On Halloween… (a Blog Bite!)

It’s been a long hiatus from blogging so I must make this post a good one! Well, nothing gets my pen moving better than Halloween.  I started writing my novel, Demon in My Head, on Halloween and 365 days later, I finished the first draft.  I try to make a point to begin writing something spooky on Halloween.  It gives me something to do as I’m waiting for Trick or Treat-ers and intermission breaks from a horror movie marathon.

Many people enjoy Thanksgiving.  Others enjoy Christmas.  At the Browning household, Halloween is the holiday that gets us excited.  My wife and I love watching our boys get dressed in their costumes and beg strangers for candy!  Wow, when I put it like that…

My absolute favorite part of the season is the scary movies.  This year, I am spending the 31 days trying to view 31 horror films.  On my Instagram page, I am posting small reviews of each film.  Right now, I’m working my way through Truth or Dare (a Blumhouse horror film that had such horrible reviews).  So far I am not very happy with the film, but I do love watching scary movies that I haven’t seen before (even if they are poorly executed).

The horror genre is such an important genre to me.  Sure, over 90% of them are horrible and messily done.  However, as a fan, I have grown to appreciate the style of film.  In much the same way that I have seen kids dressed up in different incarnations of Dracula, I am excited to see how the kids style themselves up to be the King of the Undead.

Halloween is a season for the kid to come out in all of us.  Even though I don’t dress up anymore (I know!  I know!  Adults call it “cosplay”), I relish the thought of adults recapturing their youth by dressing up, as well.  For me, writing the scary story is my way of letting that inner child (or demon) out to play.

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My First Year as a “Blogger”

If you are reading this, then you are probably a friend on my Facebook page, my author’s page, or a fan of my writing (are there any of those?).  Perhaps you just happened across this page because you are a WordPress blogger, as well. Either way, thank you for happening across this page (whatever the circumstances were).  I just got an alert that I have been writing on this blog for a year.  And after 365 days of this, I would like to answer a few questions that I probably could not answer when I began this.

Why Did I Do This?

I started blogging for a few reason.  One of them was to give me an excuse to write.  You see, I firmly believe that the only way to get good at writing is to write.  However, with kids, a heavy teaching load during two semesters, and well…life, I haven’t been able to write as much as I would like.  I’ve seen blog posts from writers that are short (about a paragraph or so), and I have seen posts that are long (about three pages of a Word document that has been double spaced).  My thought was “If I gave myself a platform where length didn’t really matter, but the outreach did, then I could do it”.  To this, I feel like my mission was accomplished.  After twelve months and fourteen posts, the average of a blog a month was a good goal.

I would say that this blog was a great exercise in getting me to write on the computer.  Usually, I hand write my writing then I transcribe the information onto computer.  The use of the blog has helped me to focus on generating output on the computer without pre-writing.

What the F$%k is a Blogger?

I don’t really like using the term “blogger”.  I would use the term “writer”.  The platform isn’t so much the important thing as much as it is a tool.  Some use paper and pen.  Others use the keyboard.  I am not getting paid anything for being a “blogger”.  I mean I don’t tell others that I am a pencil-er when I write fiction on a notepad using my favorite no. 2 pencil (yeah, I’m that old school).

After a year of this, I will most likely try to expand my blog.  Does this mean I will be more interactive?  Does this mean the blog will be more expansive?  I am not certain what it means.  However, I will most likely set more goals for myself.  Perhaps two posts a month, instead of one.

I would “say” that a blogger is one who is dedicated to his/her blog and the readers of that site.  Whatever that means for the blog or the writer.  In my case, it means being more accessible and providing more content, I suppose.  If this seems indefinite, then it is indicative of my relationship to “blogging”.  I am still new to this, but I am willing to learn.

How Have I Grown as a Writer by This Experience?

Whether it is noir fiction, horror fiction, or popular culture analysis I write on topics and themes that aren’t directly connected to me.  I think this gives me a certain amount of protection.  I am a very private person so to write about myself is very difficult.  to open you up to my family and my innermost thoughts is a scary thing for me.  I am inviting criticism to something deeper than just my crazy stories.  I am hoping this will allow me to be more daring as a writer.

I do hope to continue with this blog.  I really enjoy having a new topic each month to explore/play with and I enjoy the few readers who have responded back to let me know what they thought of the blog.  Social media has become an amazing tool for writers and readers to connect.  I have connected with so many of my favorite writers through Facebook and their respective blogs.

As for the future, I do not know where (if anywhere) my blog will take me.  However, I am quite excited for the future.  Thank you, dear readers!

Stress and the 40 Year Old

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Stock photo: But this is how I feel sometimes!

Just out of curiosity, I typed “stress” and “40 year old” into Google and my computer exploded.  Apparently, there is a strong correlation between being stressed and being middle aged.  Who knew???

On occasion, I take a personal inventory of my life and my attitude.  I have found out that I have been getting quite stressed in my middle ages.  Like many, I am prolific on social media and my peers are constantly posting about the stress that they are under as they begin their middle aged years.  Being parents, having a job that they are yoked under, what to binge-watch on Netflix to avoid “adulting” (yes, the word “adult” is an actual verb, now), and just their lack of satisfaction in regards to politics…the list of reasons we get stressed goes on and on.

Seeing all of this activity on my Facebook news feed has caused me to evaluate myself and how I deal with stress.  In my “Google search” (because I refuse to use “Google” as a verb), I have found that with many, stress leads to an unhealthy lifestyle.  Whether that means, overeating, being sedentary (gee, that Handmaid’s Tale series needs to be binge-watched for ten hours!), or even having a negative outlook on life that may lead to depression, insomnia, or even something worse, it is easy to see how my contemporaries are suffering from stress.

I have seen friends (even people I have went to high school and college with) post about their health problems.  Some have developed diabetes.  Others have cancer.  A few are blacking out.  And, sadly, a couple have passed away.  In no way am I a paragon of health.  I can stand to lose a couple of pounds, I suffer from depression and have had medication to manage it, I have binge-watched Altered Carbon (epic show, by the way), and I average five hours of sleep (in part due to do a three year old and an infant).  Yet, while many of my friends, coworkers, colleagues, and family members grow sick with stress, I still feel better than I did in my 20s.

Now, I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, nor will I suggest that I am without stress (any who know me personally knows that is not the case).  However, I would like to mention a few pointers about how to address/manage stress.

Meditation

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Stock Photo: Think mindful thoughts…

Yes, permit me to go all “new age” on you for a minute.  Along with the practice of martial arts, I also practice meditation.  As I mentioned above, sometimes I do take an internal inventory of myself.  I do sit on a cushion in half-lotus posture with my fingers knitted into a mudra position for roughly twenty minutes or so, but I don’t expect everyone to do this.  Meditation is more of the action of taking time off from reality for a moment.  Even the notion of sitting in a quiet room and just breathing is meditation.  Taking a minute or two to just “be” can be meditation enough for some.

I know people who knit or sew.  These people can do an activity and just turn their brains off.  This action can be meditation for some.  Whatever you like to do and are so good at that you can actually turn your brain off is meditation.

I practice Tai Chi, and when I feel so comfortable enough with a form that I can turn my brain off and move, effortlessly from one position to another, is a form of meditation that causes me to just “be in the moment”.  Even if it is for a couple minutes, you will find that with consistency, you will make a habit of doing your meditation (in whatever form that it may be in).  I know when I am done with my Tai Chi training, or meditation, I feel a lot better.  I may even forget why I was stressed in the first place.

Exercise

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Stock Photo: This is NOT me.  I’m cuter 😉

Many studies have shown that there is a correlation between exercise and stress management.  I do go to my martial arts studios and gyms three or four times a week.  However, I still try to make it to the gym, and exercise at home, a few times a week as well.  Now, sometimes I make it and sometimes I don’t.  I don’t have a regular schedule.

One thing I’ve noticed with a lot of people, the issue is accountability.  There needs to be something/someone to keep them focused on their fitness goals.  My wife and I got Fitbit watches for Christmas.  With my Fitbit, I have an electronic accountability to push me to get up off the couch.  It counts my steps, it assesses my sleeping habits, makes certain that I have a gauge of the amount of water that I drink.  It is even connected to an exercise app that gives me a workout routine (if I want it).  Sometimes, I need something to keep pushing me to stay moving.

Healthy Eating

I hesitate to use the term “dieting”, because every time I look up “diets” the hits I get new fad diets and some plan that a person should jump into in order to “lose weight and look great”.  However, when I discuss dieting and fitness with the experts, they tell me that dieting is a lifestyle change and not a fad.  Whenever I think about healthy eating, I think of what I normally consume and what I should be consuming.  I don’t think about what I can consume in a short amount of time to lose weight.  I am not suggesting that fads are irrelevant.  But I know that when I was eating better (healthier), consistently, I was managing stress a lot better.  Fatty foods are great comfort foods, but they can make our bodies more lethargic, and our mood will go south when we “crash”.  Along with that crash can come depression.  Just the other day, I had a day where I was feeling “blue”.  That coincided with the cookie binge I had the day before.  Now, I’m not suggesting that there is a correlation between the two, but I have decided to steer away from sweets for a little while.

I must confess that it is healthy eating that I struggle with the most.  I can train all week, and meditate every evening before bed, but the biggest issue I struggle with the most is eating right.  Sure, I confess to being an emotional eater.  When my wife and I were dating, we spent a lot of time in restaurants so we see eating as a social activity.  When we hang out with our friends, it is usually in a restaurant or eating at someone’s house.  If you are like me, eating is a social thing rather than simply for sustenance.   That habit isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can lead to bad choices (at least it did for me).  To help manage this (because I love eating and I love certain foods), I have an app on my phone that helps me to stay accountable for my eating.  Food trackers such as MyFitnessPal have been very helpful to keep me accountable for my eating habits.

As a person who is constantly working on improving himself mentally, emotionally, and physically I don’t count myself as a motivational speaker, a workout guru, or an expert in emotional intelligence.  As a guy still working his way through life, this has helped me get to where I am.  I am far from perfect (just as anyone who knows me), and I am not done in my journey, but I have come a long way from where I once was.  This has worked for me thus far.  What works for you?  Sound off in the comments below!

Carpe diem!

 

 

 

“An Ode to Bob”: A Love Letter to One Boy and His Stalwart Companion

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Photo Courtesy of WWMT (pictured: Mason and “Fake Bob” aka “Replacement Bob”

Until now, I’ve never known what it was like to be “trending” on Facebook.  Until Tuesday, January 16, 2018, I haven’t ever been interviewed by journalists with a camera in my home and a bright light shining in my face.

And it was all because of a little horse named “Bob” and the three year old who captured the hearts of over a thousand people on Facebook.

In my English classes, I have talked about the power of the word and (with the help of social media) my wife and I have seen that firsthand.

I am getting ahead of myself.  Let me take you back to early January…

My wife, sons (Mason and Miles), and I traveled to Grand Blanc, Michigan, to visit my mom in a hospital.  She had gotten ill and was admitted to the hospital for an ongoing illness.  She was there for awhile and it the new year had seen some hardships, so I wanted to be there for my mother.

As we disembarked from the van, Mason (3 years old) wanted to take his best friend, “Bob”, a well loved (in other words “worn” and “beaten”) toy horse into the hospital.  My wife, Jennifer, warned him that Bob was his responsibility.  He had to make certain that Bob was able to go in, see Grandma, and get out without getting lost.  Mason, ever the dutiful boy, nodded his head and gave a solemn oath of keeping tabs on Bob.

Needless to say, Bob was lost.

Somewhere between the parking lot and riding the elevator up to see his grandmother, Little Bob was nowhere to be seen.

We visited with my mother for about two hours so it was already dark by the time we were ready to go.  On the ride down the elevator, Jennifer asked me “Do you have Bob?”  Of course, I replied in the negative.  Both of us, looking crestfallen, asked the same question of Mason, to which we already knew the answer, but felt obligated to ask anyway.

When Mason replied in the way that no parent would like to hear, we panicked.  We scoured the parking lot, the entryway, and the fourth floor (the floor of my mom’s room).

Nothing.

Since we had our infant in the car seat and I was holding the heavy seat, Jennifer took responsibility for the loss and felt horrible.  I told her that it was Mason’s responsibility, as well, but that didn’t stop the mutual pain that we felt for losing the treasured horse.

A little background on Bob:

Bob was the first toy that Mason picked out for himself.  At a local Barnes and Noble, the family took a then year and a half Mason to the bookstore and told him he could pick out any toy he wanted.  His eyes immediately fell on a little tan and brown horse made out of fabric that felt like shag carpeting.

Those two were inseparable.  Bob was with Mason during bedtime.  Bob was with Mason during dinner time.  I won’t even go into the debacle that occurred during bath times.

Roughly a year later, on a girl’s trip that Jennifer took with her mother, Mason approached me and showed the toy horse to me.  He said, “This is Bob.”

“Bob?” I replied.

“Yeah.”  He smiled proudly, as if he just came up with that name before anyone else ever did.

That afternoon I informed Jennifer of the horse’s new name.

So, at three years of age, Bob was Mason’s best friend.

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Photo Courtesy of Circa News

As such, to look down from the fourth floor as my wife held our son while he looked at the floor in the entryway to the hospital was one of the worst moments of my life.  I continued to ask any person I saw: custodial crew members, doctors, nurses, security, and the volunteer staff that worked the front desk.

All to no avail.

Bob was gone and we had gone over every square inch of that hospital (or at least the two floors that we were on).

It was after ten pm and my wife, Mason, and I were tired.  Miles, trooper that he was, stayed in his car seat sleeping (oblivious to the entire ordeal).  We went to Culver’s a nearby burger joint, where Mason threw a fit of epic proportions, and after that, it was a two hour drive through a wintry mess back to the Grand Rapids area.

My wife, distraught by the event, typed a post on Facebook, and tagged every friend who lived in the mid-Michigan area.  This post was heart-wrenching and included pictures of Mason holding his best friend.  She told me she was doing it and even had me read through the post.  Little did we know that the post would be shared over a thousand times (well over 500 shares in two days).

Each day since, for roughly a week, someone would post (and re-post) our thread.  Concerns about Bob were growing.  Each day, Mason would ask about Bob and then stop himself.  “Oh, I forgot.  Bob is gone”.

Word was spreading, and with each passing day, Jennifer and I were cautiously optimistic.  We talked each day about how people were expressing their concerns about Mason and Bob.  Across the state of Michigan, we would receive invitations from people to send us a “replacement Bob”.  We were inundated with advice as to how to “stress” the toy to make it look like “real Bob.”  About a half a year ago, we bought a toy horse that was identical to Bob, when Mason lost him the first time.  We gave him the toy and Mason replied with a sneer.  “That’s not Bob.”

My amazing wife had told Mason several times that since we were at the hospital, Bob was able to find a sick child who may have needed him more than Mason did.  Mason took this story and held onto it.  So, when he remembers Bob is missing, he is quick to comfort himself that another child has his best friend.  And with that, Bob is not just a toy, but an ideal.

Nevertheless, the search continued.  The good people at the hospital were diligent about the search for Bob, but they could not find him.  The people at the Security station, the doctors, nurses, public relations department were very helpful and we got reports from people daily.

A television station in Kalamazoo, Michigan (WWMT) wanted to do a story on us.  At first, it started with an online article.  After that, it turned into an interview.  My wife and I are quite camera shy, but Mason inevitably blossomed.  He spoke from the heart and told of his hope for Bob’s return.  “I posted it on Facebook and texted it on the website.”  He spoke of his interest in working out and proceeded to do pushups, burpees, and hand stands while the camera captured everything.  The interview was aired in Flint, Saginaw, Bay City, Kalamazoo, Alpena, and several other places across the state.  Then, it was shown in San Antonio, Texas, Little Rock, Arkansas, and other places.  A generous person even sent Mason a toy zebra, which made all of our day.  This zebra sits where Bob used to sit, waiting for the lost horse to return.

Finally, on a cold Friday, I went to the front desk and was met by security.  They told me that the search was still going on.  Soon after my meeting with them, my wife got a call from a marketing representative for the hospital.  A good Samaritan found Bob and returned him to the front desk.  While the volunteer was on the phone taking a call, someone claimed Bob within seconds of being dropped off.  Jennifer and I were heartbroken.  We had to tell Mason.

Perhaps it was his age and the fact that kids bounce back very quickly.  Perhaps he has an indomitable spirit.  Perhaps he is a realist and knows (somehow) that he needs to move on.  Mason took the horrible news with good stride.  However, in the dead of night when he is struck by nightmares, he still calls out for Bob.

Once again, I am struck with just how amazing my son is.  Of course, as a father I am very biased by this, but many people were struck by Mason’s plight.  The outpouring of support that we have received via social media and email has been humbling (to say the least).  My wife and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has reached out to us, Genesys (and its staff) for their tireless efforts, and friends, family, and Mason’s “fans” out there who have been so gracious with their time to give us their love and sympathy.

And to Bob, if you are reading this, we know if you are gone, then you are helping to enrich the life of some other child in the same way that you did with Mason.

 

Memoirs of a Crazy Cat Guy

Like many kids, over the course of my childhood, I have had many pets: dogs, turtles, snakes, hamsters, and guinea pigs. However, one pet that I never had as a child was a cat. Of course, I had seen them, but I never really thought of having them for a pet. Most of my friends had dogs. A few had rabbits, but that was about it. I knew that cats could be pets. I knew that cats were probably the most common pets (after dogs). However, the notion of having one was quite foreign to me.

All of that changed when I met Little Penny.

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“Little” Penny was little in name only.

Little Penny was big in size and in heart. I met Penny well over ten years ago when I went to a friend’s (now wife) house and hung out watching the Tom Cruise movie Jerry Maguire (1996). Penny was stalking around the house while I sat on the couch. The minute he saw me, he jumped on the couch and plopped himself on my lap. He just sat there and rubbed his head across my arm. Of course, I had to pet him.

He sat there like that with me for over two hours.

Years later, the friend and I grew closer and we started dating. Only three or four years had passed and Penny and I picked up where we left off. After work, I would come home to find Penny waiting for me in his favorite spot (in the living room window). We would sit on the couch and watch horror movies late into the night. On many occasions, we would spend time sitting on the couch and reading, or watching a movie. He loved sitting near an open window and watching life float lazily by.

By the time he turned sixteen years old (which is quite ancient for cats), he was losing his sight and balance. He would lose control of his bladder and bowels, meow when he was scared because he wasn’t sure where he was, or just lay on the floor and shiver when he was sleeping. I wasn’t sure if it was due to fear, or convulsions, but after a few strokes of his fur and a kiss on the top of his head (he liked that) he would settle back down.

One autumn afternoon, I was bringing Little Penny into the house (he liked to sit on the front porch, I sat him on the floor and he tipped onto his side. I tried to pick him up and he let out a mournful cry. It wasn’t out of pain, but exhaustion. And that’s when I knew that Little Penny needed to be put to sleep.

A wave of guilt washed over me. He was like this for a few months and I saw no signs of pain so I wanted to keep him around purely for selfish reasons. I wasn’t thinking of his quality of life, but of my own. Penny made me happy and he was a great friend. He was always there to listen to me. He made a point to draw attention to himself when he could tell that I was sad.

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My buddy and I

It was time for me to think of my friend, for a change.

My wife, who knew Penny for a bit longer than I did, saw my sadness and waited for me to make the decision to put down our cat.

So, on a cool Saturday afternoon, we took Penny to the vet and I held his paw while the doctor injected him with a needle that immediately brought him to lay on his side and moments later, his heart stopped beating. And so did mine…for a moment.

Little Penny was the first cat that I absolutely adored, but he was not the last.

While my wife and I lived together in a condo, we adopted a cat whose family abandoned him. They were moving to a place that did not allow cats so they let him go.

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Foxy (aka Roy…because a male cat should have a male name)

Jennifer brought Foxy home because he “looked like Penny” so he would be a great fit. During the time, Penny was still with us and would be with us for another six or seven years. When Foxy came home, he would spend most of the time hiding away from us. We placed a bowl of water, dry food, and litter next to the television because he would hide behind the TV.

It took awhile, but Foxy came out of his shell and became one of the friendliest cats I have ever known (second only to Penny).

After my wife and I got married, we moved into a bigger home and the cats, obviously, came with us. When we got settled in, we decided to expand our family and have a child. Soon after Mason was born, a malnourished, orange cat started showing up on our doorstep and leaving “gifts” of dead mice at our front porch. The cat had some attitude, to be sure, but my wife saw fit to feed this little kitty.

Which is how we got our third cat, Lady Blur.

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Lady Blur in Repose

Blur hates being held, and absolutely detests being around more than one living creature at a time. We opened the door to feed Blur one day, and she just trotted right in and made herself at home.

That was three years ago.

Lady Blur enjoys dripping faucets, for bathing, and blueberry muffins. She will perch herself on the edge of a couch to watch horror movies with me.

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Blur and I watching The Romero Zombie Trilogy

There are days when she will scratch you if you even look at her sideways. Then there are days where you will constantly trip over her because she is rubbing herself across your legs. She can be very needy and high maintenance.

Less than a year after Little Penny passed away, Foxy went out for the night and never came home. She has been gone for roughly a week and a half (today is Thursday, November 16th, 2017). We have placed ads on Facebook, I have driven around the area and checked an animal hospital in the region. I still hold faith that Foxy will find her way home.

The very day we posted the ad on Facebook’s Lowell community page, we got a reply that he was beneath a local restaurant. I was so excited! Foxy had bunkered himself down beneath the building for warmth. It is getting cold and we were frantic about finding him before the temperature got too low. The next day, the workers of the restaurant caught him. I was beyond relieved.

I drove to the restaurant on a cool Saturday morning. The night before, I gave them my pet carrier so they could store Foxy in the building. I found the pet carrier in the doorway and looked in to find…

New cat.  Name pending...

Right now, we are calling this guy “Ezra”.  However, when he steals fries from me, I call him “Bandit” (which is to say…quite often).

That is NOT Foxy.

The little guy had a pathetic meow, was smaller (yet longer) than Foxy, and has a little black spot on his nose (unlike Foxy). He was so cold and frightened. Of course, after talking it through with my wife, I had to bring the little guy home with me.

This Saturday will be one full week since he has been with us. He seems to be adjusting well. He’s got a warm roof over his head, loves stealing french fries when no one is looking, and meows incessantly. He loves being scratched behind the ear and the back of his neck. Right now, we are calling him Ezra (when I’m mad at him for stealing my food, I call him “Bandit”).

I still hold out hope that Foxy will return to us. I miss him dearly. This post is my way of sharing the idea that with sadness can come hope. With grief can come joy. With sorrow and suffering can come happiness and enlightenment. Keep your pets close and warm. At times I wonder if having a cat is worth the heartache I get when they are no longer with me.

I look into Bandit’s eyes (he just stole one of Mason’s curly fries) and laugh. Yes. Yes, it is.

Prolific Writing: Confessions of a NaNoWriMo Drop Out

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A pic of Ernest Hemingway’s office in Key West, Florida (thank you Google Images)

The cursor continues to blink on the document.  It neither moves, nor relents.  I’ve gotten through about three cups of coffee and two cups of matcha, and…well…nothing.

Actually, that’s not true.  I wrote a sentence.  That took up some time.  Then, back to posting self-loathing comments on Facebook about how I wish I could write more prolifically.

I put the laptop aside and pick up a stack of papers that I need to grade for the following week.  As I comment on one for not having enough information on their paper, I feel like I’m about to be hit by the Hypocritical Train with enough force to knock the irony right out of me.

Writer’s Block is a bitch.

I knew it would happen.  It was only a matter of time.

By the end of summer, I started writing a project called The Soulless.  It’s a horror story about the lengths a father will go to in order to save his dying son.  I was able to write over 50 pages (roughly 15,000 words) in about a month.  With papers to grade, deadlines for articles, and two sons who are merciless about the time I spend with them, that is pretty good for me.

So, as November approached, I knew that it would be a no brainer for me to get involved with NaNoWriMo.  No, I didn’t just trail my fingers along the keyboard.  National Novel Writing Month (the month of November) is an event where participating writers undertake the challenge of writing a novel in a month.

For the past three years, I have tried (and failed) to undertake this task.  This year, I had a project that I was making nice headway with.  I had a story that I was quite excited about.  Plus, I had a strong idea as to how I was going to end it.  These are the perfect ingredients for writing a novel in a month, right?

Well, not so much.

The dreaded creature, that I call “Writer’s Block”, crept upon me and seized me by the throat.  As I told my students that semester (and every single semester since I started teaching), making writing a habit is the best way to stave off Writer’s Block.  It’s about time I started listening to myself.

Of all the posts that I have had to write on this blog, I feel that this is one of the most difficult due to the fact that if current and former students read this they would look at me as a complete hypocrite.   I am being completely honest with you, dear readers, in this revelation and am filled with shame.  Of course, I am only human and of course I am subject to the same thing I tell my students “life happens”.  Sometimes late work is submitted late.  Sometimes you can’t make it to class.  However, as the instructor, aren’t I supposed to be better than this?  Shouldn’t I be writing more because I am a teacher of English?

Apparently not.

It is primarily for this reason that I find November to be a depressing month for me.  As of yet, I am quite embarrassed to reveal just how many words I’ve managed to crank out.  I have come to the conclusion that any word that I crank out for November is a success.  I may not be where I want to be, but at least I have begun my journey.

So, at some point, I will finish The Soulless.  It is a project that is quite near and dear to me.  In college, I remember going to my favorite English teacher with the quandary, “I don’t know how to start writing my paper.”  He said to me, “Just start writing.”  Of course, at the time, I was frustrated and had no idea what he meant by it.  However, as an adult, I have come to realize that to get the pen moving (or fingers flashing across the keyboard) is the most important step to writing.  I shouldn’t care if the words are great or horrible.  I just need to write.

This is something that we can apply to life, as well.

Happy November, all!

 

On Found Footage Horror (or What Idiot Decided to Give Him a Camera?)

the-blair-witch-project-w091611-640x420.jpeg

Image captured from Yahoo!  Infamous scene from The Blair Witch Project.

Some people like Christmas.  Others like Thanksgiving.  However, in the Browning Household, our big celebration that we enjoy is Halloween.  My son loves dressing up in his favorite costume (this year, it’s a dinosaur) and stealing candy (that his parents eat for him).  Jennifer loves watching Mason get the candy that his parents will inevitably eat.  Me?   I love watching horror films.

My dad started me off on the Universal Horror Classics.  When I was very little, I would delight at the horror of Dracula, The Mummy, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Wolf Man, and others.  They didn’t really scare me, but I was so fascinated with the strange costumes, the way they stalked their prey, and the cheesy lines they used.

As I grew older, my tastes grew more (ahem) “complex.”

I admit that the genre that I hold dear to my heart is one that is of “an acquired taste.”  Most people will not understand why I enjoy the genre so much.  Even those who love the genre will not understand why I have such a joy for the sub-genre of “found footage” horror.

In my experience, many horror fanatics detest the found footage sub-genre.  They consider films like Paranormal Activity (2007) (and its sequels),  The Blair Witch Project (1999) (the movie that arguably started this resurgence of the genre), and the direct to video anthology series V/H/S exploitative and with little artistic merit (to be fair, V/H/S has gotten a lot of positive reviews from gore hounds).  If any person can grab a cell phone and run through the woods screaming, what kind of talent is that?

I appreciate the art and artistry behind the horror film.  I can appreciate the artistry of such masters as Dario Argento, whose giallo horror really looks like a two hour art exhibit.  The raw, grindhouse sensibilities of directors such as Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven (early works), Lucio Fulci, George A. Romero, etc. is what keeps me coming back to such classics as The Last House on the Left (1972), Night of the Living Dead (1968) (one of my all time favorites), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Zombie (1979).  I own them all on dvd and during the month of October, no one in my family wants me to pick out a movie to watch because it will inevitably involve someone getting eaten alive, chainsawed (yes, I used “chainsaw” as a verb), or stalked until they decide to “turn the tables” on their attacker (as “final girls” tend to do).  And, yes, I was a Walking Dead fanatic (until roughly season four or so when the storyline just got weaker and weaker until the show became “The Whining Living…oh, Yeah, and Zombies”).  So to you diehard fans of the genre, I am with you.

Yet…

I hold a special place in my heart for found footage (FF) horror.  There is a craft and art to creating a good FF piece.  If done well, the “slow burn” that we see in the first Paranormal Activity film can make a good FF horror piece…great.

What makes a found footage film great? 

In 1980, Ruggerio Deodato made one of the best (if not THE best) found footage horror film.  Cannibal Holocaust (1980), was a film that caused the director to be jailed and the film to be banned in many countries.  Filmed like a documentary, a group of filmmakers journey into South American rain forests to get the first known footage of a small group of natives who have lived away from modern civilization.  This group insults, rapes, and attacks the natives, who respond with even more brutality, which results in the filmmakers’ demise.  A historian finds the footage shot by the Americans and makes a documentary about the incident.  So, the film has a similar story line that we may see in more modern fare such as Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno (2013) and the direct to video Welcome to the Jungle (2007).  However, what makes the Cannibal Holocaust such an amazing departure is not just the realism that we see, but also the care in the crafting of the characters.  The three Americans are portrayed as flawed humans who are more interested in fame and notoriety that they will do whatever they can to make the film profitable to them.  These are characters who are bad people and we see the indigenous natives painted in an equally flawed (one scene depicts the brutal execution of a woman for being promiscuous).  This film uses the same tropes that we see in all horror films, but the interesting thing about this is the simple fact that everyone is flawed and has the potential of being morally bankrupt.

For me, one of the most important parts of the FF genre is its ability to allow you (the viewer) to become part of the story.  The hyper-reality concept of the film is to keep you following the story and make the whole story seem as if it is authentic.  A good FF film is one that makes the notion of “looking away” seem like a mortal sin.  For example, in The Blair Witch Project, as the doomed filmmakers realize that they are lost (and their sanity is slipping away), there is a seductive quality about keeping the camera rolling.  Take this scene from The Blair Witch Project:

Josh: I see why you like this video camera so much.

Heather: You do?

Josh: It’s not quite reality.  It’s like a totally filtered reality.  It’s like you can pretend everything’s not quite the way it is.

And just like that, we understand the power behind the camera as a character.  We are seeing “reality” in a safer environment than the actors, yet we still are supposed to see the story as reality.  This is the beauty behind the FF or “Reality Horror Film.”  I really enjoy the lengths a FF can go to keep us riveted to the story (especially on such a micro-budget).    This genre is a stripped down, bare bones (no pun intended) horror that is quite different from what we can see in a high budgeted, major concept horror film.

Below, please find a list of some of the most memorable and powerful Found Footage (or Reality Horror) films:

Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – You’ve GOT to see this.  It’s FF and it’s like a documentary.  It seems so real!

Rec (2007) – The beginning of the Spanish language horror film that is both zombie movie and FF film.  It is an intense ride!

Rec 2 (2009) – There are four of these movies, but the first two are the best.  The twist to what creates the zombies is a must see!

Paranormal Activity (2007) – I’m not saying that this is a good franchise, but the first one is the best.  It really does the “slow burn” horror quite well.

Grave Encounters (2011) – Not the best acting in the world, but I really do like how the slow burn effect is punctuated by the main characters losing grip on their sanity.

American Horror Story: Roanoke (2016) – Yes, it’s a television show, but the premise was amazing!

There are many, many others I could recommend, but these are some that I enjoyed.

 

 

A Grammar Nazi’s Manifesto

[Warning: The content may include triggers for people sensitive to bad writing, horrible grammar, and/or clunky storytelling.  This may be especially sensitive to those who know what a Oxford Comma is.]

Every semester it happens.  Without fail, when I give back my first stack of papers that I have graded, I get the same reaction.

The gasps are quick.  The mood in the air is filled with tension.  Some chuckle nervously, an involuntary reaction when they see their papers filled with comments and ink from my pen.  Most will bypass the comments, go directly to the grade, then return to the work that I wrote on their papers.

More gasps.

“Well, I thought I was a good writer.”

“Are you serious?”

“I got all A’s in high school.  I loved English.”

This happens so much that I have come to give “talk down” conversations before I return the papers.

This sobers a lot of students up to the realities of writing.  In most cases, this pushes them to work harder and look at their writing with a more critical eye.

Many students are shocked with the feedback and are perfectly fine with the grade.  I feel like I am an easy grader, but the eye that I use to give feedback on the work is quite critical.

What really interests me is when the students who do creative writing come up to me after class and want to discuss their writing.  Many will debate the notion of their voice and tone.  This is where we have talk about the difference between creative writing and essay writing.  I ask them to defend a few sentences and why they were written in the ways that they were.  I mostly give them more succinct sentences that do not change the meaning, but are clearer, and ask them to point out to me what is expressed in their sentences that my sentences do not.  In each case, I am met by silence.  In the sentences that I read of theirs, I point out the ambiguity and awkward prose and how it can be difficult to understand.

“You don’t have to use my sentences.  These are MINE.  How would YOU rewrite the sentence?  What would you do to retain the voice that you are creating?”

After copious time in office hours, and reworking their own prose, the writer ultimately creates something that is more satisfactory to me as well as himself (or herself).

I don’t want a student to try to write to please me.  However, I want them to learn how to write to please ANY audience that they choose.

I have noticed that many student writers write with ambiguity and extremely wordy prose.  To that I write…

[It is at THIS point that I believe my rant is turning into something that you would expect from a writer such as myself and a blog such as this.  However, that is not what this post is about.  I want to throw caution to the wind and switch gears a bit.  I will be writing, not as an instructor of English, but as a reader and fan.  Also, as a writer who loves writing!]

Thank you for indulging me on my pseudo-rant there.  It got a bit stuffy so let me change gears for a minute.  I’m sure I will get back to that rant, but I want to spend some time discussing fiction reading.  I’m sure a lot of you are readers!  Actually, I’m counting on it!

As you may know from reading my previous posts, I became a dad for the second time this summer.  Miles Vernon Browning is such a joy to be around.  Because of that, I spend a lot of time holding him early in the morning and rocking him to sleep.  The problem with that is he’s quite demanding.  He doesn’t want me to get up for ANY reason.  So I am trapped in the chair…for hours!  I love it, but it can be rather tedious.  Recently, I downloaded a Kindle app onto my smart phone and have been purchasing books from Amazon.

I love discovering new authors and many of the new authors I read have been names I have received from Facebook.  I am friends with many new authors who self-publish through resources such as CreateSpace.  This is quite an exciting venture for me seeing as I have never used a resource like that.  I have never self-published, but with many writers going this way to keep creative control of their work, it has me slightly intrigued.  In the interest of promoting independent authors and new writers,  finding something new and exciting, and giving myself an activity when I am holding my sleeping son, I’ve been purchasing cheap books on Amazon by lesser known writers.

Much to my chagrin, many of these books are of low writing quality.  The plots are derivative and predictable.  The sentence quality is repetitious and weak.  Also, the writing is littered with grammatical errors and typos.  This entire summer was spent with new writers (many of these authors are self-publishing) and ALL of them (this is no exaggeration) have had typos that have pulled me away from the story.

Recently, I was added to a critique/workshop Facebook page for new writers and, upon research, have found that a majority of them use publishers that anyone can use.  I placed a note on the Wall and noticed that there is an editor option on the publisher but writers either don’t use it very often because it is unreliable, or they use their own editors and not bother with the editor on those publishers at all.

Which brings me back to the first part of this piece: the instructor scenario.  Notice what I have done here: rather than create one long article, I have broken up this piece into two sections, haphazardly bouncing from one section to the next in a horrible exposition that is supposed to link the two.  Did you realize how irritating this was?   This wasn’t accidental (please believe me!).  This is how I felt when I read much of the texts that I read this summer.

After conversing with a few writers (whose work I trust and admire) on Facebook I have noticed that there are those who are interested in writing because they are interested in the craft.  These conscientious scribes are wordsmiths who actually care about the trade.  However, there are those who may pander to a particular audience and are interested in the “fame” of being a writer.  These may be the ones who I see their work coming out time and again and jumping into the next book right as the first book has barely finished loading!  Now, I am not one who will point fingers so if you’re interested in a list from me of who the most odious of offenders are, you will be waiting for a long time.  I don’t even pretend that I am above these writers and my work is better than theirs.  As a great writer and good friend of mine wrote: “People want to read crap.”  So to say that I am disheartened by what I have read lately is an understatement.

People will read what they want and enjoy what they want.  I write to a demographic and so does every other writer.  However, there are some rules that everyone who writes must abide by.  We try to adhere to these rules because it allows others to understand one’s ideas.  Yet, there are those who choose to publish their work for a wide variety of audiences to consume.  These select few much attempt to adhere to most (all would be too much to assume) of these rules.  Otherwise, how can the readers comprehend what an author is trying to convey.  Plus, it just makes for sloppiness in something that authors are supposed to hold sacred.

Please, dear reader, take this with the love, and respect that is intended.  I am an avid reader.  To paraphrase a great writer: all great writers are good readers.  However, all good readers are definitely not great writers.  I have read a ton of work (students and other writers) who are avid readers.  They may enjoy the works of the masters.  However, this does not make them brilliant writers.  I do not profess to be a great writer (or even a good one, for that matter).  But I do know that when I write, I try my best to adhere to grammatical rules.  Much like the writers I am ranting against, I do have typos.  I am only human.  However, I am a wordsmith who looks at the sentence structure that I am creating.  That is important, too.

 

Miles and Miles to Go… (A Letter to My Second Son)

This is a picture of Miles.  He is wearing my favorite onesie.  You will always be my “Snugglesaurus.”

Dear Miles,

Ten days before I turned forty years old, you were ushered into this world. Much like my letter to Mason, I want to write a few words to you:

Mason’s personality burst forth nearly the first day we saw him. Yours, however, took a bit of time before it emerged. However, after two months of being on this planet, your personality shone through…

And you are EXACTLY like me.

You seem to be a reserved guy who likes his quiet time, loves cuddles (as most babies do), and is a very strong little guy (you were poked in the heel on your first day and didn’t cry). Yesterday, you received two shots at the doctor’s office and hardly cried.

It was only recently that you started warming up to me. To say that you’re a “momma’s boy” was putting it mildly. On multiple occasions, I saw the look of awe and adoration that you gave your mom, and it filled my heart with joy. However, it wasn’t until the last few weeks that you started smiling at me. It warms my heart to know that I can make you grin and you show the first signs of what I can only assume is laughter.

Much like me, you take your time opening up to other people. Much like me, you are quiet and reserved. Your “normal” look is a deep, almost contemplative grimace (not unlike your father).

In short, I may be writing this post for you as a reflective post to myself.

The beauty of being your father is that I may be totally wrong and you may turn out with a different attitude and personality. I know you will surprise me no matter what your personality will evolve into.

If you are like me, you will most likely grow into an introvert.  Here are a few things I want you to know about being an introvert (in case you become one):

  1. There is nothing wrong with being an introvert.  Your father was held back from Kindergarten because he was an introvert.  I was called “delayed” because I would rather play alone or stick my nose in a picture book instead of doing “playtime.”  There isn’t anything wrong with me (at least because of my introversion).  I was able to skip a grade and graduate when I was supposed to.  That was because I had a mom who fought for me.  I will do the same for you.
  2. Being an “introvert” is not the same thing as being “anti-social.”  I am not AGAINST socializing.  In fact, I have good friends with whom I enjoy socializing.  There are just times where I prefer the company of others and times where I don’t.  Anti-social seems like a negative term (please see point 1).
  3. Enjoy the quiet and don’t feel guilty about it.  I love my quiet time.  I use it for meditation, writing, reading, exercising, or just holding you.  I like being able to feel comfortable expanding within my own mind.  I use my quiet time wisely.  Make sure to do that.
  4. Each day, take some time for yourself.  No matter what you do or how busy your day is, make certain to allot yourself time to just BE.  I know that the days where I am so busy that I cannot do this are the same days I am at my grouchiest.  Sometimes I try to get up a little earlier so I can have some ME time.  Because your mom and big brother are late sleepers, early in the morning may be a good time to do this.

In writing this, I am sure that I have revealed a few sensibilities of my own.  This is a blog post that is meant for anyone; however, if you turn out the way that you seem to be as an infant (a HUGE “if”), then you would do well to remember this.  Even if you do not reflect me in attitude or action, this list may be beneficial to good mental health.

I wish for you to surpass me in all that you are.

I love you.

 

Your dad (and biggest fan),

Gerald Browning

PS: No, you can’t borrow the car (Point 5: Have a sense of humor).

My Real American Horror Story…Kind of

One of my closest passions has been the genre of horror.  My film collection is filled with lots of horror movies.  I am currently writing a chapter for American Horror Story and Philosophy.  Two of my current fiction stories are horror tales.  I can quote from many classic horror films.  Hell, I’ve even been an extra in a zombie film (one of my proudest moments was chewing on raw meat and grossing out the camera crew).

So it stands to reason that at some point, I would write about my interest in horror on this site.

One question that many horror nerds would ask themselves (and others) would be how long they would survive in a horror film scenario.

Unlike many nerds out there, I can actually say that I know the answer to that: not very long.

This isn’t just because of my skin tone (because we all know that minorities, especially African Americans, do not live very long in this genre).  I can say that I have been in a situation very similar to a horror film.  The choices I made during that day were not smart.  Not by a long shot.

Here goes my tale of horror…

Any good tale of horror begins with an innocuous happenstance that could occur to anyone.  Something that isolates the victims from their world/reality.  In my case (as is the case with many horror stories), it was a tire blowout.

Bam!

Of course, I was traveling down a long stretch of highway and the only exit ramp let to a desolated stretch of land that promised a gas station and a garage.  With this plot point becoming a reality, I made a pretty obvious joke.  “This is how every single horror movie begins!”

My car was able to hobble to a gas station/garage and I asked if there was a way I could get a tire. The mechanic, a sleepy eyed gentleman who smelled of Axe body spray coupled with 10-W30 (sorry, ladies, the wedding ring on his finger was the only thing not covered in grease, oil, and sweat).  He directed me farther “down the road” where a tire business would help me out.  Unfortunately, he told me to hurry up because it would be closing in five minutes.

Of course, “down the road” meant seven miles away, which meant I would be driving on a flat tire for THAT long and it also meant getting farther and farther away from civilization.  “Wow,” I thought, “No one would ever find my body here!”

Eventually, I came across an old building surrounded by a tall fence topped with barbed wire.  The front gate was opened and tires were strewn about the land the garage sat on.  Dirt and gravel littered the ground and as I drove to the garage, I saw only two cars in sight.  Checking my clock with the hours of operation posted on the door, I noticed that I had five minutes left before the business closed.

I rushed into the garage and noticed that the entire room was dark…except for a small area in the back of the store.  Now, let’s count, shall we?  Exactly how many stupid mistakes have I made that would have gotten me killed in a horror movie?  The short answer: all of them!

Why change the game now?

I continued to walk towards the back of the garage/store.  I saw three men huddled around a table, shooting the breeze and probably plotting their next murder.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” (I swear to God this is how it went).  “Could I get some help with my car.  I need a replacement…my tire went out.”

The three men looked up from a card game with a collective look that resembled Leatherface’s before he placed that girl on the meathook (if you don’t know the reference then rent the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre…it’s a classic).  After subtly checking how many exits were in the room, one of the men stood up and placed a welcoming smile upon his face.  He extended his hand and said “I have a garage at my house.  It is just around the corner. If you buy the supplies, I’d be happy to change it for you.”

“Great!  Thanks!”  I smiled as I mentally wrote my will.

The gentlemen at the garage sold me a tire and after hefting it into my trunk, I followed the driver, who happened to have a huge black truck with tinted windows as he drove deeper into the wooded area.

On the way to my savior’s house, I saw something moving in the back window of the truck.  With the tinted windows, I could make out two lumps of…something moving wildly in the back.  After a few minutes in our “just around the corner” trek, I had a feeling I knew what it was: vicious, man-eating dogs.

When we arrived at his home (with garage mere feet from the two storied building, I stopped my car and stayed inside until the man reached the back of the truck.  He opened it and lo and behold…two, huge black dogs bounded from the truck.  The barking was the sound of hounds from the deepest pits of Hell.  They growled and loped around the house.

“It’s okay,” my benefactor said.  “They won’t hurt you.”

Slowly, I opened the car door and saw the dogs off in the distance.  Once they saw me close the door (or at least smelled the fear I was obviously reeking of) they sprinted off towards me.  Knowing I couldn’t make the distance to the car, I took a deep breath and wondered if they would go after my throat, stomach, or just work their way up from the knees, I closed my eyes.

Both dogs nuzzled my hand, demanding me to pet them.

I opened my eyes and both creatures sat before me with tongues wagging.  And, OF COURSE, I gave into the frenzy of the beautiful creatures (of the night) and hugged them as they licked my hands and face.

The front door to the house opened and a woman (who later revealed to me that she was his fiancee) gave me a warm greeting.  She led me on a tour of their back yard while my benefactor tended to my car.

Long story short: my car was fixed, I paid them nothing (they wouldn’t accept a check or money), and for a few years, I sent an extra Christmas card in the mail and received a great letter from them every New Year’s.

So, I now realize that I would never survive a horror film, but I made good friends in the process.  If you are open to it, you can make friends in the strangest of situation.