Tag Archives: stories

Rock Salt


This is a story about rocks.

Quinn loved rocks.

It wasn’t such an unusual thing for a young boy to love rocks, although maybe it was unusual for a young boy to love rocks as much as Quinn did. Every day, after school, Quinn would go into the woods behind his house, follow the leaf-strewn path down to MacIntyre Lake, and play with rocks for hours.

He’d seek out thin, palm-sized rocks smoothed by centuries of flowing water to skip on the lake. Largish rocks with flattened edges cracked by time to stack into teetering towers. Tiny, dense pebbles to wing at the occasional squirrel (he hit one, once, and watched it twitching on a bed of pinestraw for almost thirty minutes before it got up and stumble-ran off into the woods again). He even had a special collection of rocks that he just liked to look at.

Quinn’s mom thought his geological fixation was a bit much. But she also knew that her friend, Cheryl, had a husband who kept a collection of rocks in a cabinet in his basement. He was known to take them out and polish them and write the odd column about responsible rock ownership in the slower midweek editions of the town paper. “Quaint, but harmless,” was the thing most often said about him, and she could deal with her son being quaint, but harmless.

That all changed when Quinn took his rocks to school.

The first time, he didn’t do anything with them — just stowed them away in his backpack to prove to himself that he could do it.

The second time, he showed them to a few of his friends. They didn’t really understand why he wanted to bring rocks to school — school was school, after all, rocks didn’t really have much to do with it.

The day before the third time, Will Barrett tripped Quinn in the lunch line (his buddies dared him to trip the weirdo kid bringing his rocks to school). For the rest of the day, everybody called Quinn “Potato Face” (you couldn’t say a lot for the creativity of your average school kid, but what they lacked there they made up in tenacity).

Quinn showed up the third time with a bag brimming with good throwing rocks, waited til Will and his buddies were face-deep in cafeteria Sloppy Joes, and let fly. Will lost a tooth. Terry caught a sharp one in the eye and had to wear an eyepatch for a month. Finn took one in the head and thought he was fine, but later in the day they had to call an ambulance for him when he kept falling over. A little girl sitting at the next table — a third grader Quinn didn’t even know — got her forehead gashed open.

Of course, Quinn was suspended, but more surprising, the school board immediately moved to ban rocks in all schools. “Rocks have no place in the classroom,” the press release read, “and their presence can only serve at best to distract from the learning environment, and at worst to pose a threat of tangible physical harm to our students.” But the very next day, Cheryl’s husband (the rock collector) penned his midweek column and argued that rocks did have a safe place in schools under proper conditions, and even made the (admittedly in poor taste) joke that if some teachers had been carrying some good throwing rocks of their own, they might have taken Quinn down before he could do more substantial harm to his classmates.

A heated debate bubbled up in the community. The school board’s office became a regular site for heated arguments between previously civil members of the community. Some were angry that their kids, suddenly enamored with the idea of bringing rocks with them at all times, should be punished for doing so. Others were incensed at the possibility that their child might be in the same room with a rock without their knowledge. Still others argued that access to rocks was a fundamental right not to be impinged regardless of how anybody else felt about it. The ban was lifted, then reinstated, then lifted with restrictions, and there were regulations proposed about how many rocks a student could bring to school, or how long a student had to wait between applying for a rock permit and actually receiving his rock, until very few people actually knew what the specific rules were on rocks in the first place.

While that was going on, a strange thing happened. Kids at the school began bringing rocks to school anyway. Rocks could be found everywhere, after all, and were easy to conceal. And you didn’t have to be a rock enthusiast to recognize the advantage a rock in your backpack could provide in a schoolyard scuffle. Before the month was out, rock-related incidents between students had skyrocketed.

Even worse, the kids were innovating. One student proudly kept a thirty-pound rock, practically a boulder, in his backyard, just for the purpose of dropping it off the roof onto tin cans. Another devised a contraption — basically a forked stick with a bit of rubber tubing strung between its extremities — with which he could fling stones much faster, much farther, and much more accurately than anybody could throw them before. “Why would you ever need such things?” People asked them. They could have talked about the primal urge to domination, the hard-coded mine-is-bigger-than-yours urge, even the simple fact that having such things meant that you could seriously hurt somebody who messed with you, even if you didn’t want to. But all that tended to be ungainly and hard to explain to those asking the questions, so they answered “for sport” instead.

Worse still, an economy had sprung up around the enterprise. Some individuals found it worth their time to go out in search of the biggest rocks, or the most streamlined, or “rocks you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of,” and sell them for a profit. There was no shortage of demand, after all — since everybody, especially bad guys, had access to rocks, it only made sense to consider having some rocks yourself, just in case.

And kids continued to bring rocks to school, not always because they really liked rocks, but because rocks, being well-and-truly everywhere and the focus of so much discussion by now, seemed like the answer to all problems.

But little by little, kids — strangely, it was the kids and not the adults — decided they’d had enough of living with the fear that somebody could just walk into their school and start throwing rocks. It wasn’t fair to them that their education, to say nothing of their health and well-being, was suddenly viewed as secondary to the rights of a handful of students to tote rocks all over the place.

“But it’s for sport,” came the arguments.

“We have rights,” they continued.

“You can’t just –” they protested.

“Bullshit,” responded the students, and they went and laid down in the lawns of very powerful people, hoping somebody would notice them there.

They are laying there still.

But they are not entirely unnoticed.

It’s entirely about rocks, and not about something else. If you think it’s about something else, that’s your problem, not mine.

This story was born from a prompt by my writing spirit animal, Chuck Wendig: “a world without guns.” Even though this story is obviously about rocks, it was inspired by recent events surrounding things which are not rocks. Probably it doesn’t end quite as cleverly as I would have liked, but it’s hard to write endings for things which seem to have no end in sight.

Still, maybe there’s something different this time.

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Terrible Reviews: Ghostbusters (2016)


So, the Ghostbusters reboot is out. And it’s gonna be hard to talk about the film without also talking about the six-hundred pound elephant in the room, which isn’t an elephant so much as it’s the manifestation of insecurities accumulated over decades.

There’s a bit of controversy around this film. I don’t know if you’ve heard. It has the dubious distinction of being the most downvoted trailer in film history, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t a thing until somebody who was determined to hate the movie went and counted to solidify his point. And, much like politics, the reasons for that largely depend on whom you ask.

Ask somebody who’s optimistic or indifferent about the reboot, and they’re likely to say the people downvoting the trailer and panning the film before it ever saw the light of day are antifeminist manbabies who, uh, tickle themselves to Pete Venkman getting slimed every night before they tuck in. These misogynists, they would have you believe, are just butthurt about the beloved franchise of their youth being repurposed with a female cast, and they are VERY VERY ANGRY ABOUT IT.

Ask somebody who’s not happy about the trailer, and they’ll blame it on any number of things: that the special effects look dopey, that the jokes aren’t funny, that the performances look flat, and the list goes on and on. Then there are those who insist that the film is “ruining their childhood” by remaking something that should never have been touched again, as if films, once they’re made, should get cast in bronze and locked in a hermetically sealed chamber until the rapture comes and Jesus himself uncorks them all for his own jolly consumption.

Then, of course, there are the actual misogynists, who literally say that it’s a bloody travesty for their beloved film to feature women in the lead roles.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s actually pretty damn tough to compare the 2016 Ghostbusters to the original, because they are not in any way the same film. They share the same conceptual core, the same nougaty center of “oddball scientists fighting ghosts and saving New York from the supernatural,” and pretty much diverge in every other way.

Whatever. Let’s get to the (spoiler-free!) review first, and we’ll get to the gender meta-analysis later. And I’ll go ahead and disclaim now that the original Ghostbusters is comfortably one of my top-5 films of all time. (And I didn’t hate this reboot.)

The Good:

Whatever else this film might be, it’s designed to be a summer blockbuster, which means action, some laughs, and a big, climactic showdown, probably one that causes millions of dollars in collateral damages and destroys most of a city.

And this film delivers that. The action sequences are pure eye-candy, with the redesigned but classic proton-packs slinging hot ghost death around willy-nilly, and a full load-out of new gizmos and doodads for the ‘Busters to show off. Proton Grenades, a Proton Shotgun, Proton Pistols … it’s all good and it’s all fun. (We’ll discuss the merits of this stuff later, but the visuals are top-notch.) McKinnon’s fight sequence with her Proton Pistols was a total wow-moment in the film, and her character is sure to be an audience favorite.

The comedy will be a sticking point for some people. The original had a dry, deadpan humor to it; this film is much more in the trenches. There’s slapstick. Poop and fart jokes. Ridiculousness. And a lot of people will hate that. But this film knows what it is, and that humor fits right in with the tone of this film, which is goofier than the original right from the start.

Then, the showdown. Buildings get smashed. Ghosts run amok. It’s pretty much what you’d expect, and it looks pretty great. I almost just typed that the final baddie was a bit ridiculous, but then I checked myself. We’re talking about a film in the original whose final showdown was with the StaPuft Marshmallow Man. So forget it. Last showdown is right in line with the tone of the film.

Finally, a note on the story: the main through-line of the story gets established a lot sooner in this film than in the original. Within the first twenty minutes or so, we see the guy (who will later become the big bad) messing around, acting weird, and his role is gradually fleshed out. In other words, we get an idea of what’s actually feeding the problem much earlier in this film than we did in the original (where we don’t really learn about Zuul or any of that until after the halfway point), and I think this film is better for it.

The Bad:

For me, the film has one critical flaw, and that’s the pacing. It’s forty-five minutes into the film (almost halfway) before the ‘Busters catch their first ghost, which is too long for my tastes. Those first forty-five are spent introducing characters, investigating hauntings, and in short, getting the team together. I felt like the introduction of the central two characters (McCarthy and Wiig) was entirely too drawn out, while the other two (McKinnon and Jones) get relatively little intro: then, all of a sudden, the four of them are together, on a gig, busting a ghost … and THEN the film takes off.

A related, but lesser, complaint is the development of these characters. Only one character really changes through the events of the film, and that’s Wiig’s — but the change doesn’t come at the climax of the film, rather it comes in the first thirty minutes. The film’s climax is therefore not transformative for any of the protagonists, which leaves a story wonk like me a little disappointed. Come to think of it, I could just as easily say the same of the original film, sooo….

Then there’s all those weapons I mentioned up above. Storywise, they’re a waste: the McKinnon character rolls them out, not because the proton packs are inefficient, but “just in case”. Every character gets one, and every character waves their altered boomstick around during the final showdown. They’re nice eye-candy, but that’s about it: in fact, the only non-proton-pack weapon that ends up having any story significance is a freakin’ Swiss Army Knife.

The Tough-to-pin-down:

Chris Hemsworth’s character is a big question mark for me. He’s so over-the-top stupid that it really stretches disbelief that the characters would allow him to stick around. Then again, he has some so-stupid-it’s-hilarious moments (the phone in the aquarium for example) which kinda make me rethink complaining about him. So he’s hard to nail down. Then again, my wife points out that he is the male equivalent of a worthless secretary hired just for her looks, so I guess that’s just my gender-blinders falling right into place.

Then there are the ghosts themselves. A lot of folks complained when the trailer came out that the effects on the ghosts looked lame or cheap. Hogwash, if you ask me. They look a little over-the-top, maybe, but this entire MOVIE is over-the-top. Still, the first ghost they catch is not so much a ghost as a freaking winged green devil monster. Maybe I’m nitpicking too much, but that seems less “ghost” and more “demon”. Regardless, in their first attempt to capture a ghost, they go up against this monstrous thing and they bring it down with relatively little trouble. It felt a bit like too big of a victory, too early, against too powerful an adversary.

Outside the Frame:

I said at the outset that you can’t really talk about this film without acknowledging the gender controversy. You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned it at all (well, a little bit around the Hemsworth character). There’s a simple reason for that: gender couldn’t be less of a factor in the movie. Which kind of makes this film the height of a feminist accomplishment.

How’s that, then? Easy. The protagonists are women, but it doesn’t matter that they’re women. The film would work just as well with the original cast of Spengler, Stantz, Venkman and Zeddemore as it does with these four ladies, as it would with any four male actors from today, as it would with any permutation of players and genders. That’s because these characters are not strong female characters, they are simply strong characters who happen to be female. There is no chest-beating, bra-burning moment of “look what we women have accomplished! See how we have thrown off the patriarchy!” No, these are simply capable women, going about their business, kicking ass and saving the day. They don’t need to prove how “feminist” they are. They just do it.

Then, there’s the fact that the film is a reboot (not a remake). Obviously it will be compared to the original, even though to do so is an exercise in futility. This will never be the same as the original, which means that the haters crying that the movie got remade at all will never be wrong. Still, the movie pays homage to the original in the form of cameos from the original cast and callbacks to well-known gags from the original. You still have the hilarious moment when they crank up the “unlicensed nuclear accelerator” in a backpack for the first time, and the other characters slowly edge away. Rehashed again is Bill Murray’s yank-the-tablecloth-off-a-set-table gag that he can’t resist, only this time it’s Kirsten Wiig being dragged out of a restaurant by security, grabbing the tablecloth as a last resort. Some will claim that these callbacks show the film is unoriginal, that it’s simply scavenging the corpse of the first film. Nonsense. They are little head-nods to fans of the original, they are winks-and-nudges to the folks who recognize them for what they are.

The Verdict:

The fact is, this is a perfectly ordinary film. It’s not going to change your life. It’s a good time with some funny ladies and some pretty excellent explosions and light shows along the way. There’s nothing earth-shattering going on here, outside of the sheer balls it took to retool the original so completely. That said? It isn’t a bad film. Not on its own merits and not by dint of re-inventing a film that, truth be told, probably didn’t need to be reinvented.

But when did “need” have anything to do with the movies being made in Hollywood? This is a perfectly good film with a lot of controversy around it. The fact is, your experience of the film will almost certainly depend on the baggage you bring to it. If you come to the film determined to compare it to the original, you’ll be disappointed. This film isn’t trying to improve upon the original; it’s trying to spin the yarn anew for a younger generation. If you come to the film with a more or less blank slate, you’ll have the chance to enjoy a visually delightful take on a true classic.

I’ll reiterate here something I said when Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, and the purists were jawing about “IT’S NOT A SEQUEL IT’S JUST A REMAKE,” “YOU CAN NEVER IMPROVE UPON THE ORIGINAL HUR HUR HUR”. Which is: at the end of the day, Ghostbusters is not just a film, it’s a franchise. Movies, TV shows, video games, toys, motherfargoing Ecto-Coolers. And that franchise? However much you may love it? However much it may have influenced you in your youth? It owes you nothing. Star Wars owes you nothing, and Ghostbusters owes you nothing. If you loved the original and think any new take on it is an abomination? Well, for yourself, you’re right, and this film isn’t for you. But if you are willing to take a chance on something a little different, a little less heteronormative (and I just broke the word bank with that word), then hey, holy sharknado, you might have a little fun along the way.

Finally, just look at this viral photo of Kirsten Wiig greeting some young fans at the red carpet:

If the looks on those little girls’ faces don’t make this film worthwhile, then I don’t know what does.

All images are the property of Columbia Pictures.


Things Writers Need — Books


Every Thursday I write a little piece for people who are thinking of writing books or for people who have writers in their lives.  A collection of things that a writer’s life is not complete without.  To continue in my series in Things Writers Need, here are some of my thoughts on one of the most important things in any writer’s life: books.

Nobody takes up soccer because they think it’d be nifty to kick a ball around without using their hands for an hour and a half.  They take it up because they watch a game or two and think it looks like fun and they start to practice and they get decent at kicking the ball around and that’s how we get soccer teams now.

Nobody takes up stand-up comedy because they think it’d be nifty to stand in front of a crowd and ramble about whatever minutiae are going on in his or her life at the time while a bunch of strangers sip overpriced drinks or shout abuse.  No, they see other comedians on TV or on stage and they appreciate the humor they see on display and they practice telling jokes to their friends and one day they step up to an open mic and that’s how we get stand-up comedians.

Writing is maybe a little different in that I think there may be an intrinsic desire to write things down and tell stories; something encoded in our DNA that makes us want to pass tales on to the rest of our clan.  But people don’t set out to write hundreds of pages without seeing it done several times, learning the intricacy of storytelling, learning the way characters can sprout fully-formed from mere words, learning the way an otherwise rational adult can develop a really unhealthy relationship with a collection of pulverized wood and ink: taking it to bed at night, carrying it around in a purse, caressing and holding its pages, staring into its face for hours and hours and hours on end.

Any great writer was a great reader first.  You can’t run before you walk.  You can’t write before you read.  Writers learn to love writing by reading lots and lots of books, and they learn to write by reading lots and lots of high-quality books on all sorts of things.  So, a writer needs books.

Think about your favorite book.  It changed your life, or at the very least, changed the way you thought about the world, right?  If writers want to write books that can do the same for others, we have to learn from the masters, we have to imitate their work, we have to transmogrify their talent and their teaching into our own twisted wonderful creation.

Reading is the lifeblood of the writer.  In order to keep up the steady flow of words out of our brain-holes, we need a just-as-steady flow of words in the other side.  Words are weird, words are a paradox.  You can never lose a word, but you can sure as hell use one until it’s so tired it can no longer lift its own head.  They’re a renewable resource, but you can only carry so much at a time.  I can only juggle a couple of story ideas in my head before they start knocking each other out through the ears.  And sure, I can write down every idea that comes to me, but that doesn’t necessarily help me.  The idea I jot down in February because it sounds brilliant looks like a puddle of mushy dogsharknado by the time I get around to wanting to write it in June.  These ideas have an expiration date, I think; a use-by warning that causes them to decay the longer they’re left on the shelf.

So if words and story ideas can go bad like so much Aldi produce, how does one keep fresh stock on the shelves?  You go to the grocery store, naturally.  But not Aldi — their produce goes bad in just a few days.  No, you need the good stuff; you go to Publix, or the farmer’s market.  You go to books.

In reading and pondering the intricacies of the last book I read (The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde) I had no less than three ideas for new stories of my own, riffing off of elements found in Fforde’s book from genetically engineered pets to holding works of art hostage.  They might have been crap ideas, but I had them, and a lot of writing I think is in the exercise; it’s about the journey, as they say, rather than the destination.  I also rekindled a bit of my love for science fiction and the ridiculous, which I think is at the core of my contemporary writer self.  It was a welcome discovery after the detour into YA lit I’ve had over the last couple of years.  The heavy tropes and weighty themes of Dystopian Futures and Society Must Be Saved and The Chosen Ones have weighed on me and made my writing a little bleak, a little encumbered, a little melodramatic, perhaps.  (I’m talking about the Divergents, the Matcheds, the Hunger Gameses which have been so popular in recent years.  It’s good stuff, but man, it ain’t uplifting.  Pity the children being raised on this stuff!)

Now, that’s not to say there’s nothing to gain from those books.  Far from it.  No, in every book there’s something to be learned, even if all you learn is that you don’t want to write a story like the one you just read, ever.  (I’m looking at you, Wuthering Heights.)  It’s a foolish student that turns aside the tutelage of his predecessors.  Writers need books like football players need to review tape.  Like babies need mothers’ milk.  Like a hurricane needs an area of warm, high pressure air moving into an area of cool, low pressure air.

Now, every writer out there has their preferences and tendencies.  One will gravitate toward sprawling works of incredibly detailed interpersonally linked tales of fantasy, a la Game of Thrones.  Another will splash around in the deep and impenetrable waters of gritty crime and mystery stories in the vein of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  Still another will lounge in the comforting pages of a classic romance like Pride and Prejudice.  But tendencies and preferences aside, I think it’s necessary for all writers to consume all types of literature at least occasionally.

I’ll grant that attempting to read books in all genres is a perhaps insurmountable task just given the volume of what’s out there.  You could read a book a week for a year and still leave out some of the obscure genres like, oh I dunno, Interstellar Revenge Comedy Romance.  And maybe that’s a genre best left untapped (or maybe I just got an idea for a story…).  But I think it’s far too easy to stay in your own little cabin in the woods, reading books you know you’ll like before you read them, never sampling the waters in the streams and ponds that crisscross the landscape.

I think a good book is going to have lots of elements of lots of different genres and stories; a little something for everybody.  It’s an anemic adventure story if there isn’t a little bit of romance along the way.  No science fiction yarn is complete without a good solid dose of gritty down-to-earth human interest at the bottom of it.  Thrillers go amiss if there isn’t a little bit of a fantasy element in there; a bit of something that plays outside the rules of reality.  And I don’t know a single story in any genre, no matter how dark or dismal or defeatist, that wouldn’t be better off for at least a little dose of humor.  We must bring balance to the force, and if we want to bring balance, we must ourselves be balanced.

So, the writer needs a steady diet of books.  We need books that we like and books that we hate.  Great books and terrible books.  Books we can read cover-to-cover twenty times and books we can’t penetrate beyond the first chapter.  Books that uplift and books that depress.  Books that make you want to run out of your front door and start hugging people and books that make you want to nuke the planet from orbit.  We need to read it all so that we can write all of it into our own stories.  Writers are tasked with communicating the unending message of the human condition to those who will come after us; we don’t have the right to leave any of it out.  We have to read as much as we can so that we can tell our own stories as completely as possible.

If you’re a writer, you need a library card, or you need Amazon’s new book-rental service, or you need a bookstore in your neighborhood that will let you park in an armchair and read for hours at a time, or you need a friend with a crapton of books that you can borrow.  If you’re a friend of a writer, you can never go wrong by buying that friend a book.  Doesn’t matter what kind, what genre, what author; buy them a book.  But for god’s sake, don’t give them a gift card, don’t just buy something off Oprah’s Book Club or whatever… pick out a book that you like or a book that you think they’ll like or hell, just pick out a book with an interesting cover.  They’ll read it just the same, and maybe on the next thing they write, they’ll credit you with putting that book in their hands that inspired the new story.

What book has most influenced you as a writer?  As a person?  What would be your desert-island book?  If you could make one book required reading for everybody in the world, what would it be?


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