Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Question of Identity

If you're interested in the backstory of this post, I will direct you to a couple of posts I wrote which relate to this topic. You can read the history of my search for a career, and with it, my identity here and here.

Something you should know going in to this post. I'm one of those people who believes everything happens for a reason. I also believe in God. That's wavered over the years, but never really changed. Even in my moments of deepest doubt, the closest I've ever come to walking away from my belief in God was the day I thought to myself, "Maybe God's trying to tell me he doesn't exist." So, yeah...my faith's not going anywhere any time soon. And considering that I'm now thirty-eight years old, it's probably a safe bet that it's not going anywhere ever.

If Everything Happens For a Reason

When you believe everything happens for a reason, you spend your life in constant search of your "purpose." If you're a Christian, you might read The Purpose Driven Life. I certainly did, though my commentary on the pros and cons of that book are beyond the scope of this blog post. And if you have any religious beliefs at all, even if you're what they call "spiritual, but not religious", you probably spend a lot of time wondering how you can use your calling to serve God.

Well, that's me. Like I said, those beliefs have wavered from time to time, but never gone away completely. And now that I'm near the middle point of my life, I think I can safely conclude that I'll always feel this way. And what do I feel? I feel that God made me the way I am and he gave me certain interests and talents and abilities and he wants me to use those talents out in the world. No, I don't think I'm some kind of "chosen one". I think God feels this way about everyone, myself included.

When God Doesn't Make Sense

When we providential types encounter hardships, it wounds us deeply because we wonder how God could allow this to happen. And sometimes we can't even fathom why God would allow these things to happen. Here's my story.

If you read the posts I linked to above, you know I used to direct a church choir. And after what I've just told you, you've probably figured out that I viewed that choir as my purpose. My calling. Here's a little more of the backstory.

I was thirteen when I decided to study music in college. At the time, my career goal was to direct a high school band. Well, I went on to grow and change and my goals changed with me. I set my sights on church choir for a number of reasons, but there's one that's pertinent to this topic. I wanted to direct church choir because I believed God had given me a love of music and wanted me to take that talent and give it back to him. So I did. I took my musical knowledge and I used it in church. Then I lost that job.

Afterward, my life spiraled out of control. I had lost my purpose. Worse. I'd been rejected by God himself. I had no idea where to go after that, so I kind of bumbled around and tried different things, all the while looking for that "calling". The one I thought I'd found when I took the church job. Well, I had obviously been mistaken about that calling, so I needed to find another. If God didn't want me working in the church, I needed to figure out where he did want me.

Well, a few years later I thought I'd found it when I got a job teaching music in a Christian school. And, though I won't tell the story because it's long, the circumstances that led to that teaching position were, indirectly and after quite a few forks in the road, the result of me losing the choir job. I was so excited. Providence was at work again! Now, surely, I was on the path God intended.

Then I lost the teaching job (basically, I was very shy, which made parents feel I was unapproachable, and since this was a private school and the parents paid the bills as well as our salaries, keeping the them happy was everything). So I was derailed from my path once again.

So, again, I had that feeling that God had rejected me. I shook my angry fists at heaven and demanded to know why he gave me a love for music if he didn't want me using it. I even wrote this poem about it:

A man picked up some clay one day
And held it in his hand
And he sculpted a little songbird
The fairest in the land

He gave his songbird wings of gold
And eyes of sapphire blue
In all the world no one had seen
A bird of such a hue

And he loved his little bird so much
He kept it in a cage
Protecting it from evil things
From envy, lust, and rage

But the bird wondered, "Why did you make me
If you won't let me fly
And must I stay here always
A prisoner until I die?"

At Christmastime the man declared,
"A gift I'll give my bird!
A singing voice the likes of which
The world has never heard.

And then my bird will sing to me
All pretty in its cage
A lovely song to bring me joy
When I reach old age."

And he loved his little bird so much
He kept it locked away
And brought it out to sing to him
For an hour every day

But the bird kept on wondering
About so many things
But mainly what the purpose was
Of a bird that cannot sing

And the bird became so lonely
Sitting there on the shelf
While the man never let it sing
For anyone but himself

And as the songbird sat alone
Its colors began to dim
And the man didn't know why his bird
No longer sang for him

And he loved his little bird so much
He let it fly away
So others could enjoy its song
Each and every day

But the bird never stopped wondering
About the one who'd loved it so long
So it returned just once a day
To sing the man a song

And so I sat. And I wondered. And I asked, "Why?" And no answers came.

An Earlier Calling

I think being a writer was my first real career goal. I'd written little picture book stories from the time I was old enough to hold a crayon. I wrote a poem, the first of many, when I was nine. I made various attempts at writing full length novels throughout my childhood, and finally managed to finish one when I was twelve. Poetry was my therapy as I dealt with all that teen angst during my high school years. And then...I stopped writing. I don't know why. It just didn't seem important any more. Music was my career. I needed to focus on that. 

But then, of course, the writing came back and took center stage in my life. And it's got me wondering...is this my calling? Is this my purpose? 

A Lifetime of Experiences

I've explained my musical frustrations to you. I've had other frustrations as well. Other hobbies and interests that could have turned into careers but just never did. One of those is dance. I think I've blogged about this in the past as well, but basically I didn't discover my love of dance until I was in my twenties, and didn't start to get serious about it until my thirties. And two years ago, at the age of thirty-six, I signed up for my first ballet class. That's right, I started taking ballet at the age when most ballerinas retire. What was I thinking?

Well, I certainly wasn't going to go pro. You have to train your entire life for something like that and, like I said, most dancers my age are retired. But I thought I could at least get good at it. 

What I discovered is that ballet requires our bodies to move in such unnatural ways that if you haven't studied from a young age, there are things you'll probably never do. It's less to do with being too old than with not having spent years training your joints to go in all those convoluted directions. And while I, courtesy of the fact that I teach Yoga, have a fair degree of flexibility, there are things which ballet requires of me that my body will likely never do.

I became pretty depressed about all this for a while. After all, what was the purpose of studying ballet if I was never going to move across the stage with all the grace and poise of a professional? 

An Aha! Moment

I had become so discouraged about the whole ballet thing that I took about six months off. Just didn't go to class because after all, what was the point? But I can't go too long without dance before I start to feel that tug on my heart, and I finally felt it this week. I went back to ballet, and while I wasn't performing any better than I had been for the past year, I enjoyed myself. Even learned a couple of new things. And something occurred to me.

What if what God made thirty-eight years ago was not a dancer? Not a musician. Not an actress or a filmmaker or any of those other things I've tried to be over the years. What if what God made was a writer? And all those other things? They're just fodder for stories. Opportunities for me to follow the time honored advice of writing what I know, while constantly expanding that list of Things I Know. 

Could it be? Have I found what I was meant to do all along? Or is this another seat on the merry-go-round? Another stopping point on the journey that is my life.

We'll see. But in the meantime, I'm going to dance. And I'm going to sing. And at the end of the day, I'm going to write about it. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Redeeming Damien: How 70s Cinema Altered Our Perception of a Name

How a Decade Defined a Name

Two iconic movies about the devil came out of the 1970s. Both featured a character named Damien. While most of the world remembers the Damien from The Omen, I turn more toward the Damien in The Exorcist. I wish more people would do the same, and so I want to spend a few minutes redeeming that name. 

How Damien Has Affected Me

If you're familiar with my books, you may know that I named the main character in Primogénito Damian. Why did I change the spelling? Long story which I won't get into here. I just want to talk about the name in general. But I will tell you that I had just finished reading The Exorcist when I started writing Primogénito and had fallen madly in love with Father Karras, whose first name is Damien. Madly in love with a priest, you say? A little creepy, you say? Maybe, but he's such a great character (much more so in the book than in the movie) that I couldn't help myself. And that ending...ah...best death scene ever. The one in the book, not the movie. I mean, okay, the scene in the movie is pretty great, but you don't know nearly as much about Father Karras in the movie, so his death doesn't have the same depth of meaning it has in the book. 

Anyway...long story short...I named the main character of my second book after my favorite character from my favorite horror movie/book. Just with a small spelling change.

What's In a Name?

Like most people who came of age later than 1976, I first heard the name Damien when I watched The Omen. And, like most people from my generation and the generation that came right before mine, I quickly came to associate the name with the devil. After all, it was the only place I'd heard the name, so of course I formed that association. Who wouldn't? 

Yes, I'd seen The Exorcist as well, but the Damien in that movie goes by Father Karras most of the time. His first name is only mentioned occasionally, and I, being a child when I watched it, was not able to figure out what they were saying. But now I know. His name is Damien, and that is significant.

Long before Damien was the name of the Antichrist, there was a Saint Damian (spelled the way I spelled it in my book...yay!) who is revered by the Catholic Church as a Christian martyr. But he's far from being the most famous carrier of that name whose picture graces the walls of the Catholic Hall of Fame. There is another who came later and who, I believe, was the inspiration for the character of the same name in The Exorcist.

I won't give you the whole history of Saint Damien of Molokai, often known simply as Father Damien. If you're interested, you can read more about him here. The short version is that he was a Belgian priest who went to work at a leper colony in Hawaii and stayed there until he finally died of the disease sixteen years later. 

I have no doubt that this Damien inspired the character of Father Karras in The Exorcist. In fact, if you read the book, he is even mentioned by Father Merrin in a scene close to the end. And what inevitably happens at the end of The Exorcist? Father Karras finds himself possessed by the same demon who had possessed Regan, much as the real Father Damien found himself infected by the same disease which afflicted those he had come to serve. 

But the meaning goes even deeper. The ending of The Exorcist is a beautiful depiction of what Jesus was talking about in John 15:13 when he said, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." A popular controversy surrounding The Exorcist is the debate over whether Christians should watch it. Billy Graham is famous for warning that "The devil is in every frame of this film." Well, maybe. There certainly is a whole lot of the devil in that film, but there's God as well. And in the end, God wins. No, it's not a happy ending with sunshine and rainbows and everyone going back to their perfect lives, but it's a satisfying ending. The devil is defeated. But what happens to Father Karras is even more significant. A lot of this is left out of the movie, but the book delves deeply into the doubt and the fear and the disillusionment he's grappling with. In the end it is  strongly implied that, through death, he finally receives the answers he's been seeking. He finally finds peace. So you see, it is a happy ending after all. And it's all because of a man named Damien.

Does My Damian Measure Up?

Ooh...do I dare give out spoilers about my book? Hmm...maybe not, but I'll say that I believe my Damian does absolutely measure up to the standard set by those who have gone before. Much like his namesake in The Exorcist, Damian Fuentes must grapple with evil forces which threaten to harm the people he cares about. In order to defeat that evil, he must invite it into himself. He also has to make a pretty profound sacrifice toward the end. So I think I chose his name wisely. I think he wears it well.

So let's remember all the good Damiens in the world and just forget about that pesky little devil-child (but by all means watch The Omen because it's a great movie, regardless of the harm it's done to what was once a beautiful and meaningful name). 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Indie Book of the Month: November 2017



A Bargain in Silver by Josie Jaffrey.

I never would have thought I'd be choosing a vampire romance to feature on my blog, but this one captured my attention and I decided to give it a chance.

Okay, so we've all heard of the vampire romance and we've all heard of the zombie apocalypse. Have you ever seen the two combined into one story? That's what this book does, and that unique premise was what made me decide to read it. It sounds over-the-top and unrealistic, but the execution of the story is handled well enough that it is easy to suspend disbelief. And when the details of said zombie/vampire apocalypse start rolling in...well, that's when I got hooked.

I've said it over and over, but I'll say it again here. Nine times out of ten, it's the world building that sells me on a story. The world of A Bargain in Silver is so well-drawn and so intricate that I wanted to keep reading just to find out more juicy details. What are the weepers? Are the Silver really vampires? Why are Drew's eyes different from those of the other Silver? All through the book, these little tidbits of world-building are expertly woven into the framework of the story, making it a truly fascinating read.

The ending was satisfying. I've also said in the past that romance is not my usual genre. I don't typically go for fiction that is too formulaic because I like to be surprised. Well, this ending managed to surprise me. Not because it was any kind of "trick" ending, but because of the world-building details I've already mentioned. Things that are kept sort-of mysterious throughout the story are explained at the end and everything falls into place nicely. There was one tiny detail that may have been a small plot hole, but since it comes at the very end I won't give it away. And since this is the first book in a series, I'm hopeful that in subsequent volumes, this small inconsistency will be adequately explained and will not present any problems. 

So, yeah...a vampire romance featured on my website. Who knew? But this is one that I think is well worth the time it takes to read it, so if you're curious about it, please head on over to Amazon and check it out.



















Thursday, October 26, 2017

Is The Exorcist Still the Scariest Movie Ever Made?

There are two answers to that question.

The first is: It depends on how you define "scary".

And the second is: Yes. It is. It absolutely is.

How do you define scary?

I have a rule by which I evaluate all horror movies. It can really be boiled down to one question. How soon do they let you see the monster? In my book, the longer you have to wait to see the monster, the scarier the movie. 

Take the Halloween franchise. While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes the official title of the first slasher movie, Halloween, coming out in 1978, was really the one that ushered in the slasher movie obsession that was to come. I was a kid in the 80s, so I remember slasher movies well, and the format of all of those that came after borrowed heavily from Halloween. 

Here's the thing: Yes, in Halloween we do see the monster in the very first scene, but the monster is just a man. Actually, when we first see him, he's a six year old boy. Nothing menacing about that, except that he just brutally murdered his sister with a knife. Then he goes away for a time and no one else gets killed for...well...a good chunk of the movie. For me, it's the fact that the audience has to wait so dang long for the next person to die that makes Halloween scary. Because you're almost lulled into believing that it's not going to happen. That Michael Myers is just misunderstood. But you know it's a slasher movie, and you can't have a slasher movie without some good slashing, so you're expecting someone to die any minute. The tension builds to unbearable proportions. Every time someone goes off alone you're sure this is the moment. Only it's not. So the suspense grows a little more. And a little more. Until by the end you're absolutely terrified for the poor hapless teenagers in this film. 

One thing to note about Halloween: Once Michael begins his killing spree, he only murders three people. And he murders them by either stabbing or strangling them. Remember that fact because it will be important later.

Then comes Halloween II. Ah, Halloween II. What can I say about the movie that confirmed for me my theory that all sequels are crap and filmmakers just shouldn't try? Well, first of all there is no gradual build-up of tension this time. Michael Myers begins killing right away. By the end he's killed something like eleven people (yes, I counted). And he kills them in over-the-top, ridiculous ways. Burning in a hot tub. Exsanguination via an IV tube. The list goes on. And it's not scary. Not at all. Why? Because it's not gore that makes a movie scary. It's not the shock value. It's the story. It's characters that you've come to care about, so when their lives are in danger you feel afraid right there with them. 

So, back to The Exorcist. There is very little gore in this movie. And while there is some shock value (if modern audiences aren't shocked by a twelve year old girl masturbating with a crucifix, then I worry about society), the purpose of the movie is not to shock. It's to scare. And how does it scare? With story. With a plot that develops slowly enough that by the end you're so invested in the characters that the fact that they may all be killed by the devil absolutely terrifies you. I don't know what people mean when they say this isn't scary by modern standards. That the movie earned its reputation from the fact that 1973 audiences had never seen that type of thing on the screen before, but today's viewers would find it quite mild. I don't know what standards other people use to evaluate the fright value of a horror movie, but The Exorcist lives up to all of mine, and then some.

The Only Movie That Consistently Scares Me

Horror buff that I am, I've seen a lot of scary movies. And most of them scare me the first time around. But then I can go back and watch them and be relatively unfazed. Not so with The Exorcist. That movie scares the pants off of me every dadgum time I see it, and it never gets easier to watch. And I know I've seen it at least five times, probably more (I saw it first when I was eight, and honestly don't remember how many times I watched it during my childhood). 

Why is it so scary? Well, there's all the criteria I mentioned above. There's also the fact that it's a child who gets possessed by the devil, and there are few things a movie can throw at me that are more terrifying than an evil child. I also find the whole medical investigation into Regan's issues pretty frightening. I mean, think about it, here are these people who are convinced there's a rational explanation for what's going on, so they happily spend time with this little girl who also happens to be the devil and are all the while totally oblivious to the danger they've put themselves in. No, none of the doctors die, but that only makes it scarier. That gradual build-up of tension, remember? That's important. A horror movie can't horrify without tension. 
Also, for those of us who come from a Judeo-Christian background, the fact that this story is told from a Catholic point of view adds volumes to the creep factor. Why? Because what the movie shows us is a picture of the devil that looks a whole lot like the one we've all been taught to believe in. And for me personally, because I've hung on to my religious beliefs as an adult, there's just something about The Exorcist, some element of truth to the evil being depicted there, that kicks my body right on into fight or flight mode. Basically, the conclusion I've drawn is that, if the devil is real, he looks a heck of a lot like the thing that possesses Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist.

So what are your thoughts? Do you think The Exorcist is still the scariest movie ever made? Or are you in the camp that says it doesn't terrify by today's standards? I'd love to hear the criteria you use to evaluate a horror movie, so please pop in and leave a comment. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Remember When I Said I Made a Movie?

I've lamented about my misadventures with cameras in a couple of posts recently. Last week I discussed my latest experience trying to upload a movie I made to my blog. Well, today I actually succeeded in uploading it and I'm very excited, as well as a little terrified, to share it with you.

Some disclaimers before you watch it:

1. I've learned a heck of a lot about lighting and camera settings since I made this movie. Basically all I knew how to do on the camera at the time was change the f-stop. I'm much more knowledgeable now, so if I ever try again (and I hope to eventually, if I ever get a new video camera), the cinematography will be much better.

2. I'm aware that the plot is clichéd at best and nonexistent at worst. I wasn't writing to win an Academy Award. I was writing to create a script which could be easily made into a movie with only two actors who also happened to double as the director and the sound guy.

3. Yes, I'm faking an accent in this movie. I like learning how to do accents, and this particular one was a recently acquired skill that I was dying to try out. I'm open to critiques as long as they are limited to tips on how to improve my pronunciation, but if you make fun of me on my own website, I will be deleting the comment. What can I say? I'm sensitive about these things. We all have our limits, right?

Okay, here's the movie. It's a horror movie, so I figured a couple of weeks before Halloween would be an appropriate time to share.





Sunday, October 15, 2017

Remember When I Said Cameras Hate Me?


Rather than recount all the many, many details of this journey, I will refer you to my previous post, entitled Why Do Cameras Hate Me? if you are interested in learning the rest of this story. Today I only want to talk (complain?) about my adventures with computer software.

The World's Worst Computer Virus

Yeah, I left this little detail out of that earlier post. After I made that movie, the one I called "my first real movie", I lost all the digital files I had saved on my computer to Cryptowall. If you've not heard of Cryptowall, it's the granddaddy of computer viruses. Basically it infects your computer and encrypts all of your files so that even the most sophisticated decryption software would not be able to open them. Then you receive a message that you have a certain amount of time to pay money to the creators of the virus so that they can give you the code to unlock your files. Well, I didn't pay the money, so I lost all my files. The good news is, it was a new computer, so I hadn't saved much on it yet. But I did lose my movie.

Well, lose my movie is a bit of an exaggeration.  I lost the files on my computer, but I had, thankfully, burned it onto a dvd. Unfortunately, that was all I had done with it. I never backed up the file on a flash drive or on another computer.

The Problem With Dvds

So I have the movie on dvd, which is great because that means I can watch it whenever I want (I don't watch it very often), but if I want to put it back onto my computer, that means I need dvd-ripping software. No worries. Handbrake is a free and trustworthy dvd-ripper. So I downloaded Handbrake. Problem solved, right? Not so fast, mister.

I had decided that I was...finally...ready to share my little movie with the world, so I made plans to embed it in a post right here on this blog. I loaded the dvd into my computer, opened the file in Handbrake, and started ripping. Success! My movie was saved on my hard drive. Now I could upload it to my blog, right? Again I say, not so fast, mister.

The Problem With Video Files

I tried uploading it and Blogger told me the file was too big. Well, I'm nothing if not tenacious, so I looked up how to shrink a video file in Handbrake. And what did I find? A webpage telling me how to do it. So I followed the directions, saved the movie on my hard drive a second time, and tried uploading it to Blogger again. Again, the file was too big. So I looked up more information on video compression. I found another, more detailed, page explaining a slightly longer process with quite a few more steps. Surely this was it. I was on the cusp! I was going to share my movie with the world. So I followed the directions and began the ripping process and for some reason, my computer shut down in the middle of it. Thinking it was a fluke, I rebooted my computer and tried again. Again, the stupid computer shut down before it finished compressing my video. Why? Not being a computer expert, I have no idea. But it resulted in me not having any file of my movie that I can share on Blogger.

Maybe God is trying to tell me that my filmmaking skills are not ready for public consumption? Or that I'm just not supposed to be a filmmaker? Or maybe these obstacles are there to test my resolve so if I ever succeed at this I'll know I did it because I really wanted it. Who knows? At the moment it's darn frustrating. 


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Indie Book of the Month: October 2017



Forbidden by F. Stone

I put off reviewing this book for a long time because I knew Islam played a large part in the story and I was worried about promoting a book that could potentially have controversial content. I finally was able to put aside my fears in that regard when I read some of the reviews and discovered that this book deals with the religion in a very fair manner, so I decided to take the plunge.

The story is engaging and the pace is well-balanced. Fast enough to hold the reader's interest but slow enough to give you time to get to know the characters. The romance is believable and the suspense is palpable. I applaud the author for pulling off both of these things.

However, this book will unfortunately be another four star read for me. The main issue is the typos. I've said in the past that I can often look past these, but when there are so many that they start to distract from the story, I can't ignore them. This book had at least a couple of typos per chapter, and I can't write an honest review without mentioning them. 

I was also left hungry for a little more detail. Considering that this book takes place in a part of the world I have never visited, within a culture I know very little about, I was hoping to be taken on a beautiful journey into another world. I wanted more vivid descriptions, more explanations of Muslim teachings, more history of the area. I wanted to feel like I was right there with the characters, and I didn't feel that reading this book. 

That being said, I did enjoy it and would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for an exciting, suspenseful read. Check it out on Amazon.