Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Dream Theater: Total Self Destruction

It started with something so small. A minor complaint about a procedure at work, something that could be made more efficient or eliminated altogether. It was so meaningless I don't even remember what it was now.

When I tried explaining that there was a better way, I was ignored. As I worked my way up the corporate ladder, one person after another threatened me with written warnings, disciplinary action, termination.

I should have stopped, but I didn't. And I couldn't stop myself from making it worse. I wouldn't let it go, because I was right. So I kept making trouble, for myself and everyone else.

One of the higher-ups, upon learning who I was for the first time, commented that perhaps I could improve things by ensuring there were pastries and coffee at her afternoon meetings. Her comment was somehow emblematic of everything I was unhappy about. I told her, "I'm not a secretary."

No one would listen. Even L_____ A_____ wanted nothing to do with me. 

I was fired and driven out. Only a few who felt sorry for me would even acknowledge that I was leaving.

There was nothing left to do. I'd taken things too far. There was no going back.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Someone at Digitized a Treasury of Vintage Kmart Background Music and Customer Announcements and This Is Why We Have the Internet

Attention Kmart (and Kresge's!) shoppers.

While this blog often covers topics ranging from awesome to awful, I also have a fondness for the antiquated. And this post is about that.

Months ago, maybe even a year or more, I ran across a link to the above-mentioned digital archive. If I remember correctly, I spent several days there listening to the streams. Some went as far back as the early 1960s (when Kmart was known as Kresge's). Most hailed from the early '90s, an era which could arguably be called the chain's last, best days. 

But all of them were amazing. Each conjured a place and time that was simpler, brighter and perhaps a bit happier, when life's necessities and little luxuries could be found at bargain prices in a wonderland of mid-century optimism--all of it accompanied by jaunty tunes and friendly reminders to visit the Pharmacy section for all your healthcare needs, or check out the new Spring arrivals now blooming in our Garden department.

At any rate, I rediscovered the link while I was cleaning out my bookmarks, and was transported all over again.

The fact that Kmart (and its sister store, Sears) is suffering the most protracted of deaths only adds to the bittersweet sense of something lost in exchange for all we've gained: e-commerce, one-touch ordering, two-day shipping.

The bit of synchronicity that makes this that much more interesting (at least to me) is that just last week I drove all the way to Des Plaines, Illinois specifically to visit a Kmart. Ironically, I was there to pick up an internet order from Sears, a black puffer vest I'd been wanting since last fall and was finally on sale for the lowest of last season's prices. 

What struck me immediately after walking through the automatic doors was just how vast the place was. The phrase "as far as the eye can see" would not have been hyperbole. So, after picking up my order and trying it on, I decided to take a walk around for the sole reason that these monuments to middle-class consumerism might not be around much longer.

The most delightful thing I discovered was a selection of men's musk-scented colognes I remember from childhood: Jovan Musk for Men, and White Musk for Men, and Coty Musk. Naturally I tried them all.

I'm going back for that Coty Musk. And once I've spritzed it on, I'll sit down at my desk and take yet another trip back in time.

Please visit the Treasury of Kmart Background Music and Announcements.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Dream Theater: The Murder of T_____ L_____

Photo from
R_____ C_____ was a bully and he hated me. I don't know why. But I was just one of many people at high school he made life miserable for. 

One day, during lunch, I was walking outside and R_____ passed by. For some reason I felt emboldened, and hopeful that maybe I could make him stop. I asked, "What's your problem with me?" 

R_____ looked like he was going to answer, like we might just be able to clear up whatever had started all this. But at that moment T_____ L_____ walked by. Randy turned and grabbed him by the neck, and threw him with enormous strength against a nearby wall.

To my horror, I saw that he'd ripped T_____'s head right off his body. And immediately after, I realized that it could have been me if T_____ hadn't walked by when he did. 

R_____ and I looked at each other. He seemed as shocked as I was by what had happened. 

I ran back to school, and once there tried to act like everything was fine. I decided not to tell anyone what had happened. I told myself someone was sure to find the body, and tie the murder back to R_____ soon enough. 

But that didn't happen. Days passed. We went to class. Everyone buzzed about the terrible murder that had occurred. Randy walked the halls looking like someone with a terrible secret--which he was.

I had one, too. I couldn't eat anything without remembering the sight of T_____'s body, bouncing off that brick wall and landing headless on the sidewalk. I couldn't pay attention during class, couldn't get my work done. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, sure that R_____ meant to kill me next, to make sure I didn't tell anyone. 

Then one day, the police appeared and arrested R_____. All the cheerleaders gathered around him, to make sure he didn't try to escape. It was over. 

Once R_____ had been led away in handcuffs I left my desk and walked over to where Mrs. J_____ was sitting. I leaned in close and whispered to her that I was there when it happened. I saw the whole thing. 

Monday, April 1, 2019

Dream Theater: A Family Reunion

Photo from

There was a family reunion happening, in a hotel on the edge of a city, next door to a small airport. My mother was there, and P_____ had brought her kids. 

It was a strange place. The toilet and tub were right there next to the bed, not separated by a wall or anything, which certainly made me glad I'd gotten my own room. The check-in and check-out times were at odd hours, too, and before I knew it I'd overstayed my reservation and would have to pay for an extra day. Even though most of us were leaving. Meeting our flights at the airport that was just a short walk away. 

A pilot had just landed a small private plane, and I greeted him like a traveling business associate. As we walked toward the hotel I explained some of its quirks, and invited him to join me for dinner. 

My mother was there when we arrived, with my sister and father. This surprised me because my parents had split in a bitter divorce when I was thirteen. But they were going to give things another try. After all these years my father had changed. My mother, too. We all had. 

They wanted to get dinner at a restaurant located on the other side of the city. I'd been there once before. It wasn't worth the trip and I tried to convince them of this, but they insisted. 

I got on the train that would take me there. It was crowded with commuters and children and people who were rude, all of them loud and jostling each other for space. My stop was the last on the line. When I got off I was horrified to discover I was completely naked. 

That's when I remembered: THIS is why I hated this trip so much. Getting off the train naked, with no idea how it had happened. But I'd done it once before and survived. The secret was not minding that I wasn't wearing any clothes. If I ignored it, everyone else would, too. 

Fortunately I found a large cardigan sweater at the foot of a staircase, one that would cover me completely. I wrapped it around myself and climbed the stairs for what seemed like ten or twenty floors and finally emerged in a mall.

I wondered if I could get a pair of pants and shoes somewhere, even though I didn't have any money. Maybe I could explain the situation to whoever was working and they'd understand. That's when I reached into the pockets of the sweater and found a wad of money. Twenties and tens and ones. Enough to buy whatever I needed. And in the other pocket, an ID badge from a hospital. The name on it was Michael Breen, M.D. 

I continued walking through the mall, passing a number of other restaurants that would have been just as good if not better than the one we were going to. It was at the far end and by the time I finally got there my parents and sister were leaving. They'd ordered dinner without me and finished their meals. 

"What happened to you?" they asked.

Friday, March 29, 2019

News Flash

My story, "A City Like Any Other," is live today at Flash Fiction Magazine.

Naturally, it's flash fiction, which means it's 1000 words or less. Though mine is exactly 1000 words. No more, no less.

There's something else interesting about this story. Check it out--it's a really quick read!--and let me know if you discover the secret. 

While you're there, take a look at some of the other great stories by FFM's talented writers. It's a great way to start your Friday or spend some time this weekend.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for your support!

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Dream Theater: Disney Television!

Image from The Beaufort Gazette
Once again I dreamed I was working in an advertising agency. (This is how I spent the majority of my career.)

It was a small shop with a modest client list, and we were working on a new-business pitch. To help us, someone had brought in their friend Bob.

Bob was this old guy, in a stretched out golf shirt tucked into brown polyester pants. If he’d ever had a prime, he was well past it.

But he claimed to have a great idea: "Disney Television." He wanted us to propose creating a brand new TV channel for our client and calling it Disney Television. The name alone would guarantee "a lot of eyeballs" he promised. 

I listened to all this incredulously and finally raised my hand. "Doesn’t Disney already have a TV division?" I asked. "And lots of channels?" No one, Bob especially, seemed happy about me bringing up the obvious.

We thanked Bob for his time and broke for lunch. I was surprised to find that P_____ was working there, too. She was always pretty sharp, and I asked her to get something to eat with me.

While we were walking I asked what she really thought about Bob and his idea. Were we really going to move forward with it?

P_____ told me Bob’s claim to fame was that he used to run a newsletter for barbers. He’d given her an article from it as way of presenting his credentials. Being a copywriter, P_____ naturally felt it was terribly written.

“I just don’t see how creating a whole TV channel called Disney Television is going to help the client," I said.

That’s when I realized Bob had followed us out of the building. He'd heard everything we'd said. Now he was standing next to a wall, one that had been tagged with racist graffiti the night before. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

This is "Us"

2019; written and directed by Jordan Peele

Over the weekend I found myself rushing to the nearest multiplex, eager to get a look at Jordan Peele's extremely well-marketed sophomore effort. 

Everything I'd seen up until that point--the trailers, the enthusiastic reviews from SXSW, the one or two post-release think pieces I couldn't keep myself from reading--led me to believe this was to be one of the most layered and intelligent "horror films" (Peele's own words) released in years.

And it is. But. At the end of the film I left the theater feeling like I'd had a bit too much to eat at Jordan Peele's Creepy-Time 2-for-1 Buffet. 

If this is the first review of Us you've seen, I should probably mention that it's a home invasion thriller in which underground-dwelling doppelgangers take revenge on all of us up here on top of the world.

If that's all Peele's film had done--kept the story and symbolism relatively straight-forward and streamlined--I think he would have emerged with a better film at the end. But perhaps he's trying to double his efforts with this second feature, and in doing so takes on one more metaphor than the story or audience can comfortably handle. 


I'm talking about all the Hands Across America stuff that's sprinkled throughout and plays a major role in the third act. Don't get me wrong, I like the idea. It pokes a finger in the eye of what was a shallow charity stunt from the mid-eighties, and I'm pretty much all for that pretty much all the time. 

Unfortunately, Peele already has so much good stuff going on in this film. The rich concept of doubles; of an underground race, starved for sunlight and fresh air, waiting to strike; of haves and have-nots and American culture and history.

But Hands Across America forces Peele to take things one or two more steps further than necessary. In doing so, it demands some story-telling gymnastics that just don't add up to much more than what's already gone before. Worse, it forces audiences to ask questions they never should, like "Wait, she was obsessed with Hands Across America?" and "She organized hundreds of millions of people over 33 years?" and "Why now?" and finally, "Huh?" 

(Though the idea does give the film its final, striking image as the "Reds" hold hands over hills and plains while Minnie Riperton's "Les Fleurs" plays in the background. It's lovely and ironic and leaves you humming a tune, but it's still not worth the price and could have been handled some other way.)

I appreciate Peele's work and have been looking forward to Us since first hearing about it. He's an intelligent and provocative writer and director whose first two films changed the conversation about horror by demonstrating what the genre can do beyond merely spilling blood.

In a way, a horror film like Us is not that different from the Reds. It's finally getting its day in the sun, being showered with critical and commercial success. This day has been a long time coming. So what if it goes overboard proving that it's been worthy all along?

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Dream Theater: A Writing Class with M_____

Image from

The writing class was taking place somewhere out by the old 3M plant, in the little Iowa farm town where I grew up. M_____ had signed up for it, too, and were going together.

We had plenty of time to get there, and boarded a city bus. Only the bus turned out to be traveling in the wrong direction. It would take forever for us to circle around the route to our destination. The longer we stayed on, the more our mistake would end up costing us.

We got off at the next stop and decided to take a cab. Now, it was almost certain we'd arrive late. We wandered all over trying to hail a cab. M_____ even went into a store to get some help, advice, or directions. But when he came out, something had happened to him in there. He was completely disoriented, unsure of when or where he, or we, were. 

Worse, a whole classroom of schoolkids had arrived and were at our back, standing between us and the way out. Once we finally pushed our way through we were on the northbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive. No cab would ever find us there, or if it did, it would never be able to stop. We walked on the shoulder of the road until we came to an exit, the one for Belmont.

It led to an underground area I'd never seen before. A dark place where nothing but concrete existed, top to bottom, side to side. Taxis passed us by, but none of them would stop. Then a heavyset woman with several suitcases walked right up to, and then past, us.

I knew she needed a cab, too. And sure enough, one appeared and picked her up instead of us. As she was getting in, putting all of those suitcases into the trunk, I saw an opportunity to take her purse without being noticed. She deserved it for taking our cab.

Almost immediately I started having second thoughts about what I'd done. I opened the purse, thinking that I'd find some ID inside and be able to return it to her. Inside there were wads of cash, fifties, hundreds, bills so big I'd never seen them before.

M_____ and I moved on. Now all we could do was call the instructor and say that we were running late. That way they'd at least save our spots. M_____ had all the information in his backpack. The number was right there on the first page. 

Now all we needed to do was find a phone.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Dream Theater: A Visit From a Women I Used to Work With

Photo by
My parents were running a bed and breakfast, in a big old house that was visibly run-down. As I walked through the rooms and hallways for the first time, noting the tattered wallpaper and thread-bare furniture, I couldn't believe how much responsibility they'd taken on. Especially considering that they'd both been dead for years.

I paused to look through one of the windows, and found C_____ relaxing on a chaise lounge in the yard. She was either staying with my parents or at the BnB right next door. It had been so long since we'd seen each other, and she'd always been one of my favorite people at D_____. I wanted to say hello, but no matter how much I knocked on the window she couldn't hear me.

Maybe I was upset. Or maybe I had errands to run. Either way, I got into my old Nissan and drove off, and soon found myself in Chicago, in an industrial area somewhere west of Lakeview. 

I parked my car and decided to walk, heading north and west. I got on and off the El, at stops I didn't recognize. I visited stores and galleries that were so strange and unfamiliar I sometimes wondered if I was still in Chicago at all. 

Before long I realized I had to return to the BnB. But I'd forgotten where I'd left my car. All I could do was trace my way back in the general direction I'd come. But I was so far away, there were so many side streets, and I kept making wrong turns. The sky began to grow dark.

I passed a restaurant with outdoor seating. C_____ was there with a bunch of other women who'd worked at D_____, laughing and having drinks. Somehow I understood that she was leaving town soon, and this was the last chance I'd have to say hello. I called her name and waved, and though she was happy to see me I also knew I was intruding on their get-together.

One of the women came out to have a cigarette, and said she was now splitting her time between Chicago and Phoenix. I told her the way things were going here in Chicago, she was better off spending all her time there. People were losing their cars here, and some never found them again.