.  Not that you care, except if you plan to write a novel while touring the country you may wish to take Amtrak instead of your Buick.

I generally start eating my lunch around 10:50 and finish in the vicinity of 4.  At 10:50 my eldest son asked when we were going to stop for lunch.  My father was planning lunch at the end of the trip, hours away.  He suggested that we weren’t planning to stop for lunch.  My son said, “Oh.”  If you have a son who is 18 you know what that means.  I reminded my father that he was 18.  It was easier than saying, “I’m hungry too.”  We agreed to stop at Sonic in 30 miles.

Sonic serves their entire menu all day.  Thing is, it doesn’t say when they start.  Didn’t matter, they were open and I got $.50 corn dogs.  I planned on two.  Said I was going to get two.  I ordered three.  With onion rings.  They put cinnamon in their batter.  Mmmm.  The “officially hungry person” got a supersonic Bacon grease bomb.  My Dad ordered the French toast sticks.  “And for your side?”  What sort of side comes with French toast?  French fries, naturally, or tater tots or onion rings.   He got the tots.  It was bizarre.   Had this been a real road trip we’d have taken one of the magnetic signs that said, “50 cent corn dogs ALL DAY today only.”

Traffic was light.  We got to our luncheon location an hour early.  So we picked up dry cleaning.  I use a dry cleaner that’s half a mile from my house.  My dad uses one that’s 45 miles away.  I guess we’re lucky that it was on the way.  We drove through a pothole that was as big as the car.  Don’t blame the driver, it was the smallest one in the lot.

At lunch I was asked if I had AIDS.  I don’t.  I said as much.  Turns out that was short hand for hearing aids.  I do have those.  It wasn’t as awkward as it sounds.  It was funny.  Oh, and my dad brought a date.  We drove the 2nd to the last leg in tandem.  There was an extra stop because we wanted bolt cutters and my dad had two pairs so he loaned me one.

You should always have bolt cutters when you drive across the country.

We decided to visit my grandmother.  She just turned 95 last month.  You wouldn’t know it.  She’s looked pretty much the same my entire life.  On the way over the mountain to her house it started to rain.  Very, very hard.  The clouds swirled.  The wind.  All around us there were reports of 2-3” diameter hail.  A tornado touched down in two places nearby.  I watched clouds churn and thought there might be one where we were.  I remember the last time one went through town.  I was 17.  It was 25 years before the flood swept almost everything away.  I’m glad those that rebuilt after that didn’t get moved to Oz.

The last leg was where the car was.  We were picking up two passengers there as well as the other car.  One of them was late.  He was on the other side of the tornado and had to wait for it.  He had a good sense of humor about it though.  “I wasn’t worried about the storm destroying our house since it’s already burned up.”  The fire was earlier in the week. Everyone got out but the house was destroyed.  I’m not sure I’d have been so cavalier but maybe, it’s a powerful coping mechanism.

We did a fairly quick turn (since there was no apple pie waiting for me to eat) and were back on the road heading south at 5:30.  11 hours after we started.  The sun was very bright.  The three 18 year olds were on a major road trip.  Together.  I tried not to be a wet blanket.

The biggest difference between traveling with young men and traveling with a young family is that you don’t have to stop very much.  We bought gas and dinner at the same place – I even bought a Monster which is not something I usually drink.  Then it was nothing but highway.  And games.  We went to an Alpaca farm.  Ever play that?

We took an Alpaca, beets, carrots, Doritos, envelops, a friend, grass, hay, an intern, junior, kelp, a leash, money, neon lights, oranges, pliers, Quaker bars, racism, a shovel, a trainer, an umbrella, violence, waste, a xenobiologist, a yo-yo, and a zebra (to keep it company).

There was a lot of road kill but fortunately most of it had been driven over so many times it was just a giant splatter.

At one point it started to rain.  We tried to out run it – the drops were huge – but it kept pace.  The storm line advanced about 100 yards in front of us and we watched the splashing against the pavement.  Then we turned and it was gone.

The other stop was a rest area that was under construction.  I’m glad I had been there before, the routing was a little confusing.  We were 20 miles from home 6.5 hours into the trip.  Then five lanes merged into one.  They were hanging a new sign across 95.  Needed a single lane for roughly 200 yards.  It took 45 minutes to merge.  I felt like I was home.

I’m leaving out most of what the boys talked about on the way home.  If you were ever a young man you know what it was about, and if you were a young lady, you wouldn’t understand.  I will say only this.  I laughed.  A lot.  And hard.  My son even said, “I have only seen my dad laugh that hard three times including this one.”  I’m glad we were going very slowly through construction in Pennsylvania.  I couldn’t see through the tears.

28 years ago I made a similar trek, at about the same time of year, with my friend.  I’ve never forgotten it.  I hope this brings back memories for you too.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Greetings and salutations from rural America.  That’s right, I’m on a road trip.  Not just any road trip, either.  This is the full blown, 1k in a day, dawn to dusk, variety.  To paraphrase Danny Glover, “I’m getting too old for this.”

You may be wondering why I would undertake such an incredible journey on a day off before a major 3 day weekend.  I’m going to take a page from J. J. Abrahams’ book and stuff that bit in the mystery box.  But no worries, you won’t have to wait three or four seasons to find out (or in the case of that one show, never find out because it was canceled).  I’ll tell you tomorrow when I’m back and fresh memories of our highway system.

Today I’ll make up for missing yesterday with an excerpt from Washington’s journal.

3/18/1983,  Dearborn, MI
I met up with the man who invented soda pop this afternoon, Winward Iacocacola.  We had stopped at the same roadside diner and struck up an immediate friendship.  He told me that one of the most difficult things for his company was transitioning from the expensive and unreliable glass bottle to the economical and practical can.  To solve the problem he partnered with a Japanese firm (Mitsubishi) to help with the manufacturing.  In exchange for access to his secret formula, the conglomerate would receive a small percentage and, in 100 years, get to name one of the Iacocacola products.  (Current plans are to call it Coke-Zero after the most successful products of both companies.)

While we were talking, the counter girl interjected that she liked the old glass bottles and had a terrible time with the cans. Winward asked her about it and she related story after story of cans being shaken and then exploding when she popped the tab.  He said that the trick was to shake a shaken can even more until it was very firm in her grip, then squeeze as hard as she could while popping the top.  Stops the explosion every time.

I will have to try that and let my new friend know how it worked.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Red Shirts Are Coming

I did not make the finals in the Palm Street Film’s contest.  I was not surprised and I’m not especially upset about it, they had a very specific purpose in hosting the contest so I knew it was going to be even more subjective than usual and it’s one I entered on a whim rather than by strategy.

And there’s the whole “rejection is a part of writing” thing.  I’m much more interested in the Charlottesville contest.  And now that CWA has extended their deadline I’m wondering if I should give it a go.  They offer coverage like BlueCat which is good, but it’s a very pricey entry.  And then there’s Austin.  Next year for Austin.

Today I’d like to take another look at jargon.  I’ve been reading Daphne’s book about writing and in it she cautions against using jargon in your writing.  “It’s not clear in many cases.  You are being presumptuous about your readers.”  That’s not bad advice.  But jargon exists for a reason and if you are communicating with a peer group instead of writing an article for a mass market publication, it’s very efficient use of your writing space and audience attention span.

To wit, yesterday I was part of a discussion that centered on needing “a fifth man” but not “wanting to add a character.”  Early in someone suggested using a “red shirt” which was brilliant.  We all knew exactly what was being talked about and it met the requirements.  Jargon.

What is a red shirt?  Why he’s the member of the boarding party that doesn’t get beamed back to the ship.  Because he’s vaporized/transformed/eaten by a giant spider-fly-amoeba-plant/fallen in love with an alien.  From Star Trek.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A blog a day keeps writer's block away

Palm Street Films is supposed to announce their semifinalists today.  I’m trying not to check my email every 5 minutes but that just leaves me clicking on their website instead.

I find myself once again at the crossroads of what to write next.  It’s not a question of not knowing what to write but rather choosing what to write next.  It’s wonderful.  In a difficult choice sort of way.  The hard part, of course, is that I’m about to invest hours of my life in a project.  It needs to be a good project or I’ll be wasting my time.  There’s pressure in that sort of thing.

The wonderful part is that I’m not struggling to figure out what I could possibly write about.  There are too many things.  In fact, I’ve even combined some of my ideas together into super-ideas and yet still there are too many possibilities to write them all.  It was not always this way.

I used to write only when I felt like it.  Or was especially inspired.  Or had to.  That led to unfinished work, unstructured gibberish, or wracking my brain for something – anything – to fill the page with.  This blog changed that.  Daily writing.  Facing a blank page.  And filling it.  You learn to manage.  To cope.  To write.

I have been surprised, many times, when a post that I wasn’t particularly impressed with generated praise.  Of course I had read that just because the words flow doesn’t mean they are great and vice versa – struggling to put it down doesn’t make it bad.  Actually seeing it over the last year has been a big push for me.

My professional writing is also better.  It’s tighter.  If I need to keep my blog post under 500 words, why can the memo be just as short?  And clear, free of game changing, paradigm shifting, outside-of-the-box jargon that defines modern business correspondence?

Why indeed.  There is more to being a writer than residuals.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Submission is not always a bad thing.

I noticed that I'm down to three stories out and one script.  I'll never get a sale with numbers like that so at some point today, between baseball games and boat launching, I'll have to carve out some time to write query letters and send out my work.

And revise.  I won't be able to resist the temptation to do another pass before sending it out, whichever story it is.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Wash it Away

I finished the last of the specialized passes for the current draft of Falling Star yesterday.  I did a half dozen specific passes – dialogue for certain characters, visual and active language, improve descriptions, and clarity of story (which added 2 pages but addresses the concerns I had from my first two readers).

I celebrated by “saving as” Falling_Star_03 to signify the end of draft 2.  I can let it sit about a week before I have to decide whether I’m going to move it from New York City to Alexandria, Virginia to qualify for entry in the Charlottesville Film Festival.  There are strong cases for both moving and staying.

Thanks, Marc, for the Ghost Train lyrics

Wash it Away

And then the sky broke up

We have a thing in our house.  The lyrics to songs become distorted.  Sometimes it’s funny.  Sometimes it just doesn’t make sense.  I went to school with a girl who sang about “dunder cheese.”  She didn’t know what it was – neither did anyone else – but that didn’t prove the real lyric was “done dirt cheap.”

And then the rain came down

She doesn’t live in our house.  I don’t even remember her name.  In my house confused lyrics make a little more sense.  Like “do you want to play with matches?” and “bowling with my peeps.”  Okay, maybe not a lot more sense but wouldn’t you rather enjoy ten frames in goofy shoes than be rolling in the deep?

And then it washed away everything on the ground

The rain last night swept away trash cans and potted plants.  I discovered that a porta-potty needs to be more than 2/3 submerged to float away.  Roads were blocked.  Rails had trees on them.  And there were raindrops on kittens.

Wash it away, wash it away, wash it away

There is great evil in the world.  An evil that we do not often see and rarely have to face.  When it shows itself, when you see it for what it is, things change.  There’s a stain that won’t come clean and a pallor clings to everything.  A line crossed, an innocence lost, a Rubicon.  And you scrub as Lady Macbeth scrubbed.  And you pray for rain as Honi did.  And you keep on riding.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

"Privacy. Absolute myth. There's no such thing."

**update - I won the 5 minute fiction contest this week.  Seriously, you should try it.  It's fun and it's free and there are prizes.

It turns out that our local meteorologist doesn’t have schizophrenia.  (I spelled it right on my first try.)  His forecast was accurate.  I can’t imagine being an actual productive member of society and being outside through all of these changes to grow food or construct buildings.  Nothing like a good office job to keep you safe.

Unless you are Liam Hemsworth and you work for Gary Oldman (or Harrison Ford) in the film, Paranoia.  It was not a bad movie.  Much like Abduction wasn’t a bad movie.  But as any parent or teacher can tell you, not being bad is very different than being good.  Paranoia wanted to be a better film and I think that if it had been envisioned as a film from the start it would have been but it was based on a bestselling novel.

The overall story was pretty good and it did have some exciting moments to string us along between scenes of Liam Hemsworth not wearing a shirt.  There were two “music videos” that stretched just a little bit past infinity.  Maybe there was supposed to be some deep emotional message being conveyed but I missed it.  I just listened to a long song while two people did stuff in slow motion on screen.  Not bionic man cool stuff.  Just stuff.

Which brings us to emotional content.  The love story was rough, even by MTV standards.  It was either lazy writing or blatant chauvinism.  For a film that wanted to be Bourne Identity, they didn’t do their homework on how to write female characters.  If your characters don’t have a realistic response – even to unrealistic situations – they lose credibility and the audience falls out of the picture and back onto their couch.  Period.

Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman were good – I’m thinking they’ve not been together since Air Force One but I could be mistaken.  Liam Hemsworth did a good job too.  The three characters were distinct and fairly believable.  The surprise for me was Richard Dryfuess who brought incredible life to a fairly small role and turned a plot device into the only decent person in the film.  The take-away?  If you’re going to write cliché, get a really good actor who will make it look fresh.

I don’t want to be too down on Paranoia, it really wasn’t bad.  But the genre has seen better.  I don’t know if the problem is corporate espionage (remember that Julia Roberts fiasco?) or a studio system that’s afraid to film anything that hasn’t already been successful in another media format.

At the end of the day, would I recommend it?  If you enjoy flashy spy v. gritty spy, go for it.  If you like Liam Hemswoth without a shirt, go for it.  If club mix dub step fills you iPod, go for it.  If you thought The English Patient was the greatest film of the 20th century, why are you reading my blog instead of plotting your escape from the asylum?  It’s worth streaming on Netflix.  Not $9.99 in Wal-Mart’s blue-ray bin of bargains even with Harrison Ford’s head shaved.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Dirty, rotten dingoes.

I made the 5 minute fiction finals last night.  It was a pretty thin field, you should really set up a reminder on your phone and give it a whirl.  The prompt was, “Your story must include a thunderbird.”  I chose instead to include a Thunderbird.  Specifically, Marc Cohn’s “Silver Thunderbird.”  Which got me humming “Walking in Memphis” all night.  Which led to me hunting through the cd collection this morning while I ate my bagel looking for my Marc Cohn cd.  Which led to me listening to it on the way to the train station this morning.

I will need to get my hearing aids adjusted.  Not only do they not like Adele, they don’t like Marc Cohn either.  For some reason the music puts them into their anti-feedback loop mode.  It’s an interesting warble effect but one I prefer to skip.  Speaking of which, yesterday afternoon on the train I was going through Washington Orville Hampton’s journal and found this.

August 17, 1980, Northern Territory, Australia.

Another long day on the trail to Alice Springs.  It’s very hot here and the fauna are brazen.  I fired a shot at a pack of dingoes that wouldn’t move from the waterhole.  Despite the desolation – blessedly smog free – I have encountered many other travelers including a young family.  They were very pleasant and we enjoyed a lunch of canned provisions and jerky near Ayers Rock.

The afternoon ride was grueling and must confess to falling asleep before camp was properly set up.  I awoke as night consumed the outback and hurriedly set about finishing up.  I paused in my labors with the distinct feeling of being watched.  I slowly turned to see a dingo staring at me, her eyes reflecting the dancing fire and a bundle hanging from her mouth.

I looked again.  It was a baby.  Or a wallaby.  She turned from my camp and ran into the wilds.  It really looked like a baby.  Most likely wasn’t.  Most likely if I told anyone they’d accuse me of drinking too much and having a dash of sunstroke.  They’d probably be right.

Dingoes don’t take babies.
A dingo ate my baby and all I got was this dumb t-shirt.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

I don't know, what do you want to do?

The older I get the more I realize the benefit of a plan.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those, “Plan the work then work the plan.” sorts of guys.  But I have come around to the idea that a lack of plan is equal to a lack of direction.

Pooh and Piglet can tell you all about what happens when you lack direction.

The reason I am not PtWtWtP is because that isn’t creative.  It’s rigid.  You are ignoring the words of James who warns that we should not brag about plans for next year because we don’t know what is going to happen but instead plan and then roll with the punches.  If there is a drought we shan’t have any crops to sell in the far city.

I don’t think I’ve used “shan’t” in this blog before.  Maybe in anything.  Silly Downton Abbey.

So what am I saying?  That you need a plan but you shouldn’t follow it?  Not exactly.  There’s a lot out there on the internet about making plans flexible and I don’t have anything to add.  That’s a personal thing.

I’m just saying you need a plan in the first place.

Monday, May 12, 2014

"Can't make me."

** Update **  My guest post at Going Into The Story (GITS) ran yesterday.  Read about why Golden Eye is a classic 90s movie here.

What a beautiful morning.  60s on the way to 90.  Bright sun.  A new type of pollen.  It’s the kind of day that was designed especially for being stuck in traffic.  I don’t know what’s happened in the last couple of months but wow.  The last two weeks have been especially horrible.  I don’t mean to complain about traffic all of the time.  It just sort of comes out.  And it’s okay.  I have a backup plan.  I feel sorry for the folks who will be surprised this morning when they leave their houses and don’t make the last train.

We went for a hike yesterday.  A trek, actually.  Somewhere between 5.5 and 7 miles.  Or, as my wife said, “Between 5 and thousand.”  The weather was perfect and the trails were very well maintained.  We traipsed down a hill and followed a creek for a few miles, stopping often to throw rocks, climb rocks, study rocks, marvel at rocks, and drink water.  In fact, we drank so much water that some of us ran out before the 25% mark.

Our path was a loop.  No out and backs.  That would be boring.  The trails were well maintained, as I said, but not marked as clearly as roads and the map we had was sort of… old.  There were many pauses to consider the map v intersections.  We even spoke with other people on the trail about where we were headed.  It all prompted my wife to say, “You know, I’ve heard about people wandering around back here lost for hours.”

Ha.  It’s woods along a stream and on a trail.  We’re not lost.  I may live in the suburbs now, but I know how to do woods.  And they were spectacular woods.  We didn’t see any animals but I wasn’t really expecting to.  I had three boys and a girl who likes to scream at things with me.

Speaking of that girl, she made a few comments about how far it was, how long it was taking, and when will it end.  (Her comments were justified.)  Her brothers also had a lot to say but mostly out of curiosity.  My standard response was, “The only way out is through.”  My daughter remarked, “Why do you keep saying that?”

Why, indeed.  Because we started something hard.  We were far from home and car.  We were being challenged.  If we quit we were trapped.  Lost.

Someone would have found us eventually, maybe brought in a helicopter to haul us back to cable TV and 24 grocery stores.  We’d have been on the news – “Family gave up during Mother’s Day hike.  Rangers, other park guests laugh.  County to foot bill for rescue.”

Or we could focus and stop wasting our energy on complaining about being thirsty or tired and just walk.  Through.  That’s something even Barry Manilow understood.

So you’re probably waiting to hear about how we turned out to actually be lost – after all, I did sort of brag about knowing my way about the woods.  Sorry to disappoint.  No lost souls here.  And even better, my children found the way the way out.  By going through.

Friday, May 9, 2014

On the Rails

Summer is almost here.  I'm very excited about that.  Last night as I was wondering around in the fading light, and then the semi-darkness of my suburban neighborhood under a bright moon, I paused to let the warmth soak in.  To breath in the air that is starting to lose its pollen.  I'm very happy with where I am.  Not statisfied, of course, but happy.

For some reason I seem to be on a "literary" kick with my non-screenplay writing.  Today's story is not a funny, upbeat tale but neither is it a creepy, disturbing bit of horror or one of my pitiful attempts to write action.

I started it last night on the train and finished up this draft on the way in today.  Please let me know what you think, good and bad.  Where there should be more, or less.  If I should spend time forming it or let it alone and move on.  That sort of thing.

On the Rails


By Jon Stark

May, 2014; about 2800 words


I’ve always liked trains.  They have an order about them that reminds me of libraries and accountants.  A timeliness and surety trenched in strong tradition, the hulking iron snaking through woods and swamp on a path that has always been there.  I’ve seen crews repairing the roadbed and I’ve walked miles along deserted ballast, but I’ve never seen a new line going in.

I am clinging to that order.  Everything else is upside down and sideways.  Maybe not for you.  But you aren’t the one who found him.





I suppose if I was a spy then I would always expect the unexpected and nothing would ever surprise me.  James Bond always knew what to do when an assassin jumped out of his foldup bed on the train.  I am not James Bond.  Martinis make me sick – no matter how many times you shake them.

When I walked into my house I was not expecting anything other than my kid brother Tim – he was Timmy until he moved in with me – to be sprawled out on the floor playing video games or texting his girlfriend-of-the-week.  I wasn’t surprised that he wasn’t there.  He goes out a lot.  Went out a lot.

When I got a glass of water from the kitchen I didn’t know it was the last time that particular glass would hold anything.  No sense of its destiny, that it too would shatter against my bathroom tile.  My dishes aren’t like the train.  They don’t have that immutable characteristic of… there.

Art told me I should be glad that he was in the bathroom.  “Lots of tile in there.” said Art.  “And drywall.  Not like a rug.”  No.  Nothing like a rug.  Kind hearted souls have made that point several times since Art first shared that bit of wisdom.

In elementary school my best friend’s friend’s father skipped the tile too.  He sat down at the picnic table in the backyard about two hours before his wife was due home from work -- fifteen minutes before the bus was due – and made sure there wouldn’t be a mess on the rug.  Or tile.



When you get on the commuter train there’s a sort of dance that everyone does.  They don’t have corrals like Disney World, just a long platform where you can gather wherever – like a field – and so we gather in groups – like sheep – waiting for the train.  The smart sheep know where the doors will be when the train stops so we stand with them.  They know from years of experience and watching others, now long passed on, who knew, because that’s the place on the platform where the doors open.  This is a train and it is eternal, unchanging and always there.

The same people stand in the same flocks, the readers and chatters and the impatient ones who somehow think that by weaseling to the front they’ll get home sooner.  It’s a train.  You can’t change anything about it.  Time is set by the train.

The dance is comforting, a constant milling about like emperor penguins on the ice making sure they don’t freeze to death.  I feel frozen.  There’s the man with the stomach problem that always tries to cut.  I don’t even try to stop him.  Someone else will.  And when the train comes we’ll all either have seats or we won’t.  And it won’t matter about the man and the smell of his lunch because he didn’t find Tim.



I called Art first not because he is my best friend but because he knows about this sort of thing.  He grew up in the funeral business.  “Lots of money if you’re sharp, but the clients always try to stiff you.”  I didn’t think it was funny the first time.  It’s all I could think of when he came to the door.

The third time I heard him make the joke we were at Woody’s Creekside and he was trying to make one of the college girls laugh.  She didn’t laugh but they left together so I was sentenced to hearing it hundreds of times more.  It isn’t that Art is a jerk, exactly, he just sort of got detached about death growing up with a basement full of corpses.

“I’m really sorry.” he told me.  “Where is he?”  I took him upstairs.  Showed him the bathroom door.  Closed.  As if quantum theory was real and as long as the door was shut and we didn’t look, it would still be okay.

But I already knew.  I had looked.  It was real.  And I couldn’t go back in.  Tim didn’t care.  He was long gone.  Art only needed a minute.  “At least he did it in the bathroom.”

The police came.  All of them, I think.  They said they were sorry, said I wasn’t in any trouble.  “No foul play.” assured the woman in charge.  “You’re clear.”  Easy for her to say.  I wanted to scream at her, to ask her how it was possibly not my fault he was – like that now.

I mean, think about it.  If it had been drugs you could blame the dealer.  For cancer you could blame anyone from the power company to the foster mother who never gave us vegetables.  If he’d been the passenger in a car of a drunk teenager you could blame Scott.  But this was different.  This was a big fat finger pointing straight at me saying, “You let me down.  You failed.” 



There was a stranger on the platform this afternoon.  He was a late comer, showed up as the train pulled in.  Went around the flock, tried to slip in front of me.  I dug in my heels.  Not this time.  I let the lady who works upstairs go because she was a lady and I sort of knew her and she works in the CEOs office and I always let her go and she doesn’t know me from anybody but if I didn’t let her then she would find out about me and I’d probably get fired.  But I didn’t let the stranger go.  He got into my space and usually I would have caved but I’d already quit on the fat man and Tim had quit and I wasn’t going to quit again.  Ever.

Not that that train cared.  The train didn’t know about Tim.  It didn’t know about my bathroom and the tile.  It just was.  And the doors closed us in like they always have.



Art took care of the paperwork for me.  He knew all about it.  Called his father about the initial arrangements.  “I know you aren’t thinking about this right now, but you don’t have to worry about it.  Dad’s going to take care of everything for you.  No charge.  He’s really sorry, wanted me to tell you.”  I wasn’t sure why Art’s dad didn’t tell me himself so I asked him later, when everyone else was gone and we were on my porch drinking the last of the Milwaukee’s Best he’d brought over.

“Dad doesn’t really do grief.  He’s a professional ‘I’m so sorry’ sayer so when it’s personal he doesn’t know what to say.”  That seemed really strange.  “He’s afraid it comes out all businesslike instead of from the heart.”  Art crushed his can.  “I think he’s pushed it all so far away he doesn’t want to risk bringing it back.  Bad for business when you fall apart in front of your clients.”  I waited for the joke but he was silent.

“I really am sorry.  This sucks.” said Art.  “This really sucks.”  It was weird for me to watch my best friend fall apart on my porch at two in the morning, an army of empty cans at our feet, bawling his eyes out over my brother.  It should have been me.  Not on the tile, but falling apart.

But then again, Art wasn’t the one who found him.



People do all sorts of things on the train.  Sleep.  Read.  Play Bejeweled.  Somebody always shares their personal life in a one-way, high volume phone conversation.  I used to be one of those people, wasting minutes on stuff.  Now I sit in the zone of isolation that the etiquette demands and stare.  Not out the window.  That’s always the same, always has been.  I stare at the banality of everything.  The cup holder.  The sign for the next stop.  I stare at the lady with wispy orange hair.  These people know nothing about me.

I know nothing about them.  How many of them have a ruined bathroom?  How many of them will ruin their bathrooms?  Or picnic tables?

A thousand yards ahead of me the engine’s whistle blows – a warning?  a greeting? Where are we going?



Art was true to his word and the arrangements were taken care of.  He also called Sue that first night.  “Did you call Sue?” he asked me before we started drinking.  I hadn’t.  Hadn’t thought about Sue.  She’s our sister and I was quite sure that she hadn’t thought about me or Tim in days.  Maybe months.  Maybe since I sent her the Christmas card last January.

“I’ll call her.” he told me.  Whatever.  I didn’t know what to say.  Sue made my life very hard growing up.  The only thing worse than being unpopular is being the unpopular brother of the most popular girl in school.  Do you have any idea how awkward it is to be in the locker room and listen to other guys talk about your sister?  Describe what they’d do?  Prognosticate about what she looks like naked?  The first time one of them shut down the conversation by saying he knew exactly what that was like, I got a two week suspension for fighting (and a broken nose) and got home to find out that it was true.

“Go ahead.” I told him.  “Call her.”  The only thing worse than the locker room was having a friend crush on your sister.  He was gone for two and a half beers.  “That was a long time.”

“Was it?”  If I had been a bit more with it, not in the pre-depression glaze of denial, I might have noticed his mood change.

“She’s coming out tomorrow.  Don’t worry about it.  I’ll pick her up at the airport.”  He sat back in the rocker, sighed like he’d just finished a good meal.  “She was wondering about a hotel but I told her she could stay here.”  He looked over at me.  “You don’t mind, do you?”

“There’s only the one bathroom now.”  And there it was.  I was officially a jerkwad of a brother.

Art brushed it off.  “I’ll take care of that in the morning.”

I was surprised to find out that Randy didn’t come out with her.  I knew things weren’t great between them, but I didn’t know they were that bad.  I told her she could stay with me as long as she wanted.  My house was her house.  All the usual.  She said thank you and I expect her to be there when I get home tonight but she won’t stay much longer.  She doesn’t like it here either.



I had a lot of toy trains when I was growing up.  I would spend hours laying down track and pushing them along.  Then just watching as I grew older and the trains could move on their own.  They went where they were supposed to.  Nothing unplanned.  Nothing unexpected.  So different from the system that moved us from home to home.

I only had so much track and would often set up the same layout over and over.  It was like the train had always been there, always the same.  It was only gone because I had turned my back.  It didn’t matter that the houses were different.

I keep thinking that Tim is only gone because I turned my back.  That at any moment he will jump up from the couch and ask me to take him to the Jade Dragon for General Tso’s.  All we had to do was walk in.  They knew us there.  They pointed us to our table and brought the waters and hot tea and crispy noodles.  The only question was whether or not we wanted fried wontons.  The old man, the father I think, always sat at the cash register behind the bar.  Always the same greeting, always the same clothes.

If it had been politically correct I’d have thought he was descended from the railroad.  He has that same timeless quality.  For a moment I consider going there.  Maybe Tim is waiting for me.  But I know better.  And I know that that old man will still be sitting on his stool because he doesn’t know how the world has changed.

He isn’t the one who found Tim.



Art doesn’t work for his father.  “After Scott’s accident I knew I couldn’t do it.” he told me in confidence one night at Woody’s.  “Man, that was awful.  You know they found his sneaker with the foot still in it?”

“Right or left?” I asked.  I still don’t know why that was important.

“You are sick, you know that?” he said.  I didn’t bother pointing out the irony.  “It was his left.”  He started drinking a shot of Jack with each beer after that.  “I just couldn’t do it if it was going to be someone I knew.  Someone young, you know?”

I did know.  I couldn’t have done it for someone old either, but he grew up with it, like I said.  The thing about Scott’s accident though, that sort of tore our whole school up.  He was a senior and he wasn’t the only one who died that night.  He was just the one everyone blamed and, since he was driving, it was his accident.

We talked about Scott the second night after my bathroom was ruined.  The night my sister came into town and moved into the guest room and hugged me, holding on so tight I thought I might still have purpose.

But about Scott.  Cops found him and the girls.  Not his older brother.  I’m sure it was hard for them, but it’s their job.  My job is to push paper.  I’m not trained for finding the parts of people that get separated during ‘MVAs’ – I don’t have jargon like ‘MVA’ to protect me from the harsh reality of a motor vehicle accident, the carnage and tragedy.  I wasn’t trained for finding the parts of me that were separated during that accident.

“Thing is,” Art was saying, “I’m not sure I can keep going now.”  Art had his own company, “The Morning After,” which was a service that specialized in cleaning up after someone died – houses were about a third of his business.  The bread and butter though was hotels.  “You have no idea how many people make a mess of their hotel rooms.”  He was right.  I didn’t.

Art had brought a 24 pack this time since there were three of us.  I don’t like Milwaukee’s Best enough for that so I’d grabbed my bottle of gin.  We’d made pretty good progress as a team.  “When it’s a stranger, it’s just a mess.  But when it’s somebody you know, that’s just different.”  He waved his hands around.

“How so?”  I really wanted to know.

“Take the brain.  It’s a nasty mess to clean up and usually full of bone fragments and stuff.  Usually you just wear gloves and scrape away but when it’s somebody you know?”  He paused long enough I thought he’d passed out.  He hadn’t.  He was breaking down.  “Those bits of brain are where the jokes were that made you laugh.  The memories of doing stuff with you.  The secrets that you shared.”

That explained why my bathroom was still off limits.  Why this one thing that he’d said would be taken care of hadn’t been yet.  “Do you want me to hire someone else?”

“What kind of a friend would that make me?”  I wasn’t sure, punch drunk from the death of my brother, gin drunk on my front porch, watching my sister lean against him instead of Randy.



When you look down a railbed you see two lines that run together into infinity.  If you look the other way you see the same thing.  But when you ride the train you can’t see in front of you or behind you.  You just sit there, rocking back and forth, borne along by faith, waiting to see where you are when the doors open.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

"A machine can't reconcile that."

We went to the movies last Friday night.  Like up off the couch “no liquid cholesterol additive to the popcorn please” in a room full of strangers going to the movies.  The original plan was to see Divergent but we waited too long.

We settled on Transcendence.  The plot sounds good, the trailer gave the impression of a competent film.  It’s got Johnny Depp so we knew it would be a little quirky but we’ve enjoyed him in everything from PotC  (part one only, I’m afraid) to Chocolate.

It was not a bad film.  I think the negative press is about missed opportunity or great expectations.  It could have been better – just by being shorter, actually – but it did accomplish what I believe the goal was.  To make us consider matters of the soul, what is it – exactly – that makes us who we are?  And how could that change?

I’ve read a bit that says the film is about fear of technology but I don’t think so.  That was a plot device to give meaning to the action.  It wasn’t done especially well because this is a philosophical film first and a thriller second.  More of a Gattica than Blade Runner.

It was a remake of The Lawnmower Man.  I don’t know if it was intentional or not.  I don’t actually care enough to Google it to find out.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s the same question rolled into the same amazing special effects.  There are a few differences, but they are secondary and relate to the “thriller” side of the story.

I liked The Lawnmower Man – it did have James Bond in it – and I have written short stories using many of the ideas that were presented in Transcendence asking the same sort of questions.  For me it was an easy film to watch.  I liked it despite some fairly serious inconsistencies on the thriller side because it did what truly great SciFi always does – ask serious questions through a challenging situation that demonstrates one possible solution without preaching that solution as right or wrong.

It makes you think.

Transcendence is not light faire, but it isn’t Lincoln either.  You can put it in your queue and enjoy it on your iPhone just as much as the theater.  But if you do want to head to the Cineplex and don’t care to watch a superhero film, this is better than most of the other options.
Cut me some slack, it was 1992!

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

"Not just famous, IN-famous."

Caught a bit of an exciting little league game last night.  #4 was playing and gave quite an accounting for himself.  I took one of our dogs – the one that #4 determined, during his science project this year, was our “Third smartest dog.”  Talk about the glass being half full.

Speaking of glasses, I came across this post in Washington Orville Hampton’s journal.

June 8, 1977 – Washington, D.C.
I overheard a marvelous discussion while waiting in line at Wendy’s tonight.  A young girl stood with her mother, clearly tourists, and talked about how much she liked the Whitehouse tour.  Then she told her mother that someday she was going to work there.

Her mother laughed politely and asked doing what?  The little girl, very seriously, said, “In the big office.  The roundish one.”  Her mother said, “You mean the Oval Office?”  The girl nodded.  Her mother said, “But Monica, that’s where the President works.”

The little girls crossed her arms and said, “Then maybe I’ll be president.”  Her mother sounded a little sad, “We girls can do a lot more than before, but I think president may be a bit out of reach in the country.”

“Doesn’t matter.  I’ll find a way.” said the girl

I believe her.  One day everyone in America will know who she is.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

"Who's idea was it to have all these kids anyway?"

Had a wonderful dinner with my spouse last night.  Our waitress couldn’t believe how long we’ve been married.  I like to think that was because we look so young but I’m afraid that’s not it.  It brings up an interesting question.

As a writer of fiction, should I portray the exceptional relationships?  The ones that everybody marvels about?  Or should I draw instead on reality – the sort that more people are able to resonate with?  The easy cop-out is to say, “It depends on the story.”  But listen, authors, we all know that the story is whatever we want to tell drawn from whichever idea we want to run with.  Even Friday when I couldn’t get a story together it wasn’t from a lack of ideas.  I just didn’t like how it landed on the page.

The reality side has some good points but fiction isn’t reality, it’s escape from reality.  The exceptional relationship is a dream for some people.  But others feel judged, or that their choices aren’t being respected.  Looking at my own body of work I’ve got a mixture in those cases where it needs to be something.  And none of it models my own domestic situation.

There’s a lot of popular and funny TV based on a married couple with more than the national average of children.  But there’s also alternative couples, alternative parenthood, and even everything all mixed together.  (I’m thinking of Everybody Loves Raymond, Will and Grace, Last Man Standing, How I Met Your Mother, Arrested Development, and 2.5 Men.)

In my current script project the domestic situations that get screen time feature a single mother, a newly married couple, an older couple that hasn’t started on children yet, a bachelor, and two couples that just live together.

I’m thinking this is something I’m over thinking.  Trouble is, I’m not over thinking it yet.

Monday, May 5, 2014

"If only" and other lamentations

I went to a memorial service this weekend for a 17 year-old boy who took his own life.  There’s not a soft way to say that.  I think that’s a good thing.  (For the purpose of avoiding pronoun confusion, I’m going to call the deceased Tim.)  But this post isn’t about suicide.  I’m sure that you are able to divine my views on that topic from the URL of this blog (youcannontmakemequit).

I would like to focus instead on the inspiration that our lives are to others.  Even if you think you don’t know anyone, don’t have any friends, and that the world would not miss you for even a moment.  That’s a lie.  If you breathe, you are influencing someone else.

There was an open mic during the service and a lot of the seniors in Tim’s class came forward to speak.  There were two people I want to tell you about specifically that I know, with absolute certainty, will not live life the same now.  The first was a girl who was absolutely a high school girl.  She told a story about going to the movies.  How Tim had asked her several times if she wanted to go see Walter Mitty.  How she was in a relationship and didn’t want to.  How she relented and went.  How when he dropped her off she said, “I’m in a relationship, I hope you aren’t expecting anything.”  And he said, “I wasn’t asking you out.  I just think you’re cool and wanted to get to know you better so we can be friends.”  She apologized for saying it but… “That made me so happy.  Tim wanted to be friends!  I really miss him.”

The second was a boy who freely admitted he didn’t know Tim very well or for very long.  He was shy and kept to himself, but Tim had approached him a couple of months ago and broke the ice.  Broke the silence.  Said, “We should be friends.”  And they were.  He told about Tim helping him out of ‘this and that’ ending with words that still haunt me.

“Tim was always there for me.  I wish I could have been there for him.”

Me too.