Oh, Thanks a lot, Angelina Jolie!

Ah, Crap Nuggets!

I just read this! Angelina Jolie is directing a new movie called Unbroken about the real life ordeal of two air force pilots shot down over the Pacific who survived 47 days adrift only be taken prisoner by the Japanese and have to survive a POW camp before getting back home (the one guy’s fiancé waited for him, even after word of his death).

Why does news of this new movie bother me so much? Because I was totally going to write a novel about those guys being lost at sea! Seriously, I’ve had this idea in mind for a few years ever since I saw a documentary about them (Shark Week, yay!). It was like third or fourth in the queue for me to write. I just needed to do a little more research (okay, a lot more) before I could start.

Now, though, I don’t see the point. Granted, the celluloid version probably won’t be the long dialogue on faith and human purpose that I’d imagined, but my idea still seems a little superfluous. It’s like Shakespeare in Love all over again (my story was way, way darker, but still…).

So thanks a bunch, Angelina. Geesh. Well, at least my title would’ve been much better.

Strange Inspiration

Those who read these pages faithfully (and how many are you, I always have to wonder, since you appear to me as little spikes on a line graph and little more–do you forgive me that I never find the time to learn more about you) and study the time stamps carefully will recognize that lately I’ve been caught by a long, inescapable cycle of insomnia.

I never know what to make of this. At least, not entirely. I do know that in part, it’s a simple and inevitable consequence of two converging trends in my life:  too little exercise and too many little things at work nagging for attention, leaving my mind over-busy and my body lurching through its business like an engine with too many miles on it.

Finding the will power to get up and hit the pool before I slap eggos in the toaster oven and PB on slices of bread in the morning would probably set everything straight, but somehow I haven’t for weeks and weeks now.

And this is the consequence.

A ticking clock and a restless mind. Typical unsteady me.

Through it all, in the liminal space when I’m alone and awake but asleep and surrounded, there’s been these few staticky images recurring. Imaginary spaces where I take myself to be away from all the things that might keep me from being asleep. Places where there is only the white noise of some great world-engine and no dawn coming for years and years so I might as well slumber.

It was just a game I played with my own thoughts, to trick them into resting–the opposite of the jerking hallucinations of falling and spycraft machines in the wallpaper that sometimes jerk me awake–but now tonight, I’ve seen a form behind them all.

And I see it’s not just static, but a story arc waiting to be, like the keel of a ship seen from below, slicing through dark water.

In a fit I jotted it all down–a few phrases, a sketch of a girl and a man, one title–and I see that I have a whole set of novels waiting to be written. At least eight. It’s probably a decade of my future life waiting to be lived/written.

All from a thought I might have chased away weeks ago but didn’t.


I’ve thought all those thoughts before
so now I think I’m onto something new
and it is this:

All the science is lies
atoms and quarks are not the building blocks of reality
it’s much bigger chunks
whole walls of irreducible plaster
colors defining shapes, inextricable
so that everything
is just a shuffling of the furniture
a sliding of planks in a maze

And we are kindly excused
from having any power over the arrangement

Man’s Inhumanity


I’m under orders to write this.

After watching CNN’s documentary Blackfish, my son told me to give it five stars on Netflix’s rating board and then write something really complimentary about it on the Internet.

If you missed it when CNN aired it earlier this week, then I really do highly recommend the film. I had never been comfortable with the idea of orcas in captivity. I told my wife this before we took our children to Sea World. Just knowing that orcas’ natural range is thousands upon thousands of miles of open ocean, I couldn’t imagine that it was justifiable to enclose them in such small pools for display. “It would be like locking a lion in a closet,” I would say. Especially given their exceptional intelligence, I had serious reservations about patronizing a park that displayed them.

But we were won over by Sea World’s contributions to conservation and by their assertions that the trainers developed tight bonds with the animals in their care. And, just as they are supposed to, our visits to Sea World provoked awe and wonder in my young children, fueling their curiosity and empathy for these incredible creatures.

That same empathy that was on display as they teared up while watching Blackfish.

It’s a double-edged sword. Two generations of Americans have come to know killer whales through the Shamu shows and promotion of Sea World, but it’s that very familiarity that helps us see now how wrong it is to hold these animals under those conditions.

To be sure, there are things we learned watching Blackfish that I hadn’t known, things that would have kept me from entering the Sea World gates. The stories of calves being separated from their mothers and the almost indescribable grief of those mothers as they wailed for their offspring convinced me we were wrong to ever give Sea World a single dollar–much less the hundreds we’ve spent there during our three visits over the years (one to each park).

It makes me ashamed of our other touristy interactions with marine mammals. We swam with dolphins in the Bahamas. Were we accomplices to their imprisonment? I remember the stories told to us there: that the dolphins themselves were rescued after Katrina and the assurances from the trainer who led our visit that “they don’t do anything they don’t want to do.”

And they sound just like the platitudes from the Sea World representatives, so many of whom report in the documentary that they look back with regret and shame for their role in the enslavement of these animals.

And it is slavery that is the nearest analogy I can find. Imagine being snatched away from your family–from right before their eyes as they call to you, not fleeing the threat as most animals would, but crying out in painful voices, helpless to assist you against your captors–and then being transported to a strange cell, perhaps the size of a small bedroom, where you are dropped into the midst of several other prisoners like you, but none of whom speak your language, and then, to earn your food, you must perform tricks for gawkers on the other side of the bars.

Such is the life of an orca in captivity. We know now that they are beings of intelligence, with their own languages and culture, and yet business interests have shuffled them around the map like interchangeable inventory to keep the shows running smoothly.

And that is the other theme that crashes out from the images of Blackfish. You are struck not only by how complex and deserving of their rights these creatures are, but also by how destructive corporate greed can be. Babies–who in the wild would have remained part of their mother’s social group for all of their nearly hundred year life span–being ripped apart from their families because their close bonds through off the rhythm of scheduled performances, all so they can continue their sad life of involuntary showmanship in some other tiny pool, a life that in captivity will be only a fraction of what it might be in nature. All of this, so that Sea World can sell plush Shamu dolls.

There are two forces writing our history–a history that, thanks to the scale of our global civilization, we now share with all the other beings of this world. Those forces are power and empathy. Two push-pull forces scribing every moment that ticks away. Here, they write yet another story of a corporation behaving inhumanely–if not inhumanly–to serve the profit motive, to bow before the power of the dollar.

Yet, the documentary Blackfish shows another side of us, of humans. Throughout the film, former trainers speak out against holding orcas captive. Its last scenes are first of protesters demanding the release of the animals, to the ocean for those young enough to manage and to sheltered coves for those too old to survive in the wild, and then of the former trainers boarding a boat to visit orcas in the wild, to watch them move majestically through their native habitat, the only way our species should ever appreciate their beauty.

Sea World doesn’t want us to see it that way. They don’t want us to see this documentary. In fact, the single salient response of this organization through every incident when one of these whales has rebelled and lashed out against its captors has been denial, obfuscation, and spin.

As in the human world, stripping power from others and hoarding it for yourself always requires a willful blindness, and for Sea World to perpetrate this on its customers, it has tried to maintain an illusion so that it can keep the money flowing and so its patrons will love the sight of its performing animals without ever really feeling empathy for their actual plight.

I allowed it to happen to me, too. I knew better. I knew it couldn’t be right, but I let a slick marketing machine gloss over the crime beneath what was happening right before my eyes–and those of my children.

The sins of the world are always being perpetrated like that–half hidden by the machinations of those who are exploiting others, and the other half concealed by the willful indifference of those of us who look the other way.


One week to go…

It’s one week until NaNoWriMo.

To prepare myself mentally, I decided to reread my last NaNoWriMo effort. Six years ago I took my first dip in the pool and came up a little short. Oh, I finished my story in November just fine, but it came up about 12,000 words shy of NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 word limit. That’s one of the problems–you have to pick a story you think you can finish in a month, so it can’t be Gone With the Wind or anything. Just to be able to say I met the challenge, I wrote a 12,000 word essay about my own book–half author’s afterward and half deconstruction. It was kind of a cheap move.

And I guess that’s the last I did with that story.

Rereading it tonight, I was surprised. First of all, apparently as recently as 2007 I didn’t know how to spell ma’am correctly and thought you had to cock the hammer on a gun before firing it. There were also a few notes to myself about blank spaces I’d left throughout the text that I never went back and filled in–like side characters named so-and-so and street names with placeholders like $#@@@.

I’m not tempted to fix those now, though. It’s been too long and those characters, that story don’t feel like mine anymore. Six years can be a long time and whoever wrote that book chose to leave it unfinished. I wouldn’t feel right second guessing that decision now.

So I’m just going to look forward, to my next project. I have the idea brewing, but I’m resisting the urge to work on it until the official start date…

One week to go.

American Exceptionalism

The headline linking to Frida Ghitis’s recent op-ed on CNN.com asks: Should America apologize for spying?

Ghitis weighs in with a definite “yes,” but some others might protest, “Everyone does it!”  The peer-pressure version of international relations.

There’s another argument, though. Because, after all, not everybody has the resources to do it like we do. It begs the question: What gives us the right? Shouldn’t America have to play nice? Or does it have some sort of special privelege to police the world?

A few months ago, Vladimir Putin got metaphorically tar-and-feathered by the American right wing for questioning in a New York Times open letter the concept of American exceptionalism. He argued it was “dangerous” of President Obama to cow-tow to the age-old notion of America having a special destiny.

Well, he’s wrong.

America is special.

We are different. Maybe not for the reasons that President Obama noted in the specific address that Putin was referring to, but we, as a nation, are different. I remember my government professor my freshman year of college making the case. Somebody–don’t ask me who after all these years–had done some sort of study. Your mother and your wife are drowning. You only have time to save one. Who is it?

Apparently, Americans answered the wife. Everybody else saves Mom. Just an example, but you get the point.

America is different. We think different–about ourselves and the world. We are seen differently. The world really does look to America, maybe with resentment, maybe with avarice, but they look west because the United States has become the fulcrum of Western Civilization and Western Civilization has dominated the globe. So, yes, the good ole U.S. of A. is exceptional.

Many scoff at this argument, citing America’s many patent flaws. The contradictory history of extolling freedom while enslaving and segregating blacks and other groups. The boastful bluster of being the richest nation with inequality on par with Cameroon. Well, yes, that’s true but I never said special means better.

We do have a special place in the world.

And that is absolutely why we should apologize.

If we don’t then we’re just special, not better…not even getting better.

On Insomnia

These late nights have almost gotten me killed. Falling down rabbit holes deeper than the Mariana Trench. Getting my feet twisted in similes wrapped inside of allusions knotted up with irony.

And it’s the loneliness, of course, that I really hate. I’m not really dreading the morning, the heavy fog in my head as I try to imagine what the day is going to run like with only 42% capacity. I can work that by just riding the groove of my life, just let the springs move me through the course, punch the cards, gently apply the brakes when the lights turn yellow, coast through the human interactions with courteous smiles and knowing head nods.

But the now. The deep-dark now of just me and the snoring up above in the dark spaces where everyone else has–temporarily–exited the world while I’m still in it.

Last man on when the pilot light goes out. Like Superman sitting on the raw, scorched Earth after Lois and Jimmy and ten thousand generations of human kind have expired, have shuffled off. The sun’s going all red and I’ve got no powers left, but still, dammit, I cannot die.

Not fast enough.

I blame different things on different nights. It’s a video game. Or a marathon on Netflix. Or a damned fine book.

It’s never really those things. Never really the trivial trappings of awakeness. All those are burn off. Residue built up on the edge of the pan. The real thing, the real cause, is what’s simmering in the center. Some dish that’s always cooking but is never quite ready to eat. Watched pots never boil and whatever’s promising to poke its head out and make sense of the whole stew never quite does.

So pop a few blue pills, even though the headache isn’t really a headache so much as a buzz of neurons pleading for REMs, and go lie down, knowing that it’s no solution, knowing that it’s going to follow you, up there, into the cushy folds of the sheets and comforter and the warm spot where the dog’s been lying waiting.

Because you don’t get away from the inevitable that easily.

the long stretches

sockets sunken into our skulls
from a kind of defeat
that just doesn’t end things
we press our feet against the tarry black path
the surface hardening the pads of our feet
showing through the worn holes in the leather
with sighs and empty gas tanks
we push on
shoving great gunmetal gray tumble weeds of snaggled scrap metal
child eyes peeking out through bits of cracked, dingy glass
blinking at the too bright world

Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Found Footage Sci-Fi


The found footage genre of horror cinema has, quite predictably, played itself out of late. Many of us remember the shockingly low-budget arrival of this sub-genre with the Blair Witch Project back in 1999 (and many of us remember almost losing our lunches in the process; God bless the advent of auto-stabilization), but even the makers of that film saw the limited potential for the gimmick when they released a non-found footage sequel, which was a dismal failure and perhaps should have been an omen for the whole trend.

Economics, though, has prevailed. Pretending that your narrative has been captured serendipitously on cheap, readily available video sources like surveillance cameras and hand-helds is a really good way to keep your budget down and a number of low-budget movies, most notably Paranormal Activity, have turned monstrous (he, he) profits using this conceit.

But while this technique has usually been used to create on-the-cheap horror, a few filmmakers have employed it to tell some stories of the fantastic without having to recruit the budget of, say, The Avengers. These efforts range from Paranormal wanna-be’s like Apollo 18 to alterna-superhero flicks like Chronicle.

With mixed results.

Apollo 18 was a preposterous, and mostly pointless, monster flick with little mean-spirited moon rocks as antagonists. Chronicle mostly gave the world Dane DaHaan, but was also a kind of clever take on the psychology of…well, fictional archetypes like supervillains and heroes.

But other small movies have found ways to use both the fantastic and the found footage gimmick to actually, you know, say something. The movie The Bay warns about environmental ruin, but with minimal dramatic tension. Better still is the recent Europa Report.

The movie tells the story of humankind’s first expedition to Jupiter’s moon Europa. It replaces the sweeping visuals of the stellar Gravity with an earnest yearning for exploration and discovery. Obviously, the mission faces adversity but (spoilers ahead) it resists devolving into monster-flick schtick. The aliens beneath the ice of Europa’s moon are not malevolent and the threat they pose to the crew seems entirely accidental–perhaps as much a consequence of their curiosity as ours.

This sub-genre hints at a possible future for films. With a few small sets and some computer effects, Europa Report created a believable journey into space, and though it was suspenseful, it avoided the clichés of seemingly similar fair like Apollo 18. In the process, it tells a story with themes that bigger budget fare might not attempt to explore. Europa Report’s heart is in its faith in the pursuit of scientific knowledge and with pushing the envelope–all while using filmmaking technology that didn’t exist much more than a decade ago.

How long until the technology that let Europa Report be made for a tenth the cost of Gravity becomes even more accessible and virtually anyone can create a feature film? As any reader of this site knows, I am already enamored with the technology that allows an individual author to gain a readership of, well, in this case dozens without the publishing industry or any concern for sales. At some point in the near future, filmmaking may enter into the same realm of artistry where an individual mind can create a singular vision through cinema and share it with the world.

There’s something to be said for the collaborative process in Hollywood and it certainly creates some memorable entertainment experiences, but think what possibilities exist when other, rarer voices might also speak out from behind the cacophony of franchises and blockbusters.

fruiting body

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 1.46.12 PM

the idea is under-ripe
too firm
with green veins still showing on its pale skin
and looking at the stunted shoots
frail half-tendrils
like unformed, featureless nub-fingers
you get the sense
that there will be no blooms after this
at all