November 2014

The Why


Once upon a time


there was


In a world

“Really? Do you even believe yourself?” She rolled her eyes at me.

I was back at my usual table beside the lake. It was mid-morning, the sun was bright, the breeze was cool. There were a few ducks on the lake. It’s good for a story to have ducks on a lake, I noted to myself; it establishes the setting as peaceful, tranquil…

My partner for a late breakfast was anything but tranquil. Today she was in the form of a tall, lanky teenager, with short-cropped red hair that looked like she cut it herself, a loose-fitting tee shirt with the name of a band too new for me to have heard of, and a bored expression. And chains, so many chains. “You’re not getting this whole story thing, are you?” she asked me rhetorically.

“Why,” I tried to find the words, “young lady, why are you here today? My usual inner critic is an old Italian guy who smokes a cigar.”

She scoffed. “First off, calling me ‘young’ says more about you than it does about me. Second off, cigars, really? There you go with stereotypes again.” She slumped back in her chair, crumpled an empty egg mcmuffin wrapper on the table so the wind wouldn’t take it. “At least tell me what you have so far.”

I picked up my tablet computer to read my notes, and pushed a glossy photograph across the table for her to see. “The picture I was given to write about this time is of a sandy knoll at night under the stars. Looks like it’s along the side of an empty highway through the desert. So there’s this fellow, see, I figure a car pulls over just long enough to kick him out. The driver’s a woman, a spurned girlfriend who mocks him, ‘you’re the master of space and time! you want your space, you want your time, here you go!’ and she drives away. He wanders out into the desert. ‘I am the master of space and time!’ he says. Thunder booms in the distance. The ghost of a female warrior appears, holding an immense warhammer. He recounts his triumphs … but they’re all from video games, see? The mayor of the town in Animal Crossing. The ruler of a country in Civilization. The head of the space exploration program in Kerbal. He rolled up planets in Katamari. He saved the galaxy in Mass Effect. And with each triumph he recounts, with each achievement he’s earned, the ghost grows and grows until she towers above him, until she can practically reach the stars herself. Finally he realizes she’s the manifestation of all the legends he’s won for himself … through games, at least; she represents everything into which he’s poured his life. The only thing left with which he can feed her magnificence is himself. And so he throws his arms wide, and she lifts that great hammer and crashes it down onto him, and the earth shakes, and when the echoes die out both of them have disappeared. He had poured his entire being into these legends he had created, but the legends were nothing beyond himself.”

I locked eyes with her across the table. Silence hung in the air for a few moments until she broke it. “So there’s that. And then what happens because of it?”

“Er,” I looked away. “Well … the woman who we saw earlier driving the car, she wakes up. Turns out this was all a dream – her own dream. Maybe she’s mad at this guy for spending more time with video games than with her. Or! Or maybe it was just a nightmare and she’s been working too hard and she slips out of bed, leaving him asleep, and she goes and logs on to work email and tries to get an early start on the day even though it’s four in the morning, but then he brings her some hot tea and a nice backrub and tells her she shouldn’t work so hard. Or … maybe she’s never met him, he’s her blind date for the evening, and when she finally meets him she understands him immediately and she kisses him before they even say … before they even say a word … you’re not buying any of this, are you?”

“If you don’t believe in the stuff you write, why do you write it?” she challenged.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I like the process of filling out a story, but I hate coming up with the story in the first place. Like, say I were a chef. I’d be the kind of chef who enjoys skillfully making dishes from recipes that are time-honored, tested and true, but I’d hate coming up with my own new recipes, because it’s all been done before and if it were good it would have become time-honored by now, which means that the only ideas I could have that are new would be – by definition – weird or bad.”

I took another bite of my breakfast croissant. It was burned on the bottom, but I didn’t feel like making an issue of it with the bakery. My critic studied me thoughtfully, until she asked, “Where’d you get the picture?”

“It was, ah, delivered to me this morning.”

“Today’s Sunday,” she pointed out. “Nobody delivers on Sunday.”

I shook my head. “Someone brought it to me. A friend.” I held up my hand to quell further questions down that route.

“A moment ago you said ‘weird or bad,'” she continued. “As if, if you didn’t want bad, weird is always an option. And everything that’s comfortable today once started out as weird, right?”

I asked her, “So you’re saying that the stuff I gave you has potential?”

“No.” She sighed. “Story requires plot. This happened, THEREFORE that happened. That happened BECAUSE this happened. What you’re giving me isn’t plot, it’s events. Like those old Native American folk tales where anthropomorphic animals mess with peoples’ lives. Panther kidnaps hunter’s wife; hunter gets Wolf’s help retrieving her. Event, event. Things happen, but no reasons are given. Why does Panther kidnap? What does Wolf help? Just like that, you’re missing the foreshadowing, the consequences, the ‘why.’ No interest. No life. You have the ingredients, but anybody can get ingredients. You haven’t put them together in any meaningful way.”

I opened my mouth to disagree. I changed my mind. “You have a point.”

“And, by the way, that bit about the woman kissing the fellow at first sight? Completely sexist.”

“Sorry. I was trying for ‘romantic.'”

“Do you even hear yourself?” she growled. “Remember that Yoda thing about doing, not trying. Decide on your message, believe in it, and then make sure that every word you put down carries it there. Now,” she said, pushing her chair back and standing, “you won’t see me again for a while, because your other guy’s coming back from vacation.”

“Well, I appreciate the feedback, miss … sorry, but I forgot to ask your name?”


The Why Read More »

No Man’s Land


“It’s blue out here,” Professor Blatt sighed. She pulled her coat and hood more tightly around herself against the cold. “Everything’s blue.”

Her radio crackled. “No, the snow’s white. And technically the ice has no color, it’s translucent.”

“Don’t contradict me, Asahi,” Blatt snapped at the second-year grad student. “Give me red, give me yellow, give me anything but blue. There’s nothing out here but snow and sky and more snow. The mining equipment is getting close to its maximum depth and all we’ve discovered is more ice. You still so sure of your coordinates?”

There was a pause. “I’m sure,” came Asahi’s quiet reply. “And now you usually say something like ‘this had better be worth it,’ and then I remind you that it is. We’re digging through snow that’s an ice age thick. It’s going to take time to find anything down there. But I’m sure that this is the right place and I’m absolutely certain that by the end of the day we’re going to make a discovery that will tell us a lot about the ancient people who were here before us.” The voice paused again. “By the end of the week, at least.”

That didn’t help Blatt’s mood any. “How did you talk me into leaving the basement lab for this? I’m not fond of being out in bright light.”

“You know the nighttime temperatures can be lethal. And you’ll want to be here, anyway, in case we make any discoveries. I meant ‘when,’ not ‘in case,'” Asahi amended.

The professor spotted some commotion from the workers around one of the rigs. “Stand by, Asahi,” she radioed. She half-crawled across the ice, leaning into the wind, until she found the expedition’s anthropologist, wearing a nametag that read ‘Palm.’ “Tell me what’s up.”

“What’s up is a relic!” replied Palm, gesturing breathlessly. “I believe the drills have finally reached what was once ground level, and we’ve recovered … this!” As she spoke, a crane gingerly pulled a living-room-sized block of ice from the nearest excavation tunnel, lowered it to within a few feet of the ground, then dropped it the rest of the way. The thud knocked Blatt onto her back, but as she rose and shook snow from her coat, she saw the vague outline of something large and yellow inside the block. She approached it slowly, trying to make out its contents until Palm interrupted her: “You’ll want to come around this side, it’s easier.” Sure enough, the other side of the block of ice revealed that the drill had sliced this artifact cleanly in half. Already, the engineers were dragging warm-air blowers over to this side to begin the thawing process.

Blatt found her voice. “What IS it?”

“I believe,” Palm said excitedly, “it was called a ‘taxicab.'”

“And that?” asked Blatt, pointing to a smaller piece that had broken off the block.

Palm crouched over it and studied it intently. Then she stood and took a half-step backwards in surprise. “Man!” The commotion around her ceased immediately, all attention on her and her discovery. “Well, the top half of a man. We really need to be more careful with our drill bits. But I am familiar with the style in which this one is dressed, and if my hunch is correct…” She turned the frozen remains face-down and pulled at the fabric behind its neck. “‘Men’s Wearhouse’, if I’m reading it correctly. You know what this means, don’t you?” she asked the professor.

“It means that men were still alive during the last ice age,” Blatt answered her, as the significance of this sunk in. “There must be millions of them trapped down there, frozen solid. I thought they had died out thousands of years earlier. This is going to turn science and history on their heads.”

Palm had already left the corpse and was pulling something else from the ice. “Bonus!” she exclaimed. “This is what was called a ‘briefcase’. This particular one is made of genuine crocodile leather, which should make it water-resistant, and that means there wouldn’t be any water damage to…” She cracked the briefcase open like an egg. “This!” Nestled within the briefcase, between manila folders and a well-preserved fast food lunch, was a small black smartphone, still intact. She attached a clip that snapped readily into the data port on the phone’s edge, powered it up, and defeated its encryption. “I had hoped that would work!” she said giddily. “We only had an incomplete set of specifications to work from. But now we should be able to access all of the data it holds. Cached information, news, personal messages—”

“Give it here,” Blatt demanded, and Palm complied. Blatt examined the device from every angle. “This symbol on the back has religious significance,” she said in a hushed tone. “It appears in references to temples where people would gather and sacrifice their wages.” She turned the device so that she could see rows of icons on its glowing face. “How do I view the data stored in this?”

“Just tap the glass.”

Blatt tapped gently on the glass. Nothing happened. Then she tried slightly more firmly, but still nothing happened. She handed it back to Palm for a try. Palm tapped at it, shrugged at her.

Blatt sighed unhappily through her mandibles. “We’ve come all this way…” She pulled her hood back from her face, let it slide off to expose her head-carapace to the frigid air for just a few moments so that she could unfurl her antennae. “The temperature will drop soon. Let’s call it a day. We’ve discovered the ruins of Boston, we’ve found evidence that man survived longer into the Information Age than previously thought, and we’ve even recovered a relic from that period.” She tapped again at it with her claw; still it did not respond. “Once we learn how to access the data in this device, we could very well understand a key chapter in cockroach evolution.”

No Man’s Land Read More »



I was sitting at the town park, beside the lake, at a small table with two chairs pulled up to it. The table was round, the kind that’s charitably meant for three or four people to be able to sit at to converse over a leisurely lunch. In reality, four people would end up fighting elbow-fights for enough room to put their styrofoam container with the sandwich and chips from the corner deli, and then there still wouldn’t be enough room for everyone’s Big Gulp. These tables were probably made for a time when folks ate less.

Today I had one chair and nobody had the other chair, and that was it. Chairs three and four had long departed for other tables. It was just after lunchtime, so businesspeople were already finishing up and leaving. The only remains of elbow-fights were a few red-and-white checkered napkins that had escaped and were being tossed by the wind. I watched one for a while until it got itself wrapped around a table leg.

Then I looked up, startled, to see that a barn owl was perched on the back of the chair on the other side of my table. She was watching me silently. In her talons she was cluctching a photograph.

I sighed. Turned my head away, then back again; the owl was still there, only now her head was turned ninety degrees clockwise. It always weirds me out a little when they do that. I pulled my tablet computer out of my satchel and set it on the table and read the local news and worked on pointedly ignoring the bird. It didn’t work. So I stretched out my legs, reclined in the chair, and held up the tablet so as to block my view of her. The sun was reflecting right off the tablet’s glassy surface into my eyes, making it impossible to read; but that was okay, that wasn’t the point, the point was to hope the owl would go away.

The photograph slid across the table, beneath my tablet, and into my lap.

I dropped the tablet into my satchel. The owl was still staring at me, only now her head was ninety degrees in the other direction. “What?” I asked.

“Who?” she shot back.

I gave the owl a tight-lipped frown, and I lifted the photograph to have a good view of it. It was printed on nice glossy paper, like it came from a photomat, only they don’t have those any more. “Ehm,” I stalled for time. “A path through some trees. Looks a bit overgrown. No, looks a lot overgrown. The sidewalk could use a good sweeping, maybe some weed killer to keep the nasty stuff out of the cracks and give the grass a chance to grow in on the sides. And there’s a lot of Spanish moss on the trees. People think it’s beautiful, but that’s part of what’s wrong with this country; I once caught a lady hanging Spanish moss on the live oak in her front yard but people don’t realize it’s a parasite and it kills off the trees—”

“Who?” the owl interrupted me.

I gave her a cold glance and returned my attention to the photograph. “There are some sticks and leaves on the path but not many. Looks like people still walk here, but not often, not any more.” The owl inhaled to speak again, but I raised a hand to hush her, and she politely held her breath. “I know what you’re going to ask next. ‘When.’ ‘Where.’ Those are the important questions. Not why or how; those are things you figure out after you have the when and the where and the who. The ‘when’ is probably early afternoon; it’s late enough that there’s no dew, you don’t see any dew glistening on the green stuff in this photo, but the shadows aren’t very long yet. The ‘where’ is obviously someplace that wants to be nice but doesn’t have the budget for the upkeep. Look at how the trees are in neat lines on either side of the path; they were probably planted two or three decades back, so somebody had plans, but they’d be disappointed in how it turned out.” I pushed the photograph across the table and gave the owl my best ‘I’m done’ stare.

She was staring at me with her head upside-down.

“Look, I hate it when you do that. What are you doing out here, anyway? It’s a beautiful day, gorgeous temperature, blue sky, but this ain’t the owl time of day. Why,” I sighed, “why do you have to keep bothering me?”

I knew she’d ask it again. She did. “Who?”

I shrugged, beaten. “Her name was Monarch. No, that’s not her name name, I can’t actually remember her real name, Mary Beth? Mary Jane? But it’s what I called her because she liked butterflies. And I know exactly where this photo was taken because it’s the path we used to walk together twice a day in college, for a while. Smartest gal I ever knew, she really was. And me, I was young and stupid and had absolutely no idea how to relate to her. I think I was so infatuated with the idea of her that I never spent enough time getting to know the actual person.”

I reached out and pulled the photograph back over to myself, lingered over it for a moment. “It’s funny the patina that builds up over the years, isn’t it? If this path had been kept up neatly, if the branches were swept and the weeds were killed and the moss were pulled down, it wouldn’t seem half as interesting. Nature’s reclaiming it. The lack of work to keep it beautiful is what makes it beautiful.” I looked to the owl but she was already gone, damned silent thing. I slipped the photo into my satchel.

“That’s the first time I’ve thought of her in ages,” I told the owl who wasn’t there. “I don’t know why you showed up or how you found me, but if you happen to see her again, I hope she’s had a good life.”

Path Read More »

Big Hero 6


Short-story author Anton Chekhov once wrote:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

I have a lot of respect for stories that lay out the pieces and then use all of them. A good example recently is Guardians of the Galaxy, in which the protagonist’s motivation is entirely represented by a cassette tape (scenes of which neatly bookend the movie). John Lasseter’s films for Pixar and Disney also tend to be very good at this; the villains are driven by a motivation that seems obvious in hindsight, and the heroes save themselves not by finding a convenient gadget but by discovering something about themselves. Nothing’s left on the table. Nothing’s pulled out of thin air. Plenty of room for foreshadowing and plenty of opportunity for the themes of the story to be suggested and interpreted instead of stated outright. Lasseter’s stories are often themed around toys or monsters or racecars or Santa’s elves or other kid-friendly subjects, but the messages apply to all ages. A story which lacks the finesse to handle this well – in which things just happen, and people just react – is just a kids’ story.

Big Hero 6 is a kids’ story.

Before the film even begins, we already know Baymax the big cuddly robot. All the TV commercials have emphasized two fundamental things about him: that he’s a balloon who can reinflate himself when he gets punctured, and that he acts drunk when his battery runs low. So then all through the rest of the film, as we see Baymax fly and Baymax shoot rocket-fists and Baymax scan the city and then Baymax fly some more while carrying five people, I kept waiting to see what happens when his battery runs low again … but, no, nothing; that was just for the laughs in the one scene you see in the commercial. And then finally at the climax of the film there’s a scene where precious moments are lost lamenting the fact that there’s no way to push Baymax through space toward a target. “If only someone had a balloon,” I kept thinking, “then you could just poke a hole in it…”

Meanwhile, the story as a whole is about two people who have each lost a loved one. The bad guy seeks revenge, while the good guy renounces it … except, no, the good guy doesn’t really have any reason for revenge in the first place. He lost his loved one through an accident, not because of any meaningful action on the part of the bad guy. What caused that accident, anyway? (We never find out.) And why is the bad guy so dedicated to revenge? We only met him in one scene before he was revealed to be the antagonist. He didn’t look like he had a dark side. He didn’t even have time to mention this person who supposedly was his entire life, whose loss drove him over the edge. It reminded me a little of Frozen, in which – at a pivotal moment in the story – one of the characters all but says, “Guess what? I’m the bad guy,” with absolutely nothing leading up to that revelation.

Don’t get me wrong – the film contains a handful of moments of pure joy: the first visit to the “nerd school”, Hiro’s demonstration, and Baymax’s first flight. These made the film enjoyable. But I’d also like to have seen teammates and an enemy with real personalities and motivations, and I also wanted to see Hiro take something he learned earlier in the story and use it towards his final showdown with the bad guy. Without that, everyone’s just reacting. I expected more than that from a film with Lasseter’s name on it.

Big Hero 6 Read More »

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