Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Netflix "Brick" Pic Clicks-

When I lived in Prescott, I was spoiled by a big-city-quality film buff video store, Show Business Video, upon which I cannot heap enough praise. It was an avenue of exploration for off-beat, independent, foreign and art-house movies that wouldn't even hit the shelves at Blockbuster. Plus, there was a definite feeling of community. Walking into the tiny, hole-in-the-wall shop gave you the sense that you belonged to an elite club. Of all the things I miss about living in Prescott, and there are many, "Randy's" is easily in the top 5.

There may or may not be a place like that here in Flag. I kinda doubt it, but I have not expended the time or energy to find out. Instead, I went the lazy man's route.

Ah, Netflix.

It's sooo easy, and so very addictive. With it's click-of-the-mouse browsing and inscrutable and labrynthine "recommendations" programming, I have built up a movie queue which will take me approximately the rest of my life to slog through. Maybe longer. Do they have Netflix in the afterlife?

Recently, I was forced to endure a cold-turkey period of a couple weeks; exiled due to a maxed-out credit card. As it happens, the first movie I saw post-ex-communication turned out to be worth the wait.

"Brick" is a rare cross-pollination which actually does justice to both of its genre parents. It's both the best high school movie I've seen since "Heathers" and the best exercise in neo-noir since . . . Hell, I don't know. "Memento," I guess. Like "Veronica Mars" meets Sam Spade, only much deeper and richer than that facile pitch makes it sound. This infernal mash-up could easily have been played for laughs, but "Brick" is totally straight.

The dialogue is priceless. Contemporary teen slang, hard-boiled 40's style. At first this is a bit disorienting, but it works much like "A Clockwork Orange." At first you don't understand what the hell anyone is saying, but once you catch on to the context, you have completely bought into the stylistic world the movie has created. This also leads to exchanges worthy of Bogart, like in the scene where the hero, Brandon (played with fitting intensity by Joseph Gordon-Levitt,) is pumped for information by the school's vice-principal:

VP: You've helped out this office before.

Brandon: No, I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.

Some interesting chords are struck with "The Pin," the local drug lord, who is actually a "really old, like 26" goth geek who lives in his Mom's basement. This scenario is a source of comedy, as the mother (the only parental character in the entire movie) wanders into a tense scene prattling about the superiority of "country-style" orange juice. In another scene, though, "The Pin" wistfully evokes Tolkien, giving the character an unexpected human dimension.

So, tight plot: Following an alarming and cryptic phone call, Brandon explores the downward spiral of his ex-girlfriend, Emily who soon becomes his ex-ex-girlfriend when she turns up dead. Obsessively, doggedly pursuing the truth, despite having the crap kicked out of him half a dozen times, Brandon eventually finds out who killed Emily. Then, in a particularly noir-ish twist, he keeps going, not resting until he finds out why and how and who's behind the killer, as if the unraveling has become his sole purpose in living.

Solid acting all the way around: Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks like the kind of kid who would get all kinds of wedgies in gym class, but plays the lead with all the intensity of Fred MacMurray in "Double Indemnity." Likewise, Nora Zehetner channels Barbara Stanwyck as the requisite femme fatale. Lukas Haas gives "The Pin" all kinds of weird edges and Emile de Ravin (Claire on "Lost") is very convincing as the "lost little girl." The supporting cast is excellent, too. Matt O'Leary makes "The Brain," a Rubick's Cube-solving font of exposition, actually plausible. Noah Fleiss is a sympathetic goon. Meagan Good is deliciously bad as the Queen Bitch of the Drama Nerds. Plus, Richard Roundtree, "Shaft" himself, plays a bad-mutha of a Vice Principal. (Practically the only notable adult role.)

And style, style, style: I especially dug the fight scene lit by the spinning mirror. This is the first film from writer/ director Rian Johnson, but it won't be the last. Bonus points, also, for using "Sister Ray" by the Velvet Underground over the closing credits. The best end-title musical choice since "Where is My Mind?" by the Pixies in "Fight Club."

Check it out. You know I would never lie about anything as important as a film review. When have I ever steered you wrong?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Howlin' with the Coyotes: A History

One of the most fun, exciting and rewarding aspects of my creative life has been my involvement with Coyote Radio Theater. CRT is an utterly unique Prescott, Arizona radio comedy troupe which performs mostly original material. It is the brainchild and labor of love of my good friend Andrew Johnson-Schmit, a mere part of his master plan to create a community radio station (and a radio community) in Prescott. Andrew's vision, dedication and uncanny ability to energize people is nothing short of phenomenal.

I became involved in Coyote in October of 1999, when the project was in its infancy. (I still call myself a founding member, though I was not there at the very beginning. I hope my secret is never revealed.) By a chance meeting, I ran into Andrew and his wife Angie (also a vital cog in the Coyote machine.) We'd been good friends in Chicago, and they had actually lived with me for a time in Prescott, but at that point we hadn't spoken in over a year. I won't go into the reasons why, except to say it had everything to do with my psychotic ex-girlfriend.

I was delighted to be reunited. That was a very strange period in my life. I was living by myself in a tiny studio apartment, walking to work at a blueprint shop, freshly released from a 10-year relationship of staggering dysfunction. I felt like a man on parole, unsure of what to do with this strange new thing called freedom. I had little human contact outside of work and a shaky "post" friendship with my ex, so it was wonderful to talk to stimulating people I genuinely liked.

We caught up over coffee. Andrew talked about Coyote, his latest and greatest creation, and invited me to come check it out. He was writing all the material at that point, and sort of wondered aloud if I'd be interested in contributing as well. Andrew had read some of my writing, though at that point it was all in-your-face sexual horror stuff so I'm not sure why he thought I had potential as a comedy writer.

I'll never forget the first rehearsal I attended in their smoky cabin up in Prescott's Ponderosa forest. I had thought I was just going to be a writer, but Andrew handed me a script titled "Kyla Jackson: Temp Spy" and told me that I would be playing the part of "The Lash." Panic-stricken, I affected a voice somewhere between Peter Lorre and Boris Badenov. In that moment of terror, I became a permanent Coyote voice actor and invented my signature character. I picture The Lash in my mind as a tiny man in black cape and tights, with a disquietingly large codpiece. Broo-ha-ha-ha-ha.

Desperate to impress, I went home that night and started work on the first Coyote sketch I would write myself. "Night of the Squirrel" was an apocalyptic horror story about rodents bent on world domination, only to be foiled by the hypnotic power of the Don Knotts episode of "Biography." The sketch turned out way better than I could have hoped, still ranks as one of my favorite pieces, and from then on I was "made." Andrew and I wrote the material more or less 50/50 from there on.

We had our first public performance at the late, great Prescott bookstore Satisfied Mind. The audience was small but enthusiastic, and I'm sure had no idea they were witnessing history in the making.

From there it just grew and grew and grew (minus the occasional misstep like the show in the health food deli where the performers outnumbered the audience.)

In November 2000, Coyote had its first annual Day of the Dead Dinner Show, an event which has gone on to become a community institution.

After that, fearing the dreaded label of "respectability," we did a few uncensored shows, allowing us to get all those pent-up bestiality and vibrator jokes out of our system.

For a while, we were even actually on the radio, with a live monthly broadcast of all-new material. A whole thirty days to conceive, write, rehearse and revise an hour of comedy? Oh, the luxury of time! No. Actually, it was quite, quite draining. The show lasted about six months, but was an amazing experience all around.

At some point during the broadcasts, Andrew and I began to automatically "swap" first drafts for the other person to revise. Up to that point, we'd only truly collaborated on one piece, the dueling bi-partisan psychic classic "The Future's Not What it Used to Be." I'm not sure why it took us so long to figure this out, but we finally realized how much each of us could improve the writing of the other.

The partnership has been, for me, very rewarding. Andrew and I have different styles, methods and sensibilities when it comes to writing comedy, but we "mesh" remarkably well. Much of this comes from the fact that we know, trust and respect each other immensely. Equally important, neither of us is afraid to tell the other when something just does not work.

Writing for radio (entirely for the ear) presents some unique challenges. Stephen King, in the introduction to his short story collection "Everything's Eventual," spoke of his own failure to write a radio play and went so far as to call radio scriptwriting a "lost art."


Andrew and I, rather than imitating old-time radio, have instead set out to create something entirely new. That's not to say we completely ignore the past. I haven't listened to very much OTR, but Andrew has. He takes what he needs, cribbing from the masters. I, in turn, crib from him. Then he cribs back from me, and somewhere in there a new form is created. You might call us Raiders of the Lost Art.

(Pause for laughter.)

Seriously, the first (and hardest) rule we learned was that nothing makes a script feel dead like excessive wordiness. Writers love words, that's why we write, and so it's often difficult to pare back the language to its barest essence. Rule #2: narration is a crutch. Not that "voice-overs" are forbidden, but you should always strive to make it feel organic. Above and beyond the other two rules is this: make it funny. And the difference between funny and flat is often just a word or two.

Of course, the collaboration does not end with the two of us. You don't really "hear" a piece until the actors read it. Lines which made you laugh to yourself as you typed them sometimes fall flat when read out loud. Sometimes you get lucky and it works the other way, too. A line you struggled with suddenly comes alive from the actor's reading. In any case, there's always at least one more round of rewrites after the first rehearsal.

I should stop to praise the actors; we've been blessed with some very talented vocal performers. Angie, in addition to her role as Coyote Quality Control, is also an effective and versatile actress. Pam Martin has a great range, which we've exploited mercilessly, and is also a pretty decent writer herself. Greg Fine adds a fine gloss of professionalism, plus a willingness to go into whatever weird gonzo territory we can come up with. (I especially like writing female parts for him to play, as well as gay monkeys.) Then there's me. As an actor, I make a pretty decent scriptwriter. Of course, I do have the advantage of writing myself parts tailored to my limited range.

Then, after the rehearsals (it never feels like we've rehearsed enough) comes the ultimate: in front of a live audience, with sound effects and music. When it all comes together, there's nothing like it.

Right now we're gearing up to write material for the 7th Annual (7? Good grief!) Day of the Dead Show. Andrew and I are still in the exhilarating "brainstorm" mode where all things are possible. This will soon be replaced by the not-as-exhilarating "practical considerations" stage. ("What do you mean nobody in the cast can do a convincing Samuel Jackson impression?") Then the real work begins.

Here are a few of my favorite Coyote scripts (in no particular order:)

"Dead Man Laughing" First performed at the 4th Annual DotD Show. A comedy-western-horror story set in old Crest Top, AZ. (Crest Top, an anagram for Prescott, has become to Coyote what Springfield is to "The Simpsons.") Our only award-winning script to date.

"Kyla Jackson: Temp Spy" Andrew's delightfully non-linear spy spoof series, in which I get the great honor of playing the happily evil villain, The Lash.

"Frederick Undertakes Censorship for the King" My first uncensored piece (check the acronym in the title) about the definition of obscenity in the small, war- and radio-obsessed kingdom of Nuthertucker. Contains Coyote's only instance (so far) of sexual relations with a horse.

"Bad Day to Be Jesus." If Andrew is the Paul in our Lennon/McCartney partnership, this is his "Helter Skelter." "Anybody who does not want to be crucified today, raise your hand." That's it, he's going to hell. (PS- Just because Andrew is dressed in white and barefoot in the cover of our "Montezuma Road" album does NOT mean he's dead.)

"Se7en Deadly Castaways." A mash-up of "Gilligan's Island" and that David Fincher serial killer movie, which fit together with surprising ease.

"Mystery at the Circus Schmircus." Our first long-form script, complete with a well-populated sideshow tent, a courtroom scene featuring a rhyming clown, and a commercial for "Tootie Fruits," the candy which makes your burps taste fruity.

"Video Killed the Rodeo Star." A rare case of "too many cooks in the kitchen" actually turning out a decent script. Four writers worked on the first draft (one of whom was fired soon after,) then Andrew & I whittled it down to a workable size. Imagine our dismay when we brought it into rehearsal only to learn there was a serious lack of female voice parts. Another draft with several cowboys becoming cowgirls, and we had a top-notch Crest Top episode.

"Night of the Squirrel." I still have a soft spot for this one. Milton Squirrel later went on to hawk Zippity Pea-Bu, the caffeinated peanut butter. "It's pea-nutty-riffic!"

"Porn in the USA." My favorite unperformed sketch. In the wake of 9/11, the adult entertainment industry does their patriotic duty. Oddly, the female cast members balked at playing porn stars.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Lost Tales: "A Love Story from Hell."

I am a complete pack-rat when it comes to my old writing. I hate to throw anything out, even if it is unmistakably garbage. I have, in my voluminous files, several stories written when I was in high school, and sometimes enjoy hauling them out and reading them over. Through the eyes of a (more or less) stabilized 35-year old, the writing of the troubled teen he once was brings both a nostalgic smile and a kind of sadness.

The teen-aged Christian H. Smith (at the time, I believed the middle initial made me sound more distinguished,) while certainly not very polished craft-wise, was at the very least quite unaffected. Even at that age, I was striving to find my own voice, and in fact attempting to create my own genre. The old stories were, if nothing else, completely original. Of course, originality does not equal quality.

I was very into "shock" value, pushing the buttons of my readers, poking taboos in a very confrontational way. Some things never change, right? Well, I hope that as I've grown older, I've not necessarily mellowed, but have learned to challenge my audience in more subtle ways. Attacking them with slow-acting psychoactive poisons, say, instead of with a sledgehammer.

One of the old stories which has been lost in the mists of time is "A Love Story From Hell," which was written in my Senior year in High School. "LSFH" is the story of a mild-mannered young man with the unlikely name of Oliver Crum. He attends the funeral of an aunt (named Mimi) he barely knew. Here he meets and falls instantly in love with a beautiful and mysterious young woman named Cassandra Jones. They go home together. Mind-blowing sex (described by a then-virginal author) ensues.

A few weeks later, desperately in love, poor Oliver is ready to pop the question. He has even has the ring. During a romantic hot-tub evening (after an impromptu bout of underwear-swapping,) the question is on his lips. Cassandra bids him to wait. She has something to tell Oliver which may change his mind. The secret of why she was at the funeral, and how she had known Oliver's aunt. Mimi and Cassandra had been . . . lovers.

Oliver is a bit shocked, but this does not change his feelings towards Cassandra. Not in the least. Cassandra is relieved. Oliver: "Will you . . ." Cassandra: "Wait. One more thing." Then comes the "from Hell" part. Cassandra goes into the next room and returns with the corpse of Aunt Mimi, stuffed and preserved, Mama Bates style.

"Now the three of us can be together forever!"

Oliver screams until he passes out. His cries prompt the neighbors to call the cops, and the next thing Oliver knows he's on CNN. He's exonerated of any wrongdoing, but Cassandra is institutionalized. In the final scene, he visits her in the hospital and finally proposes. Love has won out over all obstacles. I believe I even used the line: "Sure, she was a bisexual necrophiliac, but nobody's perfect."

I listened to the Sugarcube's great first album, "Life's Too Good" repeatedly while writing the story, especially the song "Fucking in Rhythm and Sorrow," and attempted to reflect the band's unique lyrical style in my prose. Like if it was translated from Icelandic and spoken by a vocally-eccentric moon-faced pixie who would later go on to a more successful solo career.

Now, did I mention that this was written for a high school Creative Writing class? The teacher, Mr. Bill Myers, was a fantastic guy. The first teacher to support me in my creativity rather than trying to suppress it. Still, I think I might have driven him towards alcoholism and/or premature baldness, with my insistence on turning out these twisted little sex & horror comedies. This one definitely did NOT make it into the student literary journal.

In later years, "Love Story" went through several revisions and translations. It was actually the very first story I ever submitted to a magazine (I don't even remember which one) and, consequently, my first rejection. I do remember that the rejection letter, in their perfunctory positive statement, said that I had some "nice imagery," but that the story was overall too long and did not fit their needs at this time, thank you very much.

At some point I attempted adapting it into a short film script and even a radio script for Coyote Radio Theater. Neither was produced. Now, I can't find either a hard or an electronic version of any incarnation of "Love Story." It's just gone. Exists only in my memory, in the fond haze of which I'm sure the story is better than it ever was in the hard light of day. So, I guess that's where it belongs.

Sometimes lost tales are better lost. Still, that does not stop one from missing them like estranged children who have drifted off to God knows where.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

INFLUENCES #2- Franz Kafka.

My favorite author of all time. Debating Kafka is a favorite topic among literature critics and academics. His work is so strange, so ambiguous, that any number of meanings can be read into it. Was he a modernist or a post-modernist? An existentialist, a surrealist or a pioneering writer of magic realism? A Marxist or an anarchist? I don't know. Frankly, discussions like that make my eyes glaze over. Blame it on my lack of education, but I typically don't dissect what I read in an intellectual way. I respond, emotionally and viscerally. And Kafka kreeps me out. I read Kafka for the same reason I read Stephen King: for the chills.

Everybody knows the one about the man who wakes up one morning to find that he has been inexplicably transformed into a giant cockroach. ("The Metamorphosis") And the one about the man who must defend himself in an absurd trial where he's not even told what he's been accused of. ("The Trial") But how about the one about the executioner proudly demonstrating the tool of his trade: a machine which inscribes the condemned man's crime into his flesh with needles, deeper and deeper until he is completely eviscerated? ("In the Penal Colony") Or the one about the sideshow performer whose entire act consists of slowly starving to death before a disinterested audience, and who finally grows so thin that he is simply lost in the straw in the bottom of his cage, forgotten about and replaced by a performing panther? ("The Hunger Artist") Or, even kreepier, the one about the unidentified burrowing creature fretting about his labyrinth while tormented by a mysterious whistling noise? ("The Burrow") These are nightmares, placed unfiltered on the page.

Franz Kafka was sickly for most of his life, living in the shadow of a vital and domineering father, stuck in a series of Civil Service jobs which he despised, plagued by failed romances, unrecognized and barely published in his lifetime. He died of tuberculosis just a few years before the rest of his family was killed by the Nazis. In his will, he stipulated that all his unpublished works be destroyed. His good friend and executor Max Brod defied Kafka's dying wish and edited and published his voluminous body of writing. God bless him for betraying his dead friend's trust.

The novels were unfinished, but with Kafka this actually works to their benefit. In "Amerika" and "The Trial," the missing chapters and out-0f-whack chronology only add to the dream-like effect of confusion. (I have yet to read "The Castle.")

My favorite Kafka work is the novel "Amerika," (Kafka's original title was "The Man Who Disappeared," but I like "Amerika" better) mainly because it is the most light-hearted and funny of his writings, and also because it presents a wonderfully distorted view of my home country. Kafka never visited America, the nation presented in the novel is wholly a product of his imagination. This is evident from page 1, when the young immigrant Karl pulls into New York harbor and thrills to the sight of the Statue of Liberty, who holds not a torch but a sword. Exiled by his parents for impregnating a chambermaid, young Karl is at first taken under the wing of a rich uncle, but after a typically Kafkaesque transgression, is left to his own devices. What follows is a series of absurdist episodes, Karl trying to make his way in the strange country, plagued by low-life traveling companions, rejected at every turn. Finally, he finds acceptance in the surreal "Nature Theater of Oklahoma," which is reads like the afterlife as the largest, strangest WPA project imaginable.

I actually attempted to adapt "Amerika" into a screenplay, more as an exercise than anything else. I played up the Monty Python-esque humor and expanded upon Kafka's anachronisms and distortions of place. Plus, I added a lot of my own touches, which I'm sure would infuriate literary purists everywhere. The script is unfinished and will never be made into a film, but was still loads of fun to write. Plus, if you want to really understand a book, I can't think of a better way to do so than to attempt an adaptation. (Still, this is yet another case where the book is definitely better.)

So next time you want a good, scary read, forget the King or the Barker. Grab a Kafka. I promise you'll want to sleep with the lights on.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The age-old argument: What's worse, a slut or a whore?

Before you get all up in arms about my rabid misogyny, I'd like to clarify that a bit. I'm referring to myself, and in an entirely literary way.

Here's the story: A few years back, a good friend of mine recommended that I check out where amateur writers can post erotic stories. I wasn't that floored by what I found, (I was shocked SHOCKED! to find that much of it was really, truly awful) but I was intrigued by the thought of putting some of my own stuff up there.

I've always had a love/hate relationship with pornography and erotica, mostly because I've never found anything which I've really liked. I love sex, of course. In fact, I think sex is widely underrated. (Ha ha.) Sex is beautiful but porn, for the most part, is really ugly. Worse yet, it's generic. People say it's degrading to women, but I would submit that it's more degrading to men. Reducing male sexuality to an unaesthetic and depressingly repetitive commodity is really an insult. Male sexuality is every bit as complex and intriguing as female sexuality, but you wouldn't know it by watching or reading pornography. Big boobs, shaved pubes, the conquest of a sexually voracious female, 3 different types of penetration rotated for meager variety, "cum shot," rinse, lather, repeat. Boring.

Then there’s the genre called "erotica." Better, but I’ve still had a hard time finding erotica which does what I believe it’s supposed to do. That is, turn me on. Sometimes the very "artistic" nature of the piece serves to distance me from the sexual charge it should carry. Sometimes erotica over-compensates for the sins of pornography by being too staid, too implicit. And then sometimes, what passes for erotica is just "porno-lite," the same hoary cliches dressed up and toned down.

When it comes down to it, any distinction between the two is arbitrary at best. "I know it when I see it" is the famous non-definition of what constitutes porn. Assuming the nom de porn "Christian Black," I set out to create something in between. Call it "erotic pornography."

My first attempt was a story called "Ding Dong the Bitch is Dead," about a bisexual woman who has a fling with her step-father at her mother's funeral. I thought it turned out fairly well. It was a decent mix of dark humor, pathos and, you know, an explicit blow job scene.

I posted it on the site and the response was short of overwhelming. For one thing, the site administrators in their infinite wisdom placed the story in their disturbingly popular "incest" category. (But they weren't BLOOD relations!) For another, there is a little "feedback-o-meter," where readers can rate the story on a scale on a scale of 1-5. "Ding Dong" topped out at a disappointing 3.72.

Still, I was hooked. The Christian Black thing is gratifying in many ways. For one thing, writing pure sex is a lot of fun. Second, I actually have an audience. Some of the more popular stories have more than 50,000 hits. Nothing else I've written can claim to have been seen by that many people. Plus, the comments and feedback are always interesting. Sometimes friendly and helpful, sometimes downright scary, but always interesting. And lastly, the stories that average more than 4.5 from reader-scored feedback get a sexy little 'H' (for 'hot') next to them in the site listings. At last count, I have 11 'H' stories.

So, flash forward a few years. I'd been happily posting my little pieces of smut, never expecting anything to come from it, when out of the blue I got an e-mail from a Canadian publisher asking for permission to reprint a few of the stories in their fine print publications. For previously posted stories, they would pay only in copies, but for any original submission, they'd pay the princely sum of $20. Saying "what the hell," I signed their on-line release form and promptly forgot all about it.

A few months later, I received a proverbial "plain brown wrapper" in the mail. Lea immediately demanded to know when I ordered porn and I was at first as baffled as she was. Then I remembered. Sure enough, in the pages of the quality publications, "Bedtime Stories," "Wicked Fetishes" and "Rough Boys," (don't ask and I won't tell about that last one) I received the rare thrill of seeing my work in print for the first time.

Of course, the thrill was somewhat mitigated by the fact that these were some of the cheapest, bottom-of-the-barrel smut mags I've ever seen in my life. And I've seen my share. Cheap, B/W pulp stock, the stories illustrated by generic, stock image skank-o-rama porn shots (the kind where the models are paid in crystal meth.) But still, kinda cool.

A while after that, I received another e-mail from the publishers, saying that they were now looking for novels. I have a few serialized stories up on Literotica, and they were all set to publish the one entitled "The Education of Lisa." Payment: One Hundred and Fifty Dollars! They didn't even seem to care that the story wasn't finished. In fact, based on comments in their e-mail, I don't think they'd read it at all.

I responded that I'd need a few weeks to edit and complete the novel. That was about five months ago, and I'm just now gearing to finish it. Perhaps you can sense my lack of enthusiasm.

That's where the slut vs. whore argument comes in. I've been slutting around on Literotica for years now, squandering my "talent" on cheap and meaningless, but fun, little flings. Now here's a chance to "go pro." Squandering my talent for pay. Becoming a whore. (And a cheap whore, at that.)

I have considered the fact that people make a living doing this. I'm sure that there are outlets out there which will pay more than $150 for a porno novel, $20 for a porno story. I just don't know if I want to expend the time and energy that could be spent on my "real" writing by pursuing this. But then again, maybe getting a little bit of income from even a dubious source could actually free up time to "really" write. Could pay for day care, just for example.

I go back and forth in my thinking on this almost constantly, but it always comes back to the "slut vs. whore" question. I'm not a producer of cheap porn, dammit. I'm a writer of erotic pornography. I don't want to be ashamed of anything I write, and I think I would be ashamed to see something I've labored over on a rack next to "Splat" magazine.

If you've read this far, and you're still interested, the erotic pornography of Christian Black can be found here:

To save you a little time, these are the good ones:

"Biomechasexual" is probably my favorite story on the site. Pretty decent sci-fi erotica that I feel does justice to both genres. A long-distance space traveller and two perfect sex robots. If science is not working towards the development of the perfect sex robot, I ask you what the hell good is it anyway?

"Third Person" is an erotic horror novel which I started to serialize here, but stopped due to lack of response after the first few chapters. I will finish the novel someday, just not here. The first chapter contains some of the best "erotic pornography" I have yet to write, and Chapter 3 contains a (hopefully) better-than-Shyamalan plot twist.

The "Cassandra" and "Emma" cycles are both pretty good, featuring recurring female characters. Cassandra is the archetypical "crazy chick" psycho ex-girlfriend. You know, where the sex is great but you're afraid of waking up in the middle of the night to find yourself Bobbit-ized. Emma was the star of "Ding Dong the Bitch is Dead," and she has developed into a very sexually aggressive, dominating she-wolf with a gayboy fixation.

The "Four-Play" series is like the "Rashomon" of bisexual porn. A four-way orgy told from four different points of view.

"The Strange Case of the Quigley Twins" and "Pyro" are "straight" stories with some sexual content, posted here just so someone will actually read them.

'The Education of Lisa" series, my soon-to-be novelistic debut, is wildly uneven (an attempt to write each chapter in a separate category.) Chapter 5, the "Erotic Horror" installment is the best one.

"Awakening Amelia's Malomar" is straight-ahead porn, with a little twist of humor.

"A Philosophy of Porn" is an essay which contains many of the points I've already made here.

Have fun.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Confessions of a Desperate Househusband

I wondered how long it would take me to use the "Desperate . . ." crack. It's not nearly as funny as the "Sesame Street" parody, "Desperate Houseplants."

The fact that I'm now making a "Sesame Street" reference might give you some idea of why I'm in a very frustrated place right at the moment. Most of it comes from the sheer chaos of kids and housework. If you have kids, you know the drill. Not only are the little buggers mess-making machines, tiny whirlwinds of destruction, they also make it nearly impossible to concentrate on any housekeeping task for more than five minutes without offering some sort of distraction or mini-crisis. It's easier to get stuff done when Lea's at home to wrangle the rug-rats, but when she's home I like to savor the rare pleasure of my wife's company, and don't like to waste this precious time on housework. Catch-22.

This morning, I knuckled down and finally burrowed through Dirty Dish Mountain (took me 3 hours) and Lea helped tremendously by cleaning the bathroom (gets dirty in unspeakable ways when you're potty-training a toddler, especially a boy still perfecting his "aim.") So I can breathe a little easier. But, of course, there are other stress agents at work:

1) The washing machine broke down. It fills up with water just fine, but that's all it does now. This leaves me to face the equally unpleasant prospects of trips to the laundromat or paying a repairman. I tried to fix it myself, but those of you who know me can imagine the slapstick comedy which ensued.

2) The kids won't take a damn nap!!! You can not imagine how I've come to rely on the couple hours of afternoon peace and quiet which nap-time offers.

3) Dylan's potty training is going agonizingly slow. Pee and poop are not among my favorite substances, and I deal with them way more than I like to. Plus, he likes to challenge me to saber duels ever since he got a toy light-saber as a party favor last week. This wouldn't be so bad, except he insists on playing Darth Vader to my Luke Skywalker. It is a little disturbing to hear a 2-year old say, "You don't know the power of the dark side."

4) Lily has learned to crawl and to pull herself into a standing position. These developmental milestones are accompanied by insatiable hunger for exploration and an intolerance of being restrained. No more putting her in the swing or the highchair to keep her out of trouble. Now I have to keep constant tabs on a highly mobile baby who gets quite irate when you try to steer her away from staircases or choking hazards.

5) Bullshit financial woes. Turns out a single-income household isn't quite the goldmine it's cracked up to be. It still seems more viable for me to stay at home than to go to work, but this section of the biography might be subtitled "The Lean Years."

6) Minor point, but due to me waiting up for Lea to come home from her "girl's night out" last night, I hardly got any writing done this morning. The "Blood World" screenplay has a strong beginning, but damn it's going slow.

7) While cleaning the kid's room, I found a small glass crack pipe inside the floorboard radiator. It's a relic of a previous tenant, but the superstitious part of me can't help but see this as a bad omen. Or maybe it's fate telling me I should take up smoking crack as a way of dealing with the stress.

Well, actually I feel better now. Venting my spleen onto the World Wide Web is actually quite therapeutic.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Yeah, but the movie was better . . .

Almost invariably when a book is adapted into a movie, the results are disappointing. Vital scenes are cut out or gutted, beloved characters are tragically miscast, "internal" action is awkwardly externalized or, generally speaking, the movie on the screen just fails to live up to the movie in the head of anyone who has read the book. Not that books are inherently better than movies, it's just that something is usually lost in the translation.

(I suppose it works the other way, too. Almost every "novelization" of a movie I've read has been god-awful.)

But there are those rare occasions when the movie adaptation actually surpasses the source material. As someone who is interested in writing both books and movies, I am especially interested in this process. So, since the response to my "favorite short story" post was so overwhelming, here goes another long-winded list:

"Fight Club." Book by Chuck Palahniuk. Movie written by Jim Uhls, directed by David Fincher. Palahniuk (God, his name is fun to type) has so much as said that the movie has a better ending, and it's a testament to the film's power that you can't help hearing Edward Norton's sardonic voice as you read. All in all, the book reads like a provocative if amateurish first novel by a promising author. The film plays like a horrific glimpse into the future, downloaded into your brain via cutting-edge cinema black magic. Plus, the book did not contain the single best use of a Pixies song ever.

"A Simple Plan." Book by Scott Smith. Movie written by Scott Smith, directed by Sam Raimi. A rare case of a movie toning down the violence in the book, with superior results. The story's the same in both versions: two brothers and a friend on a hunting trip find a downed airplane containing several million dollars in presumed "dirty" money. The pilot's dead, nobody seems to be looking for the cash, so all they have to do is wait, right? Of course, it ain't really that simple. Secrecy and distrust lead very naturally to violence. In the book, the protagonist (played by Bill Paxton in the film) turns just this side of Ted Bundy. In the movie, there's less killing, so it's more believable and has WAY more impact.

"Christine." Book by Stephen King. Movie written by Bill Phillips, directed by John Carpenter. One of the weaker (by his own admission) of the King's early novels, turned into a lean, mean killer car movie. Good cast and a great 50's soundtrack also help.

"A Door in the Floor." From the book "A Widow for One Year" by John Irving. Movie written and directed by Tod Williams. Irving's one of my favorite authors, but he has an unfortunate tendancy towards elephantitis. His novels usually start with the hero's birth, cover their entire childhood and adolescence, and sometimes follow them all the way until death. Sometimes this works ("Garp" is the classic example) and sometimes not. This movie improves on the book by only adapting the first (and best) section, telling a story in which the book's protagonist is a young girl, and almost a peripheral character. If you want to know what happens to these characters in the next three or four decades of their lives, go ahead and read the book. Be forewarned, though, there is an extraneous sub-plot involving a serial killer stalking prostitutes in Amsterdam.

"Out of Sight." Book by Elmore Leonard. Movie written by Scott Frank, directed by Steven Soderberg. The movie shifts the focus of the novel, fleshes out the plot (for a change,) plays some twisty, Tarantino-esque games with the chronology, and adds a layer of cool with smooth performances by George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez (!) Elmore Leonard has got to the point where he can turn out these thrillers in his sleep, but the movie is wide awake. (OK, that was bad.)

"Jaws" (Peter Benchly. Peter Benchley/ Steven Spielberg.) "The Godfather" (Mario Puzo. Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola/ Francis Ford Coppola) Two cases of sudsy 70's potboilers transformed into cinema art.

"The Wizard of Oz." Book by L. Frank Baum. Baum had an incredible imagination, but when it came to the prose- not so much. The movie added indelible casting, wonderful songs, gorgeous early color special effects and, best of all, an actual ending.

Open to debate: "Gone With the Wind" and "To Kill a Mockingbird."

So, wanna quibble? Huh? Do ya, punk? If you disagree with one of those, or have a title you'd like to suggest, the "comment" button is right there.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

INFLUENCES- #1 Bob Dylan

Is anyone else out there nearly as stoked as I am? In less than two weeks, the great Bob Dylan will release "Modern Times," his first new album of all new songs in five years. I'm already hoarding pennies in the change jar.

Of course, I don't know if you remember what else was going on the day "Love and Theft" came out, on 9/11/01. Something to do with airplanes, I think. Seriously, I remember walking across the street from the Sir Speedy where I was working to buy that CD at Hastings, wondering if WWIII was breaking loose. (The answer, both yes and no, is a subject for another day.) If there is another terrorist attack on the 29th, I wonder if the DHS will be knocking on Bob's door.

I have been a Bob Dylan fan for nearly twenty years now. Actually, maybe "fan" isn't the right word. Nobody is really just a "fan" of the big D. There are people out there so into Bob it's scary. Thankfully, I'm not that bad. I've heard of people buying on e-bay cigarette butts smoked by Bob. That's just weird. My own collection of hair and nail trimmings is very tastefully arranged, and so falls on this side of "the line." I've also heard tell of people who name their first-born son "Bob" or "Zimmy" or something outlandish like that. Or people who play "The Wedding Song" from Planet Waves at their wedding. Please let me know if I ever cross over into that kind of zealotry.

My first exposure to Bob came when I was in high school. My stepmother Sherry had a Norton poetry anthology and in there with T.S. Elliot and Robert Frost were the lyrics to "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Bob was not only the only rock guy in there, but the only songwriter of any kind. This impressed me so much I memorized the entire song and would recite it William Shatner-style with little or no provocation. At the time I wondered why this didn't get me any dates.

The next step towards total Boblimation came when I duped a copy of my girlfriend's Dad's copy of "Greatest Hits, Vol. 2." The song that really hooked me was "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." You have to love a song that starts with: "When you're lost in the rain in Juarez and it's Easter-time, too," and ends with: "I'm going back to New York City, I do believe I've had enough."

After that, I started buying the albums in rough chronological order. There was at least one song on every album which completely blew me away. "Talkin' WWIII Blues" on "Freewheelin'." "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" on "Bringin' It All Back Home." "Ballad of a Thin Man" on "Highway 61."

So why does Bob resonate so deeply with me? The words, obviously. Throw Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, William Blake, Dylan Thomas, the Beats, the Beatles, Lenny Bruce and Franz Kafka into a blender along with "mystery ingredient X" and you might come close. Although that blend would be heavy on the "X." Who else could conjur the furious barrage of apocalyptic imagery in "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," or the line "the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face" from "Visions of Johanna?" Or, if you think he's past his prime, how about the metaphysical comedy of the waitress encounter in 1998's "Highlands?"

But not many people would deny Bob's a great songwriter. It's the "singer" part of the singer/songwriter title that give people the most problems. I know plenty of people (including my wife) who can't get past The Voice. You know, that thin nasal gravel-rattle you can only achieve by singing like Bob Dylan for 40 years. I'll admit The Voice is an acquired taste. It's the instrument the man has to work with, though, and God knows when he's On, he works it for all it's worth. I dare you to listen closely to his delivery of "Desolation Row" on the MTV Unplugged album and tell me you don't get chills. "Right now I don't read so good don't send me no more letters noooo . . ." Go ahead. I double dare you.

So, since I've got Blog-o-listaphillia, here are some of my favorite Bob moments:

BEST ALBUM: "Blonde on Blonde." No. "Blood on the Tracks." No, "Blonde on Blonde." Wait, "Time Out of Mind" is pretty amazing. Dammit, I don't know.

BEST PROTEST SONG: "Masters of War." The early, directly political, pure "folk" songs don't speak to me as much as the later "plugged-in" stuff, but it's hard to deny the impact of this cutting tirade against the military-industrial complex, those who profit (greatly) from death and destruction. Sadly, this song is more timely now than it was in '63.

FUNNIEST SONG: "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream." A truly jaw-dropping piece of stream-of-consciousness achronistic Americana. "Moby Dick," The Beatles and Columbus are all referenced in a hysterically funny breakneck rhyme. RUNNER-UP: "Motorpsycho Nightmare."

BEST SONG TO SING ALONG TO DRUNK: "(Sooner or Later) One of Us Must Know." Believe me, I speak from experience. "I didn't realize how young you werrrre."

BEST BREAK-UP SONG: "Idiot Wind." Sure, the guy wrote "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "It Ain't Me, Babe," but for pure vicious bile and rancor, you can't beat this cut from "Blood on the Tracks." Actually, you can. Try the even more bitter acoustic version on "Bootleg, Vol. 2." Hear Bob say the line "Sweet lady" and make it sound like "you evil fucking whore."

BEST STORY SONG: "Brownsville Girl." OK, OK. Or "Tangled Up in Blue" or "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts." Bob's got this incredible ability to compress novel-worthy narratives into eight minute songs. I have attempted to replicate this in a short story, with utterly embarrassing results.

BEST LIVE SONG: "Like a Rolling Stone." The version on "Bootleg Vol. 4: Live '66." For the entire concert, Bob dealt with the hecklers with wit and good humor. But when some wag calls him "Judas," the camel's back is broken. "I don't believe you," Bob says. "You're a liar." Then he turns to the band and says "Play it fuckin' loud." What follows is the most blistering, confrontational and out-loud rockin' rendition of Bob's signature tune. Also qualifies as BEST SONG TO PLAY AT TOP VOLUME AFTER BEING FIRED FROM A JOB YOU HATED ANYWAY.

BEST "JESUS PERIOD" SONG: "I Believe in You." Defiant, unwavering faith in the face of popular scorn.

BEST "BOOTLEG" SONG: "Blind Willie McTell." Who would have thought a Minnesota Jew could deliver such a potent evocation of the African-American Southern experience? And then leave it off the album because he didn't think it quite turned out? "I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell." Or Bob Dylan, for that matter. RUNNER-UP: "Foot of Pride," if only for the one line: "You know what they say about being nice to the right people on the way up? Sooner or later you're going to meet them coming down."

BEST BOB SONG NOT ON A BOB ALBUM: "Tweeter and the Monkeyman" from "The Traveling Wilbury's, Vol. 1." This Jersey crime story out-does both Springsteen and "The Sopranos."

BEST USE OF AN OBSCURE BOB SONG IN A MOVIE: "The Man in Me," from "The Big Lebowski." Only now, damn it, I picture Jeff Bridges bowling whenever I hear it.

BEST BOB COVER: I still have a weakness for Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower." Jimi also did a very decent live version of "Like a Rolling Stone" at Monterey.

And, lest you think I'm unaware of the feet of clay:

WORST BOB SONG: "Under the Red Sky." The little boy and the little girl were baked into a pie? What the fuck, Bob?

WORST LIVE ALBUM: "Real Live." Except for an interesting re-working of "Tangled Up in Blue," excrutiatingly unlistenable.

WORST COLLABORATION: "Dylan and the Dead." Maybe it was what they were smoking back-stage, but Bob and the Gratefuls bring out the worst in each other. On some of the tracks, I don't even think the Dead are playing the same song Bob is singing.

WORST BOB MOVIE: (tie) "Hearts on Fire" / "Masked and Anonymous." Bob has less luck with movies than Madonna. I've never seen "Renaldo & Clara," but it's notoriously awful.

God, I've babbled on my Bob blog for a long time. I didn't even mention the surrealistic Victoria's Secret ads, the amazing work of random biography (Chronicles, Vol 1) or the fact that I've been pestering Lea to get me an XM hook-up so I can listen to Bob's "Theme-Time" radio show.

I'll leave it there, though, but rest assured I will give a full review of "Modern Times" as soon as I've listened to it. Providing, of course, that terrorists have not nuked Northern AZ, or wiped out the internet with an EMP.

(PS- Just by typing that last sentence, I have "red-flagged" myself onto a CIA watch-list. Oh, well, might as well go all out. Assassination dirty bomb anthrax Allah Michael Moore Mt. Rushmore Dr. Shoal's gel insert explosive. There. Call it post-9/11 blogger Tourette's.)

Friday, August 11, 2006

Visions and Voices- Four for a Penny

I am the sort of reader that I'm sure writers hate. That's because I hardly ever buy new books. (Exceptions are made for "Harry Potter" installments, I'll confess.) I have a passion for used book stores, but even better are the book bins at thrift stores and libraries. If I pay more than .25 for paperbacks and .50 for hardcovers, I feel like I've somehow been rooked.

You never know what you're going to find at places like these. The books are unorganized, the arrangement often completely chaotic, and half the time you walk out of the store empty-handed. That just makes it all the more thrilling when you do find a diamond amongst the coal. This is also a great way to discover new books. If you've heard good things about an author, are struck by a jacket blurb, or just think a book has a cool title, just scoop it up. Hell, it's only a quarter. You don't even mind so much if there's water damage, marked-up pages, or a missing cover. (It is kind of a drag when the last several pages are torn out. I still don't know how "Gone With the Wind" ends.) Once I found a pot-leaf in a copy of Carl Jung's "Man and His Symbols." Of course, I marched right down to the police department and turned that in. Heh heh.

Right now I'm reading a short story anthology called "Fiction 100." (Published in 1976, edited by James H. Pickering.) That's right, one hundred short stories. How much did I pay for this doorstop of an omnibus? Twenty-five cents at the Prescott library. Four stories for a penny. For sheer economy, that's tough to beat.

All the major short story writers (up to the 70's, anyway) are represented, arranged alphabetically by author. (I'm up to James Joyce. Can anyone tell me what the hell "Araby" is about?) A lot of the stories I've read before, I'm something of an anthology junkie, but I've discovered a few new gems.
"The Bound Man" by Ilse Aichinger is borderline plagiarism from Kafka's "Hunger Artist," but it's still a mind-bender. "The Signal Man" is a Charles Dickens ghost story almost as chilling as "A Christmas Carol." Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall-Paper" is a tale of creeping madness worthy of Poe.

Reading the book, I fantasize about what stories I'd include in my ultimate short story anthology. (Yeah, I know it's weird, but that's the kind of guy I am.) Here are a few selections:

"Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly" by Joyce Carol Oates- Oates is one of my favorite authors, and as much as I love her novels (especially "Blonde," "We Were the Mulvaneys," and "Bellefleur,) I think she's a far better short story author than she is a novelist. It's tough to pick one story to represent her massive body of work, but a gothic horror tale about lovers transformed into hell-hounds is tough to top.

“The Coup De Grace” by Ambrose Bierce. Talk about being caught in an awkward position.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. How can you pick just one Poe? This story, though, is as lean and mean a horror story as you’d ever want to read. Not one wasted word.

“A Country Doctor” by Franz Kafka. Kafka’s another author where it’s hard to pick just one. “The Hunger Artist,” “In the Penal Colony,” or “The Metamorphosis” (kind of the “Stairway to Heaven” of Kafka- often left off because it’s so obvious) would all fit here. I picked this one because it’s such a short, focused burst of pure dream logic.

“Heavy Set” by Ray Bradbury. Sacrilege, I know, to pick this one over so many Bradbury classics. But this one stuck in my craw more than any other. If Oedipus was a gym-rat.

“The Colour Out of Space” by HP Lovecraft. I love “mind-fuck” stories. How about one which forces you to imagine a color not represented in our spectrum?

“In the Hills, The Cities” by Clive Barker. Barker’s “Books of Blood” collections came out when I was about 15. They flipped my wig. Sick, twisted and brilliant. Barker has kind of gone in a different direction since his debut, but his early stuff is still among the edgiest horror fiction I’ve ever read. In this story, the graphic man-man sex is not half as shocking as the main event, a truly bizarre rivalry between two ancient European villages.

“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken. Possibly the most disturbing depiction of childhood madness ever depicted. That’s my idea of a good time.

“Sweets for the Sweet” by Robert Bloch. If only for the final line.

“A Junkie’s Christmas” by William H. Burroughs. (aka “The Priest They Called Him.”) Burroughs is most famous for his splintering of the English language and his really bad impression of William Tell. But when the guy sat down to write a “straight” narrative story, the results were pretty potent. As with any Burroughs, it’s best to listen to him read his own words. Like the voice of Death.

“Royal Jelly” by Roald Dahl. Dahl is mainly known as a writer of children’s books, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but his adult-oriented stuff is as wicked as anything Clive Barker could imagine, and a lot funnier. This one is about infant nutrition.

“The Pension Grillparzer” by John Irving (as TS Garp.) A short-story within a novel, ostensibly written by Irving’s most famous character. Sad, funny and beautiful, it reads even better out of context, as in Irving’s short anthology Trying to Save Piggy Sneed.

“A Birthday” by Lisa Tuttle. A man whose mother has a very troubling skin condition.

“’Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison. A classic celebration of non-conformance.

“Death Constant Beyond Love” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One of my all-time favorite story titles.

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. To quote a classic “Simpsons” bit: “A chilling tale of conformity and mob violence, NOT a source for winning lottery numbers.” D’oh!

“The Half-Skinned Steer” by Annie Proulx. Forget Mad Cow disease, this one will put you off beef for a loooong time.

“Bartleby the Scrivener” by Herman Melville. I could go into the reasons why I dig this metaphysical masterpiece, but “I prefer not to.”

“Survivor Type” by Stephen King. The King has written many great short stories, as well as a few duds. I chose this one for its innovative contribution to literature; the first (and only, so far as I know) instance of auto-cannibalism. That’s right, dude eats himself. Without ketchup.

“To Build a Fire” by Jack London. Man make fire. Fire good. Man no make fire, man freeze to death. Dog find another man. (Ooh, damn, I gave away the ending.)

“What Was It?” by Fitz-James O’Brien. Two opium-smoking tenants of a boarding house confront an invisible demon. Ripe for a Cheech and Chong remake.

“The Secret Sharer” by Joseph Conrad. A sea captain with “Fight Club” syndrome.

“A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner. Just in case you thought Norman Bates was the first one to think of it.

“The Human Chair” by Edogawa Rampo. I read this one in an anthology entitled “My Favorite Horror Story,” where (brilliant concept) current horror writers pick their favorite classic stories. This was Harlan Ellison’s pick. An exceedingly unsettling tale of obsession and voyeurism with, let’s say, a twist. The author’s name, by the way, is a phonetic spelling of the Japanese pronunciation of “Edgar Allen Poe.”

“The Rocking Horse Winner” by DH Lawrence. Who knew Lawrence invented the whole “spooky psychic kid” genre, all the way back in 1932?

“Flipping the Bird” by Christian Smith. As sole editor of my fantasy anthology, I can include one of my own stories. That’s allowed. Bob unwisely flips somebody off following a bar brawl. Bob’s middle finger is shot off. Bob grows a new finger. The finger grows a new Bob. Weirdness ensues.

I see I've leaned more towards the bizarre and the grotesque, towards tales of horror and madness. But that's me all over.

How about you? What goes in your book?

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Kids say the God Damndest Things.

Actual exchange:

Lea: (on returning to work after a very rare 2 days off) I spent most of the day playing catch-up.

Dylan: Ketchup's not a game, Mommy. I Spy is a game.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Ghost Dog- Nightmares & Dreamstuff:

I had a freaky dream last night and very strange experience upon awakening. I should probably preface the story a little by giving you some background.

I see dead people.

No, not exactly, but occasionally throughout my life I have seen "ghosts." Or something. I'm not sure what they are exactly, but the experience is always the same. I wake up, usually in the middle of a dream, and very clearly see someone standing in my room, beside the bed. Usually it's a person, though sometimes it's a dog or a wolf. In most cases, they fade away almost immediately, though sometimes they stick around for a while. Once I watched a man smoke a cigarette in the closet for two or three minutes before I worked up the courage to say something.

I know, I know, it's just what they call a "hypnagogic phenomena." Though I am awake, part of my brain is still dreaming, right? Maybe, though I have a few reservations about making such a cut-and-dried diagnosis. For one thing, the apparition I see in the room never has any direct connection to the dream I just had. For another, it is almost never a person I recognize. So why would I conjure up random people?

A theory I have devised is that dreaming perception and waking perception are sort of like two separate radio stations. When changing stations on an old-fashioned radio with a dial tuner, you sometimes skip across a signal somewhere between the two other ones. Then, when you go back to try to find it again, it's just not there anymore. I think I'm experiencing something like that. A form of perception somewhere between dreaming and waking, seeing something which might be around us all the time, but which we aren't always tuned in to.

Of course, I really don't know what I'm talking about, so that might just be me talking out of my ass again.

It has happened more frequently in different places I've lived than in others. When I lived with my ex-girlfriend at her parent's house, it happened a lot. (That's where I saw the cigarette guy in the closet.) Of course, that house also played host to a poltergeist, but I'll save that story for another time. (In case you think I'm a flake- I have never seen a UFO, Bigfoot or Elvis.)

It's happened a few times in the new place, and it happened to me this morning.

First, the dream I was having. It started innocently enough, with me on board the "Titanic." (Kate Winslet, unfortunately, was nowhere to be found.) For some reason, I was planning to stowaway on the ship and was looking for a place to hide. Then the dream shifted and I was caring for my daughter, Lily. Except in the dream, she was paralyzed. I was very sad, watching her and knowing she would never walk, and in the dream I vowed to make her life as happy as possible despite her paralysis.

For a parent, that's about as scary as a nightmare can get.

I woke up and I saw a small dog sitting on the bed beside Lily. (Lea was sleeping with Dylan in his room, so it was just the two of us in bed. Or three, if you count the dog.) It was a puppy. I'm not sure of the breed, though I would recognize it if I saw another one. The dog was not threatening, and in fact seemed almost protective of Lily. After blinking my eyes about a dozen times, it faded away. I'm not really freaked out by these things anymore, and my dominant feeling was relief that the dream was over and Lily was safe.

So, I don't know. I awake from a dream where harm has come to my daughter, to find her being watched over by a protective canine spirit. Weird, huh? I have no idea what it really means.