There and back again

Illustrated by Eric Fraser

When I was a child, I would sit next to my brother while my mom read "The Hobbit" aloud. I was not aware of it at the onset of Bilbo's journey, but I, perhaps too young to explore the dark depths of humanity--expressed through Tolkien's fantasy world--found the retrospectively-quaint story to be absolutely terrifying, to the point of asking, no, begging my poor mother to stop reading at various intervals. I needed some time to catch my breath, to rethink my life decisions.

Inevitably, I reached a point of no return, and would not allow her to finish the story. Yes, "The Hobbit" was too scary for me.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here ...

I mean, what the fuck is a boy supposed to do with a dragon? Sure, in some books, the boy somehow befriends one, but ... come on, everyone knows that's bullshit. I had cats, you know?

There was nothing left to do but run. And so we turned our attention toward friendlier tales, like the Bible, where nightmares are truly farmed.

I tell this story not to lap up your precious pity, but to transition ever-so-awkwardly into "The Exorcist." I--like most children, I assume--was pretty much afraid of everything growing up. It's possible a forced-religious upbringing, of which I was vehemently opposed to, contributed to this constant state of unease and distrust. I remember running full-sprint out of my childhood home, headed for the neighbor's house across the cul de sac, because I discovered upon entering the house that the front door was unlocked. Scary, I know.

But something happened when I was around 13 years old (well, a lot of things happened ...); the terrors of the world became distant, like a stone dropped into a deep well, and I found myself creeping back toward the very things that had once rendered me mute and incontinent. I wanted to be scared. I watched horror films with pure delight, waiting to feel the customary tingle as a Krueger or Myers came into frame.

An entire world of horror opened up before me, in every legal and non-binding form, and yet, despite my love of the genre, I was unable to scratch the itch--outside of fearing there was an actual ghost in my bedroom, banging on the walls while I tried to sleep.

A few weeks ago, I finished reading William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist." After the first few chapters, I was skeptical that this book would live up to its lofty expectations. The film is one of the few I find genuinely frightening, and the novel has an almost-legendary aura.

Early on in the novel, the '70s dialogue of Chris, the mother of the soon-to-be-possessed Regan, was a bit outdated and distracting. I was worried that it would carry through the entire book, and ruin the suspense of the characters' deconstruction.

Thankfully, those worries were unfounded. Chris' dialogue smoothed out, and the focus of the novel transitioned away from the darling actress to Father Karras and his battle with the Devil. Which is a bit like starting a movie with Hermione Granger and finishing with Ellen Ripley. It is not a scary book, in King-ian terms; there are no squirming hedges or vindictive cell phones. But over the years, I've learned that true horror isn't about things, or people, or even the strange expressions of the horror they're meant to convey (clowns, anyone?), but of how the story makes you think, of what it slips into your drink when you're not paying attention.

True horror is not someone throwing a ball at your face (don't tell that to my wife), but in the introspection that comes with watching someone else throw a ball at someone's face. Could that be me one day? Or worse, could I be the victim of a malevolent ball-thrower?

That's what makes Blatty's "The Exorcist" so great. The book lacks some of the shock and awe of the movie, in the sense that you're not watching a snuff film, instead merely imagining one (which I would argue is worse), but the written conversations between Father Karras and Regan are haunting--perfect dialogue with perfect pacing--and far exceed the visual thrills of the film. Those conversations stick with you long after the pages have been turned. I know I'll revisit them again, whether I want to or not.

I still look back on my "Hobbit" days (in both fear and general body-size) with fondness. I'm not ashamed to have been moved by effective storytelling. I'm not ashamed to have wilted under Tolkien's mighty pen! If anything, it was a signal to me that the written word has power, and that when wielded properly, you can terrify small children. And, really, isn't that what writing is really all about?

Brain Dead

Vincent Van Gogh

Work has broken my brain. The pathways have been fundamentally changed. Knocked off course.

I am a writer, and I need to find a groove to write, that cozy pocket where everything becomes hazy and the words flow from my fingertips. I've always been able to quickly make my way into the pocket, but lately, working in a super-fast, everything-is-urgent corporate environment, the pocket has been torn away.

I can't put headphones on and even attempt to focus, because I have to take them off every 60-seconds to go to a meeting. Answer the phone. Drive to another meeting. And another meeting. Answer questions. Team huddle. Training. Time for your next meeting, Erik.

It's incessant.

As a result, my brain has been changing, and not in a good way. I'm able to multi-task better than ever, bouncing between blips like Tom Cruise in "Minority Report." I snap between tabs, reading snippets of 15 articles all at once, reading a few pages of a book and then snapping back to another shiny new task. But writing? Sitting down for 5, 6, 8 hours in a row? Good fucking luck.

I can hardly sit still these days. I'm anxious all the time. Give me more data, give me more noise, fill my brain with traffic. Refresh, refresh, refresh. I'm utterly insatiable. Coming from an environment where every response is urgent, everything has to be resolved ASAP, you start to expect it from your personal life, too. That's been every day of my work-life for the past two months, why wouldn't it be the same at home?

A series of fire drills chained together into one long, incessant drone.

It's time for a change. Time to distance myself from the work-self and embrace the shunned writer-self. It means writing bullshit posts like this one--brain dumps--just to get the ROAD CLOSED signs taken down and the story-laden pathways reopened. It means whining and complaining and stomping my feet because I refuse to accept a task-based life.

One manuscript in the can and another first draft 90% complete.

A Crow Of My Own

I spend an inordinate and embarrassing amount of time trying to get crows to love me.

It began simply enough. A trip to a local wild bird store, where an old Hispanic woman sweet-talked me into buying $200 worth of bird-enticing machinery for my yard. The task was simple enough: Teach me, sweet old Hispanic lady, how to attract crows (non-sexually). She said the crows would be there. She told me they would come to think of my home as their own.

I left out the first batch of peanuts in my yard with the excitement of a kid leaving cookies for Santa, convinced that I had all the ingredients to tame the local crows. Flythrough feeder. Metal pole thingy. Unshelled, natural peanuts. These were going to be some fucking healthy crows, all right? I am a benevolent lord, and I feed my children well.

I've always had a good relationship with crows, saying hello to them as I pass by, "accidentally" dropping chips while I try to feed myself. How clumsy of me. On more than one occasion, I've put my own life in jeopardy swerving my car to avoid a crow who just couldn't bear to be apart from its roadkill.

How hard could it be to get a few crows to eat free peanuts?

You guys. It is so fucking hard to get crows to eat free peanuts.

Occasionally, when the psychotic stellar jays are away, there are moments of blissful silence, broken suddenly by the faint caw of migrating crows. I spring from the couch and dash to the back yard, anxious, as always, to see if any crows are headed my way.

Once, four of them perched atop the roof, staring down at the bird feeder like aliens observing a foreign planet. When I ever-so-delicately opened the sliding back door, shaking a handful of peanuts as I approached, they did not budge. "Success!" I thought, prematurely.

The moment I put the peanuts in the feeder, the crows flew away.

Why? Why would you do such a thing?

Just yesterday, a single crow, who I call Lone Wolf, left the pack and sat in a tree in my back yard, watching me as I filled the bird feeders once more. I cooed to Lone Wolf, shaking the peanuts in my hand. "Come on, crow," I pleaded. "Have some fucking peanuts."

Placing the peanuts in the feeder, I went back inside, hiding behind the screen door with all the tact of a TV cop. Lone Wolf stared at the feeder, and I can say that because I was watching his eyes, okay? His black, heartless eyes.

Minutes passed, maybe hours, and then suddenly, Lone Wolf flew away, leaving the peanuts untouched.

Coming up next on "20/20"

Elyse, better known as my significant other, my fiance, my ladyfriend, my non-platonic Leia Organa (I'm Han Solo in this fantasy, obviously), and I have been obsessively watching "20/20" for the past week. I don't know how it started, but it doesn't appear to be stopping, much like a snowball rolling down a hill of shit gathers more shit.

It is a baffling television show, full of the twistiest-blend of melodrama and laugh-out-loud reenactments ever assembled on network television, but it's been on the air for 37 seasons, so there's clearly something to the formula. What that something is, I've yet to discover, but I'm pretty sure it has something to do with the state of Florida.

Two hosts, a man I call Haircut and a lady whose last name is either Vargas or Fargas--I do not know her first name--present each episode with the requisite "we know something you don't know" of bridge trolls. It's pandering, but dammit, I do want to know what they know, and they know it!

The problem, at least in our household, is that I have very unique (I'm told that means 'difficult') standards for which episodes I will watch. Elyse is more than comfortable diving into any episode, happy to uncover the jewels buried within. I, however, will only watch --for reasons unknown, even to myself-- episodes involving intricate criminal puzzles that the police have to piece together. If it's not a reverse "Oceans Eleven," you can count me out.

As you can imagine, this has caused some consternation between myself and the future Mrs. Solo, as the number of episodes that fall into my acceptable category are quite limited, and browsing for them through Hulu's remarkable UI is about as enjoyable as bathing in a tub of rusted thumbtacks. For other reasons unknown, I do not like to hold the remote (too phallic?), which means Elyse has to navigate through Hulu. Poor thing.  Can she view the title of an episode? Sometimes. How about a brief description of the episode without having to click on each episode individually? You wish! What if she does click on an episode and doesn't like the description, does it take her back to the last location she visited? No. How about you start over, asshole.

How far this obsession goes seems directly correlated to our waning patience with Hulu's interface, as well as that secret sauce formula that simultaneously hooks and repels us. Eventually, there will come a day when we pitch "20/20" aside, like the rough-looking prom date she is, and return to our steady diet of animated shows. We're already growing tired of Haircut and V/Fargas' nagging pre-commercial-break teasers, tired of the redundancy of "criminal tries something dumb/ dumb cops can't figure out how criminal did dumb thing and got away with it/ dumb criminal tired of dumb cops inability to solve the case/ dumb criminal lives up to name and tries to get credit for crime/ dumb cops still can't believe dumb criminal did it, eventually arrest dumb criminal anyway/ cut to Haircut for summary," but for another few days at least, we are still entertained.

Isn't that what television is all about?

15 Minutes

I've been a bad boy, and not in the whip and leather chaps kind of way. I've neglected my responsibilities as a writer, which is, of course, to write. Every fucking day, regardless of how I'm feeling. Oh sure, I've been steadily working on my manuscript, and by the end of next week, I should have the first draft finished (followed by a year of editing ... hooray?), but there's a rhythm to writing that can't be overlooked. It should be a daily practice, not a casual hookup. Writing should be tantric.

And so, today I embark on the first steps of a journey, much like Frodo set out into the wheat fields beyond the Shire, backpack cinched tight and metal pot clattering against his hips, as Samwise longingly chased after. I, too, am headed for the unknown, but my journey is one of letters, not fiery mountains and fish-eating monkey-men (one can hope).

When I was in college, I had a screenwriting professor named Sandeep who forced us to write 15 minutes at the start of every class. No talking, no pauses. Just sit down, shut up, and write. It was laborious at first, my notebooks filling with semi-egotistical drivel extracted from my body like an enema, but eventually, it became fluid (also like an enema), transforming the writing process into something enjoyable.

So there you go, that's my 15 minutes for the morning.