Sean is a cross-functional leader, writer, and creative director with a track record of leading creative teams, producing effective marketing and advertising campaigns, and providing powerful copy that exceeds expectations. Currently, he's the senior lead copywriter at Horizon Hobby, where, among other things, he serves as the Managing Editor of Transmitter Magazine.Personal projects include the children’s book, Goodnight Princess, and the noir-tinged fumetti, The Beautiful Kill. His latest book, Captured Ghosts, is coming soon.

Select Essays

And the Thunder Rolls, 2024
My favorite B-movie, Thunder Alley
Consumed in Key, 2023
One simple October morning.
Something in the Way, 2022
The Batman is several things, but none of them include a superhero movie.
I Should Hate Football, 2021
I don't, but I should.
All That Once Was Good, 2021
Baseball has always been there.

Select Short Stories

Same As It Never Was
A garage sale iPod contains some interesting music.
Prospero and Guano Island
A secret agent runs into a sticky situation.

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© 2024 Sean McDevitt | "No matter where you go... there you are."


Storytelling

February 13, 2024

I listen to a lot of podcasts.Some are just one-offs because I like the guest and want to hear more from them, or I hope to get some unique insight into their personality or creative process. Most of the time, I have a list of podcasts I like because of the host, the guests, or a combination of both. Podcasts like Smartless, Inside of You, Literally! and many more are fun distractions when walking the dog or driving in my car. They are literally famous people interviewing other famous people.Also, as a fan of University of Illinois athletics, I listen to several podcasts covering the Illini, such as The 200 Level, I on the Illini, The Illini Inquirer Podcast, Keeping it Orange and Blue, and others. I like the insight and observations I get with these, and they enhance my enjoyment of watching Fighting Illini sports.I have other fun podcasts in my queue, such as The Incomparable (geeky media), Seeing Red (St. Louis Cardinals), The Town (Hollywood happenings), and Three Sides of the Coin (KISS) that scratch a particular itch.However, recently, I learned that producer Rick Rubin has a podcast where he talks to various people from all sorts of backgrounds. I found his podcast called Tetragrammaton and immediately downloaded episodes. Phil Jackson, Owen Wilson, Will Smith, John Mayer, Marc Andreessen, Adam Mosseri, and so many more caught my eye. Knowing how much of a professional wrestling fan Rubin is, the first episode I listened to was his conversation with Paul Heyman.Heyman is one of the best conversationalists on the planet. He is quick, eloquent, and knowledgeable. They spoke for three hours, and Brock Lesner and Roman Reigns were at the forefront of the discussion. However, it was the conversation about storytelling that made me stop several times and relisten to a section.My favorite moment comes at 2:46:47 in the conversation. Rubin and Heyman discuss influences and inspirations from films. Heyman is electric in how he describes the restaurant scene in The Godfather. He describes perfectly what Michael is thinking and feeling via Pacino’s acting in the scene. It is my all-time favorite scene in all of cinema, and Heyman nails it.Michael Corleone sitting in Louie’s restaurant in the Bronx having been told by Clemenza to come out of the bathroom blasting and he doesn’t come out of the bathroom blasting. He sits back down and now Solozzo is talking and he’s talking in Italian so to the audience, who doesn’t speak Italian, it’s just noise. [Italian sounding words]. You’re sitting going ‘Oh my God I don’t know he’s saying but whatever it is it’s heavy’ and he’s laying it on and he’s talking faster and harsher and angrier. Now the trains coming in and you hear that noise and the camera is shaking ever so slightly and Pacino’s eyes are going left and right because he’s saying, ‘Do I pull the trigger? Do I pull the trigger? If I don’t pull the trigger is he gonna kill me? If I pull the trigger my whole life has changed. I’m a gangster. I’m no longer just a soldier. I’m not a hero.’ This is a war hero. He’s a war hero, this kid, and he didn’t want to get mixed up in the family, and his father doesn’t want him in the family business, but if he doesn’t pull the trigger right now this guy across the table and the dirty cop to his left who broke his jaw are gonna kill his father. He has no choice. He better pull the trigger, but can he pull the trigger? He’s not a gangster. They’re not threatening his very life at this very moment. What does he do? What does he do? And his eyes. And you read his emotions because he’s not sure what to do, but he knows whatever he does this is the defining moment of his life and nothing will ever be the same after this because they’re gonna go kill his father or he’s gonna go kill them. Either way nothing’s gonna be the same and then he gets up and he shoots them both, but it’s the moment before that matters. It’s the emotions that are displayed.For more context for those of you who have not seen The Godfather, this is the scene he’s describing.By all means, listen to the podcast. The whole thing is a master class in story and feeling. It’s well worth three hours of your time.


Consumed in Key

October 23, 2023

The leaves on our trees are turning a bright red. There was a rush of cold air for a few weeks, and it felt like Fall, but today, it’s going to hit 71 degrees outside, which makes no sense. The grass is a full shade of green and probably needs to be mowed a few more times. We are ten days from November.In the morning, always without fail, my wife drinks her coffee at the island in the kitchen. She gets up first to enjoy the quiet before her day. It’s a moment of peace before the chaos that will be the rest of the day. I kiss her several times. She smiles. Our connection has never been better than it is right now. My brain is still sleepy. I need coffee as well, but the dog needs walking first. It’s dark and only 40 degrees out at this hour. The combination wakes me up faster than caffeine.I make my first cup of coffee despite wanting to wean myself off the stuff. I wish I liked it black. I add a dash of special creamer to bring in a touch of vanilla, but no sugar. I might never stop drinking coffee, but I should push myself to drink it black. A well-brewed cup of coffee doesn’t need anything added, but the effort and expense to make something splendid is not in the offering. Maybe someday.Several Halloween decorations—pumpkins, webs, and more—are out in our neighborhood. Houses now have elaborate lights reminiscent of Christmas. When I was a kid, decorating for Halloween might have meant some cardboard window decorations and a carved pumpkin.It’s too cold to sit on the deck and enjoy my coffee. Maybe this upcoming weekend, I can take the time. My wife and I have made a small effort to walk around our neighborhood on Sundays. We should make a note of trying to do so again.I make eggs for breakfast before work. I hardly ever do this, but I’m a little hungry, and four eggs should do the trick. I should fast, but I don’t feel like it. That requires a concerted effort that I’m not ready for yet. Maybe at the start of the new year.On my computer, I’m playing an album by Chilly Gonzales. I have never heard it before, but it came out just last year. From the start, it’s a mix of minimum techno with a grand piano. It’s atmospheric. Doing a tiny bit of research, I see that it is “A reimagining of Plastikman’s 1998 magnum opus ‘Consumed’, as a new collaboration between original artist Richie Hawtin and Chilly Gonzales, executively produced by Tiga.” That means nothing to me, but I like what I’m hearing so far.Everything can be music. The tires on the road. The wind through the trees. The mechanical sound of the space heater. While I might enjoy something soft and minimal, I keep returning to the classics.I saw Foreigner last night and I enjoyed the show more than I thought I would. The band is basically a cover band trotting out nearly 80-year-old Mick Jones on select dates (but not mine), but the songs are so good, and Kelly Hansen can still sing. I wish they would have played longer, but I was home before ten o’clock. My old bones needed sleep.Thoughts of money come to mind, and I am reminded of everything we still need to do for this house. A new dishwasher. Fixing the siding. Painting. One thing at a time.Soon, I will have to write other things. I love writing. It doesn’t always come easily, but that’s the trick. It should always feel like it came easy.I need more coffee.

Taking A Break From Social Media

January 18, 2023

Every day I see a new story about Musk and Twitter or Zuckerberg and Meta. None of these stories are positive. They are always negative. I’m sure there are hundreds of stories and articles about how social media is a terrible scourge of modern life, but nothing seems to have changed that much.From Twitter to Facebook to Instagram, the amount of time people spend scrolling through these platforms is only increasing. But as the world spins into the third decade of the 21st century, social media has become increasingly intolerable, unhealthy, and downright sad.In the age of Musk and Zuckerberg, it’s become increasingly more work to keep up with the latest trends and news. Everything is changing so quickly that it’s almost impossible to keep up. The constant barrage of news and updates from these platforms can be overwhelming and exhausting. For me, I had a strong feeling of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and would constantly scroll to see the latest news and rumors. This has never been healthy, but it is precisely what these platforms are designed to do.Ads are everywhere, and it’s hard to escape them. The amount of advertising and spam that comes with social media has also become increasingly intolerable. Not to mention, the amount of fake news and conspiracy theories circulating on these platforms can make it hard to know what’s real and what’s not.When using Instagram, I can’t get away from the ads. With Twitter, I used Tweetbot and Tweetdeck, which stopped the ads. Of course, now Twitter has banned third-party apps. The Twitter app for my iPhone is unusable dreck. Tweetdeck, so far, is still up and running.The negativity and toxicity of these platforms have also become increasingly hard to ignore. From trolling to cyberbullying, there’s no shortage of people trying to tear each other down on these platforms. With Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, I’ve had to curate my follow list within an inch of their lives to make them work. When things can easily be broken, I’m not interested in staying.Finally, the echo chambers of these platforms can be hard to escape. It’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of reading the same things repeatedly. Over the last several years, I’ve been accused, rightly so, of not being focused on what’s in front of me because my attention is on whatever is on my phone. The lack of connection to the world outside has hurt my relationships.The psychological effects of social media are hard to ignore. Constant comparison to others, loneliness and isolation, and an unrealistic worldview can all stem from too much time spent on social media.Starting last year, I was feeling those effects. I had stopped checking Facebook, but Twitter and Instagram were still full on all the time.The physical effects of social media were concerning my wife. I was experiencing poor sleep and neck/shoulder pain, and she equated it with spending too much time on my phone. Plus, the blue light emitted from screens disrupts your body’s natural circadian rhythm and makes it harder to fall asleep. I was definitely bathing in that blue light a bit too much.I will likely never not have my phone on my bedside table, but I need to get into the habit of not checking it once I’m in bed.Being on Twitter and Instagram started to harm my relationship. While I wasn’t oversharing, I spent too much time scrolling through my feeds.So, I decided to take a break from social media.First, my goal is to be free of the constant feeling of FOMO. By taking a break, I can focus on the things that matter, like spending time with family and friends or finishing all the creative projects that have been languishing.Taking a break will allow me to focus more on what’s happening with my family and friends in a way that I haven’t done in quite some time. It’s easy to get caught up in comparing yourself to what you see on Facebook and Instagram. The idea is to focus on myself and my journey and goals.I hope this break can help me focus on my life and successes rather than comparing myself to others or constantly refreshing my feed because I’m bored.So what am I going to do instead of scrolling through my feeds? I’ve got a few ideas.I’m going to try spending more time outdoors. Going for a walk can be a great way to get some fresh air and take a break from the phone. I used to listen to podcasts or music when out for a walk with the dog, but lately, I’ve been forgoing that and just staying within the thoughts in my head. I found it a great way to clear my head and relax.The next thing I’m going to focus on in 2023 is my health. I want to get healthier and lose some weight. My wife got me a rowing machine for the holidays (I asked for it), and I’m slowly developing a 10-minute routine intending to slowly ramp up to twice as long.Finally, I’m going to spend more time with family and friends. Taking the time to connect with the people in my life is easily the most crucial reason to take a social media break. By spending the time this way, I hope to strengthen my relationships and create lasting memories.2023 is the best time to stop using social media. From feeling more connected to the world around me to changing my focus to me and mine, I expect I’m going to like this new social media-free world I’m creating.It might be something for you to consider doing too.


Something in the Way

March 14, 2022

It took The Batman to get me to leave the friendly and safe confines of my home and venture into the cruel and sick world, find a Cineplex playing the movie, pay for my ticket, and sit in a darkened theater with several other strangers. This is a movie starring a character who means a great deal to me. A character who can be camp and silly, dark and brooding, old and world-weary, and so many other interpretations.The Batman is the latest in a long line of interpretations. To wit, how you view The Batman is directly related to your relationship with the character. Love or hate this iteration, the character of Batman has captivated me for decades.I am eight years old, and after school, I love three shows: Star Trek, The Monkees, and Batman. In the days before cable or streaming, I’d flip the channel on the actual television to channel 13 and catch these shows back-to-back-to-back.My first vinyl record was The Monkees. One of the first hardcover books I ever read was The Star Trek Reader by James Blish. However, Batman was the one that really captured my attention. I didn’t understand camp. I didn’t know who Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith, or Julie Newmar were. It was a live-action Batman and Robin, and I didn’t care about anything else.I am ten years old, and my father brings home a plain paper bag filled with the week’s comics. Always DC, never Marvel or some other company’s heroes. Only DC. Always DC. There was a time in his life when he purchased the entire output of DC Comics every month. Back when comics cost ten or fifteen cents each. He kept it up until the mid-1980s when he stopped. Comics cost about $1.25, an issue at that point, and I think the comics industry was evolving into something else, such as graphic novels, and he was out. He liked it better when it was all in color for a dime. A buck and a quarter for 22 pages just didn’t have the same attraction. Comics as books? Not quite there yet. We’d need another decade before that became the norm.For me, though, the Silver Age DC comics were everything. My father’s collection sat in the attic for a long time when I grew up, and I’d beg him to go up and bring down a banker’s box of books. He’d oblige me, and I would devour them cover to cover. My favorites were Batman and The Legion of Super-Heroes.I am 21 years old in 1989. I wore a black sweatshirt with a yellow-oval bat symbol emblazoned on the front as often as possible. It was a few months before the Keaton movie hit, and I knew it would blow moviegoers away. People actually bought tickets for a film they didn’t want to see just to see the trailer. It is a quaint thought today with YouTube and its ability to allow anyone to watch a movie trailer 200 or more times to analyze every frame for clues.It is 1992, and I’m watching a Batman cartoon. It is a direct representation of the comics I grew up reading.It is 1997, and I’m watching a terrible movie starring George Clooney as Batman. I am now old enough to understand camp.It is 2005, and I’m watching a Batman movie where he doesn’t even appear until more than half the film is over. It’s the most realistic take on the character in live-action ever at this point.It is 2008, and The Dark Knight wins Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar for portraying the Joker.It is 2016, and Ben Affleck takes on the Batman character and, so far, has never really been able to make it his own.It is 2022, and I’m watching Robert Pattinson’s interpretation. His Bruce Wayne is the tenth live-action Batman from movie serials to camp television show to serious film to now. I don’t know if it’s the best interpretation, as it is more accurate to say just the latest.Viewers will get even more Batman. Next year, we will see Ben Affleck and Michael Keaton don the cape and cowl again in The Flash.How will you view this latest incarnation? You will have to ask yourself, where do you slot into this litany of the Bat? Are you a Nolan fan who thinks his trilogy is the best? Do you have a soft spot for Adam West or Kevin Conroy? Did you start with the comics, graduate to graphic novels, and now can critique the use of red in The Batman?No matter if you love *The Brave and the Bold *version of Batman or Ben Affleck, it’s all in the interpretation and what you hate, others love, and vice versa. Batman can be many different characters and has evolved over the years.Whoever embodies the character finds their way in and out. It's the same with the viewer.The Batman is not a superhero movie. At least, not in the same sense as other superhero movies, mainly Marvel superhero movies. Marvel makes popcorn movies. They are wonderful action movies with larger-than-life characters, incredible special effects, and solid stories.The Batman is not that kind of movie.The Batman is a modern-day noir. I can tell you with absolute certainty that Marvel Studios will never, ever take one of their characters and make a modern-day noir.Director Matt Reeves has decided his Batman is a dark, vengeful vigilante with a grunge undertone, and he nicks the best bits of superior films to make this movie. He opens with a voiceover straight out of Double Indemnity to set the tone along with the stark visuals. As many have already pointed out, Paul Dano as the Riddler feels cribbed from David Fincher’s Se7en. The dichotomy of James Gordon and Batman echoes the same as the characters Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt embody in Se7en.The story at the center of everything is a mystery — corruption at the highest level. Good people are doing bad things. Bad people are doing bad things. A billion dollars is just sitting there for the dirty cops and politicians to use. The Batman takes the Dark Knight Detective moniker from the comics and applies it in the movie. There is so much going on in this three-hour extravaganza that sometimes the viewer can lose the plot. So many characters are important and unimportant that you can lose track.I knew Selina Kyle’s friend was unimportant primarily as a character, but a fresh viewer might not. I kept waiting for Colin Farrell’s Penguin to do something menacing, but he never did, except keeping the overall story grounded in organized crime. John Turturro’s mob boss, Carmine Falcone, is important, but isn’t the Riddler murdering people?Ultimately and thankfully, it all fits together in a tight plot puzzle. We get the answers. We get some resolution. We even get a potential teaser of a sequel.It just isn’t a superhero movie.It’s a film noir pretending to be a superhero movie, and it does it extraordinarily well.Robert Pattinson is impressive in the cowl, where he does a remarkable job acting with his face. Zoe Kravitz adds the right amount of steamy sexual tension. Paul Dano might get some award nominations his way over his portrayal of the Riddler. Colin Farrell’s Penguin, while unrecognizable, is the one actor definitely having fun.Overall, The Batman is a captivating neo-noir thriller with impressive set pieces, low-key special effects, and my favorite Batmobile.Will you like it? I don’t know. When did you first hear about this character dressed as a bat?


I Should Hate Football

August 28, 2021

I should hate football.While I admit I’m not a crazy football fan, I enjoy watching it. I probably shouldn’t.Contrary to what my mother-in-law got stuck in her head a few years ago, I do not root for any NFL team. I did get caught up in the Greatest Show on Turf stuff with the St. Louis Rams (which is what my mother-in-law was referencing), but that’s about as close as I’ve ever gotten to “rooting” for an NFL team.When I was pretty young, my Dad got me kid-sized pads and a helmet. He chose the Chargers because he thought I’d dig the lightning bolts on the side. He wasn’t wrong, but it was one of those times where I remember distinctly not having an NFL team to follow. My family was not a Bears/Bulls/Blackhawks/Cubs/White Sox family, so the Bears never entered the equation. The nearby Indianapolis Colts were not a team I could get behind. The only two NFL games I’ve ever attended were a St. Louis Cardinals game at old Busch Stadium in 1985 when I was still in high school and a Rams game in 2003, accompanying my Dad and one of his friends.This leads me back to why I should hate football.When I was eight years old, I was in an accident. It was nobody’s fault. If you haven’t guessed, I was playing football in a few backyards, including mine. We had a wide variety of kids of all ages playing this particular pick-up football game. I had just caught a pass and was tripped up by one of my friends, lost my balance, and fell into a bush because backyard pick-up football tends to have a few obstacles in the way, like patios, trees, and bushes. I fell hard and completely knocked the breath out of myself. I remember trying to breathe and how much that hurt more than the pain on the right side of my face.A small branch about an inch and a half went under my eye and severed the optic nerve. Freaky accidents happen all the time, but I have never heard of a stick cutting the optic nerve and not injuring the eye itself at all. That’s what happened to me.My accident changed the direction of my life. My Dad played football and baseball, and I was likely destined to play both of those sports as well or maybe even better than my father. My mother would never let me play any form of football again, let alone high school football. I tried baseball, and I was pretty good until I was old enough for pitchers to start throwing curveballs and sliders. It’s tough to hit a baseball when it’s moving and you have two eyes that can place it into three-dimensional space. For me, baseballs look flat, and placing them in three dimensions is difficult. Have you ever reached for a light pull from a hanging lightbulb in a basement or attic and completely missed it? I have plenty of times because where my brain thought the pull was in three-dimensional space was not where it actually was, if that makes sense.So, I became a track and cross-country athlete. I wasn’t great, but it was sports and being part of a team, and I liked it well enough to build the cross-country team from scratch at Illinois College, where I was MVP and Team Captain at this tiny little Division III school. I once asked members of the University of Illinois cross-country team what their worst race time was, and I quickly realized my best time in four years could not even compete at the Division I level.I barely watched much football during my high school, collegiate, and post-collegiate years. Sure, I tuned in to the Super Bowl and went to a few Super Bowl watch parties, but I never had a team I rooted for or cared about. To this day, I don’t have any handle on players, coaches, or how good any one team is until division championship games and Super Bowls.You might think I hated the game or would tell others not to play because of how dangerous it is. I did none of that. Football barely registered in my life. I had an accident. It may have zigged the direction of my zag, but it never really defined me. It never comes up, and I hardly think about it.Then I moved to a college town, was gifted some tickets, and started loving attending University of Illinois football and basketball games. They were always events, and sometimes the teams were pretty good. Most time, it didn’t matter. Illinois Athletics became the team I supported, followed, and cared about almost immediately after moving to Champaign. There was a whole Saturday tailgate atmosphere during football Saturdays where I could take my young daughter and get her face painted, spend a few minutes jumping on inflatables, and maybe have some ice cream at the end.Today, I attended the first college football game of 2021 at Memorial Stadium to watch the University of Illinois Fighting Illini take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers. I invited my hometown neighbor… the guy who tripped me up playing backyard football in 1976, to come with me. We’ve been friends for years. He still lives in our hometown and is a successful dentist. Illinois is his alma mater, and I was thrilled to catch up with him and enjoy the afternoon.Illinois got the win with a score of 30–22. It was hot. It was loud. It was thousands of people all jammed in together to cheer on their team. I will admit when the orange and blue-clad squad took the field, I didn’t hate football at all.I never really did.


And the Thunder Rolls

July 12, 2024

My favorite B-movie is called Thunder Alley. I watched it again over the weekend and enjoyed every minute. This movie is so schlocky that it isn’t even out on DVD, and I have a nearly worn-out VHS copy. The charm of watching it on YouTube adds to the overall experience, making it feel like I'm stepping back into the '80s every time I press play. It’s like watching the first two hours of MTV video on YouTube. There’s a longing for a simpler time.Before Behind the Music explained how every band gets started and is torn apart by drugs, we get the story of Richie and Donnie. Donnie (Scott McGinnis, who never quite made it as a Tom Cruise lookalike) has started a band named, of all things, Magic and wants his friend Richie (Roger Wilson of Porky's fame… I guess) to join. However, the lead singer, Skip (Leif Garrett, in full curly blonde hair, pre-Behind the Music special, and odd white boy dance moves mode), isn’t too keen on having this hick join his rocking band. The dynamics between these three characters provide a fascinating look into the interpersonal struggles within a band. It surprisingly feels real and adds real depth. Richie, Donnie, and Skip are the real heart of this movie.Richie ends up having to sit in with the band while Magic’s current flashy and talentless guitar player makes nice with the bathroom floor. Soon, Richie joins the band, and they are on their way to local stardom, playing clubs across Nevada and Arizona.Life on the road is exciting with bar fights, crooked bar managers, hotel rooms, and drunks yelling for country and western music, but the band wins them over with their new ballad, “Heart to Heart.”Meanwhile, their sleazy new manager has been getting Donnie hooked on drugs. Donnie starts coming late to gigs and ruining songs with his poor keyboard playing. When Richie confronts him about it, Donnie says its all under control, but the audience knows better. When an overdose kills him, Richie is devastated. He learns who supplied Donnie with the drugs, takes a sledgehammer to the manager’s expensive car, and decides to pack in the rock and roll life. The manager tears up Magic’s contract and kicks the band off the bill of a huge festival where all the record company execs will be waiting to sign the next big thing.Enter pre-Highlander Clancy Brown.Brown’s performance as Wessel (pronounced “Weasel”), the road manager, is one of the standout elements of Thunder Alley. Before old Donnie boy loses his battle with cocaine and speedballs, the band goes on the club tour with Wessel. He takes a shine to the boys in Magic and thinks there’s something special in their music. Brown’s portrayal of Wessel elevates the rest of the cast with his acting, and he practically steals every scene he's in.For no apparent reason other than that they are both blonde, the sleazy manager thinks he can drop the current lead singer of the Judas Priest rip-off band, Surgical Steel, add Leif Garrett, and make a million bucks. This is akin to asking David Lee Roth to be the new frontman in Iron Maiden.Wessel thinks this is stupid (as does most of the audience) and tries to convince Richie to join the bass player and drummer (Butch and Wolf, for those scoring at home) on stage after the Surgical Steel set at the big festival where remember, all the record company execs will be waiting to sign the next big thing. Richie says no. The audience says noooooo! The tension builds as we wait to see if Richie will ultimately change his mind.Richie’s girlfriend, played by second-rate scream queen of the 80s and general hottie Jill Schoelen, tries to convince him to play. Richie can’t do it. The audience says noooooo! Schoelen’s character, though not deeply developed, serves as an emotional anchor for Richie. I’m not ashamed to say I was crushing hard for Jill Schoelen in 1985.At the festival, Leif is watching Surgical Steel play. Wessel keeps the amps hot. The lights go down, and Butch and Wolf take the stage. The lights come up, and they start to play, but without Donnie, Richie, or Skip, they’ve got nothing. The anticipation in this scene is palpable as the audience wonders if the band will pull off a miracle.They start to get depressed and stop playing. Suddenly, a screaming guitar can be heard. Richie is at the show, and he brought his Les Paul! The festival crowd goes nuts. The members of Magic go nuts. The audience watching the movie goes, “Duh… of course he’s gonna show up. It’s a movie!” Richie's triumphant return is both predictable, satisfying, and very 80s.The band plays “Heart to Heart” for the dearly departed Donnie, and the festival crowd is in tears. They go into their up-tempo number, “Can’t Look Back,” and Richie asks Skip to join them on stage. The band is back together! Leif dances with his hands in the pockets of his jacket. He is sooooo cool. Clancy Brown smiles, and the movie ends.I love everything about this movie, from the cheesy songs to the shady manager doing his best Boss Hogg imitation to the gratuitous nudity, to the ridiculous names (Skip, Butch, Wolf), and to Clancy Brown playing the good guy for once. The film’s campy charm is undeniable, and it solidifies its B-movie status.Thunder Alley is sort of like Rock Star mixed with Almost Famous and every Behind the Music episode you saw except for the Weird Al Yankovic one. I’d pay big money for a pristine DVD copy and a soundtrack, even with the Surgical Steel songs. Despite its low-budget production, Thunder Alley manages to capture the essence of the rock and roll lifestyle of the mid-1980s in a way that is both entertaining and heartfelt.Anyway, that’s my favorite B-movie. What’s yours? The nostalgia, the humor, and the over-the-top drama make Thunder Alley a hidden gem worth rediscovering. Whether you’re a fan of '80s music, B-movies, or simply enjoy a good underdog story, this film has something for everyone.Cue up Thunder Alley on YouTube and prepare to be transported back to a time when rock and roll ruled, and anything seemed possible because you actually can look back.


A Star Wars Story

January 3, 2020

I saw Star Wars in 1977 in a movie theater outside a mall in Florida. It made such an impression on me I asked if I could see it again the next day instead of The Rescuers. My family was on vacation, and I was about to turn nine that June.The movie washed over me like that Star Destroyer coming into frame. It was magical. I was far too young for the early Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon space adventures. For me, Star Trek and Batman reruns were the after-school viewing choices. The Six Million Dollar Man was my favorite television program, and I had not only a Steve Austin action figure but the full gamut of Six Million Dollar Man toys like the Bionic Transport and Repair Station and the Mission Control Center with the Command Console.However, Star Wars dominated my imagination during that summer of ’77, and I couldn’t let go of the galaxy far, far away.I collected the comic books and, of course, the toys. My brother and I amassed an impressive array of action figures, vehicles, and playsets. We had a Death Star, Millennium Falcon, X-Wing and Tie Fighter, Tatooine playset, Hoth playset, and so much more.The movies were always on in the background via VHS copies that I’m pretty sure I still own. There isn’t a movie I’ve seen more than the original Star Wars.I was in grad school greedily reading Heir to the Empire in 1991. I dragged my family to see The Phantom Menace at the local movie theater. When the prequel trilogy was in full bloom, my daughter and I would have lightsaber battles as we jumped around my apartment making purposely bad Luke Skywalker impressions in full whine-mode, “Nooooooooo. It’s not true… That’s impossible!”Suffice it to say, Star Wars has meant a lot to me throughout my life.When Disney purchased Lucasfilm for a cool 4 billion, everyone knew a sequel trilogy was on the horizon. So, it’s no surprise I was at one of the first showings of The Force Awakens, and I was giddy walking out of the theater. A terrible ice storm might have been coming down, but I happily scrapped my windshield content in knowing Star Wars was in good hands.Fast forward to just a few short weeks ago when I took a half a day off to watch The Rise of Skywalker. I was genuinely excited. I hoped what I was about to see was going to match my creative spirit. I mean, they didn’t use my preferred title, The First Skywalker, but damn if I wasn’t too far off. I had grown fond of the sequel trilogy characters and wanted desperately to have a resolution that felt earned and satisfying.It was close. So, so close.If you’re a fan like me, you had already mapped out what happened after our heroes partied down on Endor. Even if you hadn’t ignited your imagination, there were the Expanded Universe series of novels, comics, video games, and more to keep the post- Return of the Jedi timeline humming along.I didn’t partake of everything. I choose what appealed to me and left out the rest. It was an expanded universe, and none of it was cannon. To my mind, all of it was glorified fan fiction, and sometimes that’s the best kind.The post-Return of the Jedi expanded universe was fun and imaginative and generally worked perfectly to extend the life of the franchise. That is until Lucasfilm sold it all to Disney, and all of that fun and imagination would have to be reimagined and rebooted.I loved The Force Awakens as a Star Wars film. It was in no small part because of the nostalgia factor, with J. J. Abrams warming over the plot of A New Hope. I admit, the title is garbage, but then so many of the Star Wars films have weak titles: The Phantom Menace, The Empire Strikes Back, and, honestly, A New Hope. The Force Awakens was derivative, but it had to be because George Lucas had no idea how to recapture the joy of Star Wars with his prequel trilogy, and Abrams had his finger pressed firmly on the pulse of Star Wars fandom. The movie itself was a reminder of what I loved about Star Wars back in 1977, and it set the table beautifully for a slam dunk of a trilogy, and then, for some reason, Abrams wasn’t set on directing the next one, and that’s when the wheels came off.If I remember correctly, Abrams had gone on the record saying he was not going to direct the next film in the promotion for The Force Awakens. I’m sure there were political and financial reasons, but ultimately it cost this new trilogy a cohesive and coherent voice. You can hate on how Abrams does his “mystery box” shtick, but he does make pretty entertaining flicks.Kathleen Kennedy took a chance on Rian Johnson for the second film in the franchise. Johnson, in my view, is a fantastic writer and director. He has a vision. I was excited to see how he would take the foundation laid down by Abrams. I thought he would create something truly memorable. Of course, I was also under the impression there was a plan. Johnson is a great filmmaker, but he led the franchise down a problematic path, and he did so because he didn’t adhere to the Abrams foundation. The Last Jedi is a pretty great film, but it’s weak and confusing as the second film in light of the first film. He took a sledgehammer to that foundation, and while beautiful and striking in several ways, narratively, it’s not good.In January 2020, it is clear there was no set narrative for the sequel trilogy, and that’s why the three films together feel disjointed. Johnson had far too much creative freedom to put his mark on Star Wars, and rewatching the movie, it feels like The Last Jedi is a hard left turn. Not having a clear strategy for the story and the characters was a mistake. I blame Kathleen Kennedy.This brings us to The Rise of Skywalker, which is a joy to watch. It’s the kind of movie that makes audiences cheer. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t make sense narratively as the third movie after Johnson’s second installment. It’s a tad disappointing for me because all I ever really wanted was a coherent, competent rip-roaring Star Wars adventure told over three parts. I got the first one, the second could be argued was a misstep, and the third tried to make sense of the narrative twists and turns to come out on top. The regret I feel is knowing the potential in having a final trilogy that extended and satisfyingly concluded the Skywalker saga and just not quite getting there. It could have been so much better.The original trilogy started as a pastiche of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, The Hidden Fortress, and The Dam Busters. John Williams, Marcia Lucas, and Paul Hirsch saved Star Wars with Oscar-winning music and film editing. Ivan Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan took the foundation that Lucas and others created and elevated it, basically creating a lot of what everyone loves most about Star Wars in one movie. Richard Marquand, in my mind, was a caretaker director who also elevated character moments in Return of the Jedi. The trilogy suffers a bit from not having a three-part narrative plan at the beginning, even though Lucas did write all three stories. The worst offense is the Leia is Luke’s sister bit as it seems off-putting in light of kisses in both A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.The prequel trilogy had a singular vision in George Lucas. Love or hate the prequels; the narrative was coherent (mostly) with award-winning actors elevating the terrible dialogue. All three desperately needed an editor/script doctor at the script stage and a better film editor than Ben Burtt, who is an Oscar-winning sound effect editor but not a film editor. They suffer from an infatuation with computer-generated imagery and a couple of poor actor choices.With the sequel trilogy, the first movie brought the joy back. However, the second movie did not elevate the concepts from the first movie-it took a sledgehammer to them. Rian Johnson’s script wanted to upend the Star Wars table and tell a different kind of story than what Abrams started. Johnson, as a visionary filmmaker, wanted to play in that universe. You don’t hire someone like him and not let him do his thing, but you have to have narrative controls. Rian Johnson genuinely excited me because I loved Brick and Looper. The middle movie needed to be dark, foreboding with maybe even a down ending. Johnson sounded perfect for that type of Star Wars movie. Unfortunately, he made a beautiful looking film with a script that retconned the character motivations and short-circuited the narrative. It was intentional. Suffice it to say, the lack of narrative control and singular vision created a disjointed adventure when set in the context of Abrams’s film.Kennedy and Disney saw the backlash and disappointment with The Last Jedi and needed to fix Star Wars straightaway. I’m sure the not-great box office of Solo played a part as well. So now we have the third film in the trilogy directed by the guy who directed the first film to try and get everything back on track.When all of this was announced, it made perfect sense. Disney realized the misstep and took care to put the sequel trilogy back on the straight and narrow, and they needed the guy who started the whole thing. They desperately needed J. J. Abrams to reinvigorate Star Wars, and while he was at it retcon all the crap stuff Johnson did in the last movie, too.As much as I loved the flick, Abrams didn’t quite have the time nor the chops to fix the mess he was given. If he could have had two films to make Episode 9, it might have been more cohesive, or it might have just been bloated. I believe a three-hour final installment with a built-up narrative and character interactions would have elevated the material.The last Harry Potter installment was two movies. The last two Avengers movies, which narratively is one film, has a total run time just shy of six hours. Honestly, I think Abrams should have pushed for an Episode 10 and filmed them back-to-back to give everything the proper ending he envisioned.Of course, the real problem of this sequel trilogy is Rian Johnson’s middle film that jettisoned all that Abrams laid out. I love Johnson, the filmmaker, but his choices, ultimately, were almost universally wrong. The sequel trilogy would have been better served with Abrams directing all three. At the very least, it would have had a consistent narrative and been an entertaining mix of nostalgia and new.It’s painfully easy to armchair quarterback the decisions made by Disney, Kathleen Kennedy, J. J. Abrams, and Rian Johnson. What I hope is Disney has learned from their mistakes to actively avoid them the next go around. The Mandalorian looks like a step in the right direction.I know it might be asking a lot, but could the next Star Wars trilogy of films do their level best to enhance my childhood memory of Star Wars? Please, and thank you.Also, may the Force be with you.


Umpin’ Ain’t Easy

September 12, 2018

Everybody hates the umpire.They make a good call, but against your team and the boos and the “are you blind?” exclamations come out.They make a good call, but for your team, it’s the other side that gets upset.They make a bad call, but for your team, you keep your trap shut even though the other side that’s screaming about it is right.They make a bad call, and it’s against your team the yelling really starts, and the “umps lost us/nearly lost us the game” lines will inevitably be expressed.A good ump is a shadow, invisible. A ninja. He or she makes the right calls, all the time. End of the story. Unfortunately, umpires are only human. They make mistakes. It’s part of the game. I can even get behind a consistent ump especially if he or she calls a visible ball a strike every time. However, umpires that interject themselves into the sporting event are the worst because they are getting in the way of fans who came out to enjoy the game, not watch the antics of the umpire.Umpiring is a thankless job. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be, depending on the sport, an umpire or a referee.The entire kerfuffle at the U. S. Open Women’s Final with Serena Williams and a tennis umpire has turned from an arbitrary rule violation into a referendum on misogyny and race. Is this necessary?Apparently, from what I’ve read, this particular tennis umpire likes the spotlight and is good at his job. In my opinion that is a terrible combination for an umpire. I’m reminded of Ted Valentine who for decades was one of the best college basketball referees in the business. Still, his antics on the court earned him the nickname, “TV Teddy.”The Indiana versus Illinois game in the late 90s when Valentine issued a technical foul on Bobby Knight as he came out to check on his injured player is one of his low lights. I’m a huge Illinois fan and can’t stand Knight, but man was he in the right, and TV Teddy was in the wrong.You can see Valentine knew full well he’d made a massive mistake and wasn’t about to take it back and make Knight the higher authority. As the announcers explain, he could have quickly taken it back immediately and restored order once the other ref, Ed Hightower, explained it to him. He didn’t, and since he choose the path of boos and taunts, he had to stick to his guns and not concede he made a mistake. He inserted himself into the proceedings in a way that was quite dumb and should have been avoided.But I get it.In my high school days, one of the best ways to make a bit of money was to be a Little League umpire. I spent a summer going to Khoury League games, putting on a blue shirt and calling balls and strikes for 10–12 year-olds. It was fun. Mostly.As an umpire, I was pretty good at calling balls and strikes. As a Khoury League ump, the most important thing to do was to ignore the crowd as they yelled after every pitch and every call. I was mostly embarrassed for these parents as they lived vicariously through their children’s ability to play baseball.One time, a foul tip went straight into my mask knocking me back and stunning me for a bit. As my custom behind the plate, I didn’t yell out balls. If I didn’t say “Strike” and make a pointing motion, it was a ball. I hadn’t made a strike call on the foul tip, and so the count on the scoreboard didn’t reflect a second strike with the foul tip. The next pitch I called the batter out with a third strike, and nearly everyone in the stands rooting for the batter’s team went ape shit because they all thought it was strike two. It was not strike two. I hadn’t messed up the call; I just didn’t automatically indicate strike two because a Khoury ball had hit me in the face mask.Parents screamed at me from behind the chain link fence. I was called all sorts of names. The batter called out didn’t complain. His coach didn’t complain. It was the parents. The fans.Of course, the worst thing I did as an umpire was borderline inserting myself into a game on a call that was controversial, to say the least.I was umping in the field with a man on first. Since we only had two umps per game, I was standing behind second ready to make a call on an attempted steal and prepared to run closer to first to make the call on a groundout or even a rare double play.The batter hit a home run. He’s celebrating like a 12-year-old who hit a home run might, jumping around and throwing his fists in the air. He was basking in the glory. I’m standing practically on top of second base. He heads to second and doesn’t step on the bag on his home run trot. I have about ten seconds to decide if I’m going to call the kid out as soon as he steps on home for not stepping on second base. I weigh the odds. He steps on home plate, and I walk past the mound toward home and call the runner out.The kid runs at me and stops short of tackling me. He yells. His coach comes out. He screams. The parents on that side of the fence are just short of storming the field. I continue walking toward the home plate umpire I was paired with that game, an older gentleman who had seen plenty and called many balls and strikes and say quietly, “He didn’t step on the bag.” He just sighed.I walked back to my perch behind first base and endured a constant barrage of nasty words from fans and parents along the first base line. It was constant. I ignored them.I might have been in the right, but I was so very wrong.It was the last time I umpired.It’s good to be reminded that we all make mistakes. It’s also good to learn from the experience and not make the same mistake twice.For myself, I should keep my own Khoury ball umpiring experience at the forefront, especially when I want to yell at umpires and referees when the calls don’t go my way when watching my favorite teams.


All That Once Was Good

July 3, 2021

In Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones’s character Terrance Mann gives the most important speech.It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.I was in college and not thinking about baseball when Field of Dreams came out. Today, it makes far more sense to me than it did back then. I wasn’t old enough. I was close to peak physical condition in 1989. I could not fathom the way age would catch up to me. My memories of baseball were not yet thick.I just had a birthday at the end of June, and as I start the first few years of my 50s, I remember that wide-eyed 21-year-old in 1989 who could run five miles like it was nothing. I used to be an athlete.Additionally, I spent hours and hours playing first base so my younger brother could practice playing second and shortstop. He was pretty good back then.Sports, and more specifically baseball, have been a part of my family since before I was born.I spent my birthday weekend watching my nephew play baseball. Four days of nothing but sitting with my brother and his family and our parents watching a soon-to-be 16-year-old have a little bit of fun on the diamond. He looks like a baseball player. The smartest player on the field, my nephew was nearly always the best player when he was younger.When he was learning the game at six years old, he decided to become a switch hitter on his own. He’d take a few swings on one side and then a few from the other. He wanted to be a catcher because his favorite player (Yadier Molina) on his favorite team (St. Louis Cardinals) was a catcher and was always on the television screen. He plays second, short, third, catches, and pitches. He’s a versatile player.Honestly, my nephew is flat-out a pretty good baseball player. It’s no surprise. It’s in his genes.I never knew my grandfather, but I’ve been told he was a decent baseball player. Two of his four sons were better than decent. They would have been major league players had they been born a decade or so later with the advent of expansion. Instead, my uncles got as far at AA and AAA before calling it quits and becoming coaches and teachers.My Dad and my other uncle were also pretty good baseball players, but they didn’t follow the path of their older brothers. They never played pro ball; they just played baseball and softball on local teams for the fun of it. It was at one of those games where my Dad met my Mom, so I’ve got baseball to thank for me being here too.I played Little League and grade school baseball, but I wasn’t good enough to play in high school. With my accident blinding me in my right eye, I was done as soon as the pitchers could throw a curveball. On the other hand, my brother was significantly better than me, and he maximized his talent. I got to tag along and help him practice. Our father hitting ground balls to him at second while I covered first was a regular occurrence. My brother played on little league teams, all-star teams, and traveling teams. Our Mom saw him hit an inside-the-ballpark homerun in grade school. We both went to Illinois College, and while I ran cross country, my brother played baseball.The one thing constant in my life is baseball. Even though I never really collected cards or memorized statistics. I loved watching the game. A few years ago, there was talk of bringing in a minor league team to my central Illinois town. It didn’t come to fruition, but I think I would have been there on day one and probably many more days after just to soak in the sun, the smell of cut grass, the crack of wooden bats, and the smack of a baseball hitting a catcher’s mitt.Like the quote above, baseball has marked the time. For several years, every Fourth of July meant baseball games from softball tournaments to all-star games. When I was 12, I was good enough to make the Khoury league all-star game. I remember playing the game in the heat and enjoying the fireworks afterward. My Dad tells the story of him playing in a Fourth of July baseball tournament just a week after I was born. I think I was in the stands for those games, but I don’t remember.If it wasn’t me or my Dad playing, my brother was spending time taking ground balls at second and batting leadoff in a Fourth of July tournament. That’s the way it was all summer long. I always felt it was an honor to sit in the stands and watch baseball. My mother did it a lot. I don’t know how much she ever personally enjoyed it, but she always loved seeing her boys and her husband happy. That’s the way she was this past weekend too. We were always happy playing baseball.Baseball has been a part of my past, but it’s also a part of my present. There is no greater joy than to go to a baseball game with my brother and discuss tactics and approaches to the plate or talking about hitting the cut-off man and throwing strikes. If I have an above-average understanding of the game, my brother and father have doctorates. Both are so much smarter than me, and it’s always fun to sit and learn. I was blessed with five games last weekend to do just that, and I loved every minute of it.Baseball marks the time. Time keeps marching on. The next generation of my baseball family now has their turn at the plate. Happiness is a warm sunny day with baseball to watch.It reminds us all that once was good, and it could be again.


Same As It Never Was

I was always a Stones fan.I mean, Mick had the swagger and the “Let's Spend the Night Together” vibe going on. The Beatles were all about holding hands. Just not my thing growing up, you know?But anyway, I bought “Sgt. Pepper” and the “White Album” just like everybody else. And I remember when John was killed in New York. But, like I said, I dig the Stones.In fact, it was the idea of putting every Stones song in a package the size of a deck of cards that prompted my wife to hunt down a used iPod in the first place. I’d been systematically turning my Stones collection into MP3s to play on my laptop using iTunes ever since the radio station I work for went all digital. Of course, I got interested in getting an iPod since they were the cool thing, and my kids all were talking about ‘em for Christmas and such.So, Jeanie found a really nice black video iPod at this garage sale. She said the guy only wanted $50 for it. I mean, it was worth at least $300, but she talked him down to two twenties. After getting it home, she found some headphones and listened to the songs already loaded on it.Now, I told her it was stupid of her to buy the thing without ever listening to it. I mean, it could have been broken, or the battery wouldn’t charge, or all kinds of things wrong with it, but anyway, it didn’t matter because the thing worked perfectly.Anyway, she was making supper jamming to the iPod when I came home from selling thirty-second ad spots to car dealers and restaurants. She surprised me with a kiss, put the headphones around my ears, and held out the shiny black iPod.I took the iPod from her hand and listened to the first song. It was unfamiliar to me, but we danced around the kitchen a bit, even though I was the only one who could hear the music. She gave me a quick peck on the cheek and went back to the stove, and I took a long look at my new toy my loving wife found for me.The bright, color screen said the title of the catchy little ditty was “Love My Way” by the Beatles from an album titled “Same As It Never Was.” Remember now, I’m a Stones fan, and I certainly don’t know all the Beatles tunes except, you know, the ones everybody knows. I’d never heard of “Same As It Never Was” or “Love My Way,” but there are all these re-issues and anthologies, ya know?So, I did what everyone does when they don’t know something. I Googled it. Guess what I found? That’s right. Zip. Nada. Anyway, I looked up every one of the twelve song titles, and not a one came back as being recorded by the Beatles or even as a solo song. The closest was “Say What You Will,” which had some lyrics similar to that old song by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson, when he was still normal, called “Say, Say, Say.” It was weird, ya know?Better yet, the iPod had one of those album cover graphics with the playlist. It featured a picture of the band that looked like it was from the late 70s, but nobody had a beard. Ringo might have had a mustache and I think John’s hair was short.Now, you gotta remember this was one of those video iPods, and after messing around a bit, I found it had several videos. The first one was John Lennon on stage in front of a curtain. He says something about getting a little help from his friends and the curtain parts and the rest of the Beatles appeared on stage with him. They went into “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” It was cool and all, but I didn’t recognize where they were at until I saw Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy off to one side of the stage. It looked like Saturday Night Live from the 80s, ya know, but I’m sure I would have remembered a performance like that.The next video was a concert at night with this huge crowd. The stage was empty and then went dark. A spotlight hits someone at a piano, and I realize that it’s Paul McCartney singing “Let It Be.” The rest of the lights come up and I see John Lennon playing guitar next to George Harrison with Ringo on drums. I didn’t realize this was the end of Live Aid from Wembley Stadium until Bob Geldoff came out.The whole thing ended with “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” just like last time, but that bit with the Beatles certainly didn’t happen. I mean, John was dead, right?I scroll through the playlists and videos. None of it makes any sense, ya know?I find an instrumental called “Superstición” by Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix.There’s an album of Elvis Presley duets with country stars like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain.The unmistakable voice of Jim Morrison and the Doors has three whole albums of material that I’ve never heard of before.There’s a Nirvana video for a song called “Towering Inferno” that mentions 9/11 in the lyrics.I see a clip of Led Zeppelin playing Live Aid, but the bald guy from Genesis isn’t on drums, and it looks like their original drummer back there.There’s an AC/DC album called “Back in Black,” but I think all the songs are sung by their original lead singer with that nasal voice.Finally, I catch a performance of the Stones on The Tonight Show and the blonde hair of Brian Jones sticks out unmistakably as they play “Start Me Up.”I sit mesmerized by what I’m seeing and hearing. I’m watching performances that never happened. I’m hearing songs that were never recorded. These people died, ya know?I sit in my chair and listen to the music over and over again. I close my eyes, and I see visions of John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, and Kurt Cobain. I see Brian Jones smiling and laughing it up with Keith Richards as they sit on the couch with Johnny Carson. Ed McMahon’s hefty laugh turns into purple and green musical notes flying through a bright red-orange sky. Pink clouds scatter as a warm wind is blown by a giant head of Buddy Holly, his glasses as large as a jumbo jet. The clouds turn into guitars and drums and microphone stands.I wake up with a blanket pulled over me. Glancing at the microwave in the kitchen, I see that it’s 11:47, and the only light is a soft glow coming from my office down the hall. I peek in and realize my sons, Keith and Michael, have taken my iPod and were downloading songs to it. The computer monitor cast odd shadows on their smiling faces.A I come in, they express shock and then annoyance. I hear my oldest say, “We wanted to surprise you.” I pick up the iPod and scroll through the menu.It was all gone.My sons deleted everything and added my entire collection of Rolling Stones. Every album. Every song. It was all there, just like I wanted. What great kids I got, ya know?But the rest was gone.I mumbled a thank you to them and I think it fooled them enough to deduce my tears as ones of joy.But it was all gone.Same as it never was.


Prospero and Guano Island

Alex St. John was a spectre.Recruited out of the Navy SEALS by Special Tactics and Reconnaissance, he became a “Spectre.” He loved the abbreviation. Technically, Special Tactics and Reconnaissance do not exist. He was a spook, an apparition, a ghost. He was a non-person. No one called him Alex. His call sign was Prospero, given to him by a commanding officer who loved Shakespeare's The Tempest.The United States government had plenty of special agents. Prospero was an extra special agent.He joined the Navy at 17 with a clear goal to become a SEAL. He had spent far too many years being bullied for his skinny legs and braces. After serving several tours in Afghanistan, earning two political science degrees and one in chemical engineering, he was sent to Fairbanks, Alaska, where Special Tactics and Reconnaissance had a secret training facility. Two years at the facility had changed him physically and mentally even more than his SEAL training. His mind was as sharp as a diamond blade, his body lethal with or without a weapon. He was sophisticated and charming. Plus, he was straight out of central casting for male lead roles.His age was 33, and he was in the most prime condition of his life. He was trained to be a killing machine, but far more than just that. He mastered every martial art and was an expert marksman in practically every form of gun, rifle, or artillery. He could speak thirteen languages fluently, and he beat Magnus Carlsen in chess when he secretly took over for the Bella Grey AI during an exhibition. His knife-throwing skills were slightly better than his ax-throwing. He free-climbed El Capitan and replicated Alan Eustace’s skydive from the edge of space. He could hold his breath for twenty minutes, which helped immensely when he was freediving in Kona on the big island looking for lost Japanese treasure. He was a world-class athlete, driver, and lover. He could teach philosophy to co-eds and code a catastrophic bug in your promising new start-up application.Prospero was an Olympic-level swimmer at 200 meters. He could slice through hundreds of meters of water in full SCUBA gear as easily as a hot knife through butter. This time, though, he was using the mini-sub. It wouldn’t do to have his wetsuit wrinkle his Tom Ford suit or his Turnbull & Asser shirt and tie.He was supremely confident in his abilities and was hyper-focused on the mission at hand. Nervousness was a feeling abandoned decades ago. After all, the fate of the world was on his shoulders.His destination was the private island of billionaire Zander Grossman. An invitation-only party was happening on the island in his extravagantly furnished house. The party was ostensibly for his non-profit environmental organization, PureSky. He had invited hundreds of global warming experts and environmentalists of all stripes to his home to talk a little business and gamble at the poker tables he had set up in his ballroom. It may sound non-threatening and maybe even humanitarian. However, the celebration was anything but altruistic. Grossman wasn’t someone who wanted to stop global warming. He was all about speeding it up.The mini-sub silently reached the beach, and Prospero stepped onto the sand. He wore Crockett & Jones Highbury shoes, which weren’t precisely beachwear. He checked his watch, a Seamaster Diver 300M Co-Axial enhanced with half a dozen ways to kill someone, and saw his timing was impeccable.He pulled his Glock 19 from inside the waistband holster and inspected it. It was reliable, durable, and hidden. He placed it back into its holster and retrieved the forged invitation to the party he was crashing.He made his way through the underbrush and trees. His mission was to scale a 60-foot cliff face, dispose of any guards, and make his way inside the Grossman estate by blending into the crowd. From there, he was to contact Grossman and make a wager at the poker table that would pique his interest. He knew Grossman would not back down when challenged. In various games, Prospero was a master card player, including poker, blackjack, and baccarat. During his training in Alaska, Special Tactics and Reconnaissance flew up a string of World Series of Poker winners for him to play against. Of course, he beat them all.The plan was not only to beat Grossman but humiliate him in the process in front of his guests. If he also impressed Grossman’s number two, the statuesque blonde model, skier, and polo player Gisele Satine, all the better. Being the gracious host, Grossman would undoubtedly invite Prospero to stay as his guest, offering a room and asking for the chance to win back his earnings. He could not refuse such a fantastic offer. Naturally, Grossman would send a few armed guards to his stateroom in the middle of the night to rough him up and take him to Grossman’s “playroom,” where Prospero would endure hours of torture. Escape would be easy either through Satine or using the laser in his Seamaster. He would confront Grossman, learn of the nuclear weapons drilled into the Arctic, dispatch the billionaire violently, and blow up the control room, cutting off access to polar ice cap melting weapons. The mini-sub could hold two people if they lay on top of each other.Prospero put the thought of him and Satine in the mini-sub with nothing but a bikini and his La Perla Grigioperla Lodato blue swim trunks between them out of his mind. He turned his focus on the next objective—scaling the cliff face. He found an excellent spot to start his ascent at the base of a tidal pool. With plenty of handholds, even in the pitch darkness, Prospero climbed up and barely caused a sound as he hopped over a shin-high guardrail made of large rocks.Grossman trained Rottweilers, so Prospero was on the lookout for guard dogs. He kept low, looking for spotlights and guard towers. He saw nothing. The house was 300 meters away behind a large row of 15-foot-high pines, and he could faintly hear the party in the distance.He stood up and straightened his tie. Without a sound, a giant white blob landed on his left shoulder. He immediately felt it and instinctively touched it with his right hand. It had a striking color scheme of white and black.A bird had pooped on Prospero, ruining his expertly tailored suit jacket. He looked up, expecting to see the perpetrator of this indignant act but was met with more bird poop, this time landing on his face, penetrating his eyes and completely disorienting him. It threw him off balance just enough for him to stumble on the loose rocks and pitch forward over the tiny wall at the apex of the cliff.He cracked his head on the rocky edge of the tidal pool and gently slid down into its deepest point. He would never be recovered.Before the nuclear warheads could be detonated, Zander Grossman was killed by Gisele Satine, a secret undercover agent of MI6.