Sunday, March 18, 2018

Dream Theater: My Entry in the Next Big Thing Contest

Photo from
I've entered something called The Next Big Thing Contest. My entry is a story that, strangely enough, includes me, another man, and two women. 

We're traveling through the Middle East, in a country that's not-entirely friendly to Americans. One night we're forced to leave a party being held in an abandoned grocery store when the police arrive. They've come because someone has complained that men and women have been seen dancing together.

We hop in a cab, but I immediately get a bad feeling about our driver. Sure enough, it turns out that he's part of the opposition, and he has a plan to take us to a farm far outside the city where several of his cohorts are waiting. 

Before we can leave the city limits, though, our cab is attacked by a group of rioters in the street. Someone throws one of those old-fashioned fire extinguishers--the big silver kind--at us. It barely misses the other guy, and all four of us crouch down in the cab, trying to hide ourselves as much as possible.

We don't get out at our hotel--that would just tip everyone off as to where we're staying. So instead we get out several blocks away and sneak back to the hotel, dodging crowds, fires and gun fights. 

We hide in our room until morning, while violence continues erupting just outside our window. When morning comes, we'll begin what we all know will be a long journey to safety.

Then I'm in New York City, for the Next Big Thing Awards. The ceremony is taking place in a museum, which is having an exhibition of famous discotheques throughout history. Several of them have been recreated, right down to the restrooms, which we're encouraged to use. I find myself in one based on ancient Roman baths, and I urinate into an elaborate fountain.

I comment that Chicago should have one of these, so that people would know they'd had a good time when they visited. 

A fabulous drag queen nearby overhears my comment and finds it hysterical. "Good morning, bitch!" she says. I reply, "See you tomorrow!"

Friday, March 16, 2018

Dream Theater: A California Frank Lloyd Wright

Photo by Crosby Doe
One of California's last great Frank Lloyd Wright homes was being transferred from the family who'd owned it their entire lives into the hands of conservators who would take care of it going forward.

I'd become friends with the family: a father and mother, now old; a son and daughter, now grown. I was spending my days and nights with them at the house, going through all the furnishings and housewares, everything they'd accumulated over the course of their lives, right down to the decades-old cocktail dresses and suits and ties, helping them decide what would stay and what would go.

I'd never been inside a home so elegant or complex, so filled with small passages and hidden spaces. Every day it seemed that I discovered something new. It was easy to get lost in it. I could understand why it was so difficult for them to leave.

These were our final days in the house and I was free to take almost anything I wanted. Everything in it was original, though not all of it was in good shape.

On one of our last afternoons together we sat in a sun-filled room, laughing about the things they'd hung on to all those years. Who would want their children's old vinyl cribs? The wooden bench of no importance with its chipped paint? All those overgrown houseplants? There was still so much to do but no more time to think about it.

We grew quiet and somehow all came to the same wordless decision: We'd leave the house as-is, the windows open, the doors unlocked, and allow nature to take its course.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Dream Theater: Front Row At the Big Meeting

I'm sitting in the front row at one of those big company meetings. The kind where they announce departmental reorganizations and promotions like they're the results of a months-long contest we've all been competing in.

Our new president stands directly in front of me. She has a short haircut, and wears a sweater vest and tie. This seems like an odd choice, but she makes it work. It looks good on her.

She addresses the crowd in that jokey, clubby tone of voice that's supposed to put us all at ease but also makes it clear exactly who's in and who's out and what's what.

I look up at her as she speaks, and I know I better keep the proper expression on my face at all times. An expression that says this is exciting news. That I'm completely on board with our new leadership team and eager to work with them. That I have no thoughts about what's happening other than complete and total agreement.

Some people have left their old positions, even though they still work for the company. They've been moved to another building, like old office furniture sent into storage.

In their place, a number of new executives have joined the company. Our new president announces their names. As they stand up from their seats and wave I see that they're all wearing sweater vests and ties, too.

That's when I look down and realize that I'm not wearing a sweater vest and tie.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Dream Theater: The Strange City

Image copyright 2016 Marvel
I was walking in the downtown section of a strange city, lost in a maze of unfamiliar streets. They seemed to only be a block or two long, and most of them led to dead ends.

Night was falling, and as I tried to figure my way out I kept finding myself at the mouth of dark alleys. Each time I asked myself, Do I dare go down that way? Something dangerous is surely waiting for me.

Somehow I found my way to a platform that I could climb up, in order to get a better sense of my surroundings. Below me, on the other side, was a park, with many people in it. I tried shouting down to them, to let them know I was lost and needed help. But they were too far away and couldn't hear me. There was no way of getting to them unless I jumped, and the distance between where I was and the ground was enough that I knew it was likely to hurt me.

I kept shouting and waving, hoping someone down there would see me. But it was dark, and I was too far away.

Introducing "Dream Theater"

Friends, I'm going to try something new here.

I don't need to tell you that the past year or so has been rough for a lot of us. As a result, many of my posts--at least, the few posts I've made--have been politically oriented.

At the time, this seemed appropriate. Politics were (and still are) pretty scary. But human beings can get used to a lot of things. What was shocking in 2017 has become commonplace in 2018.

Plus, I'm tired of politics. On the news, all over my Facebook feed, and in practically every conversation I find myself. That's just too much.

That doesn't mean I don't want to see us marching in the streets to protest corruption, injustice and the sorry state of our world. Or not voting. I especially don't want to see anyone throwing their hands in the air and saying their vote doesn't matter. It does.

But I need something new and different. And maybe you do, too.

So here's my idea: I'm going to start posting my dreams.

Now I know a lot of people say there's nothing more boring than listening to someone else's dream. I get that. That's why I'm going to do everything I can to make sure mine are interesting and tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. I've been writing them down for over two years now, and I think I've gotten pretty good at that.

I'm also doing this because I believe there are powerful creative forces lurking in our subconscious, and if a writer (like me, and maybe you) starts listening to them, a sort of virtuous circle begins to turn. The subconscious realizes you're paying attention, and rewards you with even more stuff dredged up from the brainy depths. (For more on this concept, see 8 Writing Tips from Jeff VanderMeer, specifically numbers 2 and 3.)

Dreams have provided me with potent images, interesting story ideas and helpful answers to writing problems. They've also given me opportunities to practice taking the little bits and pieces of what's inside my head and translating them into words that others might want to read. That's good experience for any writer in my book.

I hope they might do the same for you--or even inspire you to start paying more attention to your own personal midnight movies.

So that's the plan. I'll still do the occasional movie review or bit on an interesting/weird news story, and maybe even a politically oriented post or two.

But dreams. Yeah. A lot more of those. And a lot more often, too.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

"IT" Knows What Scares You

2017; written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman ; directed by Andy Muschietti

When he set out to write IT, Stephen King says he considered the book his "final exam in horror."

By that point in his career King had already published twelve novels and numerous short stories, putting a contemporary spin on many well-established horrors (vampires, werewolves, psychic phenomena, haunted places) as well as creating many new ones (possessed cars, apocalyptic epidemics, rabid dogs) that would go on to terrify and influence two generations and counting of writers, comic book artists and filmmakers.

IT's 1138 pages are a compendium of horror tropes we've come to know and fear--a small town with dark secrets, an ancient evil that preys on children, a gang of bullies, a gallery of monsters, torrents of gushing blood, a weird old house, a giant spider, and a creepy clown named Pennywise who orchestrates the whole thing from his home deep in the sewers of Derry, Maine.

Capturing this sprawl on screen was first attempted in a two-part television mini-series that turned out to be more fondly remembered than it was received in 1990. Now, twenty-seven years later (coincidentally the same time between IT's fabled appearances) comes a new incarnation: the big-screen, big-budget adaptation.

Awareness for the remake has been intense, thanks to anticipation on the part of King's and the book's fans, and a clever marketing plan that's been doling out sneak peeks and advance notices since at least this spring. And it's worked. During IT's first four days in theaters the film has already scared up $117 million, making it the biggest opening weekend for an R-rated horror film, with the biggest single-day ticket sales. IT is now on track to become the highest-grossing Stephen King film of all time.

So, yeah. Big book + big movie = big money. But should you see it if you already haven't been shoveled in by all the hype and excitement?

IT's screenwriters wisely cut King's epic right down the middle, severing the first half--which covers the origins of the teenaged Loser's Club and their first showdown with Pennywise--from the second--when they return to face the horror again as adults. Had the film turned out to be a box office dud, it could have existed perfectly well without a sequel, though that's almost assured now, given the early success.

Director Andy Muschietti has updated King's 1950s setting to the late eighties, though the nostalgia reads as more timeless than period-specific. Interiors have an aged and dingy feel, and the props (especially the ever-present bicycles) look like holdovers from a much earlier time--appropriate for a film and town where more than a hundred years of dark history is ever-present.

Where IT feels completely up to date is in its technical details. The sound design places odd effects throughout the auditory space, creating the uneasy sense that something is coming without ever revealing where it's going to appear. The visual effects support the story without calling undue attention to themselves, and give Pennywise several awful, imaginative entrances and forms.

About Pennywise the dancing clown: the makeup and Janie Bryant's costume design conjure up a tattered Victorian-era Bozo that pays respect to Tim Curry's memorable TV portrayal. Bill Skarsgard ably handles a showy but precarious role that could have easily descended into ludicrousness, dragging down everything else with it.

The young cast (adults, when they appear, are oblivious, threatening and even monstrous) all turn in brave and sophisticated performances. Each member of the Loser's Club is a specific, identifiable type. But special praise goes to Sophia Lillis, who's luminous as Beverly, the group's sole female member, and Jeremy Ray Taylor, who emerges as its hopeful romantic.

Those familiar with King's canon--and who isn't?--will catch nods to it throughout the film. The Loser's Club and Derry's town bullies are reminiscent of Stand By Me's two warring groups of adolescent males; the geysers of blood that terrify Beverly call to mind both Carrie and Kubrick's gushing elevator in The Shining; the old house that sits atop the well to hell could moonlight as the Marsten mansion in 'Salem's Lot.

And that's where any complaints I might have about IT come in. King's work--on both the page and screen--is so well known, its mastery and popularity so universally acknowledged, that any elements of novelty and surprise go missing. IT feels familiar, in ways that are both wonderful and predictable. As King himself said, it's the final exam of horror, and as such, it necessarily represents material that he and a lot of us have already covered.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Big Mistake That Small Towns Make

The following news story has me a bit agitated, because I grew up in a small town not unlike--or that far from--Creston, Iowa.

Photo of 5 males in KKK hoods leads to discipline against students in Creston, Iowa

These high school students--presumably football players, based on the local high school's response--staged a KKK-themed photo shoot in someone's field. To nobody's surprise--except, perhaps, the five males'--the damned thing went viral. Which brings us here, now.

I saw it when a fellow former Iowan shared on Facebook and asked, "What do you make of this?"

Well, since you asked, fellow former Iowan, here's what I make of it.

I don't think this is necessarily an Iowa thing. It's much more of a small town thing. Having grown up in a small Iowa town, I can say that small towns historically have been closed-off places. Once you get past the surface hospitality you'll find hostility to outsiders and even their own who might be perceived as smart, creative, ambitious or non-conforming in even the most harmless way. A kid with even one of those qualities soon learns at the hands of his or her contemporaries that it's best to get out and go where they can find opportunities and like-minded souls.

Until recently the disapproval and banishment was only a strong undercurrent in small towns. But in Trump's America hate has become the new country-chic, and its subtle expression a lost art.

Here's what I think is at the heart of this: small towns suffer from deep-seated inferiority complexes. They see the rest of the world competing and creating, they know they don't measure up, and this drives them crazy. They'd be much happier if the rest of us would just sit down, shut up and accept the status quot. Or, barring that, get out of town and stop rubbing their faces in it.

It's classic bully behavior.

It's classic bullshit, too.

There's a great documentary on Netflix (and YouTube!) that sidles right up to these issues--If You Build It. Here it is.

Watch it--I promise it's well worth your eighty-five minutes. You'll see how a small, down-on-its-heels North Carolina town lures an idealistic young couple (an architect and product designer) to help revitalize their struggling burg and its education system, then systematically cuts them off at every turn. And yet the couple persists, and in the end the town takes everything they have to offer before making it impossible for them to continue their work there.

It reminds me of certain advertising clients I used to work with, who said they were all for "innovation" but just didn't have the stomach for new ideas.

The result is that smart, creative, ambitious people flee small towns in favor of places where they can live and work in peace. And who, with a brain in their head and a dream in their heart, wouldn't?

Meanwhile, these little towns are left to jockey for a few handfuls of small manufacturing and meat-processing jobs, wondering where all their strength and vitality went.

It went with those smart, creative, ambitious kids when they left for college and the world's greener, more welcoming pastures.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Both Sides Now

On Monday Vice News and reporter Elle Reeves released Charlottesville: Race and Terror, pulling back the curtain on the rallies in Charlottesville this past weekend.

It's a fascinating, must-watch examination of the events leading to and following the car attack that killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 others on Saturday afternoon. It also provides an in-depth look at the rally's participants, their philosophies and motivations.

Foremost among them is rally architect Christopher Cantwell, an alt-white (my own catch-all term) organizer who makes no apologies for his racism or attempts to soften its edges. He's comfortable both calling names and calling for violence in support of his goals, and seems especially proud of his mini arsenal and the rally's results, up to and including the death of Heyer.

Now. You've probably also seen Donald Trump addressing the nation on Saturday to say the violence in Charlottesville came from "many sides," amending his statement on Monday to denounce the alt-white, then doubling down on the "both sides" angle during a press conference on Tuesday.

There's a lot I could say about Trump's comments, but many have already said it far better than I'm able to. Instead, I'll just ask you to watch the video--if you haven't already--and then ask yourself: Which side scares you more?

On Wednesday the following video from Christopher Cantwell hit the internet. In it, a tearful Cantwell reveals his feelings about the reactions to both the Charlottesville rallies and his appearance in the Vice News episode.

"Our enemies just will not stop..." he says. "They've fucking assaulted us, they are threatening us all over the place." A few moments later: "I do not want violence with you. I'm terrified, I'm afraid you're going to kill me." And finally, "Everybody and their mother wants to fucking ruin my life."

Suddenly, Cantwell finds himself on the other side of hate-filled words and actions. I hope it will bring him to an understanding of how it feels to be threatened, persecuted and endangered.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

It's Here

It's always an exciting day when the contributor copies arrive. I've had the pleasure of opening those boxes and few times now, and I don't think it will ever get old.

Here's something else that happens: I start looking through the book, and am always excited and humbled at the same time that one of my stories is appearing alongside all those other great tales.

In this case, it's a short that got its start back in 2009 called "The Night Crier." In it, a recent widower is awakened in the middle of the night by a bird's cry. When he's finally had enough of the constant screeching he goes out to hunt the thing down and finds... something quite different from what he expected. Reviewer Irene Cole called it "simply brilliant," for which I'm grateful.

When I was a kid, this was the kind of book I'd save my allowance for the next time we drove to the mall in Des Moines. And once I had it in my hands, I'd start reading it the minute we got in the car to go back home.

I tore through those things, and though I enjoyed all the stories--why else would I be doing this now if that weren't the case?--there were always a few that stuck with me like a bad dream. But in a good way.

Though I haven't yet finished them all, it's not too soon to give a shout-out to those that have already made an impression. Among them are Thomas P. Balazs's "Waiting for Mrs. Hemley" and Josh Rountree's "Snowfather." Oh, and editor Eric J. Guignard's intros are pure Twilight Zone goodness.

The Horror Library, Volume 6 is available at Amazon.comBarnes & Noble and wherever fine nightmares are sold.

Monday, April 10, 2017

What Went Wrong with Flight 3411, by the Numbers

1. Federal law allows United Airlines -- and other air carriers -- to routinely overbook flights. This practice ensures that flights are full, or nearly so, maximizing airline profits.

2. If more passengers show up than there are available seats, the airline can ask for volunteers to be bumped to a later flight.

3. Bumping can also occur when an airline needs to transport employees needed on flights elsewhere.

4. Correction: Flight 3411 was not overbooked, as many outlets have reported. United simply needed the seats for four of its employees who were scheduled to work on flights originating from Louisville the next day.

5. United first offered the passengers $400, then $800. By law, United could have increased its offer by another $550, but did not.

6. In exchange for being bumped, passengers may receive a flight voucher worth up to $1350 and a hotel room, if they'll be delayed more than four hours.

7. Flight vouchers often carry numerous restrictions and blackout dates, making them difficult to use later and therefore, worth less.

8. Bumps typically happen before passengers are allowed to board the plane.

9. If not enough passengers volunteer to be bumped, United -- like other air carriers -- will select passengers for a later flight.

10. Passengers are not selected at random, but by a system that takes into account a passenger's age and any disability, the ticket price paid, their check-in time, frequent flier status and flight class.

11. This practice is buried in the small print of the carrier contract, which each passenger agrees to -- but rarely reads -- upon purchase of their tickets.

12. On Sunday night, April 9, at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, United required four seats on a sold-out flight to Louisville.

13. Passengers had already been seated when the request for volunteers was made.

14. The seats were required for United employees needed on flights leaving from Louisville.

15. United should have known those four seats were needed before -- not after -- passengers had boarded.

16. None of the seated passengers volunteered, so United selected four passengers using its age/disability/price/check-in/status/class formula.

17. Two of the selected passengers left without complaint. One left under duress. The fourth refused to give up his seat.

18. The fourth passenger was a 69-year-old doctor from Louisville, who said he needed to be at the hospital the next morning in order to see patients.

19. Update: The fourth passenger has been identified as Dr. David Dao, of Elizabethtown, Kentucky.

20. Update: Dr. Dao's medical license was suspended in 2005 following multiple convictions in a sex-for-prescription-drugs case involving one of his patients; it was provisionally reinstated in 2015.

21. United called for assistance from the Chicago Police Department and airport security.

22. Two Chicago police and an airport security officer in street clothes boarded the plane. The security officer forcibly removed the fourth passenger.

23. Update: The non-uniformed officer has been placed on probationary leave.

24. At least two other passengers recorded the incident on their phones, and later posted the videos to social media.

25. The videos show the passenger screaming, being removed from his seat, and dragged up the aisle, his mouth bloodied.

26. Several passengers can be heard protesting the passenger's treatment, though none moved to stop the passenger from being removed or volunteered to give up their seat for him.

27. Other passengers are shown doing their best to ignore the situation.

28. A later video shows the man re-entering the plane and running back toward his seat. He appears visibly disoriented, repeating, "I have to go home."

29. Yet another video shows the man at the cabin entrance, blood now streaked across the lower half of his face. In this one he repeats, "I have to go home. Kill me now."

30. A number of news outlets reported the incident on Monday morning, and the videos began going viral on social media.

31. Also on Monday morning, the CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz, released a statement apologizing for the need to "re-accommodate" these passengers, and stating that the airline was "reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation."

32. Update: Ironically, Munoz was named PR Week's "Communicator of the Year" this past March, 17.

33. Update: After his first statement was criticized and an internal memo released in which Munoz stated that he stood behind United's employees, he made a second, more sincere apology to Dao and the flight's other passengers. In it, he promises an examination of United's policies with a report to come on April 30.

34. UpdateA second story has emerged of a United flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles. The first-class, full-fare passenger was told to give up seat in favor of a higher-priority passenger, and threatened with handcuffs if he didn't agree to move.

35. Since 2010, United, American, Delta and Southwest have earned more than $20 billion in profits annually, and own 80 percent of seats on domestic flights.

36. Passengers who find themselves in a similar situation have little recourse. According to The Atlantic, "In the last decade, class-action lawsuits have become endangered thanks to a series of Supreme Court rulings that have undercut consumer rights. Disputes over fine-print regulation are increasingly likely to be settled in arbitration, without a judge or jury, where the deck is stacked against the individual plaintiff and the decisions are practically impossible to appeal."

37. Neil Gorsuch, formerly a justice for the United States Court of Appeals Tenth Circuit, has a record of siding with corporate interests over consumer rights in similar cases. He was confirmed as an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court today, Monday, April 10, 2017.